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A story about failed navigation.

Tony hadn’t been living with Bridget for long, but so far, so good.  He was tolerable.  He only brought a small suitcase.  He stayed out of her things.  When she came back late, he never asked.  And he didn’t smell.  Given men, Bridget felt she couldn’t expect much more than that.

When she told him to do something, he did it.  But now and then, his willingness, his acquiescence, made her tired.  Once in a while, she wanted a good fight.  But no matter what she did, no matter how far she pushed, Tony just took it.

They talked it over one night with the lights off and the blinds of the condo’s outer wall retracted so they could look at the lights of the city far below and not at each other.

“Sometimes,” she said, “I don’t know if you’re even a man.”

“Sometimes, I don’t know, either.  More wine?”

So it was alright, their “relationship,” though Bridget hated the word.  What else was she supposed to call it?  Seven dates.  A long weekend in Montauk.  And “I guess you better move in, if you feel that strongly about me.”  He looked over the steering wheel at the ocean and said, “I do.”  She didn’t like to think of that night.  It made her feel unsettled.  Now she owned this big complicated contraption when all she’d wanted was a simple tool.  Like a can opener.  Why couldn’t Tony be a can opener?

When Bridget was home and Tony was at work, she liked to visit their neighbor, Jules Simpson, who was 79, had dentures, and always came to the door in her bathrobe.  Jules told great stories.  In the 1970s, she’d been a porn star, then got married, and hadn’t worked a day since.  Her husband, who’d owned five of the magazines, enlarged her covers and had them framed under glass.  Heavy gold-leafed frames everywhere you looked in Jules’ condo.  Sporting Life, Mayhew, Sexsation, Curious, Sensorama.  All featuring Jules in her early 30s when she was blonde and had tan lines and good teeth.

“Where’s that beau of yours?  He’s a looker.”  Jules always asked where Bridget’s beau was and added that he was a looker.  She always poured a cup of instant when Bridget came over because Bridget had once said she liked coffee.  And she always lit a long black cigarette, a brand named Her Spice, and kept the box open on the glass coffee table in front of them, as if she knew one day Bridget would suddenly decide to drop all that non-smoking nonsense.  This was their ritual.  Something about it, deep down under all the layers of politeness, was confusing to Bridget, amusing to Jules.

“I don’t know.  He’s at the office.”

Jules nodded.  The tip of her cigarette flared.  “Adjusting those claims,” she said through the smoke.

“Yeah, well, I don’t care.”  Bridget took a sip of the instant.  Across the white and gold living room, the door to the kitchen was propped open.  Bridget could see the red Folgers jar beside the sink.

“It’s good to have your own money.  Be strong.”  Jules smiled.

Bridget automatically nodded, then wondered why she had.  What, exactly, did the older woman mean by that?  She felt Jules knew more about life, had lived more fully.  She and her publisher husband once owned a yacht.  They’d owned a palatial home in the Caribbean.  They’d partied with princes and ambassadors.  They’d travelled all over the globe.

“Think it might rain tomorrow?”

“No.”  Bridget placed the bone china coffee cup on the glass table gently so it didn’t make a sound.  She stared into the empty fireplace.  “It never rains this time of year.”

“Oh, that’s a relief,” said Jules.  “I’m due for some shuffleboard this evening.  You sure you wouldn’t like to tag along this time?  I know—nobody there under 60.  But we’re not that boring.”  She laughed, tapped her cigarette on the tarnished silver ashtray that had cherubs for feet.  It looked like it had once been a jewelry box with a hinged lid.  But the lid had been removed and now the box was half full of ashes and cigarette butts and was taking on a dull gunmetal sheen.

“Maybe sometime.”

“You think about it,” Jules said and closed her eyes for a moment as if she were hearing music.  Maybe she was.  The condo was also full of musical instruments that looked expensive and unplayed.  A Yamaha baby grand.  A sitar in a Plexiglas box.  An oboe on a stand.  Museum quality.  Like the magazine covers.

“It’s been nice visiting with you,” Bridget said.

With eyes still closed, Jules said, “Yes, it has been nice.  And remember Scorpio goes to the wall in two days.  Keep your head on a swivel.”

Who says, keep your head on a swivel?  That night, Bridget lay awake, looking at the moon, wondering.  Bad lines from a military action flick: “Keep your head on a swivel, private!”  “Yes sir!”  Then an explosion and Jimmy Cornfield goes down from a German grenade. 

Tony was breathing heavily beside her, lost in a dream.  Tony would never say, keep your head on a swivel.  He’d say, “You want me to check inside before you go in?”  He’s say, “Call me when you get there so I know you’re alright.”  He’d say, “Just say it.  Just once.  You don’t have to mean it.”

That’s good.  Because love stinks.  Bridget even told him once over dinner at a restaurant: “You know, love stinks.”  And Tony shrugged, looked down at his alfredo.  “Everything good in life has an odor, I guess.”  He said it so simply, so disaffectedly to his fettuccine that she couldn’t tell if he was joking or not.  Later, she decided he wasn’t.

As Bridget lay there, looking at the full moon in a clear sky, she realized no one in their right mind would be worried about rain tomorrow.

A week later, she sighted Jules in the building lobby, which, in a way, looked very similar to the interior of Jules’ condo. Mirrors and marble.  Gold leaf and white couches.  It was only missing the musical instruments and the framed blown-up magazine covers.  Some people, thought Bridget, you can give them any amount of money and they’ll turn their home into a lavatory at Caesar’s Palace.

“Hey!” Bridget waved to her as they passed, Jules going out, Bridget going in.

Jules looked at her, startled, without comprehension.  Then, after a moment, “Oh hi, darling.  I’m just heading out to the market.”  She grinned with the corners of her eyes.  She was wearing oversized Dior sunglasses, a green surgical facemask, a maroon beret with a bow on the side, and a full-length suede coat with a furry collar, even though it was still warm in the middle of the day.  The taxi waiting at the curb must have been hers.

“Okay.”  The market?  Did that mean something?

Still eye-grinning, Jules said, “Okay.  Ta!”

Bridget watched her go out through the glass doors and get in the cab.  An intense self-loathing rose up inside her, the sort she hadn’t felt since high school, when she’d lock herself in the bathroom and make the shower searing hot.  She imagined Jules’ pubic hair, gray and matted, and thought she might vomit. 

But there was a time, wasn’t there, a time when Jules was young and gorgeous and had a lot of sex, a time when she’d done all sorts of things, some Bridget probably couldn’t imagine.  She got in the elevator and pressed the button.  She also had her anti-viral facemask on, but glared hard so the bearded man in a rumpled tan suit would notice.

About to get on, he looked at her, took out a mask and put it on, then stepped back.  “It’s cool.  I’ll get the next one.”

“No, it’s not cool,” she said as the doors shut.

She’d had thousands of interactions like that with thousands of men.  It used to feel good.  That was before the virus.  Now, she thought, what’s the point?  She could go up and tell Tony, “I want to push you out a window.”  And he’d shrug, shake his head, and say, “Tell me about it.  It’s going around.”

Their sex was robotic and infrequent.  Like two broken machines that kind of fit; though, they were designed by different companies for different purposes.  He couldn’t be a can opener.  He was more like an after-market adapter.

Maybe this was hell.  The overpriced tasteless condo Bridget inherited from her aunt.  The building packed with rich old people too tired for Florida.  A live-in boyfriend who doubled as romantic Xanax.  And a porn star senior citizen for a neighbor who worried about Scorpio going to the wall and keeping one’s head on a swivel.  Bridget tried to have taste, but this life was tasteless.  She ran HR for a nonprofit and, since Covid, worked remotely.  But she still dressed up.  None of that spend all day in your sweats garbage.  None of that drinking wine on the Zoom call.  She tried to live the right way.

Lost in thought, she almost missed the fact that Jules’ door was ajar.  Bridget went into her unit, put her purse on the little side table that used to hold a phone, dropped her keys in the candy dish.  Tony was cooking dinner in the kitchen, the evening news turned up in the living room.  He hadn’t heard her come in. 

Bridget thought of Jules doing whatever she was supposedly doing out there (The market!  Ta!).  Before Tony could notice, she stepped back into the hallway and slipped into Jules’ condo, shutting the door silently behind her but leaving it slightly ajar.

The inside was dark.  She’d been there many times, but it felt completely different without Jules present.  The older woman dominated the room.  She had a force about her that made you pay attention, drew your gaze, made your mind work, trying to think about what Jules was saying, what she was asking, what she’d be offering you next.  Did that come from porn? 

Eight 30-year-old Juleses, in different combinations of swimwear and lingerie, grinned at her from the walls.  None of the covers had her naked; though, PRIVATE! had her smiling and winking an inch above a bodybuilder’s bulging shorts.  Something alien about all those images of Jules’ younger self smiling into the shadows of the empty condo.

Bridget stood in the silence, looking at the covers, at the slick carapace of the Yamaha baby grand in the moonlight, the sitar in its Plexiglas box like a monstrous caterpillar trapped in crystal. 

Then the lights went on and Tony was there.

“Damn,” he said.  “I’ve never been over here.  Is that her?”

“Let’s go.”

“Wait.  That’s her.  Julia.  Right?”

“It’s Jules and we need to get out of here.”

“Oh my fucking lord.  Look at this.”

On the glass coffee table by the fireplace, a vintage issue of High Society lay open to a centerfold of Jules kneeling before a woman in a tennis court, going down on her.  The woman was also blond and tan, her tennis skirt around her ankles.  The angle left nothing to the imagination.  In the top corner of the picture in puffy pink letters: Anyone for Tennis?

“Come on.”  Bridget took hold of his arm and pulled him toward the door.

“You can’t unsee this.  I’m not sure I want to unsee this.”

She let go of him.  “Fuck you.” 

A few minutes later, Bridget went back to Jules’ and made sure the light was off and the door was shut but not completely.  Better to shut it but not lock it in case Jules forgot her key.  Better, in case Jules came home and noticed something out of place.

Bridget sat up for a long time in the dark living room, looking at the night, wondering about Jules and that centerfold, about her door left ajar.  When Tony came in, he didn’t turn on the light and sat on the opposite end of the sofa.

“You okay?  What were you doing over there?”

“Fuck off.”

“I didn’t know she did porn in her youth.  I was just shocked, okay?”

“Yes, you did know.  I told you.”

“Maybe I did know.  But I wasn’t expecting centerfold lesbian tennis after the pad thai got cold.”

“You know I hate pad thai.”

“Do you?  You should have said something sooner.”

“Well, I hate it now.”

Tony moved next to Bridget and put his arm around her.  “Yeah,” he said.  “Maybe I’m getting kind of tired of it, too.”

She put her head on his shoulder, tentatively at first, then relaxed.  They didn’t say anything else.  For a long time, they simply watched the lights of the city, 18 stories down and far away, an unmapped sky beneath their feet.

A story about everyday heroes and the good people who egg them on.

 

“God,” Cecilia said.  “It’s him.”  She gripped my hand. 

Lynette leaned forward and exhaled a funnel of smoke.  “You think he’s gonna call somebody out?” 

“Shit yeah.  Look at him.”

Everyone in the courtyard was.  Tenants stood in the Langston’s windows, waiting for Esteban Dominguez to pronounce what they assumed would be his next sentence of death.  He stood in the center beside the stubby bird-shit-covered fountain, staring up at the apartments, his fists clenched. 

12-year-old Jeannina, who lived up on the fourth floor and whose mother wisely never let her play downstairs, yelled, “I love you ’steban!”  Doubtless she was telling the truth.  The ecosystem of the Langston Apartments was very sensitive.  Drop someone like him into it and people immediately ran to the windows.  It was better than TV.

“Lip!” he shouted.  “I don’t want to do this in front of your grandpa!”

“It’s Jackie,” Lynette said.  “Esteban warned him last week.”

“Come on, Lip!  Get out here!”

Cecilia shook her head at Lip’s foolishness. “Kid better do it.”  “He’ll never live it down, he doesn’t.  He’ll be a story forever.”

“He won’t be a story.  People around here are too tired to make up stories.”  I took one of Cecilia’s Camels out of the box.  She lit it for me with a tiny Bic that had Hawaiian flowers on it.

Lynette nodded.  “They’ll make up one for Jackie, though.  That’s for damn sure.”

Jackie Lipson was 16 and thought he was some kind of gangster.  He lived in the Langston with his senile grandfather and his girlfriend, who’d dropped out with him the year before.  They spent a lot of time at the rec center a few blocks over with the other juvenile delinquents.  The only thing I ever heard about Lip was that he did a lot of graffiti.  I couldn’t imagine what Esteban wanted with him. 

But I almost loved Esteban, too.  For as much as he liked to strike heroic poses and be looked at, he seemed to lead a charmed life.  He didn’t carry weapons.  People said he’d never been shot.  And in his own, weird, comic book way, he was trying to make the neighborhood a better place.  In all the depressing penury, he was a bright spot, bigger than life, and I’d be lying if I said that some part of me didn’t agree that he deserved the attention.  Esteban got an A for effort.

The neighborhood needed someone, especially the Langston.  So why not him?  In order to lead a decent life, the Langston required a herculean amount of self-discipline—more than most people had.  My room, for instance, had an ongoing cockroach scenario.  They were large, intelligent, and had acquired a certain immunity to poison.  They ate it right up.  But as long as I didn’t leave out any garbage, standing water, crumbs, or have any open cuts, they treated the room as a staging area for other more critical maneuvers. 

Perhaps because of this or because of something known only to them, the rats stayed out.  People complained about the supposed building-wide rat infestation, but in the five months I’d been staying at the Langston, I’d never seen one.  Just the pitter-patter of little feet in the kitchen at 2 AM.  Otherwise, my hot water worked.  My neighbors kept quiet.  And I took care to be mindful of life’s merciful trade-offs.

“Hey Esteban!  Hey!  Over here!”  Cecilia waved like she was flagging him down on the highway, leaving zig-zags of smoke in the air.  She had a particular obsession with Esteban that ruled out anyone short of People or European royalty.  They were destined to be together.  He just didn’t know it yet.

I looked at the curling flowers tattooed on Cecilia’s forearm.  She’d briefly put her hand on mine, and it had felt good in a secret way that would never show on my face.  I’ll admit that was the reason I didn’t listen to my better judgment telling me now was the time to go up and deliver a speech to the roaches.  When was the last time a pretty girl held my hand, even for a minute?

Esteban looked over, grinned, waved, then nodded at the Langston.

“Lip!  I don’t got all day!  Be a man!”

He was, without a doubt, the angriest person in Missouri, but he loved the ladies.  If you nominated him for the angriest ladies’ man on the face of the planet, he might win.  That was just his style.  Esteban had been arrested for murder twice.  But, because he lived in a different reality, some cross between the old West and 18th century Spain, where one could engage in lethal street fights and be considered a neighborhood hero instead of a killer, he got off both times.  The story was he’d killed a pimp and a drug dealer.  Everyone said, “Good for ’steban.” 

All I knew was that he worked out a lot, didn’t seem to have gainful employment, lived with his mom on the other side of Nimcato Cemetery, and was impossibly, devastatingly handsome.  At 6’3” with wavy black hair, a square jaw, and the physique of a proletarian hero in a Communist propaganda poster, Esteban seemed like he should be wearing a cape instead of starched khakis and a white dress shirt.  But that was the only way I’d ever seen him.  I imagined his closet: half white dress shirts, half khakis, all starched, ironed, and perfectly aligned by mom to aid him in his fight against crime.

The cigarette was good.  I never bought them, but my lunch break friendship with Lynette and Cecilia was giving me lung cancer anyway.  Still, there’s something incredibly pleasant about a social smoke.  If you can control yourself, put yourself on a meter, all kinds of drugs can be enjoyed, even the coffin nails.  My grandma, who smoked one pack of Luckys a month, used to say nobody who smokes once a day is a smoker.  By that definition, she wasn’t.  And now neither was I.  But most people can’t regulate.  Most people run like wild dogs over the hills.  Grandma said that, too.

“You think he’s some undercover cop?”  Lynette winked then glanced at Cecilia.

“You mean like Charles Bronson or some shit?”

“Chuck Norris back in the day.”

“Maybe,” I said.  “Like in The Octagon.  Maybe he knows kung-fu.  Catch a bullet in his teeth.”

“Nah, that was The Last Dragon,” Lynette said.  “Maybe The 36 Chambers of Shaolin.”

Esteban pointed up at a window.  “There you are, you little shit!  You want me to come up and pull you out?”

Cecilia groped for her pack of cigarettes.  I slid the pack against her hand.  She didn’t notice right away.  Then she extracted a fresh cigarette with two fingers, keeping her eyes on the drama, a smile on her face.

Far above, there was a faint high-pitched cry, as if muffled by several mattresses, the ghetto version of “The Princess and the Pea” where the pea talks shit: “Ima kill you, bitch!”

That was all Esteban needed.  He ran for the Langston’s lobby.

“I don’t know,” I said.  “You sure that wasn’t Buckaroo Banzai?”

“You both need to shut the hell up.”  Cecilia turned back and frowned at each of us in turn. 

Lynette grinned.  “Buckaroo Banzai was a classic, man.”

The Langston Apartments was a dirty place, no doubt about it.  It was dirty from the William Lucy House next door on the western side, a skid row nursing home like you’ve never seen.  Dirty because clean is next to impossible in places like these.  Clean living and the downward spiral don’t mix.  And I knew someday there would be an accounting, some kind of judgment that would clear it all away. 

It wouldn’t come from the street, from the likes of Esteban Dominguez.  Instead, the good people of Hauberk, Missouri, would simply kick the tenants out and tear the structure down.  Put up mirrored glass, a Pilates studio, a bistro with garden seating.  They’d install an uncomfortable college girl dressed in black to remind you that a reservation is necessary.  Then the sorrows of the Langston would be gone forever, along with the unfortunates who called it home.  For the moment, however, they all still lived there, locked tight on that downward spiral.

“Lunch break’s almost over.”  Cecilia sighed, flicked ash onto the table.

“Shit,” Lynette said.  “We can be a little late.  Nobody’s gonna die.”

The days were still warm.  Because I’d studied English in school, I now had a job in a call center that required my presence four nights a week.  I spent afternoons reading in the courtyard, mocking the world at lunchtime with Lynette and Cecilia, who were care nurses in William Lucy House.  They were the hardest cases I’d ever met.  They regularly egged each other on, competing to see who could be the toughest, coldest, most cynical misanthrope on the block. 

Today, however, was special.  It was as if the gods had preordained it to be particularly awful.  I suppose this is because the downward spiral is a spiral and some days are therefore better than others.  As soon as I saw Esteban Dominguez walk through the courtyard’s open wrought iron gates, I knew this wouldn’t be good.  And now he was in there, doing something horrific to Lip, cleaning up the neighborhood. 

No matter how they tried to erase the Langston, even if they burned it down and shot the ashes into space, the sense of it, the sheer echo of its presence, would linger like the scent of something rotten.

“What about all those old folks shambling around like Day of the Dead?”

Cecilia rolled her eyes, took a drag, blew smoke in my face.  “They’re like bumper cars.  They just go bump up on everything.”

“Then we put them back in their rooms,” Lynette said.

“Yeah.  They get tired bumping up on tables and chairs.”

By now, everybody in the building or the surrounding area, even some of the residents of William Lucy House, had come out to watch.  With the exception of Art the drug dealer across the courtyard, Esteban might have hospitalized or otherwise exiled every other dealer, pimp, or toy gang member south of 32nd Street.  Maybe Lip was the only one left.  But he wasn’t really a gang member.  He was just a dumb kid.

Art sat all day, hoodie up, across the brick courtyard at the farthest patio table, blinking into his cell phone.  Lost souls came in through the courtyard’s wide-open gates on a regular basis, did a hand-off with him, and were out in a flash.  Nobody cared.  Few noticed.  His side of the courtyard was dark for half of every day because the U-Pack-It Self Storage facility on the eastern side blocked out the sun. 

I absently watched the torment on his face as he no doubt considered making a run for the gates while Esteban was up in the Langston delivering justice to a 16-year-old.  Art’s perplexed expression and little mustard beard seemed to float in the shadows, illuminated in his hood by his phone’s screen, like a monk discovering the Grail.  He was definitely discovering something.  But what Art had come into this life to learn, only he could know.  Maybe not even him.  Shadows on shadows that September afternoon in the Langston Apartments.  And nobody knew what lurked in the hearts of men, least of all the men.

Someone started screaming incoherently out one of the open windows.  A little girl.  Could have been Jeannina, but there was no way to tell.  Lots of families lived in the Langston.  Then a single shoe, an old, ripped up Nike running shoe, sailed out and bounced next to the concrete fountain.  A comment.  Some kind of omen. 

Lynette giggled.  “It’s on now.”

That it was.

I hoped the next thing to come flying out wouldn’t be Lip and wondered if anything went balls-up like this over at William Lucy House when the bumping finally stopped and one of the residents had a moment of hideous clarity.

From my interactions with Lynette and Cecilia, I’d come to understand the nursing home next door was place to pay grandma back for all those years of criticism and meddling.  Undead geriatrics shuffled into the apartments’ courtyard, two or three a day, not knowing where they were, heavily medicated or needing to be, sometimes covered in their own feces. 

Nobody wants to end up like that.  At least, nobody wants to know they’ve ended up like that.  And so, as they wandered in, staring down at the courtyard’s broken bricks, muttering at the sky or at the dry concrete fountain filled with trash, I liked to remind myself that there must be a modicum of grace left in the world.  If you’re going to spend your last days talking to stones and covered in shit, better to think you’re somewhere else.  Or not to think at all.

It took Esteban approximately five minutes to pull Lip down the stairs and out into the courtyard.  Esteban’s white dress shirt was ripped open, exposing his perfectly sculpted hairless chest.  Lip’s girlfriend, Susan, who I imagined was always up there doing high school dropout stuff, came out, too. 

She’d caught something in the eye, a streak of blood smeared down her cheek.  But that didn’t stop her from shrieking.  Susan was clearly a master shrieker.  She sounded like some kind of flightless waterfowl at the time of year when they pick fights with each other and pound their wings on the surface of the river.

In the present case, Susan was pounding on Esteban’s shoulder with her right hand while she kept her left fixed in a death grip of Lip’s hair—Lip, who was screaming, “Ima kill you” over and over, rather unconvincingly, I thought.  Esteban had Lip in a headlock, his other hand tangled in the front of Susan’s sweatshirt to keep her at arm’s length and prevent her from being able to hit him in the face.

They came lurching out like a highly mutated, six-legged beast that shouldn’t exist, but, due to the inhumanity of post-industrial life, the spiritual pollutedness of the Langston, and the essential radiant evil at the heart of urban Hauberk, they screamed, they staggered, they forced themselves toward that Nike running shoe like destiny. 

And the onlookers cheered.  Cecilia and Lynette cheered the loudest.  It didn’t matter whether Lip deserved this.  He was going to get it, which made people happy, their own pain alleviated for a brief moment of someone else’s: straight-up Schadenfreude in the afternoon.

Esteban had done this exact thing before.  I’d been sitting in the courtyard the day he dragged out Timon Washington and beat him senseless with a heavy rubber dildo in front of his screaming mother.  Whether the dildo belonged to Esteban, Timon, Timon’s mother, or to some other unnamed party was never decided. 

Why the beating took place also remained mysterious.  People cheered nonetheless.  They simply concluded that Timon had it coming.  Misbehave and you get the dildo.  Bread and circuses.  Public lashings.  Picnicking at Bedlam to watch the tormented lunatics act like beasts.  Nothing new. 

Timon left town after that.  You don’t get your face rearranged with a sex toy in public without the next step being a bus trip.  Someone gave Esteban a sack of oranges to thank him.  Jeannina professed her love.  He was a hero.

Just like today.  He kicked Susan about five feet to the side.  She landed on her knees and fell over, still shrieking with a handful of her boyfriend’s hair.  She couldn’t stand up and just assumed the fetal position.  Meanwhile, Lip was trying to struggle out of the headlock.  But Esteban was bigger.  He’d been an athlete at Hauberk Technical High (baseball, but still) and had about a foot-and-a-half and 60 pounds on the kid.  Now that he didn’t have to deal with Susan, he could reinforce the headlock with his free hand.

“Fuck him up!” Cecilia screamed, then plucked a stray bit of tobacco off her tongue.

“Yeah!”  Lynette added, coughing, shaking her head.  “Do it ’steban, you hunky stud!”

She was red in the face from laughter.  She looked like a demonic chain-smoking leprechaun.  Whether she was laughing at Cecilia, at the sad drama unfolding in the courtyard, or merely at the vicissitudes of life that had conspired to bring such absurdity to bear in this particular time and place was unclear.  Reasons didn’t matter.  Quality entertainment did.

I felt like I should do something, but what could I do?  Esteban was now punching Lip in the face while holding him steady in the headlock, and one of those things was making the kid purple.  I didn’t know how to fight.  And for all I knew, Lip really had done some shit. 

At least, that’s what I told myself.  Another part of me—the lover, not the fighter—was watching Cecilia out the corner of my eye.  She was flushed, really into it the way people get when they sit in the front row at a boxing match.  They want to taste the blood, feel the sweat.  They get involved.

Was there a civilized, non-lethal way I could get her that involved with me?  Unlikely.  I had more of a chance with Lynette the Chortling Leprechaun, which was to say, no chance at all.  I thought Lynette might have been married.  Cecilia probably wasn’t, but who could say?  The fact that she was getting off on seeing a young man be severely beaten suggested marital involvement.  Marriage often seems to produce avid boxing fans.

Susan crawled towards us and tried to stand, but couldn’t manage it and slumped down on her hip.  Maybe she’d broken a knee.  Cecilia leaned forward as far as she could and flicked her cigarette butt.  It bounced off Susan’s forehead, but the girl didn’t notice.

“That’s not nice,” Lynette said, still grinning.

“I’m not nice,” said Cecilia.

And that was the truth.  Though usually not-nice people, I said to myself, have a secret heart of gold.  You just have to get to know them.  Salt of the earth.  Do anything for you.  Right?  Lip was probably like that.  He probably had a great sense of humor.  When he wasn’t high or threatening to kill people, he was probably a pretty cool guy, probably knew all about The Punisher and the X-Men, probably drew a lot.  Most graffiti guys like to draw.  And Susan was basically very pretty with long black hair that shined, almond eyes, olive skin.  She probably had nieces and nephews who thought she was cool.  Who wouldn’t want to drop out with a girl like that?

I wanted to say to Cecilia, “The world is a wonderful miracle and everyone is beautiful.”  Instead, I watched Esteban punch Lip again and again until the kid’s face got smashed in and you couldn’t tell a bloody cheek from a bloody lump. 

The headlock had probably saved his life.  If his head had been against the courtyard bricks, it would have been all over but the shouting.  Across the courtyard, I noticed Art slipping out the gates like a nervous lizard, grateful, no doubt, that his time had not yet come.

Esteban dropped Lip straight down like a bag of rocks and started to piece his shirt back together with what buttons remained.  That’s when the applause really kicked in.  I finally got off my ass and tried to help Susan up, but she just frowned, told me to fuck off, and dragged herself over to Lip, who was lying on his back with his mouth open, bleeding a lot.  I sat back down.

87-year-old Martín del Rio, who lived on the second floor, owned a .357, and liked to say people could break into his place but they’d never come out, walked over to Esteban and shook his hand.  I heard him say, “Estamos agradecidos. Necesitamos ayuda.”  We’re grateful.  We need your help.  And I knew that, also, was the truth.

They looked down at Susan, her cheek resting on Lip’s chest.  Then the old man clapped Esteban on the shoulder and walked back into the apartments.

Cecilia leaned over to Lynette and whispered, “Should I go say hi?”

Lynette nodded.  “If you want to, now’s the time.”

“What do you think?”  Cecilia said to me.  “Should I do it?”

“Never stand in the way of love.”  My eyes were calm, my mouth relaxed, the horrible octopus buffeting the insides of my heart with its dark tentacles remained imperceptible to the ladies of William Lucy House.  Cecilia nodded as if I’d said something profound instead of a line I’d read once on a Hallmark Valentine’s Day card. 

Susan was sobbing loudly and it was clear that Esteban was about to stride away triumphantly into the late afternoon.  If Cecilia was going to do anything, she needed to do it now.  Nancy Cortez, one of young Jeannina’s aunts, came out and handed Esteban a paper sack of potatoes.  “Hey ’steban!” Jeannina called from her open window.  He smiled and waved up at her.  But Cecilia stayed in her chair, paralyzed, staring at him like he’d descended on a cloud.

“He’s just so beautiful.”

“For fuck’s sake.”  This was turning out to be the funniest day ever for Lynette.  “Just go talk to him.  What are you?  Ten?”

I got up again and, for a second, terror passed over Cecilia’s face when she thought I was going to bring Esteban over.  But I felt like if I didn’t do something for Lip, the octopus might escape.  Susan helped me roll him over.  He was gurgling.  When we got him on his chest, a river of blood flowed out of his mouth.

Esteban glanced at me, then turned and walked out the courtyard.

“I don’t got a car,” Susan said.

“It’s okay.  I got bus money.”  Everybody knew the walk-in clinic was four bus stops away down between the Providence Cinema and the Kodiak Hotel, another apartment building just like the Langston but uglier. 

Windows were closing.  Life was already falling back into its usual rhythm.  Lynette and Cecilia didn’t want to get near Lip.  So they just waved on their way back to the bumping oldies.  Lynette winked, blew me a kiss.

That afternoon, sitting in the waiting room of Urgent Care next to Lip and Susan, I decided not to take any more cigarettes from Cecilia or Lynette or even to have lunch in the courtyard again.  The roaches might get frisky if I brought a sandwich up to my room, but theirs was an honest frisk. 

I felt that Lip would be alright, eventually.  Maybe this was a turning point.  Someday, a dumb kid just like Lip would probably put a bullet hole in Esteban Dominguez.  Of that, I was sure.  I didn’t want to be around when it happened or have to go to his funeral and listen to what a great guy he was.  Everybody would be sad that day, which would be as funny as it gets.

A new story in Terror House Magazine.  Click here and read it on their site: https://terrorhousemag.com/two-women/ 

A story about spiral dances.

 

I threw the beer can.  It was half-full, just like Dorian’s head.  So when it hit him, the damage was minimal.  A brain in a half-full head is a self-parking mechanism.  It floats—not in intelligent space, not in some New Age cogito-esque void full of purple smoke and glittery points of cosmic consciousness—but in an oily brine exuded by all the old lizard desires.  In Dorian’s case, this meant racism, football, bros before hoes, and the ability to quote Rush Limbaugh chapter and verse.  Dorian was an idiot, a bully, a formulaic high school tyrant.  And I hit him with a beer can in the summer of 1992.

Only we weren’t in high school anymore.  And Dorian had fucked himself up on oxycodone so bad after senior year that he now had a lazy eye.  And I couldn’t afford college.  And it had therefore become manifestly unclear who was having the last laugh, since Dorian was making five figures selling Toyotas with his dad on I-49 and I was pushing a mop in Kansas City three nights a week.  Ha ha.  Right?  Modern life.

So the can.  I’d never thrown a football straighter than a piece of cooked spaghetti, but the Miller can hit Dorian behind the left ear with military precision.  And then he turned, about to hulk-out, with that lazy right eye probably giving him enhanced peripheral combat vision and his girlfriend, Lorena, shrieking like an agitated monkey: “No, Dor, don’t kill him!” And so there we were.  But why I threw the beer can is somewhat more complicated and has to do with Ally and why we were angry and always dressed in black.  (At that moment, Ally was in the car, watching, dressed in black.)

Black was our color and zero was our number.  Nowhere was where it happened and nothing was the result.  Our unspoken credo since 10th grade.  Ally and I lived it like two little nihilists until we finally had sex in her attic and became something else.  On October 14th, 1990, to be exact.  Probably around 2:00 AM.  And it wasn’t bad at all.  I don’t think it’s strange to have recorded the date in Herr Diary.  Strange is relative.  And we were definitely strange according to everyone else in our school.

Dorian crossed the distance between us in a flash as soon as he saw who’d thrown the can.  Because, a year after graduation, our high school pecking order was still hanging over us like some podunk Great Chain of Being. And the bros half of bros before hoes would have invalidated his status as a higher-order lifeform if said bros learned he backed down from me.  But maybe that unique moment in time, in the Silver Hill Mall Parking Structure B, was part of the greater anomaly that had begun to warp my life, losing me the only woman I ever loved, and blasting me out of the Midwest forever like some doped-up chimp shot into space just for the yucks.  Who’ll ever really know anything in this fallen world?

At the moment, though, the only monkey sounds were being made by Lorena.  Ooh, baby, dooon’t!  He came on like the Amtrak.  And later I’d write in Herr Diary that I wasn’t sure exactly why I hit him with the car door of all things.  But now I’m fairly convinced it was because I was terrified, realizing what I’d started, and I’d been trying to get into the car as fast as I could.

Force met force in a Newtonian kneecap singularity in which the 1965 Malibu door prevailed as the immovable object.  I’d never seen someone’s leg buckle backwards at the knees before, but the Chevy had an oblong ridge along its doors at just the right elevation for hulkamania.  Too bad for Dorian.  It hurt him.  But I regret nothing.

They called us freaks because we didn’t know goth from shinola.  But we did have a one-tone wardrobe.  We took German instead of Spanish, philosophy instead of P.E.  Black coffee in the mornings and The Cure’s Disintegration, Ministry, KMFDM on cassette in the upper parking lot. 

Toward the end of junior year, Ally got into Anton LaVey and started wearing an enormous goat-head pentagram, referring to herself as the Übermädchen.  We got matching tattoos in Fraktur on our left shoulders that read, “Nichts.”  I read The Virtue of Selfishness, Philosophy: Who Needs It, and Return of the Primitive.  I decided that the world was cruel and nasty and that being able to accept this truth without stepping in front of the Amtrak on it’s 6:00 AM rumble outside our little town of Hauberk, MO, meant I was a superior being.  Then Ally discovered an essay called, “Bitchcraft” and declared that she was a Satanic witch.  And we had more sex.  And she called it black magic.  She cursed the whole football team, her mother, the principal, and “others.” Who those others were, Ally said she’d never reveal. We were seniors, then.

Dorian writhed on the ground, screaming, holding his knee with both hands.  Lorena was so upset she stomped her feet, making her tan lines jiggle as she wailed in simian grief.  I stood behind the door for a moment, looking down at Dorian.  In the passenger seat, Ally lit a cigarette.

Then I snapped out of it, jumped in the car, and shot through the parking structure, bottoming out at the end of the B-level ramp and swerving into the night.  We never did see Lethal Weapon 3.  To this day, I can’t bring myself to watch it.

“That was . . . um . . . manly?”  She rolled down the window because the ashtray was full.  Ally’s hair was long and eggplant purple.  It whipped around her head, hiding her expression.  But I knew what it was.

“Just don’t, okay?”

“Go ahead.  Drive faster, Mike.”  Her way of saying I was driving too fast.  She called it “lesser magic,” some speaking-in-opposites thing to control you.  If I drove faster, I did what she wanted.  If I slowed down, I did what she wanted.  Then she could say to herself, See?  Sheeple are easy.  In truth—and I have admitted this to Herr Diary more than once—I threw the beer can because lately Ally had moved me from the people village to the sheeple pen.  And I didn’t like that.

“What do you want from me?  I know your fucking tricks.”

“Oh, really.”  She flicked the cigarette out the window.  “I don’t want to go home.”

“Well, I don’t want to take you home.”

“I’m not completely fed up with you, Mike.”

I punched the gas and ran the stop sign at the entrance to I-49.  “I’m not fed up with you, either.  I feel great.  It’s been a great day.”

I had half a tank of gas and I was thinking of driving all the way to Kansas City at suicide velocity just to prove I couldn’t be manipulated, that I was the immovable Newtonian object that moved where it pleased.

But then Ally said, “He’s never going to walk right.  You’re aware of that, aren’t you?” 

I began to feel low, like I was worse than Dorian, roids and Rush Limbaugh notwithstanding.  Now I’d never rise up on any Great Chain of Being.  Never go from mineral to vegetable to mop-pusher to night watchman or whatever modicum of ascension I could have achieved if I’d only controlled myself in Parking Structure B. 

So I turned around and took Ally home like good sheeple do.  When we got there, she smirked, gave me a big theatrical wink, and said, “Catch ya later, tough guy.  Call me,” which I think meant she never wanted to see me again.  But you couldn’t be sure of anything when lesser magic was involved.

I sat in the car until the lights in her house went out, breathing in what I imagined were the last traces of her cigarette fumes.  Though, it could have just been the ashtray.

I went to jail.  And it wasn’t funny.  When I got out, I needed a new job.  I got temp work with a company that repaired farm buildings that had been damaged by tornadoes.  Part of my job training was memorizing interesting tornado facts.  Like, did you know that tornadoes have been reported in every state of the Union?  Did you know that a tornado can occur at any time, but they are most likely to occur between 3:00 PM and 9:00 PM?  That every tornado has its own color, sound, and shape?  That the safest place to be during a tornado is far underground or in a foreign country or, optimally, far underground in a foreign country?  That tornadic winds can accelerate a piece of straw up to 300 mph, effectively turning it into a toothpick projectile of death that can tack your guts to a telephone pole? 

You don’t know these things because you’re normal.  But having gone to jail and emerged as a tornado specialist, I had entered the paranormal.  We pulled a lot of straw out of the corrugated metal walls of barns and granaries.  The sun shone through the holes like god’s shotgun blast.  We rebuilt houses, gathered the appendages of farm animals that had been torn apart and deposited on roofs, and inspected bathtubs for tornado durability.  Missouri is in Tornado Alley and if you don’t have a sturdy bathtub, you’re asking for death.  If you get caught in your house, the bathtub might be the last resort for shelter; though, there have been accounts of people being hurled extremely long distances while hiding in their tubs.  There is no easy solution when your bathtub is hurled. You’re sheeple at that point. You’re Nichts.

Through all of this, I thought about Dorian, about Ally, about the future.  I had regrets.  I wished I could give Dorian back his knee.  I wished I had told Ally I truly loved her and wished I’d suggested we take a break from backwards-talking bullshit and Ayn Rand and Die Übermädchen.  I confided these things to Theo, an anorexic dreadlocked hippy who I worked with and who got me the tornado job because he also attended my court-mandated anger management course.

We’d be re-stuccoing the side of some farmhouse and he’d say, “Mike, are you mindfully releasing your anxiety triggers by allowing an abundance of positives into your conscious buffer?”  And I’d say, “Yes, Theo, I’m trying to actualize as many focused positives as possible in this segment.”  Only, we’d be using compressed-air stucco blasters.  So it would sound more like, “Mye-SHHKEEREEYIT-allowing a-SHHHKOYIP-ositives into your-FLISSSHOP-uffer?” 

But I’d know what he was saying because people in the anger management course always said the same things.  I could have just talked about my “uffer” and Theo would have nodded.  After a week of power-stuccoing, you’re half deaf.  I wanted to feel good by confiding in Theo.  Instead, I think the parts of my past he did understand just made him smoke more weed on break in his truck while trying to bring positives into the current segment.  I think I was depressed.  I think I was trying to give myself a “consciousness upgrade” as my anger coach called it.  But jail, the thing that wasn’t funny, had changed me. 

Dorian’s father got a lawyer who got the district attorney who got the police who got me.  Dorian probably had the most expensive legal team in Missouri.  The judge called it a “neutral street fight” in the hearing.  The state chose not to bring assault charges against me.  But there was the matter of battery with a car door, which was mitigated by it being my first offence and by the fact that it was impossible to prove I wasn’t just enveloped in white-knuckle terror, trying to get away from 268 lbs. of enraged ex-lineman hulkamania; though that’s not exactly how the judge put it.  On my public defender’s advice, I pled down to “public affray” and got two months in Moberly Correctional, a year of anger management, and a $3000 fine to be paid in monthly instalments of $50 for the next five years.  My public defender told me I was lucky. In retrospect, I think he might have been joking.

Ally never visited me, but she could have.  The level 2 minimum security unit in Moberly Correctional was very relaxed.  It was a mellow incarceration and the pepper steak was okay.  I shared a cell with a nice Italian kid not too older than me who’d forged a bunch of checks in Saint Louis and got in a high-speed chase with the Highway Patrol while tripping balls.  During the day, I mopped, cleaned the toilets, and did groundskeeping.  In the evenings, I read books from the tiny prison library: Eat, Pray, Love, For Whom the Bell Tolls, The Great Gatsby, The Razor’s Edge, How to Score with Women Under 30—the most used book there but strange, I thought, for a male prison—and The Spiral Dance by a New Age feminist in San Francisco who called herself Starhawk.

We were doing clean-up on a corporate dairy farm outside St. Joseph after a twister had de-legged five or six Holsteins, which meant we had to wear hazmat suits.  It was just me, Theo, and two guys doing community service, which meant they disappeared as soon as we started unloading the biohazard bins from the truck.  So it was basically just me and Theo.

“Damn.  It never ceases to amaze me how much there actually is inside a cow.”  Theo heaved a carcass into one of the big red bins.

“Hey.  You ever hear of some chick named Starhawk out in California?”

Theo thought for a moment, scratched himself through his hazmat.  “Yeah, I think so.  She’s cool, right?  Witchcraft.  But the real militant feminist shit.  Give us equal pay or we’ll hex your balls off!”  Theo wiggled his fingers like a cartoon wizard.  Only he couldn’t do it very well with heavy gloves on.  So he added, “Ooooh,” and walked around with his arms sticking out straight like Frankenstein’s monster.

“I’m serious.  You ever read The Spiral Dance?”

He stopped doing the monster and looked at me through the clear plastic visor of his suit.  I wasn’t joking.  I wasn’t releasing my anxiety triggers. 

“No.”

“You should.  It’s good.  You ever read any Ayn Rand?”

Theo looked at me a moment longer.  Then he dug into the dirt that had been under the carcass with his shovel.

“You can keep that shit.”

Back in Moberly, The Spiral Dance had started me thinking.  What if Ayn Rand had been wrong when she claimed that guns or logic are only two ways people can deal with one another?  Starhawk’s vision was different—a single universal yoni constantly becoming aware of itself in greater degrees of particularity, a spiral dance of vaginal creation in which love was the force of individuation, the glue between the “myriad separate things of the world.” All in, that sounded pretty fucking reasonable.

Sitting in my cell, listening to the Italian kid snore while I read, I suddenly wanted to believe it more than Rand’s “Judge and prepare to be judged.”  I’d been judged.  Now I wanted to be a Wiccan vagina-hippie in a fairyland San Francisco where public affray wasn’t a thing and I didn’t have to imagine Dorian walking with a cane for the rest of his life.  But in the margin beside Starhawk’s passage in which she called us all unique “swirls of the same energy,” someone had printed in barely readable ballpoint: So how come my brother got no hands?  Because of swirls like me, dear friend.  I’m a bad swirl. A bad, bad swirl.

After a month of upgrading my consciousness and de-tornadoing farms, I decided I had to find Ally.  I didn’t know what I’d say.  But I felt I had to say something.  Instead, I’d find Dorian, which was not what I intended—or would ever intend if given the choice anywhere on a timeline between now and eternity.

But before that could happen, Theo blew up on me.  He hadn’t said much in the week since I’d asked him if he’d ever read Ayn Rand.  Then an Enhanced Fujita EF-3-level twister came through Hauberk at 165 mph.  They called it the Marlena Tornado, after the small town just south of us that took the brunt of it.  Like Marlena Detrich—a hot dead blonde now resurrected as a killing wind.  Another bad swirl.  It took off several roofs, but luckily nobody got hurt.  We were in the truck, headed to a cornfield run by some genetics company, when Theo pulled into a ditch, got out, started screaming and pounding on the hood.

“What you don’t fucking understand, Mike, is that Ayn Rand completely disregards the question of metaphysics!  That’s her first basic stupid fucking problem!”

I locked the truck’s doors.  Happy pot-smoking Theo had become a werewolf.

“What about Descartes, huh?  What about Hume?  What about motherfucking Kant?”

“Theo?  Hey man.  I think you need to, you know, inventory your anxiety triggers.”

“Critique of Pure Reason, asshole.”

I was torn.  Did I leave my best and only friend on the side of the highway raving about Ayn Rand failing to account for the Existentialist position on concrete human values?  Or did I need to subdue him somehow, tie him up with strips of clothing and put something in his mouth to keep him from swallowing his tongue?

He rattled the driver’s side door handle.  “Open up.  OPEN THE FUCKING DOOR YOU OBJECTIVIST.”

“I am not, nor have I ever been, an Objectivist.”

“Don’t LIE to me, Mike.”

“Truth!  Kant is logically consistent in his argument that human beings are valuable in themselves!  But Rand contradicts this assumption when she argues that altruism is immoral!  Breathe, Theo!  Breathe!”

After a moment, his therapy kicked in.  He held up his hands as if to say okay, okay, and took a few deep cleansing breaths.

“You are a white cone of joyful light!”

He closed his eyes, breathing, mouthing the words: I am a white cone of joyful light.

“Your anger is not you!  It is a feeling passing through you!”

My anger is not me.  It is a feeling passing through me.

“Anger is a choice you can decide not to make!”

Anger is a choice I can decide not to make.

The mantra seemed to work.  Mr. Vignus, my high school philosophy teacher, used to say that philosophy could save your life.  Only now did I understand.

What was a book like The Spiral Dance doing in a prison library anyway?  It made less sense than How to Score with Women Under 30.  Starhawk’s book had a creased spine and dogeared pages.  It had been read a lot of times since—according to the stamp inside the front cover—making its spiral way to Moberly Correctional back in 1979.  Maybe all people, no matter how deviant, are in search of some kind of connection.  However, it is worth noting that on the shelf directly above The Spiral Dance, right beside For Whom the Bell Tolls, were four tattered bright orange copies of Mein Kampf.

Theo didn’t speak for the rest of the way.  I just sat in the truck, staring at the fields outside Hauberk, bewildered. I felt sure of only two things. My anger was not me. And lesser magic was a bitch.

A story from my first collection, Gravity.

It was hot. That was foremost in my thoughts. A sheer, raw, violating hotness that wobbled on the cement quad and in the still dry air above it. I focused on getting across without fainting. I fixed it in my mind. I didn’t have to ask why there weren’t any birds in the Flushing sky. I knew they all had heatstroke, carpets of passed-out sparrows under the campus trees. Even the shade pulsed with heat. I’d accepted the hottest day in Michigan history the way one accepts an incurable disease or a prison term or a bad marriage. I stopped fighting. I let it own me.

As I reached the rusted double doors of Animal Science, the world seemed to tilt. Darkness rushed into the edges of my vision, and the numbness of heat prostration began to twist through my skin. Panting, I sat down on one of the benches in the building atrium, wondering if my three-mile hike from the adjunct lot was destined to put me in the hospital. The central A/C was broken, but there were box fans every 30 yards, and I felt truly grateful to the Animal Science secretaries for providing the hot air current. Hot air that moved felt better than hot air that didn’t.

I would have thanked one of them, but the secretaries seemed oblivious, radiating a certain continuous misery—large, overdressed women with pained expressions, drifting slowly through the halls. They seemed to move in a complex pre-set loop from one office to another, leaning in doorways, fanning themselves, adjusting their clothing, their bangs stuck to their foreheads. It was clear they’d set up the box fans because they’d been ordered to—not due to some hidden motherly goodness or basic human decency. One of the fans had already blown over. It rattled facedown, blowing air against the floor.

The Animal Science atrium was an enormous vestibule beneath a dirty glass cupola that read FLUSHING CC in green block letters. There were graffitied wooden benches at the four corners of the area where the classroom wings intersected, and there was a vaguely Cubist fountain of burnished steel rectangles in the center. As it hadn’t worked since the Ford Administration, the students used it as an enormous trash bin. Today, it had been covered by a red drop cloth as if it were the hidden reason for the President’s speech, some miracle invention to be unveiled, a secret weapon destined to eradicate everything old and broken, and bring perfection to the unwashed of south central Michigan.

The summer students of Flushing Community College were nowhere around. They’d no doubt been dispersed hours earlier by campus security, all class meetings in the building summarily cancelled. There was an important occasion underway, which meant no sideways ball caps and bellybutton rings, no heavy eyeliner, no tribal barbed wire tats and low-rise revelations. Everyone in the atrium wore business attire but me. And if the portly assistant deans and accountants and assorted adjusters in their suits and pearls seemed uncomfortable—secretly perspiring in their boxer shorts and pantyhose—they at least tried not to show it when the President looked their way.

This was the President’s Hour and the only attendees were apt to be those on the President’s administrative staff or those hoping to ascend. About 30 of them were present, milling, casting furtive glances in her direction. It was a yearly reception held for an hour in the middle of summer session for any employee with a grievance. Naturally, it was catered. A long cafeteria table held pyramids of crullers, nickel-plated salvers of creampuffs, watermelon slices, cheeses, eight different types of cracker, fancy lion-footed tureens of Guatemalan coffee with upside-down cups on saucers.

The President was currently holding forth at the far side of the atrium. Her voice carried over the hum and rattle of the fans—all peaks, no valleys, a voice that stayed in the higher octaves as if it resonated from a rare ornamental glass caught in the wind. She was talking about austerity and solar panels.

“In 25 years,” she said. “An amazing ROI.”

Helen, a tall pale woman in her early 30s, who managed the Presidential office and dressed only in dark primary colors, smiled and nodded vigorously. Oh, yes. The ROI was amazing, wasn’t it. Just amazing.

All of the food was free and nearly all of it would go untasted. The President’s Hour spread was legendary at the college. And it remained the stuff of legend, probably due to the fact that no one dared raise a grievance with Madam President. It seemed that there could never be a good reason for an employee of FCC to speak with “All Heads Are Bowed,” as a colleague of mine had named her.

No one in the English Department knew I’d come. It would have been scandalous if they’d discovered me crossing over for crullers and cool slices of peppered roast beef with avocado spears, an unforgivable violation of the general surliness expected in all dealings with the administration, doughnuts notwithstanding. But I was an adjunct, unemployed through the summer, and it was there. Food. Whole platters of it that would be dumped by College Catering Services as soon as the President got back in her blue Mercedes and drove home to her house on the river. Eating trumped solidarity just as the transmission of my ancient Honda had trumped groceries earlier in the month.

I raked my hair back and re-tucked my soaked button-down. I was sure I had no more liquid left in my body. I looked like I’d fallen in a puddle, my shirt and the tops of my khakis half-soaked through. I stood slowly, waiting for the dizziness to recede, my hand on the back of the bench.

“Reprioritizing,” said the President. “Austerity measures? Absolutely.”

She was a small woman, though extremely vigorous looking with short gray hair and piercing blue eyes. One could see that she’d once had normal human feelings and responses. But, at some point, she’d made the choice to rebuild herself as the perfect weapon—the way people will in law and finance who attend seminars on how to win through intimidation. Her page on the college website said that she admired Ayn Rand, Walt Disney, and Davey Crockett, trained privately with a sifu of Bak Mei Kung Fu, ran marathons, did Pilates every morning. She was currently enrolled in an online course for developing a photographic memory. When her eyes swept the crowd, people shifted their weight, looked away, put their hands in their pockets.

I undid the clasps on my shoulder bag. It was just about time to execute the mission. Normally, my shoulder bag held course texts and student papers. But today it only contained three extra-large heat-resistant refrigerator bags. The plan was to fill them as quietly and quickly as possible. The hike back to the car would melt everything in the bags down to a hybrid food substance that, while unpleasant, would remain reasonably edible. I’d eat a slice of it every day with some tap water. If all went well, it would sustain me for two weeks.

They were talking about money, which made them dangerous but wholly focused on each other like lions circling a dead impala. I could hear their bestial roars: “efficiency review,” “resource management,” “new Gant charts,” “reapportioning our assets.” Soon the President would say something that would draw everyone’s attention with a veiled reference to layoffs—trimming the fat off the impala of some department’s temporary employment. And the rest of them would lick their chops with glittering eyes. It was as inevitable as any herd ritual, the instinctual pattern of it written deep in the DNA of the college administrator. Perhaps it was just as inevitable as the appearance of the wild adjunct, impending starvation having made him foolhardy around the larger predators.

I squeezed out my shirt cuffs and rolled up my sleeves. I would have to be fast and smooth, unremarkable, bland. Most of all, there could be no hint of intellectual or academic energy about me. That was as dangerous as a deer arriving late to the watering hole with a cut on its rump.

Marvin Wilson, one of the assistant deans, smoothed the ends of his moustache and patted his tie. “Yes, indeed, Madam President,” he said. “You got that right, for sure.” Marvin was partially deaf and once said during a faculty address that hearing aids gave him headaches. So he went without and compensated by using a Victorian hearing trumpet and speaking very loudly. At close range without his trumpet, Marvin could give off a nervous cheerfulness that made him seem about to snap. The possibility of a violent psychotic break was his only natural defense against other administrators with more formidable capabilities. Though, as Marvin was also unseasonably fat, one wondered whether a right hook from him wouldn’t result in immediate death. I imagined that the President often made him cry.

When the heat rises to such a degree in Flushing, crying is hardly out of the question. Even if a grown man like Marvin were to strip down right here in the atrium, weeping and running his hands over all his slick white corpulence, no one would blame him very much. No Michigander would do aught but invoke the usual curse on all things democratic, homosexual, and Californian—concluding that good Marvin must have been at least one of those things in the closet after all. Of course, the fact that I was born and raised in southern California hadn’t helped my job prospects in Michigan after getting a PhD there the year before. But so it went.

The President took her place behind the podium set up before a bank of 30 folding chairs padded with white cushions that read FLUSHING in the same block letters as on the cupola. She cleared her throat into the microphone and said, “I will speak to you now,” causing everyone to immediately stop their conversations and take seats.

“Let us bow our heads in thanks for surviving another fiscal year.”

All was silent except for the rattling box fan that everyone continued to ignore, since righting it would have meant getting up and moving out of the President’s aura. It would have meant performing an overt, subservient act. During the President’s Hour, all visible actions took on an amplified significance in the pack logic of the administrator, signs of how the pecking order would be for the upcoming academic season until the great migration back to the atrium next summer. So the fan stayed face-down, rattling loudly. Even Madam President ignored it.

“Let us be thankful that the state subsidy has increased by 4.6% and that enrollment has remained consistent, giving us a projected windfall of 6% per annum.”

All heads were indeed bowed. The President closed her eyes and extended her hands over the seated administrators like a charismatic minister delivering a holy benediction. No one saw me glide up to the food except one of the Animal Science secretaries way down the east wing hallway. I could see her staring, frowning. At that distance, she could probably only see how I was dressed and little of what I was doing. She no doubt thought I was a student drawn like a stray hyena to the outskirts of the kill.

“And let us remember how fragile our jobs are, how easily we could be made redundant or be replaced. And let us give thanks that our good attitudes and hard work have not yet brought this upon us. Amen.”

“Amen,” replied the crowd.

“Well,” said the President, “it is encouraging that in the five years we have been holding the President’s Hour, not one grievance has been voiced. It shows how committed we are to solving our own problems. And in this economy, with nothing certain, that’s the right way to be.”

A round of light applause rose up from the crowd and Marvin’s thunderous, “Here, here, Madam President, here, here!” Then she looked right at me, but I almost had my third bag full. I’d turned such that, from her side of the room, my actions weren’t visible. I had my back to her and appeared to be staring intently at the dropclothed fountain, while my hands moved quickly and efficiently out of sight at waist level. I didn’t have time to worry.

Besides, the President was right in the middle of the yearly spell of intimidation she wove over her subordinates. She wouldn’t want to jeopardize it for a cheese plate. Then again, the approaching secretary had no such compunctions.

“My subject today, as you may already know, follows from the email I sent all of you the day before yesterday on the matter of austerity measures—finding out what isn’t, who isn’t, working and applying the right corrective metric.”

The Animal Science secretary wore white, a voluminous blouse and skirt meant to conceal the unflattering parts of her body. But its effect was rather to make her seem even larger than she was. The woman moved forward like a gunfighter, hands held open by her sides. She led with her stare, her expression fixed in a pointed frown. She came down the east wing hallway, stalking me, not looking away for a second.

I filled the third bag just as the President broached the subject of faculty hiring freezes and dispensing with non-essential adjuncts, which made everyone applaud feverishly. I’d cleared out the back quarter of the table. Bag three was cheese and pastry—the most problematic bag, given the heat. But I couldn’t allow myself to think about that. Thinking about the food spoiling before I got it home would have made me cry like Marvin. Bag two was all cold cuts. Bag one held rolls and crackers.

I might have even tried to guzzle a few cups of black coffee if the secretary hadn’t noticed me. But there she was about 30 yards away and closing. As I crossed the atrium, casually (yet quickly) walking behind the fountain in the direction of the west wing hallway, I kept my eyes on the floor in front of me.

“These are hard times,” said the President, “which means you are going to have to be hard. When we institute District Plan 44, you’re going to have to do some difficult things. And you’re going to have to face some members of our community who unfortunately think they’re indispensable.”

I’d almost made it across the atrium when I looked up and saw Marvin half-standing, turned, one hand white-knuckling the back of his chair. He was staring right at me, his big watery eyes wide with shock, his mouth slightly open under his light brown moustache.

“Now there are going to be cuts. And it will be up to you to speak to those being cut in language they can easily understand. You will not be using institutional jargon”—polite laughter from the crowd—“or financial terms that someone with a Masters in philosophy can’t be expected to wrap his head around.” More laughter broke out, this time with some clapping. “Instead, each and every one of you will have prepared a simple statement of fact that you will repeat if confronted in the office or hallway or elevator. Moreover—“

It was then that she noticed Marvin, who was now fully out of his seat, fumbling for his inhaler with his right hand and gesturing frantically with his left.

“Marvin? Did I give you permission to stand?”

Marvin sucked in a blast from his inhaler and I disappeared into the west wing hallway. Half of the crowd had probably seen me. But no one wanted to join poor Marvin in the place of judgment and scrutiny. As soon as I entered the hallway, I broke into a jog. The secretary had almost crossed the atrium behind me. There were no fans down at this end and the air itself was a barrier—a hot thick cloud pressing in from all sides. Formaldehyde from some of the laboratory rooms gave off the rich odor of old urine. And the deep bouquet of cow dung from the student dairy seeped through the walls.

In the distance, the President’s voice boomed: “Sit down, Marvin!”

I could hear the secretary’s shoes flapping, gaining ground behind me. I wasn’t sure exactly what she’d do if she caught me. But I had a feeling it would result in campus security, public humiliation, no employment in the fall, and—worse—having to give the food back, even though no one would want it now. No one had wanted it in the first place. But the secretary came on anyway. It was the principle of the thing. The rules. The food had to be dumped. And no other creature in the college ecosystem believed, ruminated constantly on, lived and breathed the “principle of the thing” more intensely than the department secretaries. At Flushing CC, the rules were all they had. It was harsh, but it was the Law of Nature, cruel and beautiful and wild.

But knowing all this didn’t stop me from ducking into an open classroom once I was around the corner and out of her sight. Hopefully, the secretary would pass by and assume I exited the building way down at the end. Each wing of the Animal Science classrooms had two hallways connecting to each other at 90-degree angles. Since there were four wings, if you pictured the building from above, the only image you could imagine would be a swastika. I tried not to dwell on this.

It was an old stadium classroom dedicated apparently to farm animal biology. A sign on the wall said the capacity was 300 people. I wondered if 300 people had ever, in the history of the planet, converged in a single room to discuss the innards of cows and sheep. I ran down the aisle, looking for a place to hide just in case the secretary got wise and doubled back.

Luckily, the room hadn’t been refitted with motion sensors that automatically turn on the lights. There were shadows made by the red exit signs glowing above the doors I’d just come through and on either side of the stage. And the stage platform was illuminated by a feeble ceiling light directly over a plaster cow the size of a small truck. Next to it, in a cardboard box, were detachable portions of its hide, half of its skeleton, and various oversized plaster organs.

The cow’s enormous glass eyes looked as if they were about to begin rolling in agony, the beast suddenly realizing that it had been taken apart and left there on display. Bathed in hot shadows that smelled of formaldehyde and animal excreta, the room seemed more like a vivisectionist’s chamber than a classroom—a black hell where the insides of living things are slowly removed layer by layer before a stadium crowd.

I hesitated for a moment, looking up at the cow, and then ran to the exit doors on either side of the stage. They were both locked. I was about to run back up to the top and peek out into the hallway, when I heard the door I’d come through click. Someone was slowly opening it, talking back to another person in the hallway. It was the secretary speaking to someone male. How could she have gotten campus security so quickly? I climbed up on stage, but there were no curtains at the back of the platform, no other doors.

Standing beside the cardboard box that held the organs and one side of the cow, I considered the complete absurdity of my life. After 15 years of higher education and two advanced degrees, the best job I could get was that of a temporary employee at a community college in rural Michigan. Now I was stealing food because there was no more money in the bank and I’d eaten all my backup lentils. Once the lights came on, there would be nowhere to hide, no way out. I put my arms around the cow and tried to steady myself.

Should I try to eat as much of the food as possible to fortify myself for the impending ride to the police station? A wave of dizziness passed through me and I felt a bit nauseous. I began to breathe heavily and worried that I might pass out, that I was starting to hyperventilate. I hadn’t hyperventilated before. If I was about to hyperventilate and lost consciousness, this would be the place—hanging onto a gigantic plaster cow in a dark room that smelled like shit.

“Okay,” the secretary called, “you look in there. I got this one.”

And then I got an idea. It was a really large cow.

The secretary found the light switch just as I snapped the outer hide of the cow into place. With the internal organs and half of the ribcage removed, it easily accommodated me as long as I was able to maintain a fetal position over my shoulder bag. The inside smelled like mold and half-melted crullers. The permanent part of the ribcage that didn’t detach pressed into my back. And the hard plaster mold of the chest cavity had a painful ridge directly beneath my knees. But the important thing was that I was completely hidden.

Light streamed in through the hollow nostrils of the cow and the tiny cracks and spaces that had formed after years of animal science. I listened to the footfalls of the secretary on the nylon-carpeted steps that ran down the aisles between the bleacher tables. Luckily, she didn’t approach the platform, didn’t smell the melted chocolate or hear me breathing.

I followed her huffing and cursing as she moved from one door to the other. Evidently, she hadn’t exerted herself this much in some time. But there she was: one condemned to a life of stapling documents, changing toner cartridges, and taking petty condescension, going out of her way to stick it to someone even less fortunate. The king of the beggars is always a tyrant. The prisoner in charge of the work detail always makes use of the whip.

She came back to the open space before the stage and paused. I held my breath. She must have been staring straight at the cow. The pain in my knees was intense, and I tried not to think about walking again would be like.

“Motherfucker.” The way she said it told me both that she hadn’t caught on and that she was giving up. A motherfucker with emphasis on the second part—more fucker than mother—a spontaneous cry of universal frustration. All hunters know that sound. Raptors probably made it when their quarry found a hole in the rocks. Tigers might have roared it at the cruel sun while apes shook the branches of trees and motherfucker-saying humans fired rounds into the mist just so the report could sound the depth of their anger. No blood today. Today, the impala goes free.

I heard the door up at the top of the stairs click and I forced myself to count to 20 before I popped the side of the cow off and lowered it to the stage. After being enclosed in there for a few minutes, the outside air tasted pure and sweet. There was a lesson: even a cup of dirty water is welcome in the desert.

My knees buckled and shook when I put my weight on them, taking my first steps into the light like a newborn calf from my plaster mother.

Motherfucker.

The question was: who was the father? By the time I got back up to the hallway, I had my answer. It was the President. The secretary and campus security were nowhere to be seen, but the voice of the President echoed down the hallway. She was still back there, the Mother of Abominations fathering monsters with all heads bowed and a metric for every inappropriate erection or eructation.

“Let us go forth,” she was saying, “and remember what it is we’ve been hired to do. And that, above all else, we must be hard if we want to be good.”

The administrators streamed out into the heat and I with them. No one looked at me twice. I did not exist, which was just as well. Sometimes insignificance has certain advantages. I walked around the front of the building, avoiding the barbwired student dairy pasture. The administrators were dispersing quickly, a cloud of navy broadcloth and silk untwisting in every direction like a drop of coloring in a glass of water. No one wanted to stand in the sun no matter how much more gladhanding and social jockeying remained.

I took the most direct route to the adjunct lot, a narrow cement walk that ran from Animal Science, around the weed-choked amphitheater that hadn’t been used in years, and down the line of parking lots ordered in terms of importance—administration, permanent faculty, staff, campus police, plant operations, students, farm equipment and machinery, and then adjuncts and seasonal help.

On my way through the administrative lot, I saw them: the President striding forward ahead of Marvin and two young women in business suits and identitical bobbed haircuts. The three of them were struggling to keep up, speaking over each other, trying to get the President’s attention. Then another wave of vertigo passed through me. The President and her courtiers seemed to grow smaller as the edges of my vision grew dark. I put my hand against a tree and thought about dehydration. Even the parking lot trees—selected expressly for their hardiness and ability to live their whole lives in small concrete rings in the asphalt lots—seemed about to go up in flames. The bark felt as if it were burning the palm of my hand.

I closed my eyes. When I opened them, a short balding man in a coal gray suit stood facing me beside the open door of his Acura. He tossed his suit jacket onto the passenger seat, pulled off his blue clip-on tie, and tossed that in after it. Then he whistled.

“Need a ride?” He smiled, looked me up and down, nodded at his car.

“No.” It came out in a dry croak. My throat felt swollen, raw.

He shrugged, ran a hand over the top of his head and flicked off the sweat. “You might like a ride.”

I was afraid to let go of the tree. I said no again and looked down.

He squinted hard at me. “How old are you, anyway?” Then he got in his Acura, whipped the car in reverse out of the parking space and, with one last hard look, shot down the row towards Campus Drive.

I sat down three times on the walk back to my car and drove home in the slow lane. When I got there, I opened the windows in both rooms of my apartment to catch the faint draft that sometimes reached the sixth floor. Then I put my shoulder bag in the empty fridge and lay down on the hardwood next to my bed. It was cool there, the only cool spot in the place. I stared up at the pocked white ceiling, listening to my downstairs neighbors have their daily screaming fight. They’d go until someone slammed a door and something broke against it. And then she would sit right beneath me and sob as the birds of Flushing woke up from their prostration beneath the trees and the neighborhood cats stretched awake, their tails twitching in the heat.

* Note: this story originally appeared in The New Ohio Review, 12 (2012): 101-109.

A short short about mistakes by lakes.

 

Hockel knocked once, softly.  Louis knew it was him, but Louis didn’t get up.  He stared at the rain on the window.  It had been raining for eight days.  After six, Louis found that he could almost believe it was going to rain forever, a cold, greasy, stinking rain coming down on the city for all eternity. Cleveland would never get clean.

He folded his hands on the unfinished wooden table, felt Hockel waiting silently on the other side of the door.  It was late afternoon on a Tuesday and, in the waning light, the rusted tube-chimney on the opposite building’s roof looked warped and blurry through the wet windowpane.  Louis had been staring at it for—he wasn’t actually paying attention to how long.

Hockel knocked again.  He’d keep knocking until Louis answered.  Hockel was as predictable as the rain.  Louis stood and quietly moved down the short hallway that connected the room that served as a living room, cotroom, and kitchen to the closet bathroom and the front door with five deadbolts and three sliding latches.

“What.”  Louis spoke softly, his left hand hovering over the dented copper knob.

“Louis?  That you?”

“Who else would it be?”

Hockel lived two doors down.  And, in the year Louis had rented the tiny concrete-box studio on Euclid Avenue, Louis hadn’t said a cheerful sentence to anyone other than Gina. 

Now Gina was gone.  But, unlike everyone else in the building, Hockel couldn’t take a hint.  He regularly appeared at the door with that soft, insinuating knock of his.  Eventually something horrible was bound to happen to Hockel, given his lack of sensitivity.  Then Louis would be free.

“Can I come in?”

Louis shut his eyes and took a breath.  “What was it you wanted?”

“Open up.”  The knob jiggled.  “It’s dark out here.”

The light in the hall outside had been broken for weeks.  One had to walk down from the elevator in complete darkness and know where the right door was.  But it wasn’t difficult.  Louis had gotten used to it.  He opened the door a few inches. 

“You mean to say you can’t find your door?”

Hockel pushed in, turning around the edge of the door like a gust of wind.  “Of course not.  I’m not an idiot.”  He sat in the other chair at the little wooden table beneath the window.  “I just don’t like waiting out there in total darkness for someone to answer their door. You know there’s roaches in this building, right?”

Louis sat back down and sighed.  “I’ve never seen any.” 

“You wouldn’t.”

At 34, Louis was short, wiry, already balding with a narrow face and a delicate pointed chin.   Hockel was five years older and at least 20 pounds heavier.  Everything about Hockel seemed swollen, from hands to lips, his shock of jet more like a mane.  He was just starting to go gray and his hair stood up in places though he always tried to slick it back.

“I’ll have a coffee.  Black is fine.”

Louis looked at him.  “You came over to order me to make you a coffee?”

“When you hear what I have to say, you’re gonna want to, I don’t know, pass out or scream or something.  Before that, let’s have a cup, alright?”  Hockel thought for a moment, then grinned, which involved his entire face, making his eyes open wide and his forehead wrinkle.

“It’s about Gina, isn’t it?”

Hockel shrugged and pursed his lips, resting his chin on his hands.  “Only one way to find out, eh?”

Gina.  What could be said about her that hadn’t already be said already, over and over, from Louis to Hockel, from Hockel to Louis, from Lewis to Gina’s voicemail, from Gina’s voicemail back to Louis as he replayed her outgoing message in the middle of the night?  If Hockel had something more to tell, it might mean that she had come back from Lithuania.  Should Louis let himself hope that somewhere in the frozen dark of Vilnius, in the decrepit condominium Gina inherited from a grandmother she’d never known, her affection for him had somehow returned?

He got up, went to the sink, and started to fill the kettle—as much to hide the anxiety at the corners of his mouth as to make coffee. 

“Come on, man.  Did you really think I’d hold out on you if I knew something?”

“I don’t know what to think,” Louis murmured. He lit one of the gas burners with a wooden match.  The ring of blue flames wooshed into being and gripped the bottom edge of the kettle like little blue hands.

“What?”  Hockel was still half-smiling when Louis sat down again.

“Nothing.”

A few moments passed in which neither of them said anything.  The rain clattered against the window.  The cheap aluminum kettle began to wobble and hiss.  Maybe it was the way Louis stared at nothing or the lack of conversation, but after a few minutes, Hockel started to drum his fingers loudly on the table.

“This rain.  It’s crazy, yeah?  How do you sit in here all day with that racket going on?”

“I don’t sit here all day.  I have a job.”

Hockel nodded slowly.  “Oh, right.” 

The kettle began to shriek.  Louis got up slowly and turned off the burner but leaned against the stove, listening to the kettle’s long wail die off.  He dumped a spoon of instant into a cracked yellow mug and poured the hot water.  Then he set it down hard on the table before Hockel, the swirl of undissolved grounds twisting on the surface.

“Instant.”  Hockel sighed.  “My stomach will never get used to it.”

Louis sat back down and folded his hands again.  “So talk.”

Hockel took a long sip then licked his lips, smiling down into the cup.  “Still, you do buy the good stuff, Louis.  I’ll give you that.”

“Gina.  If you’ve got something to say about her, say it.  Or am I going to have to wait for you to finish the whole damn cup?”

Hockel paused, the cup halfway to his mouth, and nodded solemnly.  “You know, I get it, Louis.  I know what it feels like to be put under the bus by a woman.  By many women.  All kinds of women.”  He took another sip, shook his head.  “Damn.  It gets better with every sip.  I have to get some of this shit.  What’s the brand?”

“Lucky Instant.”

He set the cup down and grinned again.  “No way.  You’re definitely messing with me now.  This is the good shit.  I know you wouldn’t make me a cheap cup of coffee on me.  You’re too classy for that, my friend.”

Louis looked out at the rusted chimney.  It stood all by itself at the edge of the opposite roof, condemned to be assaulted by all the rain and snow of Cleveland’s unforgiving winters until the day the wrecking ball took it down.

“Remember how Gina used to come over to my place and bum cigarettes off me?”

“Yeah.”

“Those were the days, eh?”

“What’s so amazing about that?  She was your neighbor.”

“She was your neighbor, too.  But you don’t smoke.  That was something she had in common with me.”

“Guess it was.”

“Yeah.  Guess so.”  Hockel tipped back the cup, then set it down and pushed it towards Louis with one finger.  “I appreciate the coffee.  Generous of you.”

Louis looked at him, then back out at the rain.  “I think you better get going, Hockel.  You know the way.”

Hockel stood, grinning again.  Louis looked at Hockel’s brown short-sleeved shirt with a lighter square where the front pocket used to be, his frayed gray pants, his bare feet in rubber sandals.

“Okay,” Hockel looked down at him.  “If that’s how you wanna play it.  That’s cool.”

When Hockel got to the door, he turned back and wagged his finger at Louis as if the latter was a misbehaving child.  In that moment, in the Louis’ peripheral vision before he turned his head to look, Hockel gave the impression of a large grinning bear.

“I’ll tell you one thing,” Hockel said.  “Something my mother told me on the day I got let go from the plant.  You know, I got caught up in some stupid shit out there.  And, when I came home, all pissed-off and full of bitterness, she said some broom factory bullshit is not why you failed, son.  Cleveland’s why.  Cleveland is why you fail.”  He nodded to himself, then smiled again with his whole face.  “She goes, you get out of here and you’ll do just fine.”

Hockel fished a bent cigarette out of his pants pocket and put it in the corner of his mouth.  “She wanted me to join the Navy.”  He laughed and shut the door behind him.

Louis looked down at his hands still folded on the table.  He thought of the four dates he’d had with Gina and imagined her buying a plane ticket to Vilnius, dropping her good-bye letter to him in the airport mailbox.  The letter didn’t say much—goodbye, was nice living next door to you, you’re a decent guy, sorry things can’t work out but a condo is a condo. 

Louis went to the sink and washed out the mug he’d given to Hockel.  The kettle was still hot.  Its curl of steam still twisted up from the spout.  He spooned some instant into the cup and went to pour the water but hesitated and poured it onto his left hand instead—white hot pain so intense he dropped the mug and kettle in the sink. 

Louis collapsed where he stood, back against the sink cabinet, burned hand between his thighs.  But he didn’t make a sound.  Instead, he looked up at the window.  Rain was still pelting the glass.  The rusted chimney was a faint silhouette in the glare of the drugstore across the street. 

A story about pain.

 

When I rolled into Missoula, Jim Donlon was waiting for me in dark glasses and a black cardigan with a white T-shirt underneath.  He looked drunk.

“Davis,” he said, as if my return was the last in a long line of depressing accidents, “what the hell is this?”  His way of saying welcome back.  I took the cigarette he offered, and we walked out of the bus station through the snow.  He was parked five blocks north.  We stopped in at the Old Sod along the way.

I was exhausted from my three-day bus ride from San Diego.  And neither of us felt like talking right off—which was fine by me considering that these were the first drinks I’d had in almost a year.  Jim was closed-mouthed when he drank, the sort who made it seem alright for you to quietly let alcohol simmer in your veins.  We must have looked ridiculous that afternoon, sitting in the empty bar without talking: me with suitcase and laptop satchel and Jim still wearing his sunglasses.  We used to come to the Old Sod a lot.  And here we were as if I’d never left.  In the months I’d been gone, nothing had changed.  Nothing good would ever happen in this lousy bar.  The fat bartender would be eternally reading the paper.

“I thought you quit drinking.”  Jim blew long shoots of smoke out his nostrils. 

“How’re things?” I asked.  “What’s new?”

Jim sighed.  “Look at this.”  He took out the smallest pistol I’d ever seen and put it on the table between us.  The barrel was two inches long, lighter than my drink.

“Careful,” he said.  “It’s got a bullet in there.”

“What do you need this for?”

Jim finished his drink, lit another cigarette.  “You’re back in Montana, Davis.  Didn’t you notice?”

“These things kill people.”

“So do these things.”  Jim held up his cigarette.  “And this thing.”  He stood and grabbed his balls.

There weren’t many people in there.  Two mustachioed old men in the corner staring into their beers.  The jukebox had Broken on it.  There was one woman in the place—redhead, mid-forties, plastered.  Jim hid the gun in his waistband under his cardigan and walked over to her table.  They talked.  He held up his hands and asked, “Why not?” loud enough that I could hear it.  Then he came back and sat down. 

We looked at each other.

“Jim?”

“You don’t know a thing,” he said.

We drank until we both ran out of cash, switching to pitchers of Pabst at the end, when we got to our last.  Then we staggered out into the snow.  It had begun to glow with the gray-white luminescence that only the streets of Missoula have in the late afternoon, like cold ashes.

He destroyed one of his own plastic garbage cans, when we got to his apartment, sending two weeks of trash into the air, over his car, and out into the cul-de-sac.  Two wheels of his Acura were up on the curb.  I laughed and slipped on the ice.  Everything was funny.

“What about all this trash?” I asked as Jim walked to his front door.

“Forget about it, “ he said and I found this funny, too.  I’d ripped a hole in the right knee of the only pair of trousers I owned.

 

In October of 1999, I was determined to rethink my life. 

A letter came from Yugawara, chair of the English Department, asking if I would be available to work as a private tutor for a high school kid.  The pay, he wrote, would justify my return to Montana.  I believed him. 

I packed a small suitcase and called a cab.

I’d been taking a year off in order to write; though, the real reason I’d left Missoula had been to dry out.  A graduate student at the University of Montana and twenty-three years old, I already had arrests in two different states for driving under the influence.  I was not proud of this.  Perhaps because I am an only child or because my parents both came from broken homes, I have always been indulged.  But, whatever the case, my mother and father did everything they could to help me with my drinking problem when I should have been disowned.

In order to help myself financially and morally and I think to, as my mother put it, take some time to develop a spine so you won’t always let everyone walk all over you, I moved back to San Diego on leave of absence, promising teachers and friends that, when I returned, I’d have my novel finished and be ready to take my degree.  I fully intended to do this, but I didn’t work on the novel at all in San Diego.  I produced one frivolous, eight-page story that I threw out. 

So when Yugawara’s letter came, I jotted a short note that said I was going and left it on my bed.  I took the cab downtown, to the Greyhound Bus Station, bought a eighty-dollar ticket one-way to Missoula, and sat down to wait.  My parents wouldn’t ask questions.  Still, I felt like I was abusing their hospitality by leaving so abruptly in the middle of the day with a stack of library books on my bureau that needed to be returned and no explanation whatsoever. 

I told myself that, even though I was worthless, I was doing what had to be done.  I needed to go, and I was never any good at good-byes, usually getting soppy and melodramatic enough that I made a fool of myself and embarrassed whoever I was with.  My family hated public spectacle, so at least in that sense, I told myself, I was doing them a favor by disappearing.  I would write to them from Missoula.  Though, deep in my weak, self-centered heart, I knew I was a rotten son.

It was October.  At least that much was certain, an unavoidable fact.  Winter in San Diego meant that days stayed in the upper seventies instead of the lower nineties, and palm trees swished slightly more in the wind.  But that didn’t mean winter couldn’t be just as hard there as anywhere else.  I always felt that it wasn’t the climate that killed so many homeless over the holidays but the hardness of everyday people around the world, taking out their petty frustrations on the less fortunate.  I knew that was a sentimental way of looking at things, but sitting in the Greyhound terminal can bring out the sentiment in anyone.  It seemed like all the homeless people in the city were sleeping in there that day.  And it made me sad to look at them curled up around me in the black molded chairs, stinking, talking out loud in their dreams. 

When I got up to board the bus, I left a ten-dollar bill on my seat.  Money never meant much to me.  I had a tendency to give it away if people asked for it—which someone usually did.  Or I’d fall into one of my sentimental fugues, insisting that they take it for their own good.  And I never saw the point of fashion.  It took too much of my energy, too much money, too much space in my life. 

But Jim was different: two years older, tall and thin, like me, but with better clothes and style.  He seemed to move through other people’s lives, through entanglements that would side-track any normal person, with a certain effortlessness.  Years ago, he’d inherited a lot of money, had an apartment in Montana, one in a Vegas suburb—where he’d go sometimes on weekends.  In Missoula, Jim was a graduate student in my writing program.  He took the bare minimum of units and taught classes like everyone else.  And he made having money and everything that came with it seem a given, seem easy, even the day after a drunk. 

As soon as we got into his apartment, we polished off the better part of a bottle of Absolut; though, I don’t remember doing it.  I passed out in a small wicker chair in his living room, my suitcase and satchel placed neatly by my feet.  In the morning, I woke up, still in the chair, with my legs straight out, crossed at the ankles.  My body was stiff.  I felt like I’d been dead for a thousand years.

I opened my eyes to a full-length cherrywood bar, an entertainment center, a few miniature indoor palms, an Italian leather couch, and a blonde on the end closest to me with a lit cigarette and one breast hanging out of Jim’s bathrobe.  Jim was sitting on the other end, in black pajamas, also smoking a cigarette and there was hockey on TV. 

I felt the vast, horrible waves of nausea that come from mixing types of liquor.  So I didn’t say anything.  I sat there quietly and looked at them.  Jim was staring at the widescreen.  The blonde was staring at me.

“It’s a breast,” she said.  “Want to see the other one?”

“Show him the other one,” said Jim without glancing away from the game.

“Fuck off,” sighed the girl.  She yawned, looked me over, took a slow drag.  “You look like a sick rat.”

“Darcy, this is my friend, Davis, from San Diego.”  The only way to tell Jim was hung over was that he’d let his cigarette burn down to a crooked finger of ash.

There was a silver dish of cigarettes on the coffee table.  Darcy picked one out and lit it on her old ember.  The ash tray sat on the middle cushion between them on the couch. 

“He’s breaking up with me, you know.  He broke up with me yesterday.  I’m moving out.”  She raised her eyebrows at me and took a drag.

Jim changed the channel.  “I’m sorry I was so erratic last night, Mike.  I could have gotten us both killed.  It’s stupid to drink and drive.” 

“He doesn’t care about anyone or anything.  He’s not your friend.”

“I think I might vomit,” I said.

“Darcy, be a doll and go get him the wastebasket from the kitchen, would you?”

“I fucking hate you.”  She tied the bathrobe more tightly around herself and went into the kitchen.

Jim looked at me for the first time that morning and smiled: “What can you do?”

I shook my head.  I didn’t know what you could do.  First I was a drunk.  Then I was sober.  Now I was a drunk again.  The guilt hadn’t even started, but it was stalking me.  I could feel it.  It was being sportsmanlike, waiting for me to vomit a few times before it sprang on me in all its demonic fury.  I did vomit several times—but not in the wastebasket.  I weaved along the hallway and into the downstairs bathroom.  The act was painful when I got to it: a thin gray fluid hanging like a cloud in the center of the bowl and then the dry heaves.  For all the drinking I’d done in my short life, the day after never got any better, only worse. 

Half an hour later, I made my way back down the hallway, feeling like I was swimming through an underground cave to the light.  I stopped before entering the living room.  Darcy had shed her bathrobe and was straddling Jim, who hadn’t moved from his sitting position at the end of the couch.  Her cheeks were full of tears.  She whispered things and ran her fingers through his hair while she rode him.  He still had the top of his black pajamas on and his right arm stuck straight out to the side over the armrest.  One of them had put the ashtray on the floor beside the couch so Jim could ash in it while they did their thing.  I walked back to the bathroom, sat on the closed toilet, and put my face in my hands.

This was two and a half months before the millennium. 

Jim went to school to teach a class.  With nothing to do that day but wait until my appointment with Yugawara, I sat around in the coal-gray suit Jim had lent me, smoking and imagining how the world might end on New Years Eve.  I didn’t see any reason to go to the university early and have to explain my life to my former colleagues.  So I stayed on the leather couch and stared back at Darcy, who was wearing a pair of Jim’s shorts and one of his T-shirts.  All of her possessions were now packed in her car, but she wouldn’t go.  She sat in the wicker chair looking at me blankly.  Maybe she was looking through me.  There was an open Ziploc full of large pink horse-pills on the table between us.

“Christ,” she said.  “I’m getting so thin.  It’s like my bones are growing out of my skin.”  Darcy had a fake tan, but it looked good on her.  Her body wasn’t too thin; it was just right.  Her eyes were a pretty blue-gray, even though there was too much white around them at the moment and she was sweating.

“You look fine.”

“Look at my hands.  I’m a skeleton.  You can see the bones coming through.”

“What are you worried about?  You’re beautiful.  You got everything going for you.”  I handed her a cigarette, but she couldn’t keep the lighter’s flame on.  I lit it for her and sat back down.

“What am I worried about?”  Darcy puffed quickly, not inhaling, sending fat milky clouds into the air between us.  “Wow.  Yeah.  Wonderful.  That’s wonderful.”

We sat in silence, listening to her breathing.  I thought about taking one or two of those pills, just so we could be on the same planet, but I had no idea what would happen.  I wanted to stay straight for Yugawara and the high school kid’s parents who’d be there to interview me.  So I went behind the bar and made myself a whiskey sour.  Just one.  Just for steadiness.  Darcy watched me with a sick, detached expression—like those pills had made everything horrible, everything disgusting.

“Look,” I said, “you’re making me nervous.  Why don’t you have a drink.”

She half-nodded, so I brought her mine and made another.  But she let it sit on the coffee table in front of her, condensation puddling on one side of the glass.  I sat back on the couch and loosened Jim’s black silk tie.

“I’m gonna kill myself,” she said to the drink.  “You might want to leave.”

“How many of those pills did you eat?”

“Who the fuck are you?” 

I brought her over to the couch and put my arm around her.  She was shaking.

“Shit,” she said, hugging me and resting her head on my chest.  I held her tight and sipped my drink.

After enough whiskey, you forget you ever had problems.  You forget what a failure you are and how you’ve let everybody down.  I sat there holding Darcy, waiting for Jim to get back from teaching his class, and the only thing I could do was drink.  The first whiskey sour was my first mistake and, having made one mistake, it was all too easy to make another and another.

I laid Darcy down and got a blanket off Jim’s bed to cover her with.  Then I began to pace.  I paced around the living room for so long that soon pacing was all I could concentrate on.  After a while, I didn’t concentrate on anything.  I looked at my track in the carpet, walked around the room, looked out the windows, and sipped whiskey.

“You look like hell,” said Jim when he came in the front door.  “Even in an expensive suit, you look like a drunk.”

He was right.  I’d wrinkled his suit at some point and combed my hair over with some water, but it hadn’t done any good.

“Your girl.  I think she od’d.”

He went over and looked down at her.  “She’ll live.  She say she was going to kill herself?”

I nodded and the room tilted.  I steadied myself against the bar. 

“Happens all the time.”  Jim put his arms around her chest and dragged her off the couch.  We put her in the backseat of his Acura, then got two unopened bottles of Irish whiskey from behind the bar and took off down the street. 

I was drunk but I was wide awake—enough to know there was no way I could do an interview and not seem like an idiot.

“Yugawara.  I can’t see him.  I’m not up to it.”

“You’re a mess,” said Jim.  “Open this, would you?” He handed me one of the bottles.  Speeding up the I-50 felt like we were on a rollercoaster.  Misty, snow-covered mountains were all around, but the highway could have been going up, over the top of the world.  Jim kept one of the bottles between his legs and only slowed down when he wanted a drink.

“I heard about this kid up at the Black Creek Lodge.  People stick things in his body for money.”

“That’s where we’re going?”

“Shit,” he said, “what are you, a genius?”

“What about her?”  Darcy was in the middle of the back seat, head back, mouth open.

“Forget her.  She’s stoned.”

The road was covered in ice.  It made a sound like air escaping from a giant puncture.

By the time we got there, Jim had gotten drunk enough and I had gotten sober enough that we were both tired and quiet.  Before we left Darcy in the car, I took off my coal-gray suit jacket and covered her with it.  I couldn’t see why we’d brought her.  But I was sure that if we didn’t cover her, she’d freeze.

“Davis, you’re a saint,” Jim said.

At the Black Creek Lodge, there was an annual bull testicle eating festival of international repute, which made it a meeting place for freaks of all kinds year round.  But, on that day, the parking lot only had a few cars in it, and we both slipped twice.  I was shivering violently from the cold and almost dropped the unopened bottle of whiskey.  Jim held the opened one to his chest.

We walked through several large empty rooms, one that had been the inside of a barn.  Then we came to a lounge that had a full bar in it and large bay windows looking out on a pasture.  The pasture was covered in snow.  A cow stood in the middle of it, staring at the windows.  An old woman was waitressing and serving drinks behind the bar.  The low wooden tables looked just like her—brown, cracked, not long before they’d collapse.  In the corner sat the kid who got things stuck in him for money—bird-thin with a light blue sheet around him like a Roman senator.  His hair was shaved down a centimeter from his head and his face showed no emotion.  He sat completely straight in his chair.

A few locals were sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, laughing and drinking.  A man in a bowl-cut and two flannel shirts, missing his left index finger.  A blonde with a nasty puncture scar on the side of her neck.  And another woman with no teeth at all; though, she couldn’t have been more than 35.  A few others.  Everyone but the kid looked at us when we walked up and sat.

“Look at this.  Whiskey for everybody,” said a fat, bearded man in a thermal undershirt and jeans.  Jim smiled and toasted them with his bottle.  The men sitting there looked like loggers and so did their women.  I wondered if they’d come for this or if they just happened to be drinking here.

The old woman from behind the bar walked up.  “I’d ask you two what you want but it looks like you got that covered.”

I opened the full whiskey bottle and took a sip.  Jim asked the woman for cups and, when she brought a stack of plastic tumblers, he poured out whiskey for everybody, brightening spirits all around.  Jim even poured out one for the kid, but the fat bearded man held up a hand and said, “No, thanks.  He don’t drink.”  The kid didn’t do anything but blink.  He was completely still.

After everyone had some whiskey, the bearded man stood.  “This is Colter and he only does this once a day.”

Too much whiskey: I felt stupid, my thoughts dissolving in to Montana nothing, as if I were no different from that cow in the snow-gray pasture.

“Is he gonna scream?” asked one of the women.

The bearded man slapped Colter hard across the face and said, “See?  He don’t feel nothing.”  He took the sheet down and pooled it around Colter’s waist, leaving the boy’s upper body exposed.  The skin was pale and curiously unscarred.  Did it matter that he was sixteen or fifteen or fourteen?  He had nothing in his eyes, dead stare, vacant.  Then the bearded man brought out a black dish containing hatpins, a long thin paring knife, an assortment of thumbtacks and small pins. 

In San Diego, my parents’ yard would be covered with plum blossoms.  I thought of them and wished I was there.  California was a bright complex of light and heat that was beyond us here, in this place, after we’d given the bearded man ten dollars each—where we took turns silently pushing hatpins into the boy’s arms and chest—where even the snow looked like ashes.

When we finished, thin strings of blood ran down Colter’s torso where silver thumbtacks had been stuck between his ribs in graceful arcs.  The pearled plastic drops at the ends of the hatpins looked vaguely like peacock jewelry, an ancient beautification method, difficult and prized.

“Shit,” said one of the women, “I want a picture.”

“Five dollars,” said the bearded man, getting a Polaroid from behind the bar.

Like the lady bartender, this woman had nut-brown leathery skin, and it was hard to tell how old she was.  She leaned over Colter and did a 1950s-style cheesecake pose as if she were on a float—Miss October.  When she grinned, she was missing two of her teeth.

Jim had been drinking steadily from the bottle and staring at the boy, who was still expressionless with arms and chest full of pins.

The bearded man stood.  “Okay, that’s good.  We’re all done now.”

“Wait a second,” said Jim.  “What about that knife?”

“Oh,” said the bearded man, “the knife.  If you want to do that, it’s fifty dollars.”  He smiled and looked at Jim as if he were seeing him for the first time.

Jim inserted the paring knife sideways, right under Colter’s left nipple.  The kid hardly bled at all.  Everyone cheered—whether for Jim or for Colter was unclear—maybe just for the spectacle of the thing: the kid, a human pincushion, so much metal sticking out of him, and some drunk bastard adding that thin knife, as if it needed to be done to make the effort complete.  But I remember Colter’s exhalation, the sound of it—long and gradual as if from a great distance.

Darcy woke up, when we were half-way home, screaming as if someone had just jumpstarted her heart.

“Where the fuck am I?” she said.

“Don’t worry,” said Jim, squinting intensely through the snow coming down in thick, moth-gray sheets.  He gripped the wheel with both hands.  The engine made a steady whine and the wipers could barely keep up.  We were doing seventy, seventy-five, outrunning the distance as the car fishtailed and hissed.  He raised his eyebrows and flashed me a look as if he expected me to object.  But I looked out through the snow, thinking of Colter’s expression as the knife went under his nipple, when he slowly began to smile. 

Later, we’d drink until we both wept.  Jim would cut himself on a broken whiskey bottle, bleeding all over the top of his cherrywood bar.  He’d shoot his pistol off twice into the floor and scare us both.  The next day, he’d lend me another suit.  I’d make apologies to Yugawara and get the job tutoring a slow, yet very wealthy, fourteen-year-old girl with a vision problem.  And all that winter, I’d dream of plum blossoms that settle in the heat like parade confetti, making my parents’ back yard look covered in snow.  I’d step through the ice to the laundry at the corner, where I’d buy my parents postcards of blue mountains in summer and scrawl I love you on the back. 

“What’s going on?  Where we going?” hissed Darcy, holding onto the back of my seat for dear life.

“Don’t you worry,” said Jim.  “We’ve got you.  Nothing’s gonna happen.”

White men are horrible, straight men are horrible, white straight suburban women are especially horrible, oven cleaner is white adjacent, history is horrible, you are horrible, look at my dog.

Racism, hillbilly violence, iconoclasm, the anarchy must be put down, but isn’t it about time, anarchy is okay, anarchy in the UK, anarchy is not about you, anarchy is you not me, Antifa burned my house down, love me.

The media sucks, IQs are dropping, the virus is rising, white scientists suck, fake news, a febrile bodily stench, take your medicine, we can never go back.

Kellyanne got a face lift, replace the skeleton with surgical titanium, love dolls are the solution, blood from a 12-year-old injected daily, who are you to judge?

I won’t take a knee, why you should take a knee, liver damage, unemployment, poverty, citizen journalism, pepper spray is not a crime, unicorn riots, win this 18-bedroom smart home in Beirut, it’s hopeless.

Inject this insect paste into your knee if you want to live, admit that you are fragile like an Easter egg, will we really make it to Easter I don’t know, buy this jade spoon embossed with the face of Benjamin Franklin before they light it on fire, racial slur, it can’t be a racial slur, banking conspiracy, violence, Kellyanne put down that puppy.

Easter apocalypse up in your grill, every day, violence, violence, violence, disease, you deserve to suffer, you don’t deserve to suffer, you deserve violence, and disease, and this delicious curbside fruit delivery, buy an intimate massager, sterilize the poor, the worst week of Trump’s life is today.

Greta Thunberg? Don’t you say a goddamn thing about Greta Thunberg.

10 best novels by cave-dwelling anabaptists, Walmart, no-touch orgasm, we replaced her knees with industrial springs and now she jumps a lot higher, Kellyanne is why we can’t have nice things.

Trump, Trump, Trump, Trumpety, Trump, Trump, don’t touch me like that while I’m sedated, the left wants aliens in your sandwich, the right wants to kill art, do you know where your Easter eggs are being dipped, can we stop with all the Trump, Biden’s in the basement, space junk will rain down fiery Mayan death upon our children.

Cops with broken hearts, shit cops don’t know the meaning of heartbreak, white fragility, cop fragility, black fragility, heartbroken asian fragility, cops gone wild, Jim Henson was a Nazi, Kellyanne is why I wear this sailor suit, it’s not okay to say these 756 words, racist orgasms, systemic orgasms, systemic racist orgasms on the dark web, but who will pay reparations to the hundreds of undocumented sidhe living in Torrance, California, it won’t be North Korea this time.

I don’t want to visit North Korea, I need the New York Times like I’ve never needed it before, hold me Kellyanne like you did on Naboo, and bring the light inside the body, it’s not a riot if it don’t got that febrile bodily stench, don’t talk to me today, Kellyanne, I need a haircut.

Trump, please make it stop, just put me on the rocket ship, I don’t care, I just want to go.

A short story about voicemail, voyeurism, and stupidity.

Sea-Tac at high noon is a cold saucepan, everyone sitting in it and the burners waiting.  The occasional flash-boom of a jet outside.  Blue-white daylight through ceiling-high windows.  Static crackle of dust remover on plastic.  The burnished coffee stand curdling the air around it with sour French Roast.  Far away, someone shouts into a phone.  It’s always like this. 

Waiting for the next thing in the Seattle airport is like waiting for the saucepan to cook.  Major airport, major risk: one moment, cold metal emptiness; the next, shitfire and everybody burns.  Terror.  Screaming.  Bullets.  Anything could happen at any time.  Jim Fowler sat up in the black plastic seat and thought this as calmly and easily as he thought of anything, whether he should take a flight sedative, for instance, or whether to call his voicemail before boarding.

Today, Jim was wearing a coal-gray three-button DKNY, one of his traveling suits—really decent, actually, but not impressive.  The impressive suits, the ones he’d bought through a consultant, were too good to wear on the plane.  The two Jim had taken to Seattle were wrapped in plastic inside a reinforced Kevlar valise that could withstand a three-hundred-pound anvil dropped on it.  Jim knew this because he’d gone to the corporate demonstration where they’d dropped the anvil. 

So far, he’d noticed two other men in the airport wearing his same coal-gray suit, but that wasn’t why he was sitting in a desolate part of Sea-Tac, staring out a wall of windows.  Jim was three hours early for his flight and no one else had arrived at the gate.

He opened his cell and speed-dialed: his voice, There is no one here to receive your call, in sterile monotone.  Had he taken something before recording the outgoing message?  It was possible.  Something to make him sleep.  And then the permanently programmed machine girl sounding more human than Jim: You have . . . zero . . . messages.  He loved her voice: frowsy, smart, with just a touch of humor.  You have . . . zero . . . messages, as if it were a personal compliment.  They knew something over at that cell phone factory.  Or maybe they didn’t.  Maybe there was no girl like this on any other voicemail in the known world.

Girls.  The trouble with girls.  He never knew what to say.  They made him nervous, shaky.  Always judging, picking out his mistakes, noting the every hard swallow, every flat joke—always on record.  Jim kept his hands in his pockets and avoided eye contact: they’d see him again somewhere, sometime—and they’d know: he was the creepy one, the one with that look.  The windows rattled as a 757 shot down a runway.

That morning, Jim had woken up at 5:00, as always, unable to go back to sleep, and soon got bored with the Weather Channel loop from the edge of his hotel bed.  So he called a cab and wound up watching the sky over Seattle lighten from the inside of Sea-Tac. 

Jim had wandered for a while, glancing in the tourist stores and the lousy restaurants, at the determined expressions of people already in a hurry.  And he’d stopped to look up at a 15-foot steel sculpture of a praying mantis that had been temporarily installed by his gate.  It was burnished just like the coffee stand, the railings, the oblong strips of metal that had replaced whatever bland paintings used to line the jetways. 

Beside him, a little girl with rings around her eyes and a dirty-looking teddy bear stared up at the mantis as if it might suddenly bound off its circular metal platform.  Its front legs were pressed together in the classic mantis pose, sharp spines sticking out sideways from its body—hundreds of tiny daggers waiting for someone running late to trip and fall over the red velvet stanchion-ropes.

“What is it?” the girl asked, pointing at the mantis.

Jim squatted down beside her and looked up.  “That’s a sculpture.  Somebody made that and put it in here so we can look at it.”

“Did God make it?”

From the girl’s vantage point, the mantis seemed twice as big.  It’s blank stare passed through him and Jim imagined it springing to life, its steel claws ripping him in half.

“Yes,” he said.  “How did you know?”

“No,” said her mother, putting her hands on the girl’s shoulders from behind and staring down at him.  “It’s a bug, honey.  Just some bug.”

Jim stood and watched them go to a far gate.  He’d seen the mother in the leper smoking room, where the glassed-off air looked pale gray and so did the people sucking down their morning tobacco.  She had frosted hair, gold rings, and a faint desperation in how she’d crossed her arms and concentrated on her cigarette.  They’d made eye-contact as Jim passed by the room. 

She was pretty in a removed, angry sort of way, and he’d gotten ideas.  What were the chances of them being on the same flight, in the same row, sitting together?  He’d let the possibilities play out for a few moments, then forgot all about her.  And this is what it came to: Jim transformed to an insect, squashed under a forty-dollar pump.  How often could this sort of thing happen to one person?

Now, in the empty block of seats facing the windows, Jim didn’t have to speak to anyone.  If he stayed medicated for the flight, he’d be able to avoid any further human nastiness.  Of course, he didn’t always try to avoid people.  His real reason for coming to Seattle was to meet someone.  But, as usual, things didn’t work out that way.  The National Convention of Law Librarians had been something. 

Frenzy: everyone single paired-up immediately, then everyone married-but-open-minded, and then anyone else who got a randy thought toward the end of “Comparative Search Diagnostics” or “Alternate Systems of Citing Primary Authority.”  Unfortunately, there were a small number of people who always missed out on the librarian bacchanalia.  Jim had now been in this group two years in a row.

Bored, he watched a fuel truck creep like an orange beetle through tarmac heat wobbles.  The truck didn’t look like it was moving very fast but, if he aligned a wingtip in the foreground with a distant pole out on the airfield, he could measure the fuel truck’s progress.  Jim did that for a while, imagining how it would be if the truck suddenly exploded, how it would look from his position—the flames curling up around the tank in wreathes or maybe shooting around the truck in all directions, hanging in the air for a heartbeat, like a fiery octopus.

By expecting the worst, you’re prepared.  Lose all hope, lose all fear.  Jim wouldn’t mind losing fear.  He was turning thirty-five next month, had no family left, and the college girlfriend who had once come close to marrying him was now an interior decorator in Singapore and no longer returned his calls.  His hair was gray above the ears, which seemed to have already put him in the geriatric crowd.  When he looked at girls in their early twenties—long hair, midriff, belly button ring, little tattoo over delicate ankle—he saw worlds forever closed to him.  After thirty, he no longer showed up on their radar.  Or, if they had to deal with him, it was the thank-you-excuse-me, the pasty smile, the consolation laugh right before they escaped to the other side of the room.

But what to do.  Back home in Irvine, Jim tried to face it.  Mind over matter: he answered personal ads and went on nightmarish exploratory dates.  The single mother who left the pictures of her ex-husband face-up on the restaurant’s table like a challenge and spoke earnestly to him about becoming a lesbian.  A bird-thin waitress with strands of colored string braided into her hair who cried at Neruda’s love poems and had dreams about the devil.  A middle-aged professor of economics who said she’d never orgasmed and wanted to know what he thought about pissing. 

“Pissing?” he asked.

“It can be a lot sexier than you’d think,” she said.

In the end, they all seemed as disappointed with him as he was with them.  And now Jim had just wasted all three convention nights in his hotel room and voicemail was still his best friend.

Behind him, the girl had wandered back to the praying mantis, seemed fascinated with it, staring up into its metal face like it was about to tell her something.  Jim felt the urge to walk over and talk to her again, but he didn’t want a second encounter with the mother.  The girl was right at the edge of the red velvet ropes and was reaching out tentatively toward one of the mantis’s folded-down claws. 

Jim turned back toward the wall of windows.  It wasn’t his business if she cut herself.  When he looked again, she’d slipped under the ropes and was standing directly under the claws, looking up.  The sharp leg-spines pointed all around her, only an inch on either side of her face. 

Jim turned and vowed not to look anymore, staring at the fuel truck, now an orange speck in the distance.  He was sure that soon the screaming would start.  He fished a sedative out of the plastic pill case he always kept in his vest pocket and swallowed it dry.  His hands were shaking slightly so he crossed his arms and closed his eyes.  It would take a moment for the pill to kick in.

***

Irvine.  Yuppietopia of southern California.  Yet, there was something about it, thought Jim, something to love.  The palm trees were bio-engineered.  The streets were angled for maximum runoff.  There would never be a major septic horror.  There were no alligators in the sewers.  Or, if there were alligators, they were ecologically appropriate.  Maybe there were no sewers.  In Irvine, the sun was sunnier.  The kids were kiddier.  Birds cartwheeled through height-zoned eucalypti. 

Whatever wasn’t working was cavorting and every car came internet-ready.  Jim looked down from the 22nd floor and listened to the absolute silence of Gould, Dien, and Strunkmeyer’s law library, his library.  Mirrored office towers flashed in the new light and Newport Beach glittered in the distance, blue like a perfect sky.

Today, he was wearing a rust cardigan-slacks combo with pale cream button-down and burgundy Ungaro tie.  On the fashion e-calendar provided by his consultant, this ensemble was dedicated to putting a spin in June’s gloom with the earthy tones of fall.  Theoretically, one was supposed to stay just ahead of the season: when everybody was still wearing grays, you crept into the browns.  At this time, said the calendar, accessories with polka-dots are recommended.  Recommended but not required, thought Jim.  That was key.  Not everybody could get away with polka-dots.

Dark thoughts on this Monday morning: where was Scafandra, his assistant?  He got to work at 7:00; he expected her at 7:30.  Lateness was the devil, the root of all vice.  Jim was never late.  Even this morning: mesmerized by the Weather Channel again for a whole hour, then the sudden shock of lost time, the pressured zip down the 73 from his condo, Prussian blue Acura revving 80, barely making it, iced coffee through a straw, email on car-screen, no messages, no messages.  It was too soon to start calling his voicemail.  But now, sitting at his desk in the library, he felt like he’d left something back in Seattle.  His watch read 7:34.

The library’s holdings were extensive—as good as any public law library, in some respects better—and when Jim ascended from assistant to head librarian, he redesigned the floor plan: Federal Cases to the north, California Appellate Reports to the south, taxation, intellectual property, Uniform Commercial Code to the east, transactions, forms and business practices around the big window in the west. 

GDS rented a storage annex in the basement as big as a supermarket for everything else.  And in the center of the library: his oak desk on a raised dais flanked by both editions of the Annotated California Code.  If the lawyers needed to know the law of the land, they had to approach—supplicants at Jim’s altar, where a fat brass desk lamp made him glow like Moses fresh off the mountain. 

Then Scafandra came in through the library’s oak double-doors, her eyes already shrink-wrapped in tears, and Jim knew it would be like this.  He could have predicted it.  Forecasting Scafandra’s tears on a day she was late was about as hard as guessing rain after a week of darkness.

“You have no idea what I’ve gone through this morning.  It’s . . . I can’t even talk about it.”  She was a thin woman with delicate pale features and auburn hair, the sleeves of her mustard knit sweater rolled up into gigantic cuffs.  Her sweaters were psychic shields—always massive, always making her seem like she was dissolving into them, in need of assistance.

“Oh?” 

Scafandra Theory 101: any reaction at all will feed standard traumatic breakdown.  Any little cooing sounds that would normally mean sympathy and commiseration will cause one to be immediately sucked into 30-minute-long lateness-justifying vortex of pain.

“I was read-ended.  Rear-ended.  I don’t know what I’m gonna do.  I love that car.  That car is my life.”

“Oh?”

“My god.  What is this world coming to?  It’s just . . . life is just . . . sometimes, it’s too much.  Sometimes, I think I could, you know . . .”

“Rear-ended you say?”

Her cheeks were wet with tears.  Scafandra had skills, but there it was, the split-second glance, scanning Jim’s expression to see if she was making progress.

“Weren’t you listening?  It’s alright.  I don’t expect you to understand.  No one ever does.”

“You’re right,” said Jim.  “Some things are more important than being on time.”

Scafandra nodded, daubing her eyes with Kleenex from her purse.

He watched her go to her desk in the glass cubicle near the east wall, where the architects had originally meant the head librarian’s desk to be.  Jim knew that by lunch she’d be chipper again, tapping out messages to internet chat friends and humming to herself.  When he could see her sitting at her computer in the little glassed-off space, he unlocked a drawer and took out a sheet of GDS letterhead.  Below a long list of excuses, Jim made another entry complete with date, time, what she’d said, and how he’d responded. 

When he got to the bottom of the page (one more excuse to go—he hoped it would be good—lightning setting her dog on fire, all four tires blowing out spontaneously, abduction, smoking fissure opening beneath her straight to Hades) Jim would type a memo, circulate it to the partners of the firm, and that would be the end of Scafandra.  Until then, Jim would wait, serene, detached: 22nd floor law library bodhisattva.  Nothing bothered him.  Kung Fu.  The e-calendar’s icon, a radiant sun, smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen.

It was strange the way he felt about Seattle.  Unpacking, he’d gone over everything.  All his bags had arrived, plastic-wrapped shirts layered and locked into place.  Nothing heavier than an anvil had been dropped on his valise.  Nothing lighter than socks came out.  No surprises.  No unsolved mysteries.  And yet, driving through Newport, Jim felt dreamy, detached, felt a nagging something in the back of his mind.  He called his voicemail.  You have . . . zero . . . messages

No emergency phone calls from the hotel or Sea-Tac about lost credit cards.  So . . . what?  Jim didn’t know.  But there was something going on here.  Something bothering him.  He called his voicemail again, as if the solution might have been in the beautiful scrollwork of her voice.  First, his own: There is no one here to receive your call.  The more Jim listened to it, the more it seemed like he had taken a sedative before recording the outgoing message.

Newport Center Drive was wide and full of BMWs.  Being on it was like docking at the galactic spaceport—everything huge, slowly pulling you in.  To the right, huge white office buildings like great latticeworks of bone with mirrors in the sockets.  To the left, a shopping center bigger than a city: Relax, we have you in a tractor beam.  The streets were full but traffic circulated with a low pulse.  People instinctively knew when it was their turn to glide.  They didn’t have to check.  At the light, a pigeon-haired man in a 745i gazed absently into his AC blast.  His face looked creamy tan like his leather interior.  He glanced at Jim, then shot ahead. 

Jim parked and walked into the mall—past the Towne Bistro that had waiters with white dinner jackets and its own domesticated tiger, past the koi pond, past the Venetian fountain with marble cherubs climbing over each other in a gigantic heap, the topmost one spitting up at a non-offensive slant, past the store that only sold toys guaranteed to raise a child’s IQ by a minimum of fifteen points.  It was Consumer Never-Never Land: Peter Pan, all grown up, buys a cell phone and a Bimmer, spends his time in boutiques with names like Anthropologie and Un Petit Cadeux

Jim didn’t mind the ambiance, always a faint tinkling in the air, a freshness, trellises of red Bougainvillea and tiny ornamental catwalks that only a cat could walk on.  But there were no cats, no birds, nothing that might offend.  Even the kids were well-behaved.  Something in the atmosphere weighed them down, made them walk dutifully, quietly beside their parents.  A group of them stood around the koi pond in silence, watching the thick golden fish swoop furiously back and forth without making the slightest ripple.

The shopping center was called Fashion Island, and it had one really great quality, one thing that made it different and better than most of the hulking malls of the world: Dream Houses.  Jim spent a hundred dollars there every time he visited.  Dream Houses was nestled on the other side of the rose atelier between Middle America and Anja’s Day Spa

He stopped at Middle America’s floor-to-ceiling window.  Inside, a fat, red-faced man in shirtsleeves was all smiles as he drove a pair of oxen across a plot of land.  Off to the side, his wife and son cheered.  He’d stop to wave and get his picture taken or have the attendant put new bandages on his hands—already bleeding from the wooden plow handles.  He loved it.  Off to the side, the manager, looking like she’d just stepped out of Anja’s in black Von Furstenberg chiffon, her hair at a wicked slant, sipped a cup of coffee and stared into infinity. 

People paid to help cultivate the land then got a gift basket later in the year full of the beets or turnips or kohlrabi they’d helped produce.  You could hear them happily going on about their crop in the Towne Bistro over a light wine and spanakopita, fresh white gauze across their hands.

But Dream Houses was different.  Ultimately, it was about people, about real life and its challenges.  Deep down, Jim liked to think of himself as a people person, and Dream Houses was where he interfaced with humanity.  This was the human condition.  And, for the price of a gold-plated sink faucet or a pair of high-toned brass knobs, it came dirt cheap. 

An extremely thin girl with burgundy hair sat at the DH front desk.  Her name was Leda.  In the year and a half he’d been a customer, Leda had never said more than two words to Jim, but those two words were enough.

“How long?”

“An hour would be good,” said Jim.

She smiled as if that was just right and gave a little Asian nod, even though she wasn’t Asian, tapping something into a computer that was part of the flat surface of her desk.   It looked like she was practicing scales, her purple-black nails ticking.

Jim walked past the desk and sat down on a twisted Sköna Hem sofa with green and white stripes.  This week was part of the Hide-a-Way Den series and the furnishings had a lush sink-into-me feeling, despite the pastel motif.  There were two sofas, a pale blue Italian divan, and a Yamakawa end-table engineered to slowly change its elevation as the wood aged.  Somehow, the designers had managed to sink the floor two steps down, and Jim wondered whether they’d built a whole new temporary level above the old one or simply exposed the original floor.  He stretched his legs and crossed them at the ankles. 

It started as a small home furnishings outlet with a different set interior every month.  But it grew into something more.  Now time inside was billed and there was a new interior every week.  One was expected to buy something, but that’s not why you came to Dream Houses

It was, quite simply, the best way to meet people.  Voyeurs and the occasional tourist excepted, DH had its regulars—people who appreciated style.  And the designers were gods.  Most of Dream Houses Online was dedicated to the twists and turns of their dramatic lives in exotic cities—Casablanca, Monte Carlo, Biarritz, St. Croix—one was cheating on his wife with a Finnish model; one might have been gay or a woman or a gay woman (10 gigs of posted speculation said the photos were fake); one had a club of Japanese schoolgirls dedicated to group suicide if he ever stopped cheating. 

Actors showed up at Dream Houses.  Rock stars got photographed in the secret exclusive DH franchise that operated by invitation only.  It wasn’t just a showroom, it was a way of life.  And, for one or two hours, you could become witty and graceful on your molded Italian chaise lounge; you could flirt provocatively over Ting dragon-cisterns filled with white roses and come away with a handsome mother-of-pearl sconce or an authentic Karastan throw as a memento.  The idea was to bring a little bit of it home with you every time.  Someday you’d reach perfection.

Jim knew he was far from perfect, but he also knew that the blonde on the other sofa was named Tiffany.  At least that was the name she used in Dream Houses. And, every week, they bridged the gap to perfection together.  Always, at their time, she’d be waiting—long straight hair, blue eyes, some cream Atsuko Kudo polymer shift that revealed just enough as it clung to her curves.  Was she married?  Did it matter?  Contact wasn’t allowed.  DH had its rules: no touching, no smoking, and no food—nothing that would jeopardize the merchandise.  It was that simple, and it was never a problem.

“You’re late,” said Tiffany.

“No.  You know that’s not true.”

“I’ve been waiting here forever.”  Her smile became a pout.  She tilted her head to smell roses in an onyx vase beside her without looking away.  “Where have you been?”

“Around,” said Jim.  “Why does it have to matter?”

“You know it matters.  It matters to me.”

“I’ve been at work.  Where else would I be?”  He folded his hands in his lap and looked down the long interior.  Beyond a silk partition of cranes in flight, a different couple was having a conversation, voices only murmurs in the stillness.

Tiffany and he had carried on this romance for nearly a year, and she was incredibly talented at keeping him interested.  One week, she’d be jealous, the next, bubbly and vivacious, the next, depressed.  The situation encouraged this behavior.  Relationships in Dream Houses depended on talking, on never letting things rest, never letting the conversation get predictable.  Boredom was a constant threat and mood swings, unlike in the outside world, were an asset here.  Tiffany was brilliant.  Sometimes Jim admired her ability so much he thought he actually was in love with her.

“Did you get my email?” 

Sometimes they sent each other email as a way to keep things going.  It was a good way to stay consistent or to let each other know of a time conflict.  But in her last message, Tiffany had very tentatively asked him out, said there was a mime who did the Rodney King beating to Japanese Butoh music.  He was exclusive.  She had tickets.  Did Jim want to go?  Et cetera.  She’d been off-hand, embedding it in a long discussion of DH’s bleached llama carpets and whether they were treating the llamas right. 

Jim was getting vaguely interested in the issue—whether Dream Houses ran clandestine llama farms, exporting glue and steaks to South America when the animals stopped putting out quality fiber—until she popped the question.  It sickened him.  Tiffany was willing to throw it all away, to violate the purity of what they had.  And for what?  Dinner and the usual?  She was missing the whole point.  He wrote her a long response, saying as much, then re-wrote it, then deleted it.  All he had to do was not respond, right?  He’d stay quiet, and things would continue.  Right?

“No,” he said.  “I haven’t checked.”

“You’re distant.”

“I am the way I’ve always been.  I don’t change.  I’m like the ocean, always there.”

“Like the distance, you mean.  Always over there.”

“Close your eyes.  You can sense me.”

“I’d rather feel you.”

“Don’t.”  He stared at the silk cranes.  The other couple’s conversation rose and fell like quiet tide.  Jim wished Tiffany and he could stop talking and just listen to it.  But she was changing.  Their situation was changing.  He tried to focus on a set of long black-dipped teak chimes that didn’t really chime, though they always looked about to.  And he knew that what had been good about Tiffany was drawing to an end.

“Well.”  She looked toward the lime-tinted storefront windows, where Leda was talking to what looked like three gigantic Swedes in jogging suits.  “I don’t know what I’m getting this time.”

“I’ve had my eye on that brass curtain-rod,” said Jim.

“I could say a lot . . . in response to that.”  Tiffany smirked—inappropriate on her porcelain features.  Women like her, thought Jim, should be cold and poised, removed, like high mountain snow that never melts.

And then, completely without warning, Tiffany did the unthinkable.  She sat down next to him and planted a wide warm kiss on the side of his neck.  It was a direct violation of the rules.  Jim froze.  They could both be permanently banned for something like this.

She had her arms around his neck and kissed him a second time before he thought to tell her to get back to the other sofa, that Leda might see them through the surveillance camera.

Leda was already standing there when he looked up.

“This has to stop,” Leda said, “right now.”

Tiffany sneered but let go of him and sat back.

“Wait.  It’s not what you think,” said Jim.

“I’m putting a violation in both of your accounts.  And I think your time is up.”  She stalked back to the front desk, her purple-black skirt swishing.

Jim sighed.  A violation meant no more discounts, no more updates, no more promotional offers or exclusive events.  Another violation and he’d be barred permanently, worldwide.

“I have to be somewhere,” he said and stood up.

Tiffany crossed one knee over the other and gave him a blank stare. 

Jim bought the brass curtain rod from Leda without looking at her.  He told himself he wouldn’t come back for a long, long time, but he knew that wasn’t true.  In the car, he started shaking, so he took a Hydrocodone from the plastic pill case in the glove-box.  One of the lawyers he worked with was a walking pharmacy and Jim helped bankroll his habit.  It was amazing how steady and calm he became with the help of synthetic opiates.

Voicemail told him he had zero messages; Jim stood in his darkened entryway and listened to the voice repeat a few times.  His apartment complex was shaped like a honeycomb—twelve-inch-thick cement walls, units angled so you didn’t have to look at anyone else.  Everyone had a balcony and could, in theory, see a shred of Newport Pacific; though, the apartments started on the fourth floor and went high enough that braving the balcony would have been a major undertaking for most of the retirees there. 

As far as Jim knew, he was the only resident under fifty.  His complex was always completely silent.  Everything was sound-proofed.  But tonight he couldn’t relax.  He kept thinking of Seattle.  What had he accomplished there?  He hadn’t met anyone—hadn’t even had the opportunity.  No one had paid any attention to him.  He’d passed through the convention like a heavily medicated ghost.

He went into the bedroom closet, took off his suede windbreaker, and hung it up.  It was half-past nine, almost time for bed.  Jim had let dinner drag out, sipping jasmine tea in Bao Voce—a new restaurant that served Vietnamese and Italian dishes together—and pretended to go over a research file from work, while eavesdropping on three drunk lawyers from Quill Collins, one of GDS’s rivals.  He hadn’t learned anything useful, but it helped pass the time.

He took off the rest of his clothes, folded them neatly, placing the stack in the sky-blue hamper at the back of the closet.  His apartment was completely dark except for the weak moonlight that glanced across the carpeting, making everything black or pale gray.  He never closed the drapes.  His unit was on the fifteenth floor.  Besides, the windows were an inch thick, didn’t open, and polarized automatically on sunny days.  He took down a shoebox from the closet’s top shelf and carried it out to the bed.

This wasn’t something Jim did every night, but he did it often enough that it had become like tacit punctuation at the end of a hard day.  He sat on the bed and took out a pair of Newcon NZT-22 hands-free night vision goggles.  They were SWAT issue from the 1980s: secured by a head strap, starlight technology, could be rotated up, away from one’s eyes along the canvass strap, which came down to Jim’s forehead and made his hair stick out to the sides like a cartoon scientist.  He clicked them on and the world turned bright green.  Jim looked strange in his bedroom mirror, naked and goggled with glowing green eyes, which, he knew, were being magnified by the starlight effect and were actually tiny points.

He’d bought them through a catalog years ago but hadn’t used them until he moved into this apartment.  Now he used them all the time because the old man who lived one unit down and two to the right was great entertainment at night.  Jim walked out onto his balcony.  It was warm, no wind.  Most of the other units were dark.  You could do anything on that balcony.  No one would see—commit murder, seal the body in the apartment; by the time anyone checked, it would be dust and teeth.

Jim had to stand at the very edge of the balcony and lean over in order to see into the old man’s unit, but it was a small price to pay for such good entertainment.  Jim didn’t know what the old man did during the day; no one ever saw anyone in the building coming or going. 

The dim hallways seemed to absorb all sound, and movement wasn’t easy—every floor required a numerical pass code, as did the elevator, the parking garage, the trash chutes.  Jim figured most of the residents simply stayed in their apartments, had their groceries delivered, kept their televisions turned up.  But the old man led a double life.  During the day, he did whatever he did, and at night he became a railroad magnate.

Without the night vision, Jim would still have been able to see the electric train moving through the hills and forests.  But he would have missed the important details: the small dog running beside the tracks while a boy called to it and waved his hands; the miner on a stretcher being carried out of an opening in a hill; a wooden bridge sagging and broken over the river; hobos hunched around a campfire behind the rock quarry. 

Above it all, the old man hovered in a tie and a pressed suit, keeping track of everything, wringing his hands, squinting through the gloom of his faintly lit apartment, talking to the train and then listening to it intently.  His entire living room had been turned into an electric set, and he noted all changes on a green chalkboard that was propped up at one end of the room—precipitation, supply and demand, date, time in fifteen-minute increments, profit, loss, employment, and “Projected Expenses for Next Fiscal Term.”

The train curved into other rooms where, Jim assumed, there were other wooden towns like the one in the corner of the living room—something like depression-era Kansas: old dirty buildings, drifters shuffling through the streets, shadowy train yards and tumbleweeds. 

The detail was astounding.  Jim was sure the ceiling of the living room was painted.  The walls were done as perfect three-dimensional extensions of the landscape, hills like the old man’s balding head sloped up from forests.  There were four bridges: two of wood, two of rusted iron.  And the river that ran beneath them went all over the landscape, widened where logs floated down toward the mill outside of town, and carried a boy on a small skiff.

The old man was deeply involved in the lives of his people.  He gestured dramatically to the hobos, gave advice to the boy on the skiff, moved the dog farther down the tracks and then consoled its owner as best he could.  He was the guardian spirit of the world he’d created.  The real entertainment wasn’t the train or the set.  It was the old man himself. 

When he’d turn the speed all the way up, the train would eventually derail, and he’d weep at the destruction—pine trees smashed, one of the drifters knocked to the other side of the mountain, the miner clattering down the slope with his stretcher-bearers.  The train would go over the half-broken wooden bridge and the old man would cover his mouth in worry.

Jim could watch him all night—how he held forth like Cato before the senate, making passionate speeches, gesturing, long unruly wisps of white at his temples and his fingers stained with chalk.  He’d been someone in his life, probably someone with a lot of responsibility, thought Jim.  And now he went through a full range of emotions every night. 

Buildings were destroyed and rebuilt the next day.  Hobos and drifters moved around the terrain, disappeared into other rooms, showed up days later at the edge of the trees or leaning against the wall of the train station.  Occasionally, the old man receded into the background so that, even with the night vision, Jim could only make out his silhouette, black-on-black, in the short hall that went to the other rooms.

And so it went: the old man in a pressed suit and the train circling through the rooms.  It did occur to Jim that he was equally ridiculous, perhaps more so, standing buck-naked on his balcony wearing night vision goggles.  But who cared?  A day in the life.  Jim only knew these things amused him.

This was a night when the old man wouldn’t stop the train to unload or link up new cars.  He just let it go and followed it around his apartment, drawing a hash mark in the corner of the chalkboard every time it made a complete circuit.  Jim wasn’t sure what the hash marks were supposed to accomplish, if they were building up to something or not. 

It didn’t matter.  The important thing was that the old man was there, doing what he loved, in deep conversation with the train.  Every so often, he’d gesture at it with an open hand, admonishing it, as if to say What did you expect?

Jim watched until he got his fill of smirking at the old man’s pained looks as he bent over the train and clasped his hands together, full of anxiety.  Jim leaned out over the balcony railing, enjoying every minute of it, the glowing green eyepoints of his goggles like tiny anonymous stars.

Of course, he was wearing a double-breasted Zegna with classic pleats today.  The e-calendar had laid it out in no uncertain terms: the moment is auspicious for Prada, Fendi, or Zegna as surely as Gladiolus blooms like the midday sun.  Jim was not completely sure what that meant, but his wardrobe Feng Shui was clear: Zegna in, everything else out.  The e-calendar’s radiant sun icon smiled and winked at him from the corner of his computer screen: friendly guardian spirit.  The ancients lit incense at the feet of icons, Jim double-clicked them.  It made sense.

The real question was why Scafandra had suddenly been possessed by the Daemon of Work.  She’d already cite-checked and proofed a 40-page pleading that one of the lawyers had left in the to-do tray the night before, and it didn’t look like she was even going to break for lunch.  This was not normal Scafandra behavior. 

Jim unlocked his desk drawer and looked at his List of Scafandra’s Excuses.  Had she picked the desk’s lock and found it or had she just reformed?  This morning, for the first time ever, she’d come in before Jim.  There she was behind the glass partition, eyes riveted on her computer screen, sections of the pleading in neat stacks across her desk.

But, of course, nothing ever changed; people certainly didn’t—always the same, whether cite-checking into the blurry gum-eyed afternoon, running only on coffee and the fear of getting axed, or banned from Dream Houses.  People, Jim knew, were as reliable as the California sky, static, dedicated body and soul to the usual—which presented certain fundamental truths about Scafandra, certain unquestionable realities.  Jim wondered if the stacks of paper on her desk were even real documents. 

Catlike, he made a long circuitous path through the oak-paneled stacks, suddenly pretending to be interested in California Real Estate Law 3d, then pirouetting through California Jurisprudence into the Federal Supplement shelves.  Pure stealth.  He snuck up behind her glass cubicle, walking only on the blades of his shoes so the carpet wouldn’t swish, and peered over her shoulder at the computer screen.

There was the pleading in all its tedious majesty.  Could it be that she was actually working?  Impossible.  He cleared his throat.

“Yes?”  Scafandra kept typing, didn’t turn, the day’s voluminous sweater making strands of her short auburn hair stick to her neck.  She’d had too much coffee and was sweating.  Jim stared at the back of her neck and imagined kissing it but banished the thought.  Scafandra was a problem.  One didn’t fantasize about kissing sweaty problems.

She stopped and swiveled.  “Yes?” 

“Aren’t you hot in that?”   

She cocked her head to the side.  “What do you need?” 

Jim hadn’t planned in advance.  “Well, I’ve been thinking.”  His mind raced. 

“That’s always good.”

“Right, well, do you eat?  Lunch?”

Scafandra glanced around the cubicle then back up at him.  “Is there a problem?”

Problem?  What did “problem” mean in this context?  Jim tried to focus.

“Are you alright?”  She crossed her arms and rolled back a few inches.

“No, I mean, are you going to take lunch?”  He noticed her eyes were the same light brown as her hair.

She frowned.

“Look,” he said, “I’ll buy you lunch.”

Scafandra seemed wary, half-shocked, like he’d just offered her a deal on some stolen TVs.  But she said okay and they were both suddenly relieved, each retreating back to their private spaces—Jim to his desk, furiously reading a random section of the California Code on dog bites, Scafandra making busy noises and clicking her mouse. 

How had this happened?  His nerves.  Suddenly Scafandra had morphed from irritating assistant to woman.  What did one do with a woman?  What would it mean to see her every day now that this had happened?  Jim thought: if I’m going to have a nervous breakdown, now would be the time.  A few minutes later, Scafandra sent him an email and disappeared with her purse in hand. 

Jim’s inbox bleeped just as the library’s double-doors closed silently behind her.  She said she’d meet him at Gordon Yow’s, an all-Hawaiian grill, just off Irvine Spectrum, where you could eat poi out of wooden bowls.  Jim made a mental note to surreptitiously check her car for rear-end damage when the moment presented itself.

He stared blankly at the email until the screensaver blinked on and passworded itself.  He was going to have to do this.  Any possible excuse Jim could have cooked up was now worthless.  There was no way she could be expected to check her email in the thirty minutes until they were supposed to meet. 

Jesus, he thought, spending social time with Scafandra . . . it was crazy, unthinkable.  Jim ordered his desk, locking his briefcase in a bottom cabinet.  He’d never been to Gordon Yow’s.  He didn’t know the terrain, possible distractions, possible escape routes.  At least at the Towne Bistro, they could watch the pet tiger and not speak.

He walked out of the library, between the glass-partitioned offices.  The world was busy sending faxes and barking into cell phones.  No one looked at him.  All internal walls were glass and Jim always got the feeling he was walking through a cross-section cutaway entitled “Law Firm.” 

One of the associates paced back and forth running his fingers through his hair over and over.  Another sat on the corner of his desk, gesturing at a webcam mounted on top of his computer screen, papers across desk and floor like a carpet of snow.  On the far side of the room, the smoked glass walls of the partners’ offices stood out like blackened teeth.  Jim saw the outline of someone leaning back in a chair, speaking to a silhouette on the other side of a desk.

Absolute truth: visiting the restaurants of Irvine is like visiting the smaller cities of eastern Europe one at a time.  You’re aware of the differences until you aren’t, until all the minarets and cathedrals look the same, until the soul-deadening sameness of the landscape signifies exactly that and nothing more. 

So: poi in wooden bowls.  There was a luau at Gordon Yow’s and Jim suddenly realized this wasn’t foreign terrain.  He knew everything about the place without ever having been there: the bartender, who he knew, knew, was named Chaz or Troy or Blair, who used to be a pro skater and now, you know, was, uh, trying to break into the entertainment business. 

The waitress in the silver ass-pants, just this side of whorish, who’d snap if you went a hair over her line—a line re-drawn so often she was practically occult.  But Jim didn’t want to flirt with her.  Jim didn’t want to flirt with anybody.  And, luau or not, lunch would have to be short and crisp with a straight shot clear back to the loading entrance if Scafandra started to make any sort of scene whatsoever.  Somewhere in the back, there would be a busboy willing to keep her busy for a twenty while Jim hit the freeway at speed.

He almost hoped it would come to that, peeking around an oversized fake palm at Scafandra, who was trying to do the same thing from a different palm ahead of him.  She hadn’t seen him yet.  Jim had arrived a half-minute before her and, instead of taking a table, he’d said he was meeting a friend.  The one who sat first would be the one who got observed, the one under the scope.  Hence this double-sneak, while grass-skirted Kanakahanaleya did a greased-up belly dance under a platter of roast pineapple and the coconut was flowing. 

But minarets, they keep pointing. 

And cathedral bells, they ring. 

And this landscape was never going to change.  Absolute truth.  Look at it forever, he’d see the same thing.  The sad part was that Jim knew it, maybe he’d always known it, like knowing burnished Sea-Tac in an upbust of fiery dawn when none of what happens is new and none of it any good.  Jim walked.  It was all too much.  He found three pills at the bottom of his pocket and swallowed them dry without looking. 

The energy was all wrong, nerves in his face twitching, hands getting cold like he was about to hyperventilate.  Wooden left-right, one step then another.  The glass doors, etched in gigantic Gordon Yow’s, opened to harsh parking lot light.  The moment was auspicious for escape as surely as Gladiolus dies in Orange County hardpan.  And his Acura: a glittering Prussian blue lifeboat amid all that space.

It was hot.  Shimmers reared up at the street’s vanishing point, making the distance look wet.  Jim pulled over.  He’d drifted across Irvine in a haze.  Somewhere along the way, his hands had started shaking bad.  Nerves.  Scafandra was back there under a latex palm, now hating him twice as much.  A parti-colored mass of University High students moved across the street.  In the shade of the tree-lined sidewalks, they looked like gumballs in a quarter machine, all the bright colors clumping through patches of light. 

Jim dialed his apartment: There is no one here to receive your call.  It felt like the vents were blowing hot air but the AC light was on.  Tiny fires kept starting inside his veins.  He didn’t know if it was nerves or pills.  Jim clicked the AC off and on, rolled down his window.  You have . . . zero . . . messages.  Someone a block over was pissed, beeping long streams of angry car horn into the air.  Jim got out, left his cell phone on the seat.  Now there would be a message to play back—a long sustained car horn.  It was something.

And then there was Hegemon: a store-front café, now owned by Starbucks, that was filled with loud furniture and no longer sold coffee.  He sat at the wooden counter and ordered a carbonated chocolate sundae.  It looked like normal ice-cream but, when you put it in your mouth, it had a faint fizz.  At least that’s what the little chalkboard over the register said. 

The pink-aproned woman behind the counter repeated a dollar amount for the third time, but Jim couldn’t focus.  He put down the loose bills that were in his pocket.  He wished he’d brought his phone.  It would’ve been really nice to hear her voice right then, to murmur something sweet back to her.  Yeah, baby, I know, I know.

The place was full of senior citizens.  In a puce loveseat, a skeletal grandmother spooned heaps of carbonated ice-cream into her mouth, mobile oxygen machine parked next to her like a robot companion.  On the stool beside Jim, an old man with wisps of white hair and a pressed blue suit sat down with a Register and a tumbler of peach frappe.

“Don’t I know you?” said Jim.

The old man unfolded his newspaper and scanned the front.  “Nope.”

Jim leaned toward him.  “No.  I do know you.  You live in my complex.”

“Nope.  Sorry,” said the old man, turning a page.

“You’ve got this incredible train—”

“Look, sport,” said the man, still not turning toward him, “I come in afternoons for a quiet frappe.  I don’t know what you’re on.”  He glanced quickly at the woman behind the counter.  “Excuse me,” he said, taking frappe and paper over to a purple velour sofa, where he sat between a cadaverous 80-year-old man in a straw hat and a fat woman in a sweat suit with an unlit pipe clamped between her lips.

I don’t know what I’m on.”  Jim thought: Valium, Xanax, Librax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone.  The floor tilted when he stood up. 

The woman behind the counter stared at him.

Out front, the bus from the old folks’ home was still unloading.  Jim staggered around a woman’s walker toward his Acura.

Valium, Xanax, Tranxene, baby-blue Vicadin, apple-green Hydrocodone: the mantis was gone and Jim was stoned.  These are the facts of life in Sea-Tac at dawn when you don’t know what you’ve taken.  The pinwheel of memories behind him was still rolling through disjointed hours of the flight-time dark that put him here.  And nothing, nowhere, at no time would ever be auspicious again.

Jim had lost track.  He didn’t know how much of what he had taken pre-flight, during-flight, in what combinations.  Somewhere, in a medical reference, there was probably an entry for what was working inside him, but the mantis was gone so it didn’t matter.  He’d never know whether the little girl had blinded herself, impaled herself on the sculpture or not.  Or maybe there had never been a combination of chemicals like this in any person’s body in the known world.  Maybe he was beyond reference, off the map.  Maybe he’d become the map.  Jim staggered back a step, hugged himself.

He stood in front of the spot where the mantis had been.  The velvet stanchion ropes were still in place, cordoning-off a circle of empty carpet.  A passing janitor gave him a look.  His Zegna jacket had an ice cream stain up the right sleeve.  He’d gotten a few nosebleeds, and there were splotches of blood where he’d used his tie to wipe.  Jim’s shirt was out, left shoe undone.  He thought he should sit down; he had nowhere to go.  The familiar bulge of his wallet was missing from his pockets.  All he had left was his phone.

Jim walked to the same bank of plastic window seats he sat in before.  Had the mantis ever really been there?  If he turned around right now in his seat, would he see it again, all burnished chitinous mandibles and razor-sharp spines?  If the girl had killed herself, had tripped against it or gotten pushed back against the spines in his dream, would it have been any less tragic?  Jim would have asked someone, but there was nobody around—empty seats to vanishing points, black morning-dark windows—and words weren’t moving right in his mouth anyway. 

He speed-dialed home.  If this was all a drug hallucination, maybe this time she’d say something to him, something affectionate, understanding.  The phone slid out of his hand, down his wrinkled shirt as the peal of a miniature car horn came out of the speaker.  In the distance, the first flight of the day touched down.  And a fuel truck on an empty stretch of tarmac suddenly exploded: a marble-sized fireball from where Jim was sitting.  But he didn’t see it.  He was asleep.

A short short about interpretive horticulture.

 

Over lunch, Luke tells me about the murder, how he looked up and saw a black cow standing all by itself in the field.  And how that was what made him cry.  After everything.  The cow standing there all alone, completely black.

Luke says he’s not afraid anymore.

I look for a cigarette, then think I must be losing my mind since I’ve been quit for over a year.  Luke has switched to vaping.  So I can’t bum one off him.  Instead, I ask why he came to San Diego, but he only adjusts his sunglasses and shrugs.

Life fell apart, he says, when he quit drinking.  Marianne got promoted.  He couldn’t go out anymore.  His sponsor relapsed, disappeared.  He spent a lot of nights alone.

“So that’s why—it happened?”  I can’t bring myself to say it.

The waiter comes over and asks if we want anything else.  I order another beer.  Luke gets a club soda.

“That’s just it.  I don’t know.  It wasn’t me.”

The wind blows a plastic bag along the sidewalk by our table and we both look down at it instead of at each other.

“She was beautiful that day.”

Two blocks west, Pacific Beach rolls white static in the heat.  We can look down Chalcedony Street and see the thin line of the break coming in.  Everybody here is tan except Luke, who’s a waxy Missouri pale.  He got thin since I left Hauberk.  He grew his hair long, dyed it black.

“I don’t understand,” I say.

He looks at a waitress inside the cafe laughing at a table with three blond surfers.  “I don’t understand, either.”

But Luke says he remembers everything.  He’ll never forget how happy Marianne was when Bulldog moved her desk into his office.  Bulldog has a real name.  Everyone just calls him that out of affection, but everyone hates him.

“Marianne hated him.  But she was so happy.”

“She always seemed happy.”

Luke takes out his vape pen.  It’s chrome, has GOLIATH down the side in a space-age font.

“You met her twice,” he says.

She started going out after work with guys from the office.  To Nene’s, the Burmese Lounge, the Five Dimes.  He’d call around until he found her, ask her to come home.  Luke was never invited.  What was he going to do?  Sit there and drink 7-Up?  He tells me nobody liked him.  Bulldog made fun of him, called him Sauron.  Marianne thought it was funny.

“She didn’t really think it was funny.  She just said she did.”

“Is that why—”

Luke exhales a thick cloud that smells like a chocolate liqueur dissolved in alcohol.  “Stop.  Can you please?”

I feel embarrassed even though I didn’t do anything.  I don’t know where to put my hands now that I’m done with my salad.  So I put them in my pockets, which still feels awkward.  But Luke doesn’t notice.  He’s watching the waitress talk to the surfers inside.

I’ve never met Bulldog, but I’ve met Marianne and I can imagine: up goes her desk to the third floor right next to the Dog, who’s taking her out to Nene’s later with the lucky few who can’t say no.  And Sauron isn’t coming because, frankly, he’s embarrassing and uncomfortable and not too stable.  And what’s she doing with him anyway?

I picture Luke next to Marianne in the dark, eyes open, maybe whispering her name, maybe putting his hand on her arm.  That’s great, but their lives, like their stuff, are all mixed up together because they’ve been living with each other for three years.  Situations like that don’t get solved by calling around at bar time or touching someone’s arm in the middle of the night.  Maybe she says, “Luke, let’s get some sleep.”  And maybe that’s what they pretend to do.

He tells me how numb he feels.  “Like I’ve been away somewhere for a really long time.  Like I’m someone I don’t know.”

“That’s how you seem to me, too.  No offense.”

“None taken.”

He vapes.  He watches the waitress inside the cafe.  I look at the V of ocean down at the end of Chalcedony Street and think about how the water is pale jade but it looked gunmetal a week ago and how this is a lesson of some kind.

Luke could have learned to accept Bulldog in Marianne’s life.  “He has this five-story house in north Hauberk.  One of the old Victorians.  It used to be the girls’ school.  He has a refrigerator that plays music.  His wife, Kathy, she wears a lot of gold.  She’s a treasury.  That’s what he says, my baby’s a treasury.  But he means all the gold.”  And it could have been okay like that.  But the one time Luke and Marianne came over for dinner, Kathy’s old shih tzu pissed on Luke’s leg.  So Bulldog threw Luke out.

“Funny that he’s named Bulldog and he has a dog.”

“Marianne thought so.”

“Sorry.”

Luke looks at me.  I can’t see his eyes behind his black aviators.

“Nobody’s ever sorry,” he says.

He’s not the kid I knew in high school.  Piers Anthony novels at lunch and Judge Dredd comics and too much Black Sabbath and his dad on duty in Gavin Long Men’s Facility five nights a week.  His mom died before he got to know her.  Maybe that’s what we’ll say in the end—that’s what fucked Luke up.  But in the end no one will probably say anything.  Marianne’s dead.  I don’t know what it means.

“So I ran over the dog.  It’s name was Scruffy.  I ran over Scruffy.”

“Did you kill anything else?”

“No.  Just the dog.”

I nod, like, that’s good.  It’s good you only murdered one human and one dog.

“It didn’t suffer.”

Two years ago, I went back to Hauberk for my uncle’s farewell.  Luke came and it was good to see him.  He was quiet, stood in the back of the church, and tried not to stare when my aunt collapsed on the coffin.  Who will go to Marianne’s funeral?  Will Luke stand in the back and try not to stare?  Will I?

“Where are you going now?”

“Mexico, I think.  Maybe nowhere.  I stabbed her.  With a bread knife.”

“Jesus Christ, man.  I mean—”

“I stabbed her and she was wearing this Hawaiian sun dress.  It was white but it had huge red flowers on it.  You couldn’t see anything.  She didn’t suffer.  I promise.”

“Alright,” I whisper.  “I guess that’s good.”

Tears run down under his aviators, but his mouth stays flat, his voice level.  “You believe me, don’t you?  That she didn’t suffer?”

“I believe you.”

“We were having a picnic by this little stream.  It was a good place.  It was peaceful.  You could hear the water on the rocks.  Then I looked up at that black cow.  And it didn’t seem nice anymore.”

My throat’s too tight to speak.  I drink some beer.  Then I look at Luke and say, “Yes.  I understand.”

The first time I realized I didn’t have the temperament to be a concert pianist, I was sitting in an enormous practice hall at San Diego State University with my teacher, Dr. Conrad.  I was 16 years old.  Eight years before that, through a serendipitous confluence of family connections, happenstance, and generosity on the part of my mother, I’d started taking piano lessons from him at $10 a week.

Even in 1989, that amount seemed considerable, given that living in San Diego ate up most of my father’s middle-class teaching salary and my mom wasn’t working.  So I felt rightly privileged to learn from a professor of piano and composition, who I discovered many years later, actually had a reputation as being one of the most difficult, ferocious members of the music department. 

To me, he was a kind gentle person, always willing to cancel a session to talk about the lives of the composers or take me down to the recital hall to look at the harpsichords or just tell jokes.  One day, we took an upright piano apart, piece by piece, to look at how it worked and produced its range of sounds.  The experience had me fantasizing about becoming a professional piano tuner for years. 

But really I was just in awe of Dr. Conrad, who seemed surrounded at all times by an aura of brilliance and gentility and yet had a goofy sense of humor and a love of children.  I learned more from him about music, teaching, and life than anyone I can think of.  He was an important person to me.

But the day he told me I just didn’t have it, I took it very hard.  I knew a number of kids at my school who were into theater and music, many of whom had formal training like me, but who always seemed better, sharper, one step ahead.  It kept me up at night.  I wanted to be like them, as good as they were. 

Having been surrounded by poets, painters, and professors throughout my short life, I thought creative artists, especially classical musicians, were a breed apart.  My idol at the time was John Field, an Irish pianist who studied under Muzio Clementi.  He was considered a weak student early on, but he rose to greatness later in life, praised by Beethoven, and even mentioned in War and Peace.  The reasons I took him as a model should be obvious.

That improbable dream seemed to melt away the day I asked Dr. Conrad the ultimate stupid question, one that I have since been asked many times by young (and more than a few older) writing students: Do I have the talent to make this a career?  It’s a horrible question, one that should never be asked by or of anyone, not even of oneself. 

Unfortunately, it’s asked by everyone at least once, and it’s something every art teacher hears over and over.  Do I have it?  Am I good enough?  Am I worthy?  Will Béla Bartok let me into heaven?  Will Gustav Holst discourse with me on the nature of the spheres while Mozart packs my bong?  I know das Leben ist kurz, aber die Kunst ist lang, but I’m ready to go the distance.

Up to that day, I’d had no idea Dr. Conrad smoked.  Besides, it was forbidden in the practice halls.  But before he answered my question, he motioned me outside.  The hall with about 50 grand pianos was on the second floor and, from the balcony walkway outside, we could see the women’s gymnasium, the campus tennis courts, and the great parking lot beyond, packed with cars glittering in the late afternoon.

It was windy that day.  I remember Dr. Conrad setting a lit cigarette in the corner of his mouth, crossing his arms, looking into the distance, and thinking for a moment.  He had the habit of stopping to think, as if he were listening to a voice only he could hear, and I knew not to interrupt him.  But it only made the moment heavier, more dreadful, as if my entire future depended on what he was about to say.

After what seemed like a very long moment, he flicked ash over the metal railing, looked at me, and said, “Michael, you’re very creative and I have no doubt that you will find the right way, but you lack the temperament for serious musical study.”

I nodded.  What could I do but nod?

Then he said, “I think we’re through for today.”  Because he knew that if you’re going to tell someone what you consider to be a hard truth, you have to allow them time to mourn their lies, their comforting illusions.

Of course, I was crushed.  But there was nothing but honesty and kindness in him when he said it.  And even then, I knew that when someone speaks the truth at that level, with that much transparency and, actually, compassion, you should accept it at face value.  You might not agree with it, but you cannot disagree with the sincerity behind it. 

A very deep part of me knew that he was right.  It would take years for me to fully accept it, years spent both struggling with music and becoming fascinated with English literature and essay writing.  It was me finding my true will, that path Dr. Conrad said he had no doubt I would eventually discover.  But it wasn’t pleasant; it took a long time; and it demanded a lot in return—the general template for most things in my life.

I was a weak music student, but not because I didn’t practice hard.  I practiced so hard that at times it affected my health.  I had the obsessive nature of a musician without the bifurcated mind necessary to be both mathematician and sculptor at the same time.  In retrospect, even then, I thought more like a writer, but I wouldn’t realize this about myself for almost a decade.

At the time, my dedication to piano, though misplaced, brought me a certain amount of instructive grief.  I took a long time to analyze pieces; I was often deeply, inconsolably frustrated at my technical inability; and my adolescent self-doubt was only amplified by these things, rendering me morose and miserable much of the time.  Add to that, my lack of social development and the fact that my heroes weren’t celebrities or pop stars but 17th and 18th century composers.  And I had the perfect recipe for spontaneous teenage bridge jumping.

Though I came close a few times, I would not trade those grueling hours in the practice rooms or my loneliness—as much due to the other facets of my life as my musical studies—for anything.  I learned discipline.  I learned what it is to do everything right and still fail.  I learned compassion.  I learned to revere the creative life as one of invisible risks, enormous sacrifices, and sometimes rewards that make those things worthwhile.  And I learned the value of telling the hard truth as I understood it to my own future students.

Dr. Conrad never told me I didn’t have talent.  He always said that’s something no one can know, not even about oneself.  He told me I didn’t have the temperament.  And that’s why he was correct.  I have the temperament of a writer, something he recognized but didn’t know well enough to name.  His world was music.  And because of him, I was able to exist in that world long enough to acquire some of its virtues and vices.

When I do play piano these days, it’s for my own amusement.  And I can only be amused at my ability (and lack thereof).  In the fullness of time, when I get my Roland out of storage, I think I’d like to start practicing again, maybe learn some Professor Longhair.  If I manage it, one day I can be that grinning old man with long white hair, playing boogie woogie on his balcony. 

Who’s that up there?

Just some old creep, honey.  Don’t look at him.  Get in the car.

A short short about an epilogue.

 

You want a book and a blanket, warm shoes, a strong cup of coffee.  You want interesting birds at a comfortable distance, flowers nodding in the sun, forgetfulness at least for a time.  You even want redemption, relief, the past to stay past—even as it reaches out somehow to the present—symbolically, perhaps in dreams or in the figure of shadows beneath the trees—to reassure you that it’s going to stay put.  You want the world to stop ending for a minute and the mountains to stay purple under their white peaks.  And, yes, you very much want to be in love. 

Of course, as your body expels a month of agricultural pollution, you mostly want to breathe straight.  You decide you love clean air more than anything else.

Coming out of the San Joaquin Valley in the high-pollution days of summer is like being reborn.  You don’t remember how it was the first time, but can’t you imagine?  Screaming, covered in slime, a slap on the ass, and then the first ragged breath: this is what it’s like driving north on the 5 and looking back at Gustine, Newman, Patterson, Westley.  You stop for gas in Lathrop.  You consider taking a detour out to Manteca because someone in your PhD program said he once ate a good enchilada there and you’ve been chewing old jerky since Buttonwillow.  You didn’t want to get out in Los Baños because breathing there makes you want to brush your teeth.

But you don’t do the detour.  You push north, feverishly.  Maybe your fever isn’t only because of the gallons of chlorpyrifos being dropped on orange groves by the freeway.  It tastes like talcum powder.  It’s on the windshield, turning the sap of dead butterflies light gray.  As with the butterflies, so with your lungs.  Enchiladas de Manteca are one thing.  Getting out of the Valley—really getting out without an engine fire or a family emergency or a carjacking or the strange magnetic pull of Fresno simply yanking you back to the Tower District—that’s an enchilada of a much higher order.

So you get out, and it’s quietly amazing.  You spend the night in Sherwood and dream about a forest.  You go up to Portland and you look at a tugboat.  People walk past you with hands in their pockets.  Someone laughs at a joke.  The Willamette is clean beneath grey steel bridges and pillars of rust.  You decide this is where people go when they figure out what matters in life.  You buy a silver Ganesh pendant on Burnside Street and spend hours in Powell’s Books reading about Mikao Usui.

Finally in Washington, you make your first journal entry in weeks: I think I feel healthy—what happened?  When you blow your nose, the tissue isn’t stuck with black.  You no longer have a smoker’s cough after walking outside.  You think this might be something.  It might be momentous.  Your lungs don’t feel like ten pounds of water.

You are inspired to meditate for the first time since you left Michigan.  You are inspired to sit for hours at the edge of Puget Sound and not think about the doctoral program you left behind like a messy divorce. And you don’t think about the virus much.

You’re still running—both to and from some other life you could have, should have, would have been leading.  But you might take a little time to watch an orange spider in its web.  You might read a novel.  You might close your eyes in the sun and breathe clean air for a while and, just for today, let everything slip, moment by moment, into evening.

A short short for Wynonie Harris.

 

It was then that he had a horrible moment of clarity, standing in the kitchen, listening to the clock.  Normally, he didn’t hear it or didn’t pay attention to what he heard.  But tonight, with only the soft whisper of rain against the roof, the second hand sounded terrible, like it was chipping away at something—inexorable, unconditional, tiny-but-relentless chipping.  And the horror of it, of everything it implied, rooted him to the spot.

Perhaps that was the only place he could have one of his moments of clarity, the only confluence of space and circumstance—breaking a glass in the sink three hours before; gulping the last bottle of red wine to get the hateful, spiteful, self-critical voice out of his head and promptly vomiting; lying awake beside his sleeping-pilled wife, administering the old self-accusatory review of all his failures back to age eight—which could open his mind now to the hard truth. 

One day he’d be too old.  One day he’d run out of ways to hustle up the meagre scratch that kept them going.  And then, when the juice ran out, it would be the street.  The small mercies of the little house owned by his in-laws, to which he and his wife had repaired when they both lost their jobs, would be long gone.  And then the street.  And all the street would entail.

He could already see the signs: gray streaks in his hair, his wife’s chronic pain, the litany of sacrifices they’d had to make increasing steadily, incrementally, over time.  His moment of clarity was a moment of dread so deep and profound and undeniable that he felt tears almost come.  But crying was something he never did.

Still, one might cry, all alone in a kitchen, thinking about the future to a ticking clock.  Daddy’s ghost wouldn’t bar his way to heaven for a transgression as small as that.  Would it?  Then again, if Daddy’s ghost were anything like Daddy, it would be a puffed-up, arrogant, critical, contemptuous sonofabitch.  So maybe yes, Daddy’s ghost would bar the way for shedding a tear.

As Daddy’s cruel voice had reminded him not long ago in bed, as he’d learned the hard way growing up, all failures are accounted for, all sins recorded, all capitulations and weaknesses tracked with Newtonian precision.  The world does not forgive.  The world does not forget.  And the only law the world has is that of Motion, of cause an effect, action and reaction, crime and punishment.  And then the street.  Where even this whispering rain, so quaint while one is safe indoors, becomes the executioner’s song.

This is why he drank, to stop that cruel voice and it’s precise accounting, to stop the dread.  This is why he drank a whole bottle of his father-in-law’s discount red, since the beer ran out days before, and the lockdown meant getting to the store entailed days of advance planning and a depressing conversation about expenses. 

But the voice didn’t care, that part of him that sounded like Daddy and hated him, that wanted him to suffer.  He had to drink it into submission.  And all he had now was the unopened fifth of Jim Beam he’d gotten for Christmas two years ago and was afraid to open.  If he drank that, then the voice would tell him about his stupid, crazy things, things that he’d regret for years, that his wife would be sure he never forgot.  Because he was weak.  Because he’d lost his job.  Because the Law of Motion.  Because consequences.

And the voice, the cruel presentiment that kept him awake on nights he gave in to thinking.  Its horrifying clarity about what would come.  His failure to find more work.  Their struggle to pay her strict disappointed parents the modest rent on this house and the sheer certainty that he and his wife would then be turned out of doors.  The juice running out.  Better, said the voice, not to think at all.  Better not to wake up and have to face the payments and punishments of another day.

He walked to the sink.  The razor-sharp Japanese paring knife was there, drying on a cloth towel.  Don’t think about the electric bill you can’t pay, about the choices you’ve made, about a virus in the streets, dead bodies piled in the morgue, the juice all gone.  Don’t think any of it is right or wrong—because you’re still going to pay, one way or another. Don’t think about Daddy’s ghost or the seven steps to heaven the song says are just too steep.  Don’t think about what will become of your wife.  Don’t think about the street.

Dead plants on the window sill over the sink.  Dark blacktop glistening from the amber streetlight at the corner.  The old willow just beyond, waving in the wind like it knows, dense with amber shadows.  Don’t think about the street, the relentless ticking of the clock.  And don’t cry.  The doorway to eternity resides in every moment.  Tell yourself that.  Pick up the knife.

A spontaneous short short, written at midnight.

One dreams of an enormous bird of night, shaped out of a cloud, its edges illuminated, because one saw it at midnight and remembered. 

A bloodstain above the horizon or a fume of ink, with surrounding moon and constellations, and the 12:40 freight to Gary, Indiana, pushing through the black landscape, its headlamp an angry earthbound star.

One dreams of the bird while sleeping on the dock of Vu-Tech Logistics—the only place it’s possible to sleep on such a hot night in Missouri—big spiders and moths up around the floods doing their dance and five more nightshift hours to dawn.

One guards nothing at Vu-Tech Logistics and gets paid for it, gets away with it, a job only a human could possibly have and only a robot could possibly do.  Someday, they’ll invent a machine that can process nothing, contemplate nothing, scan through vacant warehouse space on an algorithm of emptiness, accomplishing nothing. And they’ll love it. And then the world will truly end.  But until that time, nightshifts will pass hour-by-hour and fools will dream on loading docks in summer.

So why not dream?  Dream anything but a horrible bird of night. 

Dream the cloud of blood expanding, edges bright from a sodium-vapor sign above a dirt lot in Triton, Arizona—a landlocked town named for a sea monster, a town whose first mistake came long before its name and whose last would come long after it called its only bar, MOM’S. 

The dirt lot behind the bar.

The bar, a filthy violent place.

A place you might someday forget, along with the blood.

And the blinking sign above: EAT . . . AT . . . MOM’S.

You roll on your side and watch the train pass by, as you have many times before, as you will again, listening to the crickets beneath the dock’s crumbled lip.

One day, there will be no bird of night, no bird-shaped cloud, no cloud-shaped blood. No memories of a dead drunk in the sodium light. Only passing freight to wake you up. And no more MOM’S burning in your dreams, making the wings above glow red.

I lead a mostly inward existence.  The part that isn’t, my small public-facing side, is bound up with my art, with what I write and submit for publication.  In this way, I’m constantly reinforcing and reiterating my identity, performing it.  I have to do this.  We all do if we expect to survive, immersed in the strange demimonde of the writing life. 

Since you never know if you’re any good and there is always someone saying you aren’t—including your own inner sadist—you have to affirmatively decide that you’re a writer and reject all arguments and criticisms to the contrary.  When you can do that and put words on the page, you are one.  If you can’t do that and you’re still waiting for permission, you’re not.  Not yet, at least.

A big part of making that decision and then constructing your identity publicly involves not letting respectability get in the way.  In 2013, feeling like I’d discovered this and that it was true, I wrote “The Discipline: In Your Head, Off the Street, and Away From the Club.” At the time, I thought I was articulating a set of beliefs and practices that could make it possible for creative people to continue in spite of the ubiquitous, overwhelming pressure to stop. 

Here is the concluding paragraph.  My sentences tend to get long and loopy when I’m writing Something Very Serious:

People enmeshed / immobilized in a fugue of “respectability” (in my opinion, a parasitic set of social mores and strictures that slowly consume the time and energy–life–of innocents whose only mistake was doing what they were told from an early age) will say you are crazy, unambitious, stupid, a loser.  They will do this because you haven’t had the time and wouldn’t spend the effort to become a stakeholder in their hierarchy of values.  I have experienced this first-hand and still do from time to time when the ripples of life-decisions I made in my late 20s come back to me.  But I do not have regrets.  I have largely overcome my personal demons, the emotional, familial, social fallout associated with owning my life.  That’s why this is a discipline.  You have to practice it.  It’s not something you do once.  It’s a way of life.  And I want that for you if you want it for yourself.

Seven years later, I feel less certain about this.  I think I was shoring up my identity for myself, talking to myself in the mirror, convincing myself.  While I’ve had a considerable amount of positive feedback from writers about that essay, it now seems more like a lacuna than a manifesto—a place where the reader can deposit her anxieties and, if only for a little while, dismiss them.  But the question remains: was I talking myself into or out of something in that piece?  What was the real opportunity cost of deciding to set foot on this odd, widely misunderstood, extremely demanding path?

Over the years, I’ve stayed faithful to the discipline, mythologizing my life in the way of a writer trying to buffer himself against the world.  A lot of creative people do this, using their imaginations not only to produce work, but also to perform their identities as artists in order to keep the cynical, draining importunities of late-stage capitalism at bay.  Unfortunately, just as an actor can get lost in a role, forget himself, and believe he is the character, it’s easy to mistake self-construct for reality, map for territory.

I’ve often lost myself, performing a writerly persona.  And I’ve had to return to the great voice-driven modernists I’ve always loved—Celine, Henry Miller, Hemingway, Bukowski, Hunter Thompson, Melanie Rae Thon, Brett Easton Ellis, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Isaac Babel, Osamu Dazai, Ryu Murakami—as a corrective.  In their fiction, the “constructedness” (“artificiality” isn’t quite right) of idiosyncratic first person always reminds me of the distinction between map and territory, between the “author brand,” or as Foucault says, “the author function” in discourse, and the unknowable human beings who’ve disappeared behind their texts.

As the constructed persona, I’m perfectly fine with the discipline “in my head and away from the club,” living on the edge, by my wits, freelancing and being a ghostwriter in a plague year.  I’m even writing a novel based on it.  I maintain a fierce, self-aggrandizing positivity and narrate myself as the protagonist of the story, on my hero’s journey, making the raw material of my life into text I hope people will find interesting.

But this is a plague year.  Millions are out of work.  The economy is flatlining.  Although it may seem like that would have less of an effect on someone leading the introspective writing life, I’ve realized that without society, there’s nothing for me to eschew, no place get away from.  Self-isolation means something different when everyone’s doing it. 

The pandemic has changed everything in the course of a few months and we have changed, are changing, along with it.  As Guitar Slim liked to say, “The things that I used to do, lord I won’t do no more”—not as a matter of preference, but as a matter of survival.  Like most people, I want to live past next month.  Yet, in order to do that, I need society to play along.  And right now, society just isn’t up to it.

In The Atlantic, Yascha Mounk, a professor at Johns Hopkins, published a very dark, pessimistic appraisal of our future with COVID-19, observing that “After weeks in which it made sense to hope that something would happen to end this nightmare, the prospects for deliverance are more remote than ever.”  He might be right.  If he is, what then?

I read about drug cartels, poachers, and conmen taking advantage of the lockdown hysteria.  I get into online discussions with fellow writers about whether Andrew Cuomo is doing the right thing and whether Bret Stephens knows what he’s talking about.  And I ask the question everyone’s asking: if it all goes dark, what will become of us, of me?

It’s necessary to offer something to the world and receive things from it if you intend to function outside a monastery or an ashram.  But, practicing my creative discipline, I’ve always felt I could be happy sitting in a small room, surrounded by books, with a narrow-ruled steno pad, a laptop, and a small refrigerator.  I have a lot of memories and thoughts to explore.  I have the voices of other writers always drifting around in my head and a very small circle of friends in the world who write to me.  I’ve never wanted much more than that.

But these days I feel transparent and weightless, untethered.  In one sense, it’s fine.  I’m not afraid to die.  I’ve accomplished most of the things I set out to accomplish in my life.  But I would like to finish this novel.  I’d like to see my third book of stories find a publisher.  And even teach story writing to a few more people before I go.  Those things would be nice, but they’re contingent on systems that are undergoing radical changes.  I fear the old world is slipping away.  I fear I am, too.

“Everything was all right for a while. You were kind.” She looks down and then goes on. “But it was like you weren’t there. Oh shit, this isn’t going to make any sense.” She stops.

I look at her, waiting for her to go on, looking up at the billboard. Disappear Here.

— Brett Easton Ellis, Less Than Zero

Consider this hypothetical.  You’re standing in your kitchen, cutting slices of cheese with a razor-sharp carving knife.  You realize there are such things as cheese knives, but you don’t have one.  For those readers currently languishing in suburban opulence, who can’t imagine someone not owning a cheese knife, I’m here to tell you such people exist, and they are probably more numerous than you have imagined.

Anyway, you’re cutting some cheese.  It’s not difficult because the knife is a diamond-sharp Japanese “Zebra” blade, perfectly weighted for carving your burned pot roast, which is otherwise as uncuttable as second base.  Now let’s say you drop that knife in a moment of privileged carelessness and it goes point-down through the top of your foot.  Stop screaming.  You’re not going to die.  But there is quite a bit of blood welling up in your slipper.  Better attend to that.  You limp to the bathroom, whimpering and cussing, and start looking for the antiseptic.

In spite of what you plan on telling your spouse (My hand was wet.  It just slipped.), you really have no idea why or how this could have happened.  All you know is that it hurts.  Did you deserve it?  Think about this.  Did you deserve to have a skewered foot?

One argument says, yes, if you hadn’t been worrying about your Bitcoin investments at that moment and whether the new walnut end tables really express your essential joie de vivre, you might have paid closer attention to what you were doing.  You might have taken better care.  Now small ripples of dread and frustration will radiate through your life for the next few weeks the same way pain radiates through your foot. 

Your mindset will be affected.  Your spouse’s mindset will be affected.  Maybe your acuity at your job will temporarily decrease.  Your irritation levels with Ralph, your neighbor, when he decides to fire up the lawn mower at 5:40 AM next Sunday, may run considerably higher.  You might even speak harshly to the cat—a small thing, like the cat himself, but surely not something he, as a fellow living being, deserves.  You’re the one who dropped the knife, you careless dolt.  There are consequences for everything.  Close your mouth and own up to them.  Be an adult for a change.

But another argument says, no, accidents will happen.  No one wants to injure themselves and no one ever truly asks to be hurt.  There are so many opportunities in modern life to harm yourself or others that it’s likely to happen, now and then, even if you aren’t naturally accident prone. 

No matter how much care you take, there are acts of god; there are times you break your foot stepping off the train, even if you’re minding the gap; a tree hits your bedroom wall; a texting teenager rear-ends you 45 feet into an intersection and you almost get hit and have to wear a neck brace for a month; you drop your phone in the airport toilet; you forget your wallet at the register. 

These sorts of things happen whether or not you look both ways, don’t inhale, read Consumer Reports, wear three condoms, and keep your windows triple-locked.  Feeling ashamed and responsible for unforeseeable disasters is just adding insult to undeserved injury.  Sit down.  That’s right.  Have a cookie.  And tell me where it hurts.

Two good arguments: one about responsibility, the other about compassion.  One is not better than the other, but here we stand on the diamond edge of that Zebra knife between them.  Which one seems more persuasive on its face?  Well, that depends on our emotions, doesn’t it?  The argument that resonates more powerfully depends on who we are as emotional beings.  The one we choose says volumes about us and very little about the event itself.

Hold that thought.  Before we decide which argument style we prefer, let’s talk about how this distinction applies and let’s take it even further, foregrounding the discussion by characterizing the “baby boomers.”  Because the boomers have been the deciders, standing on that diamond edge since 1946.  And much of what terrifies us today was authored expressly and overtly by them choosing a flimsy kind of emotional “responsibility for the responsible” instead of the more compassionate feels—which tells us a lot about them, if not everything we need to know.  

The boomers spent the precious freedoms their parents bought for them as traumatized adults in WWII and before that as traumatized children of the misunderstood, alcoholic, Silent Generation—and the boomers act like they earned it all themselves through true grit and moxie. 

Actually, the boomers are the ones who economically fucked over Generation X.  The boomers built the nuclear stockpiles, created the student debt crisis, lusted after Gordon Gekko and Ayn Rand, and are the ones who currently despise millennials more than any others.  Well, we all despise the millennials.  But still.  We know who the boomers are.  We’re still dealing with their fuckery.

There’s an internet catchphrase going around these days, “Ok Boomer,” which the dictionary tells us is used “often in a humorous or ironic manner, to call out or dismiss out-of-touch or close-minded opinions associated with the baby boomer generation and older people more generally.”  Ah.  That sounds about right for the generation that established our current ruinous, self-serving climate politics. 

As Sorya Roberts puts it (quoting Michael Parenti) in “Happily Never After,” as the environment collapses, elite panic in “strong states with developed economies will succumb to a politics of xenophobia, racism, police repression, surveillance, and militarism and thus transform themselves into fortress societies while the rest of the world slips into collapse.”  Isn’t that a lovely vision of the future?  Most of the boomers won’t be around to see it.  They’re going to die on the golf course well before that.  But the rest of us might live to enjoy it.  That is, if we’re the lucky ones.

In the art world, particularly in creative academia, worsening since about 1975, boomer narcissism has taken this form: there is always room for talented people.  Oh, there are no jobs for you?  You must not be one of the talented few (like me).  Too bad.  Even though, in the boomer generation, you could get a tenured position with an unpublished manuscript and no teaching experience.    

“Always room for good people” is a veritable baby boomer mantra, the meritocratic fever dream of those steeped in imperial luxury, who turn beet-red when someone points out that the they got where they are because they were born into a fortunate time and place between global catastrophes; that the emperor is not a god; that the empire is not eternal; and that its luxuries were founded on a pylon of human skulls.  Boomers comprise a large part of Donald Trump’s “base,” the leering retirees in the MAGA hats.  And though academics generally despise 45, they conveniently overlook that he has more in common with them than any other generation.

So you’re a millennial or, hell forbid, a gen-Xer in your 40s and the socio-political-economic Zebra blade has now gone straight through your foot.  Are you trying to stay interested in the impeachment?  Are you crying “Why me?” when you realize that halving global greenhouse emissions by 2030 is neigh impossible at this point?  Have you been taking solace in Oprah’s self-care philosophies and burning Gwyneth Paltrow’s special candle?  Are you ready for what comes next?  Are you one of the anointed few like dad was?

You’re not.  You can’t be.  But why not just pretend you are, just for a bit, after the Bactine and the Band-Aids, while the Parthenon burns?

Vintage circus photo sad clown antique photograph poster wall

 

If you’re a writer, you’ll live your life not knowing if you’re any good.  And you’ll die not knowing.  I think John Berryman said that. 

After Phil Levine published his first book of poems, people said, yeah, but can you do it again?  Then he did it again.  Then they said, yeah, but have you been featured in the New York Times Review of Books?  Then he got a review.  So they said, yeah, but have you won any major awards?  He won several.  Then they said, yeah, but we remember you back when you were broke in Detroit.  You’ll always be a bum

There is no escape.  Nobody from the old neighborhood wants to see you get ahead.  It’s a law of nature, the Bumfuck Reflexive Property.  You can ruin your life if you burn your emotional energy wondering whether they’re right.  Every moment you spend doing that is a waste.  But all writers do it.

Hang around with writers and artists and you realize they’ve got a particular tangible proficiency at their kind of art.  Maybe they were born with it or, more likely, they worked hard at developing what little gift they had into something presentable.  The gift, whatever it is, is real and observable.  But whether they’re mediocre or brilliant, derivative or original, a flash in the pan or someone whose art is set to be preserved in the basement of Cheops, you will never know.  More significantly, they will never know. 

If you like their work, great.  If you don’t, you can always recall the time they were broke and living in the projects across from Wayne State.  HA.  HA.  HA.  Let’s all laugh at the sad clown.  Some people and their lousy choices.  Am I right?  If they were any good people would want to pay them for their work.  I mean, that’s just common sense.

I suppose it’s sad when an artist hasn’t learned how to fail (or how to stubbornly and angrily reject failure), when she takes the Bumfuck to bed and makes love to it, when she’s covered in despair, when she finds herself thinking about her choices.  The rest of us chose to avoid that humiliation early.  We were smart and didn’t even try.  Or if we did, we never let anyone see it and gave up shortly thereafter.  And look at us today.  We just got back from our annual trip to Florida.  It’s a good life.

But she has to spend some nights staring at the wall, probing for answers that will never come.  Because her friends and family don’t know what to tell her, even though they have many strongly held opinions on her work and direction in life.  Her teachers didn’t know (even the ones who praised her back at clown school).  And ultimately, she doesn’t know, can’t know, even if she wins a Golden Bozo next year and gets to put “Genius” on her resume.  She might just be a lucky clown, a clown of the moment, a one clown wonder.  How do you ever really, truly know if you’re any good?

Genius.  Hell, she can barely afford lunch.  And so the questions: am I actually a no-talent, deluded ass-clown?  Was taking out a loan to go to clown school the worst decision of my life?  Should I have listened to my old high-school friend who went straight into an apprenticeship as a waste management professional and who is now debt-free, pumping out the city’s shit everyday for a middle-five-figure salary?  The dude owns his own house.  He loves reminding me how debt-free he is.  He loves it.

Can I say the same?  Do I love being a clown?  I thought I did.  But now that I’m out of clown school, I feel so alone.  At least back there I had a useful amount of social friction, mutually shared productive spite, the catty competitiveness of nervous art students to hold me up and distract me. 

Now I only have these four walls and the dirty mirror over the sink and the constant message that if it doesn’t make money, it’s a hobby, not a calling.  A life spent vacuuming out the municipal sewer, by that definition, would be the Grail Quest.  But that tract house and the vacation package in Florida speaks for itself.

How good do I have to be to take clowning seriously, to argue that it is my reason for living and not just a lukewarm pastime that regularly torments me.  Sometimes, I wonder what good is—if it is something metaphysical, some hidden imprimatur, some mysterious proof, like divine grace received only through predestination.  Do we know it when we see it?  Or do we see it because we only know what we’ve been told? 

How much telling is good?  How much showing?  If I get the emotional effect I want by the last line of my story, does that justify anything I do along the way, any narrative impropriety—like Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants,” one of the most structurally verfucked stories I have ever seen that nevertheless works?  It works because it moves me.  Me.  Not necessarily you. 

What’s more, when I get to the end, I know in the way that comes from having spent too much time with fellow ass-clowns, that “Hills Like White Elephants” would have never gotten a pass in clownshop.  Poor sad clownbear.  Put on your hardhat and gas mask.  There’s shit pumping needs to be done.

I read the New Yorker and The Paris Review.  For clowns, those are basically trade publications.  Those clowns really know how to do it.  They know what’s good, what’s right and wrong about art and culture, what should be published, what should be condemned.  The people they feature—man, that is some serious clown shit.  They really push the clownvelope.  In fact, they are so serious at times that their work transcends everyday clowning and enters the Mime Plane.  It’s a micro universe.  All the mimes who ever existed and who ever will exist live there in an eternal limbo that can fit on the head of a pin.  And yet it’s enormous.  Space and time.  You know.  Like warm bubble-gum.

But I stay away from the mimes, like Alice Mimero and Jonathan Mimezen and Jeffrey Eumimedies and Mimeberto Eco.  Their work is—I don’t even know how to describe it—it’s mysterious.  Like pushing the wind or the transparent box or juggling the invisible chainsaws.  Somehow, it’s supposed to seem dangerous or terrifying.  Risky.  But when an invisible chainsaw slips, there’s only invisible blood.  Hard to see.  You have to pretend it’s there.  Mime stuff, you know.  Everyone acts like they get it.

And yet they’re held up to us as the cultural elite.  How does that work?  Why are we still encouraged by the Big Six to think of these clowns as mysterious and compelling?  I guess only those who put out effort to remain mysterious will continue to be seen that way.  And perpetually wrapping yourself in a glamour of mystery is a lie.  Because no one is actually that.  But we lionize our artists.  The publishing industry runs a lion circus.  We want to believe they know something we don’t when they jump and roar.

Them lions is pathological.  All they know is that gazelles are tasty.  And us?  We don’t even know that much.

I might know that shit stinks and pumping it for a living is a bummer.  I know I’d give a hundred tract houses and a timeshare in Pensacola not to have that be the substance of my Grail Quest.  I’d rather squander my life writing, even if I am a no-talent ass-clown.

But you?  I’m not so sure about you.  Maybe you’re not one of the Cheops Basement All-Stars yet.  Maybe you’ll always be a bum somewhere in municipal Detroit, freezing in your bloodied clown suit.  But I can tell you one thing.  You’ll never really know if you’re any good.  And you won’t be able to look at others for the answer.  They’re all a bunch of ass-clowns, too.

All you can do is keep at it, day after day, hoping somebody somewhere sees what you see.  All you can do is show up.

Writers on the pain of hindsight in publishing: 'It's like a bad breakup – you have to move on ...

If I could tell you the number of stories and novels I’ve begun writing and not finished, we’d be here too long.  But “not finished” doesn’t mean “discarded.”  It means what it says. 

The difficulty comes when I’ve convinced myself that I’m one sort of writer (the consistent, cheerfully productive kind) as opposed the other, less glamorous (or, at least, less visible) sort—a slave to the vicissitudes of the moon or some shit, the guy with 25 ongoing projects and an inability to stop working on any of them. 

I know this about myself.  I tell myself that it’s all part of the bigger creative process.  I imagine all these incomplete pieces fermenting, cross-pollinating, mutating.  Nothing lost.  Everything in motion.  And I take refuge in those ideas and metaphors so I can keep working.  Being a writer, I tell myself a story.  But it might be bullshit self-deceit.

The Romantics smoked opium to get closer to the moon and further from the Victorian head trauma of  “productivity.”  And when my genre writer pals do highly Victorian social media posts that go, “Sigh.  Only 10 pages today,” I wonder whether they’re writing from inspiration or simply turning a lathe in some Dickensian word factory.  Productivity equals commercial success, while moonbeams are their own reward.  Still, I have word count envy no matter what I do. 

The problems of productivity and self-deceit are at the center of trying to write the hard thing.  They are the essential obstacles in making the fiction I came here to make instead of clocking in and lathing out a bunch of words to satisfy something or someone else.  I don’t want to produce that which has been assigned to me by industry, necessity, or convention.  I hate obeying.  But am I achieving anything in my disobedience?  For that matter, is achievement even the point?

When yet another publishing industry blog post comes out sounding like the vehement Alec Baldwin scene from Glengarry Glen Ross, I feel repulsed.  I don’t want to spend time creating a fucking audience platform.  Being an artist is not about “closing.”  Just doing the actual writing takes up all my energy.  I don’t want to frame pieces of my fiction as marketable units.  I want to sit in a moonbeam and make something that arises from my own unique imperatives and disposition.  I want the serendipity of inspiration.  I live for it.  And I resist the overtures of commercialism dedicated to consumption and to bullying artists into seeing themselves as part of a service industry.

Unfortunately, I also can’t avoid wanting the world to read my work and maybe give me some money so I can feed and clothe myself.  It’s terrifying sometimes.  Years ago, at an AWP conference, talking with a publisher after I put out Gravity, my first collection of stories, I felt like Nunez in “The Country of the Blind”—faced with the choice of getting what I loved if I voluntarily blinded myself or seeing clearly and climbing out of the hidden valley forever.  In the end, I chose to keep my eyes.

“If you want to get a second book out using the momentum of your first,” he said, “you need to complete the manuscript in less than a year.  More than that and people forget who you are.  You won’t be able to position it.  You’ll be starting over.”  Six years later, my second book was done.  And he was correct: from the marketing, word factory standpoint, I was starting over.  From a creative-process standpoint, those six years were predicated on the six that came before.  I wasn’t starting over.  I was writing something hard that had emerged from my ongoing creative process, something I couldn’t have written in under a year.

Finishing writing in one’s own time instead of in service to the word factory is difficult.  Discovering one’s limitations as an artist and then transcending them is very difficult.  Putting in the years is difficult.  Doing this up to and beyond age 30 is not only difficult but scary.  Nevertheless, all can be accomplished if one is willing to believe in something greater than the word count.  One says, it’s all part of my creative process and tries to calm down.  One decides not to read (or write) certain self-aggrandising Facebook posts.

Of course, there might not be a bigger process.  Maybe there is only Random House, Amazon, AWP conference ugliness, building a platform, positioning and branding, and Best American Monotony.  Maybe.  Maybe we exist in a world full of cynical anti-creative money-making ventures, cautious art, and nothing else.  It’s always possible.  The thought of it sometimes keeps me up at night, especially in those blocked periods of worrying and not writing.

It’s like reading about nuclear war or the earth dying from climate change: you have no agency, no option to mitigate the damage, soulless politicians are making horrible decisions, and there is only one way this can end.  Apocalypse.  Tragedy.  No one at the wheel.  Inhuman corporations controlling everything.  And death, ignominious and unnoticed, unless you get with the program and start churning out formulaic units. 

Capitalism wins.  It usually does.  But if there is a bigger process at work in your struggle to be an artist, it can’t have anything to do with metaphors of productivity on a factory timeline.  That is a reality you must not accept.

How does a writer know what’s real?  Is it moonbeam or production line?  Is it both?  Can it be both?  Andy Warhol, Ernest Hemingway, and David Bowie say yes.  For the rest of us, maybe not.  For every Warhol, Hemingway, and Bowie, there are multitudes who weren’t lucky enough to have their unique artistry coincide with commercial demand. 

Hugh Howey likes to write about Wool the way Elon Musk talks about launching a roadster into space: let me tell you about my unique genius and the origin of my success.  But self-publishing fame and running a car company have one thing in common that never gets discussed: they exist because they are timely.  So it is with any highly lucrative creative effort.  And that intersection has to do with luck.  Meanwhile, someone out there is no doubt making Peking opera, but they are unlikely to be buying villas on the Riviera anytime soon.  Nobody cares.  Their units don’t ship.  And yet they also have the favor of the moon.

Writers are especially predisposed to misunderstand what is real—what is objective versus just a moonbeam.  They spend a lot of time deliberately thinking in metaphors, some more useful than others.  And if they’re not paying attention to their minds, they can mistake such metaphors for objective reality (which, incidentally, has nothing to do with capitalist realism).  Over-absorption in a world of imaginative metaphors can become a source of anxiety when the non-make-believe world reaches out and reminds us that we can’t live totally in our imaginations.  Make your Peking opera, sure, but also accept that the six years you put into it mean nothing in terms of branding and positioning.

A writer will see something and begin to imagine things about it—everyone does this, but writers seem to do it with particular intensity—and before long the writer starts to feel like he or she knows it or, even worse, is it.  Then something from the world of physics and money communicates: no, you are not that.  You can’t imagine yourself to fame and fortune if you’re doing original work.  You might get lucky, yes, and I hope you (I hope I) do.  But commerce and true creativity exist in different spaces.

So I look at my 25 open projects with a bit of trepidation as the days go by.  I’m turning 46 this month.  I’ve published a lot of stories in magazines and two books.  These have been hard things.  Are they enough?  Will they ever be enough?

Don’t worry, I tell myself.  There’s bigger process at work.  There must be.

Read my latest in Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/politics-and-media/jonathan-franzen-can-t-solve-climate-change-for-anyone-who-matters

 

There was something evil in the glow of the room’s blue lights.  I felt the weight of the man on top of me.  He could no longer move.  His eyes were closed.  I stared long into his face.  I realized that I wanted him.  I wanted the passion he had until a moment ago.  I wanted his shoulders, which were quite muscular for his age, and his naturally tan face.  I got out from under his body, sat in a chair, and lit a cigarette.  I had to wait like this until he fell into a deep sleep.

It was raining outside.

The Kingdom, Fuminori Nakamura (trans. Kalau Almony)

First, a Sincere Declaration of Thanks

I’ve spent most of my life running in circles looking for something authentic, then waiting for permission to explore it, and harshly criticizing myself when I didn’t get that permission.  Maybe other people have different experiences, but this has been mine, my personal through-line from childhood to the present.  So I try to be as sincere as possible when I write about my frustrations and failures.  Because what else can I do?  While it’s true that sincerity doesn’t make you friends, at least it makes you the right sort of enemies.  I imagine this blog post will do more of that.

Still, I try to avoid self-pity and, because of this, I usually take a long time to form opinions about what I’ve done or failed to do and how others have reacted.  I ruminate.  I turn things over, trying to see past faulty assumptions, convenient rationalizations, and other self-serving anodynes.  Most people probably do this to some extent, but I think I do it more.  Sometimes, it works.  Other times, what I took for a true perception, for reality, eventually dissolves into just another subjective field, just another corridor of the maze that I have come to think of as my life.  In a maze, you never know what the next twist will bring.  Usually, it brings another twist.

With this in mind, I should begin by saying that in 2010 I came very close to ending my life.  This essay is about that time, but it’s not just about depression and not really about suicide.  It’s not a success narrative where I write about how I overcame great difficulties and am now nearing perfectibility.  It’s not about taking revenge on others through a misguided petty hit piece.  And it’s certainly not about castigating myself for the many imaginary errors I’ve regretted and then dismissed over the last eight years in order to keep getting up in the morning.  It’s a slice of life—a big, fat, ugly slice that tries to embrace the broadest range of experience in order to get closer to the truth.  In this, it’s a lot like an advanced non-fiction exercise.

“Advanced” because it is not easy and not something you would assign to a 17-year-old English major in an introductory writing workshop.  “Non-fiction” because it’s a mode of creative expression that pretends a certain degree of inviolable objectivity, even though we know that’s impossible.  Every memoir, no matter how fabulous, must begin implicitly or explicitly with an assertion of truth or at least with a sincere declaration of authorial good faith: “I did this.  I saw this.  This happened.  At least, I think it happened.”  Rousseau’s Confessions does it with style:

Whenever the last trumpet shall sound, I will present myself before the sovereign judge with this book in my hand, and loudly proclaim, thus have I acted; these were my thoughts; such was I.  With equal freedom and veracity have I related what was laudable or wicked, I have concealed no crimes, added no virtues; and if I have sometimes introduced superfluous ornament, it was merely to occupy a void occasioned by defect of memory: I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood.

This is my favorite passage from the first part of the book because literary historians have proven that the Confessions contains many misstatements if not deliberate falsehoods.  Such graceful bald-faced prevarication is a rare and beautiful thing.  But I am not so talented.  And I have no plans to weigh my heart against a feather on the last day. 

Instead, I will put it this way: I suspect I am not a horrible person.  I have faith that I’m not even tactless.  I believe my greatest defect is that I lack the imagination necessary to see several moves ahead.  I lack interpersonal foresight, which has made me a poor manager of nervous egomaniacs and a terrible chess player.  But I love chess.  And that is a serious problem, even if I hate the high-strung pampered egomania of academic writing programs, because everything toward the end of my PhD program was just a version of that game.

Robert Greene, in the acknowledgements of The 48 Laws of Power—a book loved equally by goateed 25-year-olds with a Libertarian Bitcoin fetish and the morose IT professionals you see combing the self-help section for books on how to become an alpha male—has a similar protestation of sincerity:

I must also thank my dear friend Michiel Schwarz who was responsible for involving me in the art school Fabrika in Italy and introducing me there to Joost Elffers, my partner and producer of The 48 Laws of Power.  It was in the scheming world of Fabrika that Joost and I saw the timelessness of Machiavelli and from our discussions in Venice, Italy, this book was born. . . . Finally, to those people in my life who have so skillfully used the game of power to manipulate, torture, and cause me pain over the years, I bear you no grudges and I thank you for supplying me with inspiration for The 48 Laws of Power.

If we read this carefully, we have to smile.  Greene is doing what we might call an “inverted Rousseau,” making the same assertion in a backwards way: this is a book about real things; therefore, I thank all those who have manipulated and tortured me for providing good material and, in the process, I declare my sincerity. 

Greene puts us on notice that his book is based on subjective material that emanates from his and Elffers’ lived experience, creating a Rousseau-esque escape hatch.  As The 48 Laws of Power is all highly subjective (essentially a kind of implicit portrait of Greene stitched together in historical anecdotes), the value of whatever he writes defaults to his apparent sincerity (“I may have supposed that certain, which I only knew to be probable, but have never asserted as truth, a conscious falsehood”).  It’s not about an objective truth process.  It’s about rhetorical ethos.

That is wonderful because ethos might be the only sincere rhetorical mode.  After logos topples from an unstable foundation of assumption, appeal to authority, and generalization; after pathos is unmasked as merely a screen of emotion recollected in tranquility; the persuasive credibility of the speaker is all that remains.  In a world where absolute truth does not exist, everything is ethos.  And so I construct my own ethical escape hatch. 

2010 was the worst year of my life, the year after my mother died of lung cancer; the year after my first book was published; the year I got my PhD in English; the year I attended my last AWP Conference; the year I traveled to the deep South for an excruciating week-long job interview and realized the English department clichés also obtain south of the Mason-Dixon Line; the year I got very ill; the year I was admonished by my mentor for questioning the value of my degree and told to be grateful for indefinite unemployment; the year my father began another surly adolescence; the year I began to think that there was no place for me in this world.  There are many years I’d relive if I could.  2010 is not one of them.  But I have been told to be thankful for these experiences because they have supplied me with a lot of inspiration.  As such, this writing is my sincere declaration of thanks.

Prelude

You never know what the next twist in the maze will bring but, in 2009, I think I was doing as well as could be expected when I stood in front of the department graduate adviser’s desk and said I needed a leave of absence to visit my mother in hospice.  For some reason, that moment stands out as a prelude for the upcoming year.

The adviser, the department’s resident medievalist, seemed to exist in an acid vapor of contempt for all creative writing students and their keepers.  She disliked me in particular because I’d dropped her Old English seminar the previous semester and she’d taken it personally.  Since I was doing a PhD with a creative dissertation (the final product would become Gravity, my first story collection), I didn’t need to be in her class.  But she needed me there.  Or, at least, she needed to feel loved by as many students as possible.

This was the woman who would thereafter try to prevent me from graduating so that my funding would run out.  This was the woman—whether due to old workplace feuds or out of resentment that there were more creative writing events on campus than dramatizations of Piers Plowman and undergraduate maypole dances—perpetually tried to block funding to the creative writing program and force out the graduate students depending on tuition waivers.  Her style of chess was to kill the pawns first.  Attack the supply lines, starve the more dangerous units in their fortifications, and wait for winter.  Classic medieval siege tactics.

However, standing before her desk, I was barely aware of the billowing acid cloud.  I was half-blind with grief.  All I thought about was my mom and how I had to get back to California to see her.  Looking back, I’m surprised I even had the wherewithal to stand up straight, much less ask for a leave of absence.  But I was very responsible.  I took everything seriously.  I thought a lot about my future in academia, especially in creative writing instruction.  And I felt my future depended on me contentiously following up on every detail.  I was, essentially, as sincere as I have ever been in my life.  I shouldn’t have been that sincere.

Given my emotional state, what the adviser said to me didn’t register until I’d left the building.  The conversation went something like this:

“I need a leave of absence to go to California because my mother is dying of cancer.”

She rolled her eyes, looked out the window as if she were considering it, sighed, then shook her head.  “No can do.  You only have so much funding.  Your funding will not cover you for another semester.”

“My mother is dying.  She doesn’t have long.  I’ve completed my course work.  My dissertation only needs to be approved.  I don’t even need any more credits.”

Another sigh.  More contemplating the clouds.  “Well, that’s really too bad.  You have to be in residence or your funding will run out while you’re gone.  Good luck.”

I stood there, trying unsuccessfully to process this. Then she rolled her eyes and asked me if there was anything else.

The grief robot turned and left her office, got on the elevator, rode it down to the bottom floor, walked out to the fountain in the center of the courtyard, and stared at the water for a long time.  Only then, did he think of the graduate adviser rolling her eyes.  Over the ensuing 9 years, the moment of her eye roll would be impressed in his memory as a perfect metaphor, a perfect image foreshadowing all the inspiration and gratitude to come.

The Tragedy of Not Dying

A hospice is a horrible place.  It’s like being given a lollipop for a bullet wound.  You’re bleeding out and everyone tells you to enjoy your lolly.  It’s cherry.  It’s got a smiley face.  Why aren’t you happy? Visiting my mother with my father there added another layer to the experience.  In spite of the pain and horror of the place, in spite of watching my mother waste away in her bed, hallucinating and suffering and being afraid, I came to understand that my father’s grief was different from mine.  I was feeling bad for my mother.  He was feeling bad for himself.

This was still 2009.  My only course, aside from empty dissertation credits, was a German reading and literature seminar.  The professor, a kind old man about to retire in his late 60s, loved his students the way he loved his trees—which is to say, far more than he loved the university.  I asked him for advice because he was the only person I could ask.  And he made it possible for me to exist in two places at once.  I gave my own writing students two weeks of work and held online course meetings via Skype and I emailed my German professor my work, which made it seem like I was present.  This is what allowed me to fly to California and see my mom for the last time.

In those first awful trips to the hospice, I’d naïvely hoped that my father and I could come together in our grief and support each other.  Of course, this was pure fantasy since he’d always enjoyed being a father but had rarely done any fatherly things.  I could count the number of times we’d gone to movies, the one thing we could do together because it involved no conversation.  And there were a few other misadventures over the years where my mother badgered him into going to some school play (he stood by the door to be the first person out) or taking me fishing (we did a U-turn at the access road to the lake and went home) or camping (it rained and so we packed up in the middle of the night and left).  He never beat me and he brought home a paycheck.  To the best of my knowledge, he never stepped out on my mother.  But he was never involved more than that; though, he lived with us in the same house—somewhat more than a housemate, somewhat less than a relative.

So my hope that he would be able, somehow, if in a manly way, to share this painful experience with me, was not based on reality.  After a certain amount of talk about how sad he was, it became noticeable that he never talked about my mom.  He sat by her bed, lost in his own self-pity, as the cancer ate its way through her brain and wasted her body.  As she died by inches, he proceeded as usual, focusing on his own needs above all else.

I witnessed this.  My wife witnessed this.  But I was so aggrieved I could barely speak.  Sometimes, my wife had to help me walk from the car to my mother’s room.  Have you ever been so upset that you can barely walk?  Until you have, you won’t know the feeling.  When you have, you’ll never forget it.  It transcends description.

I focused completely on my mom.  I waited for her moments of clarity.  I told her I loved her.  I told her the good things about my PhD program.  I made jokes and she tried to laugh.  One day, my great aunt—a stately old Italian woman who sounded like my late grandmother and seemed covered in the old-world charm that vanished with her generation—showed up with a peach and a kitchen knife.  She cut slices and fed them to my mom with a smile on her face.  Even now, as I write this, I cry a little because it was the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen.  That kind of goodness doesn’t exist much in this world.

It was a very difficult time.  Two weeks later, I returned to finish my program.  In one of her last moments of clarity, my mom had ordered me to go back.  She didn’t want me to see her die and me being in the PhD program meant a lot to her.  I think she felt ashamed that she wasn’t going to be around to take care of my father and me the way she always had.  And knowing that I was going to get a doctorate was a relief, as if it would be the next best thing.  She also had a lot of pride in her appearance and the cancer had been unkind.  So when I offered to stay, she insisted that I not.  About two weeks after that, my father called and said to say good-bye to her.  I told her I loved her.  And I think she died shortly thereafter.

I miss her every day.  But this isn’t about that, either.  It’s about the aftermath, how everything changed as a result of her death.  Some people are the linchpins of their families.  When they go, everything goes.  That was what happened.  I flew back again for her funeral.  She was buried holding a photo of my father and me.  It was a closed casket and I don’t remember much else, just bits and pieces.  I was out of my mind. 

As we moved toward the Fall semester of 2010, I felt melted down and recast as a different person.  I’d lost my happy thoughts.  I didn’t go out or talk to many people other than my wife and my program mentor.  I stopped writing fiction.  Most of what I did was perfunctory.  But I knew I had to get my degree.  Even if I collapsed afterward, I would complete the PhD.

The Reading Series

The year before, I’d allowed myself to be persuaded that working as the assistant coordinator for the university literary reading series would “look good on my resume.”  And I did my best as the monthly, sometimes bi-monthly, flier maker, venue securer, introducer-to-the-introducer, complaint taker, fielder-of-calls from mentally unstable bookstore proprietors, irradiated scapegoat, and general handler of said low-rung celebrity infants terribles

Sometime before I left town for good, one of the faculty members admitted to me that the assistant coordinator position was really only supposed to entail flier making and that the professor who was getting paid to be to be doing the other things had dumped the rest on me.  But by then I was so depressed that I couldn’t summon the necessary outrage.

One writer wanted a per diem that wasn’t in his agreement.  Another wanted intel on, in his exact words, “the most fuckable students who might be around.”  The butch lesbian poet would only communicate with me through an intermediary because I was straight and male.  The playwright was supernaturally high throughout his entire visit and had to be physically guided to the stage.  The “local writer,” penciled in because there was a vacancy in the schedule that month, struggled to contain her spiritual darkness through the entire event such that when I handed her the honorarium (significantly less than what the other, slightly more famous writers had received), she snatched it out of my hand, hissed a “Go fuck yourself,” and then smiled broadly at an approaching faculty member.  These were some of the more endearing ones.

Needless to say, it was not the greatest collection of individuals.  They generally came across as worn out, mediocre, vain, full of fear, full of resentment, and perpetually on the hustle for any crumb of recognition.  Calling them fools wouldn’t be accurate because they were all reasonably intelligent.  They simply knew the score too well, knew they should have received more for their dedication and efforts.  You could see that loathsome awareness stamped on their faces.  Now they were privileged to read their work to the smirking tenured faculty who hadn’t hired them, a menagerie of twitchy English students, and whichever townies may have wandered in looking for free wine.  It wouldn’t get much better than that.

I disliked the visiting readers even though I saw myself and my fellow grad students reflected in them.  Most of the people featured in the series that year hadn’t been picked for life’s cheer squad.  They were the leftovers, the understudies, the adjuncts with slim books from presses you’ve never heard of.  Many, it seemed, faced depression so considerable that they were pharmaceutically enhanced 100% of the time.  I wondered more than once how they could continue to produce writing.  The greatest irony was that most of them had already gone further in their careers than anyone currently in my PhD program stood to go.

There were a few exceptions, a few graceful and brilliant souls who’d agreed to come as personal favors to various faculty members.  I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention them as well as the moments of hilarity you find in every English department.  2010 wasn’t all doom and gloom, just most of it.

The second time I was told to go fuck myself was around 3 AM on a Sunday morning toward the end of Fall semester.  My insomnia had become pretty dependable at that point and I was already awake when the phone rang.  I got out of bed, told my wife I had no idea who it was, and shuffled into our tiny living room, where I sat on the couch and listened to the breather on the line.  He was panting hard.  I thought it was quaint that in this day and age people still gave breather-masturbator calls.  The caller ID came up with nothing.

When he realized I’d said hello and was listening, he rumbled out a “Go fuck yourself” and hung up.  I sat in the dark for a while, thinking about the human condition.  Then he called back.  It was F, one of the few grad students who’d been asked to read in the series.  He mumbled some things and then shouted that he thought I had a problem and should get help.  He was drunk off his ass.

I asked him why he felt that way and he broke it down for me.  F had read with his wife, you see, and I’d made the mistake of introducing him before her.  Neither of them were ever going to get over it.  Plus, she was a Navajo princess and I’d introduced them as husband and wife.  You don’t do that to a Navajo princess.  Didn’t I fucking know that?  What was wrong with my head?

“Princess?  Really?  I thought you guys were from Pittsburgh.”

He hung up again and didn’t speak to me until I ran into him at the AWP Conference a few months later—where he was keyed up and sweaty, slapping me on the back, telling me how he’d been featured in a very cool spontaneous reading held on one of the convention center’s escalators that drew an enormous crowd.  Now he had a pocket of phone numbers to network.  Amazing.  He didn’t remember a thing about calling me in the dark and telling me what I could go do with myself. 

Or maybe he’d repressed that memory along with his courtship of the Navajo princess, that hard winter living as tribe’s writer, the majestic swish of his khakis as he hunted buffalo, armed only with an unpublished manuscript.  I haven’t seen him or heard a thing about him since the conference, but I suspect he’s either got tenure by now or he’s back in Pennsylvania selling pre-loved automobiles like it’s a poetry slam.

The End, My Friend

Depression is a very idiosyncratic and personalized illness.  But those who have it tend to have a few things in common, one of which is that depression can be cumulative in its gravity and magnitude.  Today, you’re not feeling good.  Tomorrow, you can’t get out of bed.  The day after that, you’re standing on a chair with a vacuum cleaner cord around your neck and you think you’re the only one in the history of the world who’s endured such a linear degeneration.  Feeling alone is a big part of it.

I felt alone until I discovered  Darkness Visible by William Styron and recognized a lot of what I’d been going through.  I don’t know how I found the book, whether it was in the fiction section of the library where I sometimes studied or whether I encountered it in a used bookstore or somewhere else.  While it wouldn’t be true to claim that the book “saved” me, I can say it helped enough to get me down off the chair, multiple chairs, actually.

Reading it was an emergency measure, but it was something I could depend on.  I didn’t talk about my feelings.  I’ve never been very good at that, not even with my loved ones.  But I could read someone else talking about his.  And since I loved Styron’s fiction, I felt like I could trust him.  If he said it, I could accept it enough to be able to think about it.  And that was usually all it took for me to keep going.

By Spring break, I was prepared to submit my dissertation.  I missed my mom horribly and my wife and I returned to California to take care of the empty house where all my mother’s things sat gathering dust.  My father wouldn’t go near the place.  When he wasn’t drunk, he was hard at work rediscovering his hormones in erratic, awkward, and desperate ways.  Our relationship, never substantial to begin with, began to splinter irreparably when, out of guilt, he started to regularly criticize my mom. 

He was a self-righteous Catholic for most of my life, who often amused himself by telling me to get my ass to church and that since I’d been baptized I could never not be a Catholic.  But after a year of drinking, trash talking, and a pissed-drunk rape attempt on my cousin in front of me, he was ready to start up a relationship with an equally neurotic married woman who’d run after him at an event.

He confessed this to me one afternoon because I guess he couldn’t confess it to his priest.  Then he added that it was like a DH Lawrence love story.  Then he said she was going to get a divorce from her despicable husband and they’d marry each other.  Lovely.  I didn’t want to hear about it.  I especially didn’t want to hear him ask me to be his best man.  I could hardly speak.  It shows how detached and self-involved he was that he thought it was something he could ask me. 

“What about all that Catholicism?” I remember asking.  I don’t remember if he answered.

Around that time, because he wouldn’t help me clean out my mother’s things, I’d been over at the house, crying, putting her clothes in Goodwill boxes, packing up old photo albums, doing all the things we could have done as a family.  Instead, my wife helped and we did the best we could in a few days.  Much was overlooked, things from my childhood, things in the garage that I really do wish I could have kept.  But we only had so much time.  Now I imagine my father and his new wife paid at some point to have it all carted to the dump.  But I have no way of knowing, since I haven’t been back in years.

I do recall taking to the gardener, who revealed that he’d had my mother making food for him right up to the point where she went into the hospital for the last time.  She couldn’t lie down straight in bed.  So she was sleeping sitting up in a chair in order to breathe, then walking around on crutches, cooking and cleaning.  According to the gardener, he screamed at her frequently.  She was fucking dying and this is how he treated her.  That’s abuse.  It’s horrible fucking abuse.  And my mother, who was just about a saint in every way, did her best.

My mother was a talented painter and sculptor, but he’d left her art in a shed that had a broken roof.  It rained a lot that year and most of her work was ruined.  I’d been standing in the backyard, looking at the shed, unable to get in because he neglected to give me the key to the deadbolt (probably because he didn’t want me to see what had happened) when he called with a task for me.  It was something small, something to do with getting a TV boxed up for him and cancelling the  TV service that my mom had in her hospice room.  I’d already taken care of it, but he spoke to me with contempt, as if I were very lazy.  He said, “After all I’ve done for you, couldn’t you take care of this one thing?”

I thought of my mother on crutches, making him breakfast.  I thought of her art destroyed through neglect.  I thought of my father drinking a case of my cousin’s high-end champagne and then trying to fuck her in front of me.  I thought of all the nasty things he said about my mother when she was gone, after he’d cried his eyes out for himself, after he blamed me for not being there when she died, after the sizeable amount of heirloom gold from old Italy that my mom wanted to come to me but that disappeared right around the time my father and his new cadaverous lady friend got a second condo in San Antonio.  I thought about all these things and saw that no matter what his paycheck had been worth, no matter how much I may have cost as a child, no matter what my mom and he may have given me as a teen or a confused 20-year-old, I owed him nothing. 

I felt something snap and a certain coldness overtook me.  My depression had come to be replaced with something more useful: calm, thoughtful anger.  We had it out.  He told my wife and I we had to be out of the house.  Within 48 hours, we were.  I’ve never looked back.

Gone for Good

I got my PhD without fanfare.  My wife and I went out to dinner and it was nice, just the two of us.  I knew I’d miss my mentor in the program and her brilliant husband.  I’d miss certain things about the university town and my own writing students, several of whom had become more like friends.  But I was glad to be done—done with the degree, done with my father, done with trying to hump the dream of being an academic creative writer.

In the eight years since the day we drove south, blasting M. Ward’s “Helicopter” with the windows rolled down, I’ve thought about 2010 quite a lot.  I still get depressed.  But I can cope.  I’ve learned that it is possible and, for me, even preferable to have a life outside academia.  And I’ve come to accept that family isn’t really who raises you when you don’t have a say in the matter.  It’s who you choose when you do.

I miss my mom every day and I write fiction every day.  As of this writing, I’m working on my third collection of stories with a novel draft mostly written.  I’ve published over 30 items in magazines, worked as a freelance writer and journalist, and lived in 9 countries.  I’m healthy.  I really don’t have anything to complain about right now.  And sometimes I even give myself permission to think I’m happy.  Somewhere, there’s a Navajo princess riding through the clouds over Pittsburgh, but I doubt our paths will cross again.

A recent short short of mine, “You Are Somewhere Else,” is forthcoming in Visitant and should be available online.  As usual, I will post the links when the story comes out. – M

Read it here: https://www.splicetoday.com/on-campus/stem-scientism-and-the-decline-of-the-humanities

Sally Yates at Carter Center

Woke up this morning thinking about Sally Yates—how standing up to President Trump seems to have dramatically influenced the course of her life, how I’ve watched part of her emotional transformation through social media, specifically Twitter, and how her public narrative seems to reveal and confirm things I’ve suspected about the nature of personal meaning and career.

She seems to be undergoing a kind of emotional rebirth.  As someone who works primarily in the emotional mind—emotional intelligence being the primary resource for teaching and doing creative writing—I have learned to recognize when someone is emerging into a deeper, more meaningful emotional life.  She certainly is, even if only by a slight degree.

Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning consistently seems to prove out: it doesn’t matter what we do or where we are as long as we can find or create meaning for ourselves.  And so I return to the question of my own career, my own meaning.  When I think back to the teaching I have done, I’m faced with the choice of believing that most of my professional life has been meaningful vs. meaningless.  Obviously, I prefer to think my work has made some kind of difference.

It’s hard to believe in things I cannot see, but I have to nurture a certain degree of faith in the teaching and writing I’ve done.   Sally Yates, someone who has lived primarily in the analytical mind, is now at the beginning of something new—one hopes, something emotionally significant and transformative.  To see someone publicly come into being like this is to bear witness to a largely unnoticed dimension of human experience.  It’s something that sincere teachers get to see more often than any other profession. 

But my personal question remains: how am I coming into being?  Just as someone with Yates’ background and skill set might step into a more intuitive life (by running for public office instead of remaining in the legal-bureaucratic infrastructure), I bear the responsibility for my own development.  Where am I going now?  What’s next?  The future is never fixed, never certain.

As I have said many times and in many different ways, graduate study in literature and creative writing is not easy for anyone, even in the most favorable circumstances. There is an inner, emotional, psychological, processual effort that no one talks about and an outer, technical, rhetorical, production effort that everyone takes for granted. Both of these “efforts” are difficult. They must run concurrently and consistently for satisfactory completion of your program. And no one—not advisors or fellow

"Philosopher with an Open Book" by Salomon Coninck (c. 1645)

Philosopher with an Open Book by Salomon Coninck (1645)

students—will have the wherewithal to set aside their own problems in order to help you with yours. You are alone. You are responsible for expressing a universe of ideas in your own voice. You will accept this or fail.

If you pay attention, you will soon come to realize that your path is more or less unique—that you’re following a largely self-determined trajectory through the work. It may be partly modeled on someone else’s (such as that of a mentor with a strong personality telling you what you should be reading, writing, and thinking), but ultimately you’re making your own intellectual path by walking it. This is one of the signature characteristics of higher study in the humanities. It may be a strength.

A large part of this blog is dedicated to exploring these things, to making the implicit explicit for the good of those who feel drawn to the discipline of English studies and / or creative writing. It’s clear that I’m critical here of what I often see as hypocrisy and self-serving prevarication in greater academia. But I also disagree with the Libertarian voices currently developing the Don’t Go to Graduate School in the Humanities genre of business-oriented success advice. I think, in spite of very practical arguments to the contrary, if you feel called to study, write, and teach, by all means do it. Just don’t do it ignorantly and learn how to survive afterward so that you can keep doing it. How this unfolds in your life will be a mystery specific to your becoming.

With this in mind, I expose my own values here, my own work, which continues the inner-outer efforts I mention above. The Writing Expedition represents part of my disciplinary “production effort,” dedicated to expressing insights on what I have experienced in this field. Moreover, I think “expressing” is the right word because it implies a dichotomy. In order to ex-press something (or “squeeze out” if we want to look at the origin of the word), there must be an interior area where it already exists. An inner world. Often, a hidden world that can make the dominant scientistic discourse of reductive materialism very nervous. Like it or not, the Academy is subject to the dominant political, economic, and aesthetic tropes and discourses of the day; though, academics often find this distasteful and prefer to ignore it.

The ivory tower covered in camouflage.

It is safe to say that the Academy is an ancient type of institution that has survived to the present by appearing to be what society needs it to be in any era. Study the history of higher education in the West and it is easy to notice that the great universities have not existed in spite of what they imagine to be the barbarism and ignorance of the profane, but as a mode of cultural expression, 9th gatea conglomeration of beliefs and rituals, a matrix of ideas given a particular form in the material world. In other words, the Academy is an extension of culture. It offers a product that society wants and survives by making that product seem relevant. It has always been that way; though the outer wrapper of the product is redesigned again and again to reinforce existing narratives of power and faith. In the rare times it fails to do this: Kent State, May 4, 1970.

As Martin Petersen writes of CIA tradecraft standards (intelligence agencies being very similar to universities), “We have to establish our credibility and usefulness individual by individual, administration by administration. There is no down time when it comes to quality” (“What I Learned in 40 Years of Doing Intelligence Analysis for US Foreign Policymakers,” Studies in Intelligence, Vol. 55, No. 1). Without being too cynical, we could easily convince ourselves that establishing credibility and usefulness is one of the ongoing directives of the Academy: we want to matter.

Enter: John, who also wanted to matter.

When I was in graduate school, studying creative writing and rhetoric, John, a friend of mine there who happened to be a gifted poet, went through a kind of nervous breakdown. Since no one knows what a “nervous breakdown” actually is, we can call it that or we can say he went through a season of harsh depression, anxiety, purposelessness, and emotional pain. His wife described it as a “slow-motion train wreck” and they both tried to laugh about it. But it was real and the pain he went through changed his life.

Before you even think it, I should note that this person is not me. Things may have changed for John since then, but what hasn’t changed is the high-schoolish competitiveness in our colleagues that has lingered for a long time. Since many of them read this blog, I will only tell the part of his story that everyone already knows. And I will do it for a particular reason. Nevertheless, I hope he forgives me for this and understands what I am trying to say. Knowing him, I think he will.

It started with the birth of his daughter in our second year. John had come to the PhD from a high-paying career in industry, such that he didn’t have to take out student loans and could rent a fairly large house (as opposed to the holes most of us were living in). His wife didn’t work and they were living off their considerable savings. Still, the pressure was on, partly because John now had a child to think about, but also because had an immense work ethic and he was no fool. He knew, as did we all, that there were very few full-time teaching positions available and that trying to get one (even getting an interview at AWP or MLA) was like playing the Irish sweepstakes.

Nevertheless, John applied himself, wrote good poems, said smart things, and generally did well. He was older, married, and didn’t waste his time like the rest of us at the sad graduate school parties or looking for love in all the wrong places. He had a particular energy around him that said, I know the truth and, if I don’t know, I’m sure we can discover it together. In short, he seemed like the type who should win the career sweepstakes and become an assistant professor. There should be more people like John in teaching positions. When I think of what it takes to be a great graduate student, I think of him.

But he reached a breaking point, something in his “inner process” that no longer worked the way he thought it should. The reality of being a father had become far more real and compelling than the realities he was creating as a student of English and a poet. His hair turned stark white over the course of a month and he went through a kind of existential fugue, which according to him involved a lot of crying, regret, and hopelessness. Eventually, he dropped out of the program. He moved with his wife and daughter to Arizona to live with his in-laws. And two or three years later re-entered a PhD program at a different university, this time to study British modernism. As far as I know, he’s now a professor somewhere in the Midwest and I am sure he is great.

I tell his story here because although it had an ostensibly happy ending, his dark night of the soul is one that most of us experienced on some level at some time in our work. The difference may have been that he suffered from pressures we didn’t have, destroying the credibility and usefulness of the Academy for him. I believe this as much as I believe that he also lacked certain essential qualities necessary for running those inner and outer efforts concurrently and consistently, at least the first time around.

The voice in the fire: one hears it or one does not.

A teacher of mine once made an interesting observation about “mystery.” The more one seeks out the lacunae in one’s life—the numinous moments, the noetic leaps of high strangeness that result in extraordinary creations, realizations, and states of consciousness—the more mystery seems to increase, not decrease. Seek the mysteries and you will find there are more mysterious things in this world than you ever imagined. Or maybe you will find yourself imagining more such things as you learn to accept new ways of knowing.

Conversely, if you let existing modes of expression, accepted narratives, the exoteric rituals of consensus culture (especially those of the Academy) crowd your senses, ways of knowing will become narrower; meaning will become increasingly delimited and rigid; and the dominant cultural discourses (for us, scientism and reductive materialism) will come to seem all-encompassing. This is what I believe happened to John in his first PhD program. His outer effort was strong, but his inner work was obstructed by the anxiety of feeling responsible for his family. I do not fault him for this. However, I think his experience offers us an interesting lesson.

Recall that the “inner effort” is an emotional, psychological process. It therefore partakes of mystery because interiority cannot be completely mapped. This is where the muse, the creative genius, lives. This is where we dream, where we hear that voice speaking to us about who we truly are and how we must express ourselves. It is the place artists go when they produce authentic and original work.

Funny thing about the muse. She gives and she takes. Dedicate your life to a particular mode of expression and you must always try to hear her. Your sense of the numinous will increase exponentially, but you will also have to make sacrifices. As your outer effort must concern itself with “credibility and usefulness,” your inner effort must be like a love affair with the mystery inside you, which is what we’re talking about when we refer to the inner life of an artist.

Hakim Bey discusses this in The Temporary Autonomous Zone and calls it “sorcery”:

The dullard finds even wine tasteless but the sorcerer can be intoxicated by the mere sight of water. Quality of perception defines the world of intoxication–but to sustain it & expand it to include others demands activity of a certain kind—sorcery. Sorcery breaks no law of nature because there is no Natural Law, only the spontaneity of natura naturans, the tao. Sorcery violates laws which seek to chain this flow—priests, kings, hierophants, mystics, scientists & shopkeepers all brand the sorcerer enemy for threatening the power of their charade, the tensile strength of their illusory web.

A poem can act as a spell & vice versa—but sorcery refuses to be a metaphor for mere literature–it insists that symbols must cause events as well as private epiphanies. It is not a critique but a re-making. It rejects all eschatology & metaphysics of removal, all bleary nostalgia & strident futurismo, in favor of a paroxysm or seizure of presence.

Incense & crystal, dagger & sword, wand, robes, rum, cigars, candles, herbs like dried dreams–the virgin boy staring into a bowl of ink—wine & ganja, meat, yantras & gestures—rituals of pleasure, the garden of houris & sakis—the sorcerer climbs these snakes & ladders to a moment which is fully saturated with its own color, where mountains are mountains & trees are trees, where the body becomes all time, the beloved all space.

We can just as easily speak of it in terms of embracing a wider spectrum of expression. Viktor Frankl puts it this way: “Ultimately, man should not ask what the meaning of his life is, but rather he must recognize that it is he who is asked. In a word, each man is questioned by life; and he can only answer to life by answering for his own life; to life he can only respond by being responsible” (Man’s Search for Meaning).

The Green Muse by Albert Maignan (1895)

What, then, is the voice in the fire? It’s not a degree from Yale, tenure, and a tactless sense of entitlement. It’s that unmappable, ineffable interior effort, that numinous guidance system which instructs and inspires us to continue our work. It sustains us through years of advanced study, reveals the mystery inherent in the world (even in something as outwardly mundane as the sight of water), and helps us answer for our lives. If we are responsible practitioners of our art, we will listen to this voice just as carefully as we may express our work-products. If we stop listening and forget the internal process, focusing only on the external product, we will enter the dark night of the soul, which entails a lot of suffering.

This is the meaning of that famous line from the Gnostic Gospel of Thomas: “If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.” If this is the life you choose (realizing that you have been chosen to answer for your life this way), I continue to wish the best for you.

Listen. And seek the mysteries.

So the holidays are over. I spent mine reading obscure horror stories from the 19th century and the nonfiction writing of various friends, drinking too much Tetley’s tea, and enjoying myself at home. I mostly stayed in Oxford this year; though, I did have fun going to London on Christmas Eve. It is, without a doubt, one of the greatest places on earth to spend any amount of time. Since I am so close, I go there often. The City of London had a fairly spectacular fireworks display yesterday that can be seen here if you missed it.

Like most relatively sane people, I try to avoid making resolutions at the beginning of a year. Nevertheless, I did make one for 2016. This year I intend to follow through on some of my very long projects to an appreciable degree, putting forth my best effort possible to get some things completed and in the mail before 2017. I should note that I am getting close to completing my third book. However, I’ve been working on it for 6 years (including many painful revisions and reversals), which is how long it took me to write the first one.

Something tells me that I should be writing faster, but I’m convinced that whatever that something is, it isn’t the voice of a writer (or at least of a very good one). So I have decided to keep ignoring it. The good news is that several long projects of mine are probably going to reach completion this year, which will nevertheless be an enormous relief.

What I’m Not Doing Anymore

One thing I’m definitely not doing any more is giving free fiction writing advice to people who send questions via my old WordPress email address. I have not publicly listed that email for some time and now it is completely shut down with no forwarding.  Unfortunately, it was still accessible until very recently.

There are a few good reasons for me shutting down the Q/A portion of my website. I realize that operating a public site, even a WordPress blog like this, exposes a person to all kinds of craziness in addition to pleasant interactions with like-minded readers. You need to have a tough attitude to do anything public. And you need to be willing to block the assholes immediately. I do all those things. On the other hand, I can get so wrapped up in talking about writing that sometimes it uses the energy I need in order to do my own work. That’s where the situation gets hard.

There is no shortage of good writing instruction and advice out there. I remain a huge fan of the Gotham Writers Workshop, where I taught for seven years. I can’t say enough good things about the workshops there. But now I’m writing more than I ever have and I need to sustain this intensity for as long as I can.

Moreover, I should pose the obvious question: who the hell am I?  Just another guy with a few degrees in English who learned early in his career how to publish short fiction in magazines. That’s about it. And that, plus composition and research, is what I’ve taught for most of my career. Sure, I can teach you how to write a story and maybe give you some tips about how to get it into a magazine or lit. journal. But a lot of people can do that. Just because I’ve done it for a long time and maintain a blog about writing doesn’t make me super special.

More than a few talented writing instructors are teaching at Gotham, Lit Reactor, and in various MFA programs right now. If that’s what you’re wondering about, honestly what are you waiting for? There’s never / always time to start thinking seriously about fiction writing, right? Get a portfolio together and start researching a program or dig through the Gotham / LR websites and learn what you have to do to get into the next shop.  Do it and resolve that you will make the best of the experience and get everything you can out of it.

Still, I’ve enjoyed teaching writing, especially being able to meet so many interesting students along the way. But no one can write like me (for that matter, no one can write like you—which has always been the basis of my writing pedagogy: develop your own voice because, more than anything else in your creative life, it will belong to you). So I’ve realized that, at age 42 with perhaps 28 years left on this planet as a cohesive entity, I need to move more fully and deeply into my unique creative vision.

This means that unless you intend to offer me a serious job or decent freelance work (feel free to message me on Twitter about this and only this)—both of which go to supporting my writing—please save us both the trouble. The fact that I will continue to post thoughts on this website is not an offer of free advice, free content writing “for exposure,” or feedback / editing of your own work (which is something I do for pay).

The Next Thing

I travel a lot. It’s part of how I make a living as a freelancer. It’s fun in many ways, especially when I get to spend time with friends as part of my travel plans. It can also be an enormous headache. So now more than ever, I try to operate in places not just because I have to but because I’ve fallen in love with them. My short list includes Paris, Tallinn, London, Boston, San Francisco, Washington D.C., New Orleans, Portland, Prague and Copenhagen. These are the places which I find myself thinking about (and often returning to) again and again. Within a year to 18 months, depending on certain conditions and things that will fall shortly into place, I will be living in one of them, maybe for good.

I mention this because it goes along with the theme of positive change. Living light and never staying in one place for long has its appeal. Since 2010, I’ve lead that life in earnest, seeking experiences instead of things. But I’ve also realized a fundamental truth: there are many great experiences to be had when you get to know your neighborhood, when you become reasonably fluent in the local dialect, when you have a library card—the simple pleasures of being able to live somewhere for more than 6 months and actually make some non-online friends.

This is a change I will be making. And I’m looking forward to it immensely.

Trouble

You don’t live this kind of life without burning bridges. Graduate school, for example, is a lot like high school. No matter how much you achieve, people always remember you the way you were and deeply resent having to revise their opinions if you’ve actually done well for yourself. It’s part of what makes class reunions so painfully entertaining. But MFA and PhD programs don’t usually have reunions (except for the two official orgies of desperation and loathing we call AWP / MLA). Instead, they have enduring envy and the urge to send occasional passive-aggressive messages.

In 2016, I will also be saying goodbye to various acid-tongued lurkers from my past who can’t seem to accept the fact that—in spite of how much I bitch about the writing world—it is my home and I am fundamentally happy here. Yes, I criticize a lot of what I see as hypocritical or false in writing programs or publishing. But please note that I spend time on these things because I care about them very much. Isn’t it obvious?

So if you are one of these people, go ahead and live a little. Work on your own stuff / self and let me work on mine. We’ll all be happier that way.  Remember to be kind to yourself. And good luck to you.

Upcoming Projects

Of course, I’ll continue to write about writing and publishing here. I also intend to start a creative writing video project on YouTube soon with the same sort of focus. I’ll cross-post it with this. So if you are one of the 2654 people already actively RSSing this blog to date, you don’t need to add the YT subscription. It will all show up here, too.

I’m also going to start reviewing more books and magazines (sorry Aaron, it’s coming very soon, really), writing about critical theory (especially postcolonial theory, which is an interest) and about the writers I love. Right now, it’s Bret Easton Ellis, J.G. Ballard, Thomas Ligotti, Fuminori Nakamura, Isaac Babel, Shirley Jackson, Catherynne Valente, James Cain, Jim Thompson, Asa Nonami, Yoko Ogawa, and Henri Barbusse. But there will be others, many and various.

I will be representing the Thrown Free writer’s group more often and I hope to feature the visual art of some of my multi-talented writer-artist friends as well.

All these things make me happy, which is why I do them or intend to. If you’re one of my print readers and / or a reader here, I appreciate your time and hope that 2016 allows me to bring further interesting material to your attention.

Happy New Year.

Michael

Cunning is what counts in this life, and even that you’ve got to use in the slyest way you can; I’m telling you straight: they’re cunning, and I’m cunning. If only “them” and “us” had the same ideas we’d get on like a house on fire, but they don’t see eye to eye with us, and we don’t see eye to eye with them, so that’s how it stands and how it will always stand. The one fact is that all of us are cunning, and because of this there’s no love lost between us. – Alan Sillitoe, “The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner”

Long ago, in another, more colorful life, I knew an aging exotic dancer named Juliette. She was 22 years older than me and beautiful in ways exotic dancers half her age weren’t or weren’t anymore. Usually when someone starts off by saying, “I knew an exotic dancer named Juliette,” the preterit know must be read in the most expansive and liberal sense. However, Juliette and I had a far more intimate connection—the greatest intimacy with many in her profession being not so much sexual or romantic as sincere. We were friends. We got along.

Specifically, I would sit in the club with a bottomless coffee (yes, even the coffee) and write fiction. On her breaks, she’d sit with me and eat—a bowl of potato soup or chili con carne, pot pies, various pulverized Stouffer TV dinners heated up at the liquor store a block away. Dancers need to eat just like the rest of us. And her breaks were the times she didn’t have to try to be sexy or smile at people, even though she still did when we’d sit in the back and talk about the weather. There is nothing sexy about a pot pie.

I was a 29-year-old graduate student. And Juliette—especially given the local culture of Missoula, Montana—was certainly old enough to be my mother. At 50, she occasionally looked her age. But she most often looked about 25. She was one of those gifted people who always look young and who always look happy even when they’re sad. Born in Manchester, England, she’d made her way across the Atlantic and across Montana first by marriage then by inertia. And she once told me she didn’t see how Missoula was any better or worse than where she grew up in “Gunchester.” It’s an old story. Goes like this: you get married; you get citizenship; you get away from Anaconda, MT the way you got away from the UK; you take off your clothes for men every night in a bar; you get money for regular frozen beef stroganoff and peas; you befriend the dopey-looking guy scribbling on a steno pad in the corner. You are amused. He publishes a story about you. It’s a living.

Things Get Weird in the Chong Market

So yesterday I came down with a bad case of synchronicity. I hadn’t thought of Juliette and our conversations for a long time. She was entirely unique, one of nature’s prototypes, completely unashamed of her body, and someone who shouldn’t be forgotten. Unlike most in her profession, she didn’t secretly hate men for being the hog-faced repellent bastards that we generally are. And that alone should have commended her to my active memory. Still, a lot had happened since then. I’d lived in five countries and spent a significant amount of time in several more, lost myself, found myself, learned to speak poorly in various foreign languages, deliberately forgot certain things and inadvertently remembered others at the least advantageous times.  I’d done my own long slow dance with the devil in the pale moonlight.

I did not dwell on the painful exigencies of the past because I typically do not like feeling depressed. And my MFA years were full of neuroses, desperation, and dread—in my fellow grad students and in myself—which is what I mostly think of when I remember living in Missoula. People in the English department there hardly ever seemed stable and never seemed happy. All in, it was a stereotypically morose humanities graduate program experience best forgotten, which might go toward explaining why I wrote half my first book in a strip club. But that is a subject for a different (and no doubt equally painful) excavation of the past.

But synchronicity: standing in the narrow crowded Chong Market (the only place I can find Mama-brand noodles in Oxford that taste like the ones I had on a daily basis in Bangkok—I am that guy), I had what can only be described as a supernatural-level return of the repressed. While looking at a stack of tiny red plastic offering bowls, I heard someone pronounce “Chinese bowls” like “Chinese bowels.” I wasn’t sure who said it (the place was packed), but I remembered Juliette and her innumerable bowls of chili, which she called as “bowels of chili soup.” I never mentioned how funny that sounded to me because I was afraid she’d take it the wrong way. Over time, her accent had evolved from heavy Mancunian English to some utterly unique amalgam of Manchester dialect plus upper United States and lower Canadian. It was an amazing moment. And, for the rest of the day, I felt surrounded by the kind of trippy new age glitterdust that only comes with spooky action, tinfoil-hat Sedona harmonic convergences, and Tinker Bell. How could I have forgotten Juliette?

A Moment of Spontaneous Hoodoo

One of the greatest features of the Chong Market—other than their extensive assortment of ramen and fish sauces—is the enormous red and gold Hotei shrine dead center in the store. Having had such an intense resurgence of memory, I decided something momentous had just happened. When the hand of the past reaches out and tweaks one’s nose, one should pay attention.

I thought of making an offering to Hotei Buddha for the health and excellence of my longish writing projects, even though that had nothing directly to do with my memory of Juliette. Of course, I’m not in Asia but in Oxford and so, after standing there for a while, drawing weird looks from people going down the narrow aisle, I started to think Hotei might not be the way to go. If I was feeling like working some kind of old-timey Seven Lucky Gods Hotei hoodoo, would it not have been even better to go the Saint Friedeswide route and light a candle in the abby down the street?  The trouble was, the culture of Oxford doesn’t particularly like its medieval saints and I’m still waiting for Frida to return my previous call (it’s not me, it’s her—she’s been busy—don’t I think it might be good to start seeing other towns?—am I seriously jealous of the time she’s been spending with Binsey?—let’s act like adults for once—she needs some space). So I decided to settle for just my little Hotei figurine at home, some incense, a stack of hell money, and a shot of something strong to salute the mystery of it all.

Because moments like that are all about mystery. Synchronicity is memory plus pattern recognition. And memory is narrative, wherein lies what the ancient Greeks referred to as the mysterion—more than just your garden-variety Professor Plum with a revolver in the conservatory. It’s the thing that only reveals itself in your life by degrees, unfolding like a Rose of Jericho. It’s the palimpsest you solve over time. It demands interpretation.  I bought my noodles, put two pence on Hotei’s shrine, and drifted along Hythe Street Bridge, feeling Tinker Belled, like I was missing something. What message was I sending myself?

If You Were Any Good . . .

By the time I reached the other side of the bridge, I felt I had the answer: it’s important to remember as much as you can, no matter how painful, because this is what creates you. By extension, it is how you create.

Earlier in the day, I’d had a conversation about a family member who’d written me off a long time ago to the tune of if you were any good, you’d ________. Every writer hears that at some point; though, I count myself as one of the unfortunates who’ve had to hear it more than once from resentful friends as well as distant and immediate relations. Okay, friends? Maybe “people I used to know and no longer like all that much.” But you can’t beat hearing “if you were any good” from family. That’s a special kind of wonderful. When you hear this, remember it because the past is a mysterion you need to constantly interpret and whoever said that, no matter how much they grin and prevaricate, will have your worst interests at heart going forward. As the person writing the developing narrative of your life, you are the one responsible for writing the plot.

There is absolutely no way a writer can avoid dealing with the past. The entire problem of leading a creative life is bound up with personal history and the old sad “if you were any good” attack. It’s the meritocratic lie that creeps up from the subconscious in the long dark of your novel-length writing project. It’s a nutty relative coming out of nowhere to say she knows that what you wrote is all about her and that’s why she’s so upset. It’s your uncle asking you if you have an agent yet. It’s feeling like you have to do NaNoWriMo to prove something on Facebook. It’s the thing you should never forgive or forget if you respect yourself as an artist. Let them insult you all they want and critique your work on its merits, but never put up with them insulting you through your work.

All of this, as Ecclesiastes might say, is vanity. It gets in the way of mental health, but more so if you allow yourself to forget it.  NaNoWriMo, for example, is an interesting exercise the way having a colonoscopy can be interesting. It’s a unique experience. You have troubling thoughts about the people providing that experience. You walk out stiffly and tell yourself you’re glad you did it; though, you’re not altogether sure it was necessary, and you quietly resolve to never do it again. If you were any good, you’re sure you’d have loved it.  Keep that in mind for next year.

For that matter, if you were any good, you’d be living in New York City. If you were any good, you’d have a novel being optioned, you’d be on the NY Times bestseller list, have a Stegner Fellowship, and no doubt have rancid AWP Conference hookup fellatio scheduled right after the panel discussion in which Charles Baxter says things about moral fiction that everyone will try to forget. If you were any good, you’d be something in residence somewhere. You’d be making a fuckload of money for yourself and around 200 better dressed people who majored in English at Brown and Vassar. More importantly, you’d be making your friends and relatives finally shut up about your life choices because you’d be on that Limitless drug that shot Bradley Cooper through a cannon and transformed him from a writer into a low-fi Jeb Bush. All these things you have to have and make and do in order to be real. If I’d said as much to Juliette, she would have laughed me out of the strip club.

Oh Yes Money is Part of It: The James Patterson Experiment as a Case Study in Thuggery, Bullshit, and Woe

I took my Chong Market mysterion as an opportunity provided by my subconscious to remember and therefore create. In other words, don’t have selective memory. Hold onto the good things, the good conversations, the good people, but keep the painful things pressed hard against your heart. For creative writers, this is essential. Allow yourself to forget a good person and you profane what the world has given you. Allow yourself to forget a painful experience and you lose a hard-won part of your soul.

Walking back home across a city in which people put razor-sharp spikes on four-foot backyard fences because they feel they should, I thought about my old friend, Juliette, and wondered where she was, if she still was. Was she back in Gunchester? Did she get married and become a happy homemaker? Did she wail off half-naked to the horizon on the back of some werewolf’s Harley? Juliette could have done anything because she knew how to survive anywhere. One thing she understood better than I ever have: money will win in the end but that doesn’t excuse us from anything.  We still look to the past in order to create the future.

Consider the “James Patterson Experiment,” which sounds like a funk band started in 1975 at Chico State but which, in reality, was a cynical (but rather funny) project by an unpublished ebook writer named Paul Coleman. Coleman boiled James Patterson’s bestseller formula down to a relatively depressing yet realistic set of principles: “Paul is using Patterson’s fast-paced style (short paragraphs, short chapters), plenty of action (‘when in doubt, blow something up or shoot someone’), and plain language (no purple prose here), among other tactics.” Why? Because Paul wants to get published and pay rent and James Patterson is one of the wealthiest writers alive ($94 million).

Now also consider that there are other “real” writers out there: E.L. James ($80 million), Danielle Steele ($23 million), Stephanie Meyer ($14 million). Searching for literary authors with money gets us the likes of Richard Ford, Haruki Murakami, and Donna Tartt (who, according to Vanity Fair two years ago, was the “It Girl” who’d become the “It Author,” having written The Goldfinch, described as the “It Novel”— read some Vanity Fair and then say it with me: fuck It). These people have all the talent. And if you don’t agree, we’ll replace you online with a 404 Error page and send some Viking-Penguin leg breakers to beat your mother into submission. If you were any good, you wouldn’t be googling the net worth of the person who wrote 50 Shades of Grey.

You don’t mess with enfants terribles littéraires who suddenly get money. And you definitely don’t mess with the hideous lampreys who make a living off of them. There is no one more gangsta than an author (plus lamprey cloud) who can now tell the world to kiss his ass. To be fair, most authors feel they’re due for a little ass worship, given the abuse that comes standard with the writing life. But feelings aren’t the point. In the immortal words of Boss Hogg, “Blood may be thicker than water, but money’s thicker than blood.”

When you’re talking about creative works that produce millions, it’s no longer about art or even about taste; it’s about intellectual property. So Paul Coleman’s website is now a 404 Error result. Why is that, do you think? Where is Paul Coleman now? Google “James Patterson Experiment” and see what comes up for the first 10 pages of results. No, this is not paranoia. This is the notion of “loss prevention” filtered through high-end corporate logic.

To wit: if you pose the classic Foucaldian question: “What is an author?” you may receive a list of brand names that represent intellectual property interests distantly related to human beings alive or dead. If you disagree with this list, we throw our heads back and laugh because you’re broke, chump! Get some talent and you’ll get paid. Then you’ll be real. Only then. If we don’t disappear you in the meantime for asking too many questions since, if you were any good, you’d be something you’re not right now. But I think about Juliette, who was wholly herself. And yesterday, I may have asked the Foucaldian What, exactly, am I? more than once on my way to my little house on the meadow.

One Last Tiresome Synthetic Connection Evoking the Restless Spirit of Bob Nucklet c. 1989

Bob Nucklet (Where are you now, Bob Nucklet?) played the trombone. He was tall, still wore his band letterman jacket two years after graduation, and had his drunk of a father to thank for the fact that he couldn’t walk straight. Bob was an amazing trombone player, but his day job was waiting tables at Horton Plaza in downtown San Diego. We’d stayed friends after I’d transferred and he graduated due to our mutual love of comics and music. Picture me, 17 years old, tooling around San Diego with Bob in a broken-in-every-way-possible 280ZX to buy comic books. We’d discuss Seven Samuroid and Axl Pressbutton over 7-11 coffee with the intensity of post-Soviet avaunt-garde film critics.

When I woke up this morning, thinking about the past, about all these things and more, I had another resurgence of memory: me haltingly trying to explain to Bob that I was picking up classical guitar as well as piano, worried that he would respond like all my other musician friends with piano players think they can play anything. Instead he simply nodded and said, “Just keep playing, Michael. Just keep playing.” And I think I should keep that memory close as well because I have kept playing in my own way—with words and doing my best to avoid the if-you-were-any-goods coming at me from time to time.  Hotei knows, it hasn’t been easy.  

I wonder what Juliette would think if she met Bob. I’m sure they’d fall in love.

In the morning, I watch the sun come up from the bottom of the empty swimming pool, lying on my back in dead palm fronds. In the afternoon, Faye calls to tell me she’s going to kill herself. In the evening, I buy a bottle of port wine at a grocery store in town and drive back out to the motel. I sit in the threadbare chaise lounge by the pool, drink from the bottle, and listen to the wind push dead fronds over the concrete.

While I’m sitting there, Faye calls again.

“It’s all ready,” she says. “Just give me a day before you tell anybody.”

“Faye. Stop.”

She’s crying. She’s been crying for about ten days.

“Look, I’m at a motel about five miles north of Plaster City. There’s nothing out here. You can come if you want.”

I’ve been living in the motel, drinking one thing or another for the past two weeks. This is the first time I’ve told Faye where I am. All day, I’ve had this new internal organ pain that I’ve never felt before. And I think, okay fine. Would it be so bad if I died in this motel? I’m $130,000.00 in debt, and my legal career just ended before it could begin. No, it wouldn’t be that bad. The world would go the way it’s going. A couple people would feel sad.

“I’m not coming anywhere. I mailed a letter to your apartment.”

“I don’t live there anymore, hun. I won’t get it. You can come down. It’s nice here.”

“You can fuck yourself.” She hangs up. Faye has called me twice a day to talk about suicide since I’ve been here.

Palm trees shed their fronds all year. Someone thought to plant a ring of them around the motel. I haven’t counted how many there are. Palms can grow anywhere. In a couple decades, there might be twice as many of them here. Eventually, the motel could be in a palm grove. As far as I’ve seen, there aren’t any other palm trees near Plaster City.

The place is about 17 miles west of El Centro, just north of the Mexican border, smack in the middle of 41,000 acres of open desert. There are a few sad motels along the highway, held over from the days when gas tanks were smaller and cars went slower. But mostly there’s just Interstate 8 in an immense beautiful emptiness. You might see a hawk or heat wobbles in the distance. In summer, you might see an overheated car or a dead armadillo.

Faye calls back, and I look at the phone light up in my lap. There’s a dead silence out behind the motel at night, and the sound of my phone vibrating seems violent and stupid like a crime. There should be misdemeanors issued for the use of certain phones or ringtones. I look at the phone until it stops vibrating. I finish the port before listening to her message.

“Okay,” she says. “The thing that’s killing me. You know, I was attracted to him. And if he called me right now and said let’s have a do-over, let’s give you another chance, I’d go in a second. I wouldn’t think about it. So now you know.”

But I already knew. I already knew it. And what I implied to her more than once was that I wasn’t judging. What happened didn’t bother me. And it wouldn’t have bothered me if she’d decided to make a move like that. You’ve got to use what you can to get ahead. Faye not using her looks just didn’t make sense. Of course, the fact that I didn’t cut her loose when I should have didn’t make sense, either. But she didn’t. And I didn’t. And so it went.

Two agonizing years of law school down the toilet. My whole future. Just for being visibly involved with her, for thinking that I was some kind of savior, that I could do anything. It’s an old story: the good professor propositioned her. She turned him down. And then he told her she was through. You don’t fail a class in law school and continue. And law professors don’t need reasons. I objected and so I went, too.

I call Faye back but now she’s decided not to answer. “You should come out here,” I say. I’m starting to slur my words and I can’t think too straight. That’s good. “Come out here and die in the sun instead of up there. He’ll hear about it up there. It’ll be an event. They’ll say you were crazy.” It occurs to me in some non-drunk part of my brain that maybe that’s exactly what Faye wants—for Professor Steptoe to hear about it and maybe feel bad for ten minutes.

“But don’t do it, okay? You’re not going to do it. You’re not going to do it because that will really fuck me up and we both know I’m already really fucked up. You can call me back, but I’m getting ready for bed.” Sometimes I pass out in the chaise lounge by the pool and wake up at dawn. This will be one of those times.

Tempora mutantur nos et mutamur in illis. Times change, and we change with them. John Owen wrote that. He died in 1622. He was a Welshman and he liked to compose Latin epigrams. You get a lot of Latin epigrams in law school. Going through the 17 spiral notebooks from the trunk of my Corolla, I find tempura mutantur nos et mutamur in illis written at the top of a civil procedure practice exam: tempura changes and we change with it. That was good. I ate tempura that day in a little bistro off El Camino Real in San Jose. Lunch break on my internship at the Santa Clara County Adult Drug Court.

However, I find the motto of Korvinus Junior College in Sackstona, North Carolina, to be more compelling: Tempora mutantur. Times are changed. Times have changed. I don’t know why this is the motto of the school. I do know that a triple murder happened there on their upper field. It went to the NC Supreme Court due to a disproportionate representation of African-Americans on the jury. It was a hate crime in which an unemployed former auto worker axed an African-American family to death in the middle of a softball game in front of about 70 witnesses. After a mistrial and a completely biased appellate decision, it went up to the supreme court. Professor Steptoe taught the case in Con Law II, which I failed. Now the Axeman is sweating it out in ADX Florence up in Colorado where they shipped him when he bit someone’s ear off in Craven Correctional. I know this because I’m supposed to know this. I know this and thousands of other things like it because I’ve been trained to know. Faye knows this, too. We were in the same class. The five practice exams I took before the final scored between 93% and 98%.

Today is a Korbel day. And on a Korbel day, you sit in a hot tub with beautiful women and appreciate philosophy and culture and the invention of champagne. Okay, it’s Korbel, so maybe they’re not so beautiful. Maybe they’re missing some teeth or they’re afraid to get their extensions wet or they’ve got pendants made out of rhinestones that say their names. Kaneesha. Jobie. Dolores. Those three were sweethearts.

My usual rule is that I don’t start drinking until the sun has been up for at least two hours, which puts it at about 9:00 AM. But I don’t know because the hotel room doesn’t have a clock. I’ve got my course notebooks spread out all over the floor and it almost seems wrong to be drinking Korbel without my girls from the drug court. But I need something between me and the memories locked in my handwriting. Faye hasn’t called yet. And I’m trying not to think about it.

Delores’ pimp paid a lot of money to have her sterilized so he could fuck her without a condom and stop paying for abortions. She was his property and he kept her on a dog chain in his apartment until she lit him on fire while he was sleeping. She did not get arrested for this. Rather, it came up as evidence for her post-traumatic stress disorder when she was caught driving a van full of meth months later. Delores was a nice girl. She just got some bad breaks. Same with Jobie, whose mom had been a hooker and pretty much brought her into the business as soon as it was biologically feasible. Kaneesha was just a junkie.

I’d walk down the hallway to the courtrooms and they’d all be standing there, a hundred people or so in handcuffs and ankle chains, males on the left, females on the right. I’d see them standing there every day, waiting to be arraigned because there is only one drug court in Santa Clara County and a lot of goddamn drugs. I got to know people. The Accused. Getting caught with a heroin kit or robbing a store because you’re getting sick doesn’t make you a monster. I’d stand there and drink the machine coffee from the lobby and talk to them. About the 49ers. About the fact that R. Kelly got screwed. About O.J. Everybody wanted to know what a white male law student thought about O.J. I’d wink and say, “Shit, man, you really think he did it?” This never failed to incite gales of laughter. Sometimes they’d call out “O.J. innocent!” when I’d see them getting loaded back onto the bus at the end of the day.

Kaneesha and Jobie didn’t get convicted for their offences. Delores did two months on a parole violation because the meth was hidden in the fenders of the van and they couldn’t establish clear possession much less intent to traffic. After she got out, she looked me up at school to thank me for calling her mom about the trial. Faye and I had a party with Delores, Kaneesha, and Jobie to celebrate. Faye brought everyone together. We all got incredibly drunk on cheap champagne. It was the happiest moment I’d had in years.

But that handwriting. That handwriting tells it true: there were days when I was so nervous, I could barely hold a pen. I had this shaking thing crop up from time to time. Others developed facial tics. A couple people in my classes were working hard on a cocaine habit. Everybody drank when they could. Pot was irrelevant; though hash had a brief renaissance at the end of my first year.

The traditional bullying of individual students in classes of 100 people was one thing. But law school is like a game of belligerent poker in which the institution keeps raising the stakes. You fold and fuck you: you weren’t cut out to be a lawyer anyway. You raise and you better know what you’re talking about because even if you’re right, the professor has an ego. And power doesn’t like a challenge. Mostly, you try to stay in the game. You pray that the competitive bullshit and the sadistic scrutiny of the professors leaves you alone while you go further into debt and develop health problems from worrying all the time, not sleeping, and destroying your liver. But John Owen knew what he was talking about. Times do change. And nobody can live like that for long.

I step out of my room because I have to piss. I take off my left shoe and put it down so the door won’t shut all the way. I don’t know where my key is, and the toilet in the room hasn’t been flushing for two days. There’s a communal pissoir at the end of the hall, which lends a certain bouquet to the entire floor. The communal pissoir is not often flushed, either. But at least it’s away from my room. It’s dark when I go in because the lights are on a timer—like an oven timer that ticks down. If you want to do your business in the light, you’d better be able to complete the operation within two minutes. I wind the light switch up to the maximum two and go over to a urinal.

In one of the stalls, Nelson is trying to take a shit. Nelson owns the motel and, as far as I know, he’s the only person who works there. He’s leathery, about 700 years old, and wears a lot of turquoise jewelry. I like Nelson, but I don’t like talking to him while he’s shitting.

“How’s it goin’?” he asks. He’s wearing Converse tennis shoes that a teenager might wear. His stall is closed, and all I can see are the shoes and his sky-blue polyester pants crumpled down on top of them.

“Oh, fine.”

“Good to hear. Me? Oh, it’s been a horrible day. Just horrible. I’ve got problems a young man like you can’t even imagine. With the plumbing.”

“You mean shitting?”

“Some days it just won’t happen. I’ll sit here for hours. Nothing. My legs fall asleep.”

I flush the urinal but it doesn’t flush.

“Well, you take care,” I say. “Maybe I’ll see you out by the pool.”

“Unlikely. I may have to sleep here. I might have to ask you to carry me to my room.”

“Keep trying. I won’t be around.”

After I wash my hands, I realize that I’d made a mental note last time to remember there are no paper towels. I wipe my hands on my T-shirt and look at myself in the spotted mirror. I look awful. At 29, I’m almost completely gray. I’ve got bags under my eyes and I haven’t cut my hair in two months. I’m growing a lopsided beard that’s going gray or blond in patches. I can’t tell. It should be black, but it looks like I’m hiding a skin condition.

“Yeah, that’s your generation, isn’t it,” Nelson says. “Twist up the light, will you?”

I do. And it begins to tick down again from two minutes. I step in some water with my shoeless foot on the way out.

There’s only so much Korbel a body can handle. And I am nowhere near that limit, but I am near the bottom of my fourth and last bottle. What to do: there’s half a bottle of $8 sherry that I don’t like and a case of warm Pabst in the back seat of my car. You can drink and drive out in the desert. The chances of you wrecking are the chances of you winning the California lottery. But I don’t like to drive into Plaster City unless I’m relatively sober. Too bad I’m going to make an exception because I don’t want warm beer and that sherry is being saved for desperate times.

I’m halfway there, trying to keep my eyes open, when Faye calls. I drop the phone twice before clicking on.

“I’m driving,” she says. “I need directions.”

Faye says she left the night before, hasn’t slept, and she’ll be here in a couple hours. She thought about what I said and she wants to see me.

I say okay and give her directions before I hang up. I’ve got about a hundred different emotions and none of them are good. So I keep on toward the little market on the edge of Plaster. There’s no way I can be sober when Faye arrives. I’m potentially an alcoholic. But no one can tell me what an alcoholic is. So I don’t really know. It’s easy to feel like you’re potentially anything. I was potentially a lawyer 49 days ago. Then I got my grades and I knew Steptoe had made good on his threat. Now I’m potentially ruined.

At the market, I get three bottles of ruby port, four bottles of Korbel, a fifth of Jack Daniels, a twelve-pack of Coke, and three bags of ice. Then I think, what the hell, Faye’s coming. So I also pick up a bottle of Southern Comfort, sour mix, and a quart of Early Times on sale for $28.50. I spend money like this. I’ve calculated out a few hundred just for alcohol from my remaining student loan money. The rest comes to about two grand and change, enough to get me somewhere else, wherever that might be. Enough to buy me some time. I haven’t talked to my family in years. I have a BA in history an no marketable skills. All my personal effects are in a storage unit in San Bruno—where I might be living soon.

My good friend, Sanjit, rings me up at the counter. “You’re drunk already,” he says. He has an incredible white turban, an equally incredible white beard, and wears a lot of army surplus.

“You don’t want my business, say so.”

“Don’t worry, my friend.” He takes my money and shakes open a brown grocery bag. “I’ll take all your money before you die.”

“Good man,” I say and walk the first two bags out to the car.

I start thinking about Steptoe again on the drive back and realize I’ve become dangerously sober. So I pull over and open one of the bottles of port. It’s only after I’ve drunk about half an inch past the top of the label that I can think about him without despair overwhelming me.

Me. Fucking me. In my good suit with gel in my hair, standing in front of Steptoe’ desk, shouting. I did the research feverishly, indignantly. The case law in California alone could have its own library. Teachers sexually harassing students. Students, teachers. Teachers, other teachers. Janitorial staff, teachers and students. Teachers, athletes. Athletes, campus clergy. Campus clergy, department secretaries. The combinations are endless. I found enough to argue multiple torts. There was also a criminal angle. But I didn’t want Steptoe’ resignation or damages or conviction. I wanted him to apologize to Faye and, ultimately, to me. Faye was my girl. And my ego was involved.

I pull up in front of the motel and Nelson comes out of the office, waves.

“Lemme help you with those,” he says. I hand him a grocery bag. But it’s too heavy so he sets it down on the super-heated parking lot asphalt.

“Having us a little party?” he asks when I run back to get the bag before the ice inside completely melts.

“Something like that. My friend’s driving down from San Francisco. You’re invited.”

“That’s wonderful. You’re the only motel guest I’ve had in six months. I hope you never leave.”

“You’re cheerful,” I say. “Did you shit?”

“As a matter of fact, I did, yes. No thanks to you.” Nelson draws himself up and gives me a stern look. Tangled white hair. Watery blue eyes to go with his turquoise rings and plaid button-down. “You realize how long it took me to get back to my room with this metal hip?”

“You could see a proctologist.”

“I am a proctologist.”

I heft the last two bags and kick the car door shut. “That explains your knowledge of crap.”

“That, my boy, explains my sadness.”

By the time Faye arrives, Nelson and I are already deep in the Early Times. I’ve fallen into the drained pool and cut both knees. Nelson has urinated on himself and sweat through his clothes while sitting in the ripped beach chair by the edge of the pool, eyes shut, head tilted back.

She walks around the corner of the building at dusk and the setting sun outlines her like she’s some kind of Celtic goddess. Or that’s how she seems in my misted vision. We’ve already been having a conversation when I realize that it’s Faye and she’s here. But only she will remember what we talked about.

***

“I don’t know how you can live like this,” Faye says. This from the woman obsessed with suicide. It’s early. We’re sitting in a Dennys somewhere near Plaster City. Faye drove. And in the pale light, she looks tired. Washed out. Like she’s been crying consistently for days, which is probably the case. I wonder if this is her look now. I’ve seen that look on guys I went to high school with who went into insurance sales, real estate, got jobs at car dealerships and started making money—for a while. A worried, tired, regretful look with a touch of resentment creeping out around the corners of the eyes: how Faye can’t look straight at me when she talks and I can’t look straight at her when she doesn’t. There’s an embarassment in that look, too, a sense that all these emotions wouldn’t be necessary if some key decision hadn’t been made incorrectly. The mistake you remember for the rest of your life. The deal that ruined you.

“I’m alright for now.” I take a sip of the rotten Dennys coffee that I can’t even taste. I’m congested. My head is killing me. And some internal organ (Kidneys? Liver? Who really wants to know?) feels inflated and tender. But this is still the good kind of hangover. The kind where I don’t have to think and I can just focus on my body. It might be the Zen state to which all heavy drinkers aspire—not the process of drinking or the drunkenness, but the painful dead-calm of the morning, the no-mind that comes from obliterating yourself completely the night before.

Faye’s got a thick wrap of gauze around her left forearm. When I ask her about it, she says she couldn’t go through with it. “But it looks like you’re succeeding,” she says. “You won’t last long drinking like this.”

“You remember Delores from the drug court? We should go back up there. Look her up. You know? That was fun that one time.”

She looks out the window at the parking lot. She’s got bags under her eyes and the cruel mouth wrinkles that women in law all seem to get. Law is a harsh mistress, especially to women.

“Yeah,” she says. “I remember Delores. She’s in Chowchilla now, doing eight-to-ten.”

The place is starting to fill up with the morning crowd. A table of Mexican laborers. A few worn out old men who look like farmers but who can’t be farmers because this is the desert. Our breakfast arrives.

Faye looks at her French toast like it just died on her plate. “This isn’t what I thought it would be. I’m going to drive back tomorrow.”

“Could you stay a couple days?”

“This isn’t going anywhere. You’re not going anywhere,” Faye says. “You need to dry out.”

“There’s time. You have time for a couple days.”

She pushes her plate towards the center of the table with her thumb and then rubs her thumb hard with a napkin. “There’s no time for us,” she says. “There never will be.”

Of course, the very nature of a criminal court internship means the intern is going to witness tears. The system is built on sorrow. And in the fall of my second year, I began to notice a certain attrition. Arraignments came and went. People got tried in groups and convicted as individuals. They were put on the “Rocket Docket” and got fast-tracked out to Fulsome, Chowchilla, Lovelock, CYA. They had one or two strikes, previous convictions. Their hearts gave out in their cells. They got sent to work homes, group homes, rehab centers. They killed themselves in the night with pieces of broken glass or plastic forks. The great world went on. A few people were sad. But not that many.

I’d see them in the hall on Friday (“Yo! OJ innocent, man! Ha ha ha!”) and by Monday they’d be on a bus. That year, I drank more than I ever had before. I worked for lawyers and judges. I filed papers. Took notes for the public defenders. Had lunch with law students, secretaries, paralegals, all the lesser carnivera of the judicial food chain. And I saw the wind and light change into winter. And I saw families weeping on the courthouse lawn. And always new faces lined up down the hall. And I didn’t want to make friends anymore. I walked past them quickly.

Late December, I got a postcard from Jobie in my law school mailbox: They got me in Seattle. Guess I fucked up. Don’t have nobody to write to except you. Good memories. Say hi to Faye. She is such a dear. – Jobie. I pushed the postcard across the table to Faye one afternoon when we were having lunch at a little Japanese bistro a block from campus.

She read it and smiled, shook her head. “I’m not surprised. I thought she had a little crush on you.”

“You don’t feel bad? Like maybe it’s a tragedy she’s back in?”

Faye pushed the postcard back and slouched in her chair. Then she looked at me. “The world’s full of tragedy,” she said. “You better toughen up.”

Faye takes sleeping pills and passes out in my rumpled bed before Nelson brings out his Glock 17.

“Where’s that little blonde gal of yours? I don’t trot out my gun for just anybody.”

“She’s asleep,” I say. “So that’s your piece, huh? What about the other one?”

“The elephant gun?” Nelson takes three magazines out of his pockets and starts loading them with bullets from a plastic utility box, copper 9mm rounds all tumbled into a single container like metal cigarette butts in a giant ashtray. “I don’t know where that monster is. Maybe somebody stole it. Wouldn’t be the first time.”

Tonight, I’m drinking the Southern Comfort I bought for Faye with the sour mix and a Pabst on the side. Nelson’s back into the Early Times, but he’s taking it slow because he wants to shoot his gun.

“I only shoot one tree,” he says. “That one.” He points to the very center palm tree in the dirt on the other side of the pool. At one point, there was a fence where the concrete stopped. Now there’s just a row of palm trees like the condemned before a firing squad. Beyond that, acres of parched flat earth run out toward purple mountains, which you can barely see after a rain.

“I hate that one. I like the others. But I hate that one. Reminds me of my wife.” He grips the Glock in his bony liver-spotted hands and fires nine times. It sounds like a Chinese firecracker. Pop. Pop. Pop. Nelson takes a sip of Early Times and ejects the clip. “Goddamn tree,” he says.

He tells me that the tree he hates is the original palm tree, the primogenitor of all the others. Nelson also explains how much he hates large palms in general. They make dust that gets into his lungs. He doesn’t like the way the big fronds look. And he drained the pool because fronds and pollen made it impossible to keep the water clean. “Like Natasha. Filthy woman.”

He slides a new clip into the gun and hands it to me. “Go ahead. You kill the tree.”

I aim, trying to hold it the way he did, but something isn’t right, because I squeeze off all nine shots and not one connects. The gun smells like smoke and machinery, which, I realize, is mostly what it is. When I turn, Nelson is sitting in the chaise lounge, eyes shut again, short glass of Early Times balanced on his knee.

“You know,” he murmurs, “later on, I’m gonna go take a shit.”

I load up a third clip, fire one mis-aimed round, and stop. What did that tree do to me? I put the gun in my belt. I’m staggering and wary of falling in the empty pool again. So I give the edge a wide berth. I go up to the condemned tree and notice that it doesn’t have a single bullet hole on it. Nobody’s watching. I put my arms around it and say, “I hope you have a long and happy life. I’m sorry.” And if I start to cry for a tree, it’s only because I’m a drunk and the world is full of tragedy and I haven’t toughened up even though Faye tells me I need to and I know she’s right.

I wake in my bed with Faye standing over me. She’s showered. She looks determined.

“I’m going.”

It takes me a moment to process this. “Where?”

“Back. Rudy called.” Rudy is another law student. He’s been after Faye since he met her and has despised me just as long. “He says Steptoe’s having a party in two days.”

“And you’re going to it.”

“Steptoe can reverse my grade. I have to try. But I better cute myself up. Think I’ve got it in me?”

“We were shooting trees last night. You should have seen it.”

Faye gives me a level stare. “Take care of yourself,” she says.

Out by the pool, I push Nelson’s broken whiskey glass into a pile of shards under the chaise lounge and resume drinking from the bottle of Southern Comfort. The Glock and the open box of bullets gleams in the afternoon sun. I wonder how hot it would have to get in the desert for those bullets to explode in one giant supernova of death.

Nelson is nowhere around and I resolve to check the bathroom later in case he fell in. I know he’s probably sitting there in the dark, meditating on old age and constipation or snoring and dreaming about better days—before he married filthy Natasha and made that one fateful decision that ruined him forever.

That day in Steptoe’s office, I ranted and raved at the top of my voice about ethics, best practices, betrayal of trust. About the irony that he was famous for his civil rights cases. That he’d argued the Constitution before the US Supreme Court. I even cited the Constitution.

He’s a dignified man, a fatherly man, someone you want to trust with his close-clipped gray beard, wry sense of humor, and the way he squints into a smile. He was smiling like that when he said, “Are you finished?”

I was out of breath. I stood there on the Persian rug in his office, stunned by my own tirade.

Still smiling, Steptoe folded his hands on the desk. “You’re making a career decision.”

“I think you made a career decision when you sexually harassed Faye McDaniels, Professor Steptoe.”

He sighed and nodded. “You’ve said that.”

We looked at each other. And then I noticed Steptoe’s vision shift. He stared right through me at something else.

“Good luck to you,” he said to that other thing.

“This isn’t over.” I didn’t know what else to say. I turned on my heel and stalked out of his office, slamming the door behind me, and walked off campus. After five or six blocks I went into a liquor store and bought a fifth, which I drank greedily with trembling hands in the aluminum bleachers of a high school football field. Some kids were playing catch there. One of them stopped and looked over at me. I can only imagine what he saw.

A day goes by and I’m out of alcohol again, except for the Early Times and the disgusting sherry—which is just as well because my kidneys (I think) have swollen up enough that it’s hard for me to sit straight. By late afternoon, the pain is manageable and I feel good enough to make the drive to the market. I call Faye from the road but she doesn’t answer.

“Look,” I say in the message, “I’m not judging you. But I want you to ask me sometime why I failed Con Law. It’s not because I didn’t study.” I never found out if anyone else knew what transpired that day in Professor Steptoe’s office. I wrote a letter to the dean of the law school shortly thereafter. The letter disappeared. I think I expected outrage. I expected people to rally to my cause. For a few days, I told myself I was a hero, that I was doing what lawyers did—standing up to power, giving a voice to those who, whether through fear or incapacity, were voiceless. I took my finals. Con Law was open and shut with no surprises. I wrote 15 pages longhand and finished in good time.

“Ah, it looks like you’re finally dying,” Sanjit says.

“Don’t be envious. At least I don’t work at a liquor store in the desert.”

“Where I come from, there are far worse things. But you are an idiot. Why do I speak to an idiot?” Sanjit is drinking a strawberry smoothie from a white foam cup and the bottom of his white moustache is stained pink.

“Yes.” He grins and makes crazy eyes. “Can you believe it? It is a smoothie. Fruit. It’s healthy. But you would not know about that.”

So I let him have it. I tell him everything in one big paragraph: I got kicked out of law school over a girl. I’m thousands of dollars in debt. No future. Little money. And no one to take me in. “And, yes,” I say, “I am an idiot.”

“Come with me.” Sanjit puts his smoothie down and locks the front. He’s wearing his usual perfectly white turban and a red long-sleeved shirt unbuttoned down the front over a Bull Taco Motorcycle T-shirt. His pants are gray-blue arctic camo and he has a pair of black combat boots coming apart at the seams. I follow him out the back of the market to an asphalt lot with weeds growing up through the cracks. The lot is full of wrought iron in the shape of a deer, an enormous Japanese robot, a kid doing a handstand, a horse, a cowboy driving a stagecoach—all of it rusted, baking in the heat.

“Just look at it,” he says. “My son did this.”

“Your son’s a welder?”

“My son’s an artist.”

I walk around the sculptures while Sanjit watches me from the shade of the doorway.

“They’re beautiful,” I say.

He nods. “The smoothie place is two blocks away. I won’t be offended if you spend some money there.”

My insides are killing me, but suddenly I want to break down and weep or hug him. But the sharpness in his eyes makes me think that if I tried either of those things, he’d punch me in the face. Instead, I extend my hand.

“Don’t do me any favors,” he says and turns back into the store.

I look at the sculptures a little more: wrought iron life, motionless in the heat. I wonder if his son really did make them or if Sanjit’s in there having a good laugh at my expense. But then I realize it doesn’t make a difference. Somebody made them. And it doesn’t matter if someone sees the sculptures or wants them. They’re out there anyway, soaking up the desert heat, playing out their silent drama for the weeds.

Sanjit rings me up in silence. In the interests of good taste, I only buy another case of Pabst and a second bottle of Early Times, both of which I put in the trunk before walking down to Smoothie King for a strawberry-bannanna zinger. I vomit it up along with a gallon of bile beside the door of my car. My best friend doesn’t come out, even though he must have heard me retching into the asphalt. Driving away, I feel incredibly light-headed; though, there’s only one thought in my mind: I’ll have to find a new market.

Nelson has a rechargeable hair clipper. Later that day, with the sun melting into the smog over the mountains like a bloodshot eye, I sit crosslegged in dead palm fronds at the bottom of the pool. I drink Jack Daniels and shave my face and my head down to the scalp. There are small brown scorpions and centipedes under the fronds. A scorpion crawls past my bottle of Jack. A centipede investigates a gray clump of my hair with its feelers. This is more fascinating than it should be. I call Faye to tell her about it but her line just rings and rings.

When I wake up, I’m on my back in a puddle of whiskey, the phone held tightly to my chest with both hands. They used to bury knights that way with their hands gripping the hilts of their swords. But with me, a phone’s more appropriate: live by the phone, die by the phone.

Nelson has turned on all the exterior motel lights. The place is lit up like an orange landing strip. I get up on one knee and steady myself. A whiskey-soaked patch of cut hair falls off my neck. I stare at it for a moment, trying to understand what it is, what it signifies. In the orange light, it looks like a little fiberous alien, it’s long shadow jagged over the palm fronds. The bottle is on its side and there’s hardly any whiskey in it. I stand up and throw it against the wall of the pool. It explodes in a flower of amber glass that glitters on the fronds like tiny stars.

Swaying, I almost fall face-first into it. The pain in my side has gotten worse, progressing from a dull ache to a sharp stabbing agony that comes on every few heartbeats, making me feel like I should be vomitting or shitting but I also feel that I won’t be doing those things anytime soon. Instead, I stand with my arms straight out to either side like Jesus over Rio and look at my shadow while Nelson fires his elephant gun at the tree.

BOOM.

The shot sounds hollow and thick the way a ship’s cannonade must have sounded off the coast of far Tortuga.

BOOM.

And a mass of blue-white smoke moves over the pool. I shake whiskey out of the hair clipper, put the phone in my pocket, and contemplate walking up to the shallow end beneath where Nelson’s standing, cursing and reloading his gun.

“Bitch! Whore! Howdjalike that, hah? 40 calibers, bitch!”

I cup my hands around my mouth and call out: “Hey there, Nelson! I’m in the pool, okay? Hey! Cease fire!”

There’s a moment of silence before he lets off another round. BOOM. And my right ear starts fluttering like a strained muscle.

BOOM.

“Take it all, you filthy whore!”

I hear him grunt and crack the stock of the gun to reload. In spite of all the drinking and self-destruction, the living animal part of me still gets hungry and wants sex and knows when I should sleep and wants to live. My palms are sweating. I wipe them on my jeans and laugh at myself. That elephant gun would take me apart like a watermellon on a hot sidewalk. Would that be so bad? Wasn’t I the one with nothing left? But that deep part of me is locked on the amber floodlight, the glitter of the broken glass, the carpet of dead palm fronds, my long dark shadow on the bottom of the pool.

“Hey! Fuck you, Nelson. Unless you want to kill somebody, hold up so I can get out of the goddamn pool. Alright?”

Another moment of silence. Then his ragged screaming, more scared than angry: “Shut up! Get out of my fucking head! You’re not in the fucking pool!”

My inner safety animal tells me that if I want to live, I need to scramble out of the pool before Nelson finishes reloading because he’s about to walk up to the edge and let one go. I run to the shallow end and half-leap up the little blue staircase in the corner: whiskey-stained, shaven superhero with magical hair clipper.

Nelson looks up with terror in his face just as he’s closing the stock on two more enormous rounds. When he sees me, he lets out a little cry. I notice that he’s wearing a woman’s maroon tassled bathrobe with paisley designs that make it looke like a Turkish carpet. It’s open down the front, showing his sagging hairless chest and belly poking out over a dingy pair of boxers.

“Who the fuck are you?” He pushes his round wire-rimmed glasses up on his nose and squints. “You’re not Natasha.”

“No. Obviously not.”

Nelson points at the hated palm tree that reminds him of his wife. One of the shots must have grazed it because the top fronds are burning like the bush of prophecy.

“I taught her,” he says. “I taught her a lesson she’s never gonna forget, the bitch.”

And I nod. The palm tree will never forget. Ash and burning embers fall in a tiny rain of fire to the foot of the tree. He hands me the rifle and says, “You be the guard.” Then he shuffles through the glass door that connects the pool area with the motel’s single internal hallway.

All the lights go off. I sit in the chaise lounge next to the empty bottle of Early Times and a cardboard box full of enormous .40-caliber shells. The gun is impossibly heavy with over-and-under barrels and a round metal sight. I unload it, put the two rounds back in the box with the others, and settle back to watch the tree burn.

Nelson isn’t up the next morning, but I am. Being neither intoxicated nor hung over at 8 AM seems unnatural and awkward. I do not feel better about life, but the image of the burning tree and Nelson, drunk and hallucinatory, in what could only have been his late wife’s bathrobe haunts me. I decide not to drink for the rest of the day.

Tempora mutantur. Times have changed. And we may or may not have changed with them. But some things are always the same, like the feeling I got when I first read Jobie’s postcard. They got me in Seattle. Guess I fucked up. Death energy there, laced into the words. Guess I fucked up like I’m going to die now. This is it. Arivaderche Roma. Give my regards to Broadway. See you in the next life, on the flip-side—out in the far country, far Tortuga—where you’ll be headed, too, before long.

There’s always a degree of absurdity in that feeling, like it’s a horrible farce, a killing joke. Like the Axeman chasing a whole family down one-by-one between third base and the west side bleachers of the upper field—running back and forth with a bloody Woodsman Mark VIII, while 70 people screamed and made for the chainlink.

It’s the same feeling I get when I walk out back and look at the half-burned palm tree. A V-mark of soot runs down the center of its trunk. It’s fronds have been burned to spindly tendrils reaching up toward the sky. If the tree could scream, it would sound the way those tendrils look, sharp and twisted and wrong against the rising heat of the day.

Out here, in this emptiness, an old man can get drunk in his dead wife’s bathrobe and fire a .40-caliber gun at a tree in the normal course of human events. A former potential lawyer can try to drink himself to death and realize what a fool he’s been. And who knows how many ex-wives are buried without their bathrobes between Plaster City and El Centro.

My best friend is not surprised to see me. He stands beneath the cigarette overhang with one hand on the register and another on a glass case full of cheap cigars—an inscrutible wirey Sikh in a white turban and an USMC jacket with the patches ripped out.

“You look now like you’ve escaped a concentration camp.”

“Well, maybe I have.”

“I sincerely doubt it. But it shall now be impossible for me to sell you more alcohol.” His eyes regard me from a great distance beneath his bushy white eyebrows.

“That’s fine. I’m here for something else.”

“You wish to rob me?”

“I wish to work for you. Tell me you don’t need the help.”

Sanjit looks down and sighs. He shakes his head. “The help. I don’t need it. But ask at the Smoothie King. I will provide a recommendation and lie that you are not suicidal or impossibly stupid.” It takes him a moment to grin at his own wit.

“That smoothie made me puke.”

“Yes.” He nods slowly. “In my parking lot. They are often disgusting. The milk is often sour.”

“That’s why you need to hire me. It’s too unhealthy over there.”

Still grinning, he says, “That is the first thing you’ve said that has not been stupid. Come back tomorrow and you can try out for the position.”

On the drive back to the motel, I pull over and study my face in the mirror. I don’t recognize myself—gaunt cheeks, shadows below my eyes, shaved head. I really do look like I’ve survived something big and terrifying. The destruction of my home planet. An endless galactic war. Some chapter of Revelation that permanently changed the times and changed me with them.

While I’m stopped, Faye calls.

“I just thought I’d tell you,” she says. “We’ve worked it out.”

“Yeah?”

“Well, we’re going to, I think. He forgave me. He’s leaving his wife.”

“Oh?”

“He’s going to make a call. I’ll be back in on a probationary basis.”

“And that’s good?”

“I don’t think we should talk anymore,” she says. “It’s too risky. I can’t fuck up again.”

We sit on the open line without speaking. Then she says, “So . . . good-bye.”

“Good-bye, Faye.” I listen to the beep.

When I start the car moving again, I think about looking for an apartment nearby, maybe a small sandblown house. Times are changed. Times have changed. And I’ve arrived in my own far country. The road from Plaster City shimmers before the car—a painted background damaged by heat that can no longer trick the eye into believing it’s real.

 

 

Note: this story was originally published in Isthmus magazine.

When I rolled into Missoula, Jim Donlon was waiting for me in dark glasses and a black cardigan with a white T-shirt underneath. He looked drunk.

“Davis,” he said, as if my return was the last in a long line of depressing accidents, “what the hell is this?” His way of saying welcome back. I took the cigarette he offered, and we walked out of the bus station through the snow. He was parked five blocks north. We stopped in at the Old Sod along the way.

I was exhausted from my three-day bus ride from San Diego. And neither of us felt like talking right off—which was fine by me considering that these were the first drinks I’d had in almost a year. Jim was closed-mouthed when he drank, the sort who made it seem alright for you to quietly let alcohol simmer in your veins. We must have looked ridiculous that afternoon, sitting in the empty bar without talking: me with suitcase and laptop satchel and Jim still wearing his sunglasses. We used to come to the Old Sod a lot. And here we were as if I’d never left. In the months I’d been gone, nothing had changed. Nothing good would ever happen in this lousy bar. The fat bartender would be eternally reading the paper.

“I thought you quit drinking.” Jim blew long shoots of smoke out his nostrils.

“How’re things?” I asked. “What’s new?”

Jim sighed. “Look at this.” He took out the smallest pistol I’d ever seen and put it on the table between us. The barrel was two inches long, lighter than my drink.

“Careful,” he said. “It’s got a bullet in there.”

“What do you need this for?”

Jim finished his drink, lit another cigarette. “You’re back in Montana, Davis. Didn’t you notice?”

“These things kill people.”

“So do these things.” Jim held up his cigarette. “And this thing.” He stood and grabbed his balls.

There weren’t many people in there. Two mustachioed old men in the corner staring into their beers. The jukebox had Broken on it. There was one woman in the place—redhead, mid-forties, plastered. Jim hid the gun in his waistband under his cardigan and walked over to her table. They talked. He held up his hands and asked, “Why not?” loud enough that I could hear it. Then he came back and sat down.

We looked at each other.

“Jim?”

“You don’t know a thing,” he said.

We drank until we both ran out of cash, switching to pitchers of Pabst at the end, when we got to our last. Then we staggered out into the snow. It had begun to glow with the gray-white luminescence that only the streets of Missoula have in the late afternoon, like cold ashes.

He destroyed one of his own plastic garbage cans, when we got to his apartment, sending two weeks of trash into the air, over his car, and out into the cul-de-sac. Two wheels of his Acura were up on the curb. I laughed and slipped on the ice. Everything was funny.

“What about all this trash?” I asked as Jim walked to his front door.

“Forget about it, “ he said and I found this funny, too. I’d ripped a hole in the right knee of the only pair of trousers I owned.

_____

In October of 1999, I was determined to rethink my life.

A letter came from Yugawara, chair of the English Department, asking if I would be available to work as a private tutor for a high school kid. The pay, he wrote, would justify my return to Montana. I believed him.

I packed a small suitcase and called a cab.

I’d been taking a year off in order to write; though, the real reason I’d left Missoula had been to dry out. A graduate student at the University of Montana and twenty-three years old, I already had arrests in two different states for driving under the influence. I was not proud of this. Perhaps because I am an only child or because my parents both came from broken homes, I have always been indulged. But, whatever the case, my mother and father did everything they could to help me with my drinking problem when I should have been disowned.

In order to help myself financially and morally and I think to, as my mother put it, take some time to develop a spine so you won’t always let everyone walk all over you, I moved back to San Diego on leave of absence, promising teachers and friends that, when I returned, I’d have my novel finished and be ready to take my degree. I fully intended to do this, but I didn’t work on the novel at all in San Diego. I produced one frivolous, eight-page story that I threw out.

So when Yugawara’s letter came, I jotted a short note that said I was going and left it on my bed. I took the cab downtown, to the Greyhound Bus Station, bought a fifty-dollar ticket one-way to Missoula, and sat down to wait. My parents wouldn’t ask questions. Still, I felt like I was abusing their hospitality by leaving so abruptly in the middle of the day with a stack of library books on my bureau that needed to be returned and no explanation whatsoever.

I told myself that, even though I was worthless, I was doing what had to be done. I needed to go, and I was never any good at good-byes, usually getting soppy and melodramatic enough that I made a fool of myself and embarrassed whoever I was with. My family hated public spectacle, so at least in that sense, I told myself, I was doing them a favor by disappearing. I would write to them from Missoula. Though, deep in my weak, self-centered heart, I knew I was a rotten son.

It was October. At least that much was certain, an unavoidable fact. Winter in San Diego meant that days stayed in the upper seventies instead of the lower nineties, and palm trees swished slightly more in the wind. But that didn’t mean winter couldn’t be just as hard there as anywhere else. I always felt that it wasn’t the climate that killed so many homeless over the holidays but the hardness of everyday people around the world, taking out their petty frustrations on the less fortunate. I knew that was a sentimental way of looking at things, but sitting in the Greyhound terminal can bring out the sentiment in anyone. It seemed like all the homeless people in the city were sleeping in there that day. And it made me sad to look at them curled up around me in the black molded chairs, stinking, talking out loud in their dreams. When I got up to board the bus, I left a ten-dollar bill on my seat.

_____

Money never meant much to me. I had a tendency to give it away if people asked for it—which someone usually did. Or I’d fall into one of my sentimental fugues, insisting that they take it for their own good. And I never saw the point of fashion. It took too much of my energy, too much money, too much space in my life.

But Jim was different: two years older, tall and thin, like me, but with better clothes and style. He seemed to move through other people’s lives, through entanglements that would side-track any normal person, with a certain effortlessness. Years ago, he’d inherited a lot of money, had an apartment in Montana, one in a Vegas suburb—where he’d go sometimes on weekends. In Missoula, Jim was a graduate student in my writing program. He took the bare minimum of units and taught classes like everyone else. And he made having money and everything that came with it seem a given, seem easy, even the day after a drunk.

As soon as we got into his apartment, we polished off the better part of a bottle of Absolut; though, I don’t remember doing it. I passed out in a small wicker chair in his living room, my suitcase and satchel placed neatly by my feet. In the morning, I woke up, still in the chair, with my legs straight out, crossed at the ankles. My body was stiff. I felt like I’d been dead for a thousand years.

I opened my eyes to a full-length cherrywood bar, an entertainment center, a few miniature indoor palms, an Italian leather couch, and a blonde on the end closest to me with a lit cigarette and one breast hanging out of Jim’s bathrobe. Jim was sitting on the other end, in black pajamas, also smoking a cigarette and there was hockey on TV.

I felt the vast, horrible waves of nausea that come from mixing types of liquor. So I didn’t say anything. I sat there quietly and looked at them. Jim was staring at the widescreen. The blonde was staring at me.

“It’s a breast,” she said. “Want to see the other one?”

“Show him the other one,” said Jim without glancing away from the game.

“Fuck off,” sighed the girl. She yawned, looked me over, took a slow drag. “You look like a sick rat.”

“Darcy, this is my friend, Davis, from San Diego.” The only way to tell Jim was hung over was that he’d let his cigarette burn down to a crooked finger of ash.

There was a silver dish of cigarettes on the coffee table. Darcy picked one out and lit it on her old ember. The ash tray sat on the middle cushion between them on the couch.

“He’s breaking up with me, you know. He broke up with me yesterday. I’m moving out.” She raised her eyebrows at me and took a drag.

Jim changed the channel. “I’m sorry I was so erratic last night, Davis. I could have gotten us both killed. It’s stupid to drink and drive.”

“He doesn’t care about anyone or anything. He’s not your friend.”

“I think I might vomit,” I said.

“Darcy, be a doll and go get him the wastebasket from the kitchen, would you?”

“I fucking hate you.” She tied the bathrobe more tightly around herself and went into the kitchen.

Jim looked at me for the first time that morning and smiled: “What can you do?”

I shook my head. I didn’t know what you could do. First I was a drunk. Then I was sober. Now I was a drunk again. The guilt hadn’t even started, but it was stalking me. I could feel it. It was being sportsmanlike, waiting for me to vomit a few times before it sprang on me in all its demonic fury.

I did vomit several times—but not in the wastebasket. I weaved along the hallway and into the downstairs bathroom. The act was painful when I got to it: a thin gray fluid hanging like a cloud in the center of the bowl and then the dry heaves. For all the drinking I’d done in my short life, the day after never got any better, only worse. Half an hour later, I made my way back down the hallway, feeling like I was swimming through an underground cave to the light.

I stopped before entering the living room. Darcy had shed her bathrobe and was straddling Jim, who hadn’t moved from his sitting position at the end of the couch. Her cheeks were full of tears. She whispered things and ran her fingers through his hair while she rode him. He still had the top of his black pajamas on and his right arm stuck straight out to the side over the armrest. One of them had put the ashtray on the floor beside the couch so Jim could ash in it while they did their thing. I walked back to the bathroom, sat on the closed toilet, and put my face in my hands.

This was two and a half months before the millennium.

Jim went to school to teach a class. With nothing to do that day but wait until my appointment with Yugawara, I sat around in the coal-gray suit Jim had lent me, smoking and imagining how the world might end on New Years Eve. I didn’t see any reason to go to the university early and have to explain my life to my former colleagues. So I stayed on the leather couch and stared back at Darcy, who was wearing a pair of Jim’s shorts and one of his T-shirts. All of her possessions were now packed in her car, but she wouldn’t go. She sat in the wicker chair looking at me blankly. Maybe she was looking through me. There was an open Ziploc full of large pink horse-pills on the table between us.

“Christ,” she said. “I’m getting so thin. It’s like my bones are growing out of my skin.” Darcy had a fake tan, but it looked good on her. Her body wasn’t too thin; it was just right. Her eyes were a pretty blue-gray, even though there was too much white around them at the moment and she was sweating.

“You look fine.”

“Look at my hands. I’m a skeleton. You can see the bones coming through.”

“What are you worried about? You’re beautiful. You got everything going for you.” I handed her a cigarette, but she couldn’t keep the lighter’s flame on. I lit it for her and sat back down.

“What am I worried about?” Darcy puffed quickly, not inhaling, sending fat milky clouds into the air between us. “Wow. Yeah. Wonderful. That’s wonderful.”

We sat in silence, listening to her breathing. I thought about taking one or two of those pills, just so we could be on the same planet, but I had no idea what would happen. I wanted to stay straight for Yugawara and the high school kid’s parents who’d be there to interview me. So I went behind the bar and made myself a whiskey sour. Just one. Just for steadiness. Darcy watched me with a sick, detached expression—like those pills had made everything horrible, everything disgusting.

“Look,” I said, “you’re making me nervous. Why don’t you have a drink.”

She half-nodded, so I brought her mine and made another. But she let it sit on the coffee table in front of her, condensation puddling on one side of the glass. I sat back on the couch and loosened Jim’s black silk tie.

“I’m gonna kill myself,” she said to the drink. “You might want to leave.”

“How many of those pills did you eat?”

“Who the fuck are you?”

I brought her over to the couch and put my arm around her. She was shaking.

“Shit,” she said, hugging me and resting her head on my chest. I held her tight and sipped my drink.

After enough whiskey, you forget you ever had problems. You forget what a failure you are and how you’ve let everybody down. I sat there holding Darcy, waiting for Jim to get back from teaching his class, and the only thing I could do was drink. The first whiskey sour was my first mistake and, having made one mistake, it was all too easy to make another and another.

I laid Darcy down and got a blanket off Jim’s bed to cover her with. Then I began to pace. I paced around the living room for so long that soon pacing was all I could concentrate on. After a while, I didn’t concentrate on anything. I looked at my track in the carpet, walked around the room, looked out the windows, and sipped whiskey.

“You look like hell,” said Jim when he came in the front door. “Even in an expensive suit, you look like a drunk.”

He was right. I’d wrinkled his suit at some point and combed my hair over with some water, but it hadn’t done any good.

“Your girl. I think she od’d.”

He went over and looked down at her. “She’ll live. She say she was going to kill herself?”

I nodded and the room tilted. I steadied myself against the bar.

“Happens all the time.” Jim put his arms around her chest and dragged her off the couch. We put her in the backseat of his Acura, then got two unopened bottles of Irish whiskey from behind the bar and took off down the street.

I was drunk but I was wide awake—enough to know there was no way I could do an interview and not seem like an idiot.

“Yugawara. I can’t see him. I’m not up to it.”

“You’re a mess,” said Jim. “Open this, would you?” He handed me one of the bottles. Speeding up the I-50 felt like we were on a rollercoaster. Misty, snow-covered mountains were all around, but the highway could have been going up, over the top of the world. Jim kept one of the bottles between his legs and only slowed down when he wanted a drink.

“I heard about this kid up at the Black Creek Lodge. People stick things in his body for money.”

“That’s where we’re going?”

“Shit,” he said, “what are you, a genius?”

“What about her?” Darcy was in the middle of the back seat, head back, mouth open.

“Forget her. She’s stoned.”

The road was covered in ice. It made a ssssssshhhh sound like air escaping from a giant puncture.

By the time we got there, Jim had gotten drunk enough and I had gotten sober enough that we were both tired and quiet. Before we left Darcy in the car, I took off my coal-gray suit jacket and covered her with it. I couldn’t see why we’d brought her. But I was sure that if we didn’t cover her, she’d freeze.

“Davis, you’re a saint,” Jim said.

At the Black Creek Lodge, there was an annual bull testicle eating festival of international repute, which made it a meeting place for freaks of all kinds year round. But, on that day, the parking lot only had a few cars in it, and we both slipped twice. I was shivering violently from the cold and almost dropped the unopened bottle of whiskey. Jim held the opened one to his chest.

We walked through several large empty rooms, one that had been the inside of a barn. Then we came to a lounge that had a full bar in it and large bay windows looking out on a pasture. The pasture was covered in snow. A cow stood in the middle of it, staring at the windows. An old woman was waitressing and serving drinks behind the bar. The low wooden tables looked just like her—brown, cracked, not long before they’d collapse. In the corner sat the kid who got things stuck in him for money—bird-thin with a light blue sheet around him like a Roman senator. His hair was shaved down an inch from his head and his face showed no emotion. He sat completely straight in his chair.

A few locals were sitting in a semi-circle in front of him, laughing and drinking. A man in a bowl-cut and two flannel shirts, missing his left index finger. A blonde with a nasty puncture scar on the side of her neck. And another woman with no teeth at all; though, she couldn’t have been more than 35. A few others. Everyone but the kid looked at us when we walked up and sat.

“Look at this. Whiskey for everybody,” said a fat, bearded man in a thermal undershirt and jeans. Jim smiled and toasted them with his bottle. The men sitting there looked like loggers and so did their women. I wondered if they’d come for this or if they just happened to be drinking here.

The old woman from behind the bar walked up. “I’d ask you two what you want but it looks like you got that covered.”

I opened the full whiskey bottle and took a sip. Jim asked the woman for cups and, when she brought a stack of plastic tumblers, he poured out whiskey for everybody, brightening spirits all around. Jim even poured out one for the kid, but the fat bearded man held up a hand and said, “No, thanks. He don’t drink.” The kid didn’t do anything but blink. He was completely still.

After everyone had some whiskey, the bearded man stood. “This is Colter and he only does this once a day.”

Too much whiskey: I felt stupid, my thoughts dissolving in to Montana nothing, as if I were no different from that cow in the snow-gray pasture.

“Is he gonna scream?” asked one of the women.

The bearded man slapped Colter hard across the face and said, “See? He don’t feel nothing.” He took the sheet down and pooled it around Colter’s waist, leaving the boy’s upper body exposed. The skin was pale and curiously unscarred. Did it matter that he was sixteen or fifteen or fourteen? He had nothing in his eyes, dead stare, vacant. Then the bearded man brought out a black dish containing hatpins, a long thin paring knife, an assortment of thumbtacks and small pins.

In San Diego, my parents’ yard would be covered with plum blossoms. I thought of them and wished I was there. California was a bright complex of light and heat that was beyond us here, in this place, after we’d given the bearded man ten dollars each—where we took turns silently pushing hatpins into the boy’s arms and chest—where even the snow looked like ashes.

When we finished, thin strings of blood ran down Colter’s torso where silver thumbtacks had been stuck between his ribs in graceful arcs. The pearled plastic drops at the ends of the hatpins looked vaguely like peacock jewelry, an ancient beautification method, difficult and prized.

“Shit,” said one of the women, “I want a picture.”

“Five dollars,” said the bearded man, getting a Polaroid from behind the bar.

Like the lady bartender, this woman had nut-brown leathery skin, and it was hard to tell how old she was. She leaned over Colter and did a 1950s-style cheesecake pose as if she were on a float—Miss October. When she grinned, she was missing two of her teeth.

Jim had been drinking steadily from the bottle and staring at the boy, who was still expressionless with arms and chest full of pins.

The bearded man stood. “Okay, that’s good. We’re all done now.”

“Wait a second,” said Jim. “What about that knife?”

“Oh,” said the bearded man, “the knife. If you want to do that, it’s fifty dollars.” He smiled and looked at Jim as if he were seeing him for the first time.

Jim inserted the paring knife sideways, right under Colter’s left nipple. The kid hardly bled at all. Everyone cheered—whether for Jim or for Colter was unclear—maybe just for the spectacle of the thing: the kid, a human pincushion, so much metal sticking out of him, and some drunk bastard adding that long thin knife, as if it needed to be done to make the effort complete. But I remember Colter’s exhalation, the sound of it—long and gradual as if from a great distance.

Darcy woke up, when we were half-way home, screaming as if someone had just jumpstarted her heart.

“Where the fuck am I?” she said.

“Don’t worry,” said Jim, squinting intensely through the snow coming down in thick, moth-gray sheets. He gripped the wheel with both hands. The engine made a steady whine and the wipers could barely keep up. We were doing seventy, seventy-five, outrunning the distance as the car fishtailed and hissed. He raised his eyebrows and flashed me a look as if he expected me to object. But I looked out through the snow, thinking of Colter’s expression as the knife went under his nipple, when he slowly began to smile.

Later, we’d drink until we both wept. Jim would cut himself on a broken whiskey bottle, bleeding all over the top of his cherrywood bar. He’d shoot his pistol off twice into the floor and scare us both. The next day, he’d lend me another suit. I’d make apologies to Yugawara and get the job tutoring a slow, yet very wealthy, fourteen-year-old girl with a weight problem. And all that winter, I’d dream of plum blossoms that settle in the heat like parade confetti, making my parents’ back yard look covered in snow. I’d step through the ice to the laundry at the corner, where I’d buy my parents postcards of blue mountains in summer and scrawl I love you on the back.

“What’s going on? Where we going?” hissed Darcy, holding onto the back of my seat for dear life.

“Don’t you worry,” said Jim. “We’ve got you. Nothing’s gonna happen.”

  1. You don’t need to be famous to be an artist. You just need to make art.
  2. You don’t need to make art in any particular style or volume or at any particular rate. These considerations come from industries interested in art as a product that can be sold, irrespective and ignorant of the creative process. Such considerations can often be destructive and should be understood by the artist, then carefully set aside.
  3. You do need to share your art with others because doing so magnifies it. Having an audience, no matter how limited, transforms your work in the minds of others. The art you make should grow beyond you, transcending the boundaries of your personal subjectivity. People are good for art. By offering your art to people, they become part of it and it becomes part of them. 
  4. You do need to have a day job. Engage with the world around you and do not allow yourself to stagnate. It’s good to have mundane concerns like employment, stability, friends, and family. What you do when you’re not making art is less important than the fact that you are out there, living, doing it. So find something you like and try getting good at it for a while. An artist needs to live a human life in order to understand human experience. You are human.  Come down from the attic.
  5. You do need to control time and space.  You are also divine.  Time could be as short as an hour a day as long as it is consistently available. Space could be a small as a closet as long as it is consistently available. Go back to the attic.
  6. You do need to keep learning and changing. Inspiration depends on it. Eschew formulaic thinking and comfortable templates. Give yourself increasingly ambitious assignments. Integrate everything you learn into new projects. This is how you develop.  Stagnation is death.
  7. You don’t need to make a living on your art in order to feel like you’re really an artist. Every artist has an identity problem and there will always be someone telling you to quit. People with the fortitude to develop themselves creatively often aggravate those too scared to take the first step. And there are always more of the latter than the former.
  8. You don’t need to talk about your ongoing project with friends and family. Doing so can make otherwise good people into passive-aggressive antagonists. Better to let them read the finished product and criticize you behind your back. Your life will be simpler and you will still be able to attend the family reunion without getting drunk first.
  9. You do need to realize that art is more than just cleverness and craftsmanship. Consider this statement and see how you feel about it: the creative process is the act of recognizing the limitlessness of the psyche in the sense that all is mind and that a work of art is an embodiment of that totality in space and time.

For five years after his imprisonment, the house waited.

More faithful than his wife.

More faithful than his dog, who his wife had put to sleep. More faithful than the roses dead and gone under weeds.

A chainlink fence went up at the edge of the sidewalk and light went out of the house, its windows boarded up, brown grass overgrown from the fence to the broken porch still held up by bricks. The house had lived and now its life was a memory, the way a skull remembers its face, or the empty classroom remembers its children.

The white paint on the shingles curled upwards in the sun. But, still, the house waited through its death, through rain, through LA summer heat. The six-foot high fence clinked in the wind, and only the pigeons listened. Clouds rolled across the sky. A child’s red ball got kicked over the chainlink, turned flat, gray. Spiders spun their webs under the eaves, ate them, and spun them again, fishing the air year after year. And still, the house waited. Until, one day, Darwin returned. The tall gate in the chainlink pushed open. The front door’s rusted lock was made to turn.

Now, even with its eye sockets dark, the house seemed full, conscious, occupied. Cats hunted the backyard around the droopy stone garage that was gray and dusty, packed with whatever his wife, Janel, hadn’t wanted.

Time passed to sunrise, sunset, sunrise—the city of Los Angeles stapled into the earth for miles and miles and miles of monstrous concrete ribbon and box, mirror, metal spines, twisted carbon fume in every direction at every moment. But in its small orbit of shadows and cats, of brown grass shivering in the breeze, of pigeons in a row on the dead telephone line and bits of paper dancing off chainlink into the wind, the house was alive. The house clothed him like glass around a lick of flame. And, from the windows, his faint light glowed. Before Darwin went to work at night, a filigree of shadows from the chainlink would flicker on the sidewalk. By then, the children would usually be gone but, as if he could still hear their voices, he’d listen and pause before blowing the candles out.

When he hit the girl, he was drunk and, for five years after that, Darwin had not seen a girl or a car. Now he watched both pass the front window as if on a screen. In five years he had not had a drink. Now he drank from the faucet in the kitchen, made coffee in a pan on the stove, shaved his head every other day. And waking up at sunset to the voices of the kids next door, he’d stare across his bedroom at the large plywood dollhouse he was building for no one, watch shadows grow into its doorway, gather beneath its unpainted eaves.

It was two-and-a-half feet tall and, when he wasn’t working on it through its open back, he’d turn it against the wall so it looked like an actual house being constructed. It reminded Darwin of the housing projects he sometimes passed on his way home from work—unpainted with black plastic trash bags staplegunned over the window spaces. Blocks away, you could hear wind sucking the plastic in and then puffing it out like sails, as if the house-frame were breathing through its eyes.

The little beaded pull-chain ticked against the light bar over the bathroom mirror, Janel in cursive on his neck when he stepped out of the shower, a streak of shaving cream over his left ear. Water dripping, he saw her name on him, as always. I can’t do it, she’d said. Two years. It’s been a long time already. Already. How many more you got? Three? Eight? I don’t think I can make that stretch. What would he have done if he were her? Probably the same. Find somebody else. Move on. Darwin dried himself off, pulled on an undershirt. But what if he could have told her exactly how long? What if he could have looked into the future and said, Five out of ten, state. And then I’m out, no problem. What would she have said then? He clicked the pull-chain and the bathroom went dark, his black silhouette in the mirror. The dollhouse watching from the bedroom, miniature shadows in miniature window spaces, doorway like a gaping mouth.

When Darwin was released and moved back home, he unboarded the windows, bought an old bureau, a mattress for the bed frame. Saving money on power, he moved through candlelit rooms, sweeping the dust, hammering down boards in the floor. Every sundown, he put on his uniform and walked to the bus stop at the corner. By day, he slept, shafts of light through new glass and curtains moving gently over his body. Or, quiet in the front window, he listened to the children next door play in the street, smoke from his cigarette twisting into shapes—a hand, a question mark, thick lines of a laughing mouth. The silence of the house made his cigarette loud, the drag, the hiss of the ember. Outside, when the little girl and her brother yelled, their laughter came in waves, went up, down.

He would close his eyes and listen.

It was dusk when he stepped onto his porch. Darwin shouldered his backpack with sandwich and thermos of coffee inside and shut the chainlink gate. His uniform was the gray of the sidewalk, the bus stop. Behind him, the black sockets of the house watched him go.

Dust was always falling in the museum. That was one thing. Job security. But no light after closing, that was another. The big lights in the ceilings were too expensive to keep on, so they gave him a camp lantern, florescent, ran on a battery the size of his fist. The darkness reminded him of something solid, huge balloons of night pressing the walls, while his lamp illuminated a four-foot circle of granite floor. He scanned the darkness and positioned his bucket, the white face of a portrait just visible in the distance.

When Darwin mopped down the center of a large room, it looked like there was no end at all, like the floor continued forever. Moving the lantern was tedious, so he’d leave it in the center and mop until he bumped into a wall and had to turn—no outside sound, no windows, only the polished granite beneath his feet, the wheels on his yellow bucket, the slish of the mop.

Every night, he put in four hours. Then he stopped, found a bench, ate his sandwich. Not like making toilets at Lovelock or before he went to prison, at the plant, cutting pine into strips for people’s brooms. There were no buzzers, no foremen, nothing but an island of light back in the middle of the room and the beep of his digital watch to let him know.

Then, after break, Darwin climbed the wide stone staircase like a blind man, without the lantern, testing out each step, keeping his hand on the sculpted rail. No power for the elevator. He’d climb all the way up to the seventh floor storeroom and carry the huge buffer down to the bottom, where the lantern light made its chrome thorax shine—an armored grasshopper that rumbled like a rock slide when he turned it on.

That noise seemed wrong every time he did it, like cussing in church. And, with a cough, he always felt like he should address the edifice itself, should apologize to the museum the way a swarm of ants might apologize to the corpse of a mouse: when this is finished, your bones will glisten. The air inside your head will be dark and clear and still. Your eye sockets will never be obstructed, and you will never die.

It was like a church, everything fixed in its place, a relic out of time looking back, still around, dead but not dead. Like the faces of condemned houses or a frozen surf of crumpled bed sheets in the dark, the memory of a little girl’s laughter floating over Darwin as he slept.

His mop left a wet sheen that glistened faintly in the lantern’s glow. If he stepped where he mopped, he could leave a perfect shoe-print in the moisture. It might be gone by the time he’d reach a wall and work his way back, but he’d look for it anyway—a subtle hint of his passing, the tick-pattern an ant might leave in the wet cartilage of a mouse’s skull.

The buffer would erase all footprints, but it wouldn’t matter. By then, he’d be nearly finished and on his way home, where he’d animate the bones of his own house with candlelight and movement, with the thought of what he’d left behind, of one who’d died, of a missing wife, of brown grass and chainlink and white paint curling upwards in the sun. Darwin pushed the mop forward and imagined the face of his house looking out at the street where, ten blocks to the north, he’d hit the girl.

That day was a day off from the broom factory, and it felt like a holiday, no reason not to put down a few pitchers. Everyone from his usual shift was at the Elbow Room, so he’d gone, too. Then he ran out of money and floated out into the bright world, looked at cars whipping past on the other side of the parking lot, the workday still in swing. Trying to put Janel’s beat-to-shit Datsun in gear took him five minutes, ten, examining the H diagram on top of the shift. It was broken and there was a trick to it, something simple, but his brain didn’t work. He squinted at the road, at gleaming traffic in the distance where the asphalt swam with midday heat.

Once he’d gotten Janel’s car rolling, he tried to drive casually, but who could say? Darwin’s vision kept crossing, head spinning. He made it to his neighborhood without being pulled over and saw the streets were empty, people at work, their kids at school. Darwin relaxed, told himself he only had to watch out for a few old people now—the toothless granny with her rolling cart who took fifteen minutes to cross the street, the ancient garbage picker with bags of aluminum cans—and cops, swarms of them all through the neighborhood all the time, sitting in alleys, sliding into the street behind your car to run your plates. Just get home, he thought, just get there.

Darwin saw faint wisps of his breath as he dipped the mop, a sight he knew was impossible at any other time. Cold for LA is around forty degrees, and only in the dead of night could this happen, in the earliest morning. The mop had a metal clamp attached to the shaft. He used the clamp to squeeze the excess water out: water on water, split-second clatter of a rocky stream when he pushed the clamp down. A reverberation that wasn’t quite an echo. The sound would go out and rattle over the surfaces of a room: polished granite floors, marble benches topped with black leather, paintings and sculptures, dead lights in the ceiling. Quiet, Darwin always paused to hear it. Then slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . slish . . . until he reached the wall, each thrust of the mop changing the sound just that much.

Sculptures stood in glass cases or on pedestals in the center of some rooms. When he entered, they moved into his camp lantern’s glow like ships drifting out of a fog. First, the leading edge, maybe the corner of a glass case, a vertical line ahead just visible in the dark. Then more: a tongue of shadows slipping back between the lips of frowning samurai armor, a carpet of light moving over a gigantic Plasticine orb painted like a swirly marble, illuminated spindles growing beneath a small glass skull as Darwin put his florescent lantern down. Sounds came back differently near those things: crick-crack of the clamp, water on water, slide of the mop-dreds.

He looked up at the form of a horse made entirely of rusted rebar, at the varicose tangle of shadows on the white block-platform beneath it. He watched a tiny flick of condensation in front of his mouth and dipped the mop again.

Right before he hit the girl, Darwin told himself that once he got home, he’d forget all about what it took to get home. He just had to make it. He’d turned onto his street about ten blocks away from the house, took the corner more quickly than he intended. Now, when he passed the spot on the bus, he turned his face away. But somewhere in his memory, Darwin was still driving around that corner in Janel’s car. The memory, like ghost pain from a severed limb, went with him everywhere: the low screech the car made when he turned too sharply, the thunk of the wheels through a pot-hole, cars hazy in the heat at a distant intersection.

Memories seemed very much like ghosts as he mopped through the dark rooms of the permanent exhibit, seventeenth century portraiture, ancient sculptures, Holy Roman triptychs, panoramic views of Hokusai’s Fuji. The artworks were a crowd of curious shades at the edge of the camp lantern’s glow, memories of time gone. All those directly connected with the images were now just ideas, ghosts—the painter, the painted, the dynasties, entire civilizations gone to dust with only these left to tell the tale. The museum was a house of the dead.

When he finished mopping, he sat down to eat his sandwich in a circular foyer that had a copy of headless Nike at its center. He thought of the girl floating up diagonally onto the hood as if she were a piece of paper caught in a hot vent, the way she seemed to drift in that moment, the ripple of her T-shirt. Darwin stared at headless Nike. Shadows clotted under her wings. He wouldn’t have been surprised to find the girl’s ghost waiting in one of the rooms—just another work of art, another shadow, looking on in the half-light.

The buses didn’t run at 4:30 AM. It always took him two hours to walk home after work: city within city, dark inside dark, downtown shadows were impenetrable night. Far above, staccato code-lines of yellow-white squares glowed across the sides of skyscrapers where people just like him vacuumed and emptied, never seeing the regular employees who worked during the day. The absence of dust and crumpled paper was the only indication that anyone had been there at all. Seeing those lights from the ground—signs, distant implications, like a column of camp smoke on the other side of a forest—meant somebody was up there. But, as soon as the mirrored faces of those towers were washed with sun, as soon as the regular workday began, Darwin and the others would be home, asleep, and it would be as though the buildings had cleaned themselves.

He passed a homeless man burning phonebooks in an alley. Darwin could smell the smoke but couldn’t see it above the fire, his sneakers quiet on the sidewalk. And the man didn’t look up, crouched with his back up against a red brick building, hands balanced lightly on his knees. How many others were watching from that alley as he passed across its mouth. How many were sleeping back in dumpsters, on rusted escapes? The world would never know and daylight would find them gone. Trash blown into the gutter made more sound than those ghosts.

Traffic lights changed over empty intersections all the way down to Thurmond Drive where the street went up on a steep hill and entered some old neighborhoods. Darwin walked up that hill, thumbs hooked in the straps of his backpack, and turned for one last look: downtown Los Angeles, still and dead, pale points of light, a helicopter blinking tiny electric beads across the sky, a few cars on the Five going south.

It had occurred to him that the girl he’d killed, whose only crime had been to run across the street in the middle of the day without looking, would never see these things. It occurred to Darwin every night that that was one more night she wouldn’t have. She, whose name he still could not bring himself to say or even write down. He walked home his usual way, through neighborhoods of crumbling slatted houses and Beware of Dog signs, cars up on blocks, muddy toys in dirt yards. Each familiar point in the nightscape, each bit of detail was one more she wouldn’t have—the smell of lilacs bent over the sidewalk from a sagging window box, the one-eyed German Shepherd watching in silence, its ears pricked up behind a short iron fence, the bone-white sliver of moon like an afterthought. Nothing Darwin would notice during the day. But, at night, he knew exactly where he was and wished he could take her by the hand, up Thurmond Drive, show her the alley where an orange streetlight made puddles of water shine like sunset, hold her up to smell the lilacs, stand her on a cul-de-sac’s peeling wooden rail so she could look into a canyon that had become a lake of darkness.

Sunrise. The end of his day. A jet broke the sound barrier, an earthquake rolling away in the sky. Darwin stood at the window and listened to it, to a hundred sparrows chirping from the chainlink fence. The sparrows were a sight, especially when they all flew up together, as if each bird was attached to an invisible wire, and all the wires jerked at once. Wind chimes made the dull tink of champagne glasses. Palm trees along the sidewalk moved their fronds up, down, a draft rattling through them as through cheap Venetian blinds. To the right, the kids next-door followed their mother onto their porch. She was all dressed up in a brown leather mini with black snakeskin flames up the sides, black hose and heels, a white blouse and gold rings on her fingers. She gave her son and daughter a dollar each and then pulled away in her green Chevy that backfired like a shotgun. The kids sat down on the bottom step of their porch in silence, waiting for the school bus the same way they waited for their mother to get home in the evening.

The one time Darwin could have spoken to the woman, she looked him up and down, saw Janel on the side of his neck, the bass-clef scar up his right forearm where part of a door once shot out of a varnishing machine and cut through his coveralls, the gold cap on his right incisor. She noted those things, added them up in an eye-blink, poor person’s math. Her mouth turned down at the corners and she gave him a curt nod. Don’t be a problem for me, that nod said. I won’t, his smile answered. But she didn’t believe him, seemed convinced something was going to happen eventually. He saw it in her face, so he tried not to see her face, looked down, turned away, stayed inside when their paths might cross because her expression brought it all back. Her knowing: somehow, somewhere, he’d failed in some horrible way. She smelled it on him. And she was right. And he didn’t even know her name.

He’d built the dollhouse shell from the inside-out, partitioning rooms, fixing plywood walls with super-glue. It was a simple early American two-story with a walk-up attic. In issue 84, page 16 of Dollhouse: The Magazine for Miniature Aficionados, Darwin found the design laid out in scrupulous detail. The exterior walls were 3/8th inch balsa, the interior walls 1/4th inch. He had all openings for doors, windows, and stairs precision-cut at Pacific Building Materials, where he’d bought the wood and lost nearly a day of sleep getting everything together. But what was sleep? Maybe a journey through another world, a drift of consciousness where the minute and insignificant didn’t exist, where all that was nameless or forgotten could rise up like the smoke from a burning phonebook in an alley at night—dark against dark, black fume against black air. In that case, building the dollhouse had to be a kind of sleep too, a good dream.

In Lovelock, he’d begun by drawing stick houses, but soon the single-line walls were fronted by Doric columns twined with marble snakes, simple peaked-rooftops eventually fletched with dragon-tiles. His designs were a mishmash of Japanese, Spanish, Greek, German. Anything Darwin had ever seen, he’d try to draw, clumsily at first but eventually in exacting precision. He begged paper off the guards, little golf pencils that he sharpened by rubbing against the cinderblock-and-plaster wall above his bunk.

Lying on his bed, he drifted off, staring through the dollhouse’s eyes at the bare wall. In the half-light, it didn’t look that different from the walls in Lovelock. You can learn a lot by staring at a wall. Al, a cellmate, would look at him and say, “It’s just a wall, man,” then laugh and shake his head. “Darwin, you one strange cat.” But nothing is ever just itself, just one thing. You focus on the plaster wall over your bunk where somebody outlined part of a long crack in blue ballpoint, went at it until it looked like it was bleeding ink, like somebody had actually leaned in and stabbed it. And, after a while, your senses spread out, go sideways. You hear things from other cells. Somebody talking in his sleep. A crackle like an instant of hail or a giant piece of parchment being turned. A dripping faucet. Cars on the street outside like a mechanical ocean. The girl next door yelling, playing with her brother. Two cats in the backyard growling, about to fight.

Darwin opened his eyes. Headlights rolled across the bare walls. There was no furniture, no big entertainment center, no shelves with movies and plants and all the other junk you see in people’s houses. Just wooden floor, white walls, the window that now had glass and not boards. The thin white curtains Janel didn’t take.

He stood up from the shadows at the back of the room. He’d slept all day. The streetlights had come on. It was just about time to take a shower and go to work. The walls looked like an alien landscape, the surface of a new country, a place to get lost, to stake a claim and build.

“I’m not strange,” he’d said to Al. “Just try looking at where you are.”

“Whatever you’re on, give me some,” said Al.

The little girl next door had short braids with silver beads at the ends. Her younger brother had a shaved head, smooth like a rock in a stream. It looked like somebody had waxed it for him because it had a dull gleam in the orange street light. This late and mom still wasn’t home to let them in. They sat on their front steps, staring at the sidewalk, at the street, at the blade-shadows of dead grass in their front yard.

On his way out, Darwin shut the chainlink gate, clink-clink. They looked over like he’d shot a gun, stared at him in silence as he walked past the front of their house. The chainlink shadows were doubled on the sidewalk, one orange streetlight up towards the bus stop, one back at the corner.

“Where’s your mom?”

They stared at him.

“You kids got a key?”

They stared at him.

“You better get your asses inside. It’s getting late.”

They kept staring at him as he walked up to the bus stop.

It made him think about a dream where he stepped into the bedroom wall as if it were a landscape. “Open your eyes,” he’d said to Al in the dream. “Try looking. Nothing’s ever just one thing.” Before him, white craters and plaster mountains had stretched to the horizon. To know a place, to know it like you know your own body, means seeing it, then looking but not seeing it, then seeing it anew. Seeing the gleam on the floor you’ve polished or the light from your windows in the distance. And it means loving the place as if all of it were precious and all of it yours.

Darwin didn’t get right off at his stop. He rode the full circuit through downtown and into the neighborhoods. He saw houses pressed together like ripples in a carpet, the cars pulsing into Sunset from Malibu and Glendale. At dusk, distant headlights were pale moons floating down the contours of streets. Coming off PCH, there was a stillness, colors faded to a long purple-blue, hints of baked asphalt drifting in a palm wind. The graffiti seemed at rest. He noticed a Japanese girl standing in blue window light from the Luminescence Day Spa, closed now but making the girl luminous nonetheless. King Seymour Smitts The Bail Bonds Man smiling down at her from a billboard, his white teeth as long as a person. The brown grass of a vacant lot, still, then bending, then still.

At the museum that night, he mopped the rooms, ate his sandwich, climbed up the dark stairs, wondering whether the kids were still locked out on their porch. The buffer shocked him when it snarled awake in his hands, a small, angry beast that hated dust above all else. Darwin moved the buffer beneath pale English faces—the Duchess of York, a count with a white terrier asleep at his feet, a cardinal in blood red velvet. They looked down at him as he erased his footprints, leaving another gleaming floor for them to contemplate. He paused from time to time and studied the portraits. Each night the darkness waxed and waned as the paintings in the museum looked on, fixed and certain like the stars.

The dollhouse was finished. He’d airbrushed the outside pure white, installed a complete electrical system. The paint was still drying when he plugged it in. He’d had to buy an extension cord so he could bring the house onto his porch and show them the working ceiling light in the kitchen, the track lighting in the bedroom, the tiny yellow porch lamp.

The boy started to walk towards the porch, but his mother held his shoulders. His sister sat over on her front step, looking at the dollhouse without expression.

“We can’t afford it,” said the mother.

“You can have it.”

Her eyes narrowed. She looked at Darwin in disgust as if he’d just proposed something obscene. “No. We don’t do that.” She took her kids inside. He heard the sliding bolt in her door go clack.

Darwin carried the dollhouse back in and set it in the middle of the living room. The interior lights shined out over the floor. He’d put in real glass windows. There was a tiny brick fireplace and a chimney, a genuine porcelain bathtub.

He slumped down against the wall and ran a palm over the stubble on his head. All the house needed now was a miniature family, a dog. It was Friday afternoon but, all of a sudden, the neighbor wouldn’t let her kids go outside. Darwin looked at the dollhouse for a long time, until the light began melting into dusk. He felt exhausted. He kept his eyes on the light in the windows, the oak front door standing open to the royal blue foyer, the porch so pure white it glowed. The girl’s name had been Ada Miller. It came into his mind, and he put the name away. Then he gently shut the front door of the dollhouse, his fingers gigantic on the miniature knob.

After midnight, the neighborhood’s windows were no longer yellow rectangles silhouetting the branches of trees. Porch lights and streetlamps reigned over all other light, knocking the same dirty orange glare across overgrown lawns, between the slats of homemade wooden fences. Chainlink shadows were the most interesting at this time of night—static waveforms of orange and black warped over the pavement. And Darwin’s own shadow, finely tooled on the sidewalk and yet vaguely missile-like, the way it stretched from his feet as if it were deliberately set to blast off on a mission into the greater dark.

Darwin lit a cigarette as he approached his house, contemplating the way light and shadow tumbled through the interior of a’78 Oldsmobile up on blocks, how darkness and orange light seemed to coexist perfectly inside it, molded to each other in the contours of the seats. The steering wheel’s shadow drooped like a stupid grin. The plastic Virgin Mary on the dash was the same color as the interior. Streetlight turned everything gray. He looked at his reflection in the driver’s window, blew a line of smoke from the corner of his mouth. Friday was his day off and he’d just walked past the corner where he’d hit the girl, not realizing it until he was half a block away. Darwin wondered if he’d subconsciously meant to go past that corner, if that had been his reason for taking the walk in the first place. Nothing’s ever just one thing. Al would have sneered: sure, take another hit.

The neighbor and her two kids were snug in the dark behind bolts and locks at this time of night. Knowing her, she probably had a loaded piece on hair-trigger right by the bed. Walk under her window too loud and kiss your ass good-bye. He paused in front of her house and listened to the buzz of the streetlamp, a distant flagpole hook clanking in the wind. Something had happened to that woman, and she would be forever angry, forever scared. Afraid to unlock her house during the day. Afraid to go out and look at the night. People don’t change. They’re as predictable as the dusk. But, Darwin knew that, like the night, there are entire universes hidden in people, waiting to be discovered, beautiful and still and overlooked. Like the rows of powdered faces in the museum staring at the newly polished floor. Or the yin-yang of shadows inside a house, light and dark entwined like lovers.

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Normal School  2 (2010): 92-98.

burundiI started this website years ago, when I was living in East Africa and had no idea when I’d be leaving. The idea was to experiment with travel non-fiction essays I might eventually submit to magazines. But, over time, The Writing Expedition became more than that. I’ve begun to notice a theme emerging—the same theme that characterized most of the stories in my first collection, Gravity:

[T]he assumption that everything in life depends on being solvent, employed, and generally needed. These things constitute the gravity, or the seriousness, of one’s situation—that which holds a person’s life together and makes it mean something.

I guess I’m still thinking about what it means to survive in our often unforgiving, inhuman post-industrial economy. It seems that writing and thinking about this is emerging as an aspect of my life’s work—my overall artistic project. I think I should probably be reading more Studs Terkel, Orwell, Huxley, Ignacio Silone, Walter Benjamin, Viktor Frankl. I should be doing a lot of things.

indexSince my book came out in late 2009, I’ve published in more magazines. I’ve taught more students at the Gotham Writers’ Workshop. I’ve received praise for my work from those who get my project and the inevitable pushback from those who don’t. It’s all part of the writing life. Nevertheless, times change and we change with them. Recently, I’ve had occasion to look back the at the road behind me and also wonder about the future.

Abre Camino

After a number of reversals, sickness, and a new appreciation for my mortality, I left Burundi sooner than I thought I would. I wrote a story loosely based on my experiences there, sweated profusely in Belgium, led a charmed existence in Tallinn (a city fairly close to how I imagine paradise), and then had to leave the Schengen due to an unresolvable issue with my visa. I spent a few discombobulated days in Oxford before it was back to central California again for hard times, family betrayals, and a veritable buffet of disappointments and bad luck. 

As soon as I got back, I knew I had to leave again. So I did. Since I work primarily online, I was able to go places where I could also enjoy myself—San Francisco, Seattle, Boston, Washington D.C. Then I left for England again, living in Oxford for a good while. I had a short interlude, staying with friends in a village outside Vienna. And then London. Soon, I will return to Oxford before heading out to Asia. It’s a good life if you can stay flexible and you don’t want to own a lot of things.

The Hounds of the Grass

Another theme has been that of trading financial stability for time and interesting experiences. In the beginning, this was not altogether intentional. I got my PhD at Western Michigan University and hit the job market, which, I discovered, hits back. I have three advanced degrees, 17 years teaching experience, an expert ESL certification, numerous magazine publications, a book with an academic press, and a winning personality.

Still, the tenure track job interviews right out of my program were not forthcoming. I had a few in which I was competing tooth-and-nail with a large number of equally qualified candidates for, say, one position. I talk about this experience often on this blog. I think it’s important that some people tell the truth about the process. In the end, Thomas Benton’s notorious “Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go” has proven out. What he describes hasn’t quite been my experience. I’ve been lucky that way. But I think Benton has been nearly prophetic for a number of my friends who I’ve seen lied to, exploited, blamed, and disregarded by a broken system packed with terrified neurotics. I say go get the degree you want to get. But do it with open eyes and be willing to do what you have to do to survive.

Kephera - Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

Kephera – Egyptian Neter of Coming into Being

So this morning, I got up and looked at the calendar. In 24 days, I will turn 41. And, thinking about that over my coffee, I realized that I’ve had many, many interesting experiences over the years. I’ve done some amazing things—at first from necessity, then in order to court eustress and test myself. Now I really do think I’ve changed. I love teaching, without a doubt, it’s part of who I am. But I no longer have that sense of desperation that characterized those of us who made it through the PhD relatively sane. I’m no longer that brittle academic refugee. I’ve evolved.

No one knows what’s around the next corner. Though, after 4 decades of life, it seems preferable to hold Will to Meaning as my highest good instead of Will to Productivity or Consumption. In my ongoing search for a meaningful life, I’ve come to experiences over approval, freedom and time over money and obligations. Or, as the Uncle Aleister used to say, “Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.”

I’m sitting in a cafe in downtown London with a show tune version of the Doors’ “People are Strange” playing overhead. At some point, some focus group, some collection of sample listeners employed by a marketing concern or polled through a survey, decided that this schmaltzy cover was better than the original. Based on their decision, the track was included. This is the hidden world of the beta listener, beta reader, product tester, quality control specialist, and sometimes that of the literary editor. And it smells like untreated beta.

Let’s play a magical game of what if? What if you wrote something and not everyone liked it? Would you still be a legitimate writer? In the words of the incomparable Ksenia Aneske:

Stop worrying about what will happen. Will anyone read my books? Will anyone like them? Will anyone buy them? Will my mom call me and tell me I’m a genius? Will my dad send me a pistol to put to my head? Will I have to forever hide from my friends in an opium den and will my face slide off my head from shame and embarrassment at the atrocious and absolutely abominable quality of my prose? Put it out of your head!

Yes. Stop. And fuck the beta reader. Do this for any number of good reasons that remain good no matter what kind of writing you’re doing, how famous you are, or whether you feel the thing you just wrote is brilliant or incoherent.

One of them, maybe the biggest one, is that ultimately only one entity is served by the advice of even the best beta reader: the publisher. Having beta readers for your story or novel helps your publisher in three ways: (1) it lessens the already considerable work of the publicist-editor-copyeditor tasked with getting your manuscript in line with what the publisher wants; (2) it focuses your work towards a viable consumer demographic; and (3) it reminds you, the author, that you are not as important as you would like to think, given the cruel, rapacious hellworld of publishing.

Why does having a beta reader do these things? Because there is a difference between a beta reader and someone just providing feedback. This difference is rooted primarily in the language and assumptions of genre presses and e-book publishers; though there has been some bleed into the general vernacular of publishing in general.

Consider the submission guidelines for the “Harlequin Heartwarming” imprint. It’s worth reading the entire set of guidelines for all the Harlequin imprints, by the way:* “Similar in tone and feel to movies and TV shows like Sleepless in Seattle, Parenthood and Enough Said.” Why would a publisher say something like this as a guideline? Why, indeed. Because the job of a beta reader on a manuscript meant to be sent to this imprint is to give feedback relevant to that tone and feel—i.e. the beta reader’s job is one of aesthetic critique and revision. It’s writing-by-committee. And it sucks.

This is exactly the problem in MFA programs with the soulless “workshop story.” As the Writer’s Digest article puts it, “a workshop story is . . . insidious: on the surface it appears authentic, profound, meaningful. But really, it isn’t about anything.” Yup. It’s about style at the expense of substance. And this is the realm of the beta reader. In a bad workshop, every participant becomes a MFA beta reader, an experience worse than death.

Oh, you’re an artist? Excuse me. Hugh Howey puts it like this:

[W]riting within a genre is a huge first step in being discovered. No one is looking for you or your particular book. You are both unknown unknowns. So you better write a book that’s near a specific book. You can either change your name to L.E. James or you can start writing billionaire erotica. Of the two, I’d go with the latter. Science fiction, romance, new adult, erotica, fantasy, crime all sell better than literary fiction.**

This is unquestionably true. But if you want to write a memoir or a novel about an old couple living in Kansas, please, please, please do it. Please don’t make it a novel about a teenage couple having a romance in a post-apocalyptic Kansas because you think no one will be interested in the novel if you don’t put zombies and vampire ninjas in it.

In contrast to the beta reader, the person providing feedback is not reading relative to a particular style sheet—or she shouldn’t be if she’s trying to be a good reader. She’ll try to understand your project. And she’ll give you feedback that helps you realize that project more fully. That’s it. And that is very hard to do. It’s what happens in a successful story workshop. It helps writers become more of who they already are as artists. It does not churn out something that can be positioned as the next big salable thing (which is bullshit anyway—ask Hugh).

Back to what if? What if they held a workshop and nobody came? What if you’re writing all by yourself in your drafty garret? What if you actually are writing a teen paranormal werewolf romance novel in a post-apocalyptic dystopian vampire Kansas? Do you need a beta reader then? Not really. Do you know what you’re doing? If you don’t, aesthetic quality control isn’t going to be that much help (Um, I think, the scene in the taxi could be a little more like that one scene in Sleepless In Seattle . . . ). If you do, your polished draft will arrive in the editor’s inbox with only a few changes necessary–which is part of being a professional instead of a hack.  I do think reading and sharing our work is really important and useful. But the beta reader is a creature of marketing, not art.

 

* Note: I choose to pick on Harlequin because they’re an institution in the world of the romance genre and because I am not aware that any of my writer friends are publishing with them. Of course, I want all my friends to publish everything, get rich and famous, and bathe nightly in bathtubs filled with Cristal if that’s what they want. Still, it won’t stop me from grinding my axe on this blog. Sorry, bubu, them’s the breaks.

** Hugh Howey has good things to say and I’m not disagreeing with him about being discovered. I’m disagreeing with the attitude that literary fiction is irrelevant based on what sells.

Dost thou wish to be praised by a man who curses himself thrice every hour? Wouldst thou wish to please a man who does not please himself? Does a man please himself who repents of nearly everything that he does? – Marcus Aurelius, The Meditations, Book VIII

Most writers will tell you that envying the success of others is lethal, stupid, wasteful. They will tell you this because they have no doubt experienced the consequences of crippling envy firsthand. It comes with being an artist. But it’s something we have to get past and learn how to avoid. Envy is one of the many things that will destroy a writer emotionally, creatively, and sometimes even physically.

A True Story from the MFAkong Delta

I remember one afternoon toward the end of my MFA. I’d been teaching a beginning fiction writing class and was fortunate enough to have a good group of undergraduates in the workshop. They were serious, smart, and several of them were in the process of applying to MFA programs themselves.

Because it was late spring and because my tiny office in our brutalist 1970s humanities building resembled a janitorial closet in a parking structure, I held my office hours outside. Twice a week, I could be found sitting on a grassy hill in front of the administration building. Students actually showed up and we talked about their work. It was good. It also kept me away from the toxic environment of the English department and the Machiavellian absurdities in perpetual flux on every level at every moment. Give me grass and sunshine and a passing Golden Retriever any day.

My students and I had a friendly relationship and I looked forward to meeting with them. One afternoon, we were sitting on the grass immersed in conversation when I felt someone staring at me. It was one of the professors in my writing program. Here I will call him “Professor Careerist.” (Why Careerist? Because the vast majority of the things he said in my workshops had to do with getting published by the Big Six and what not to write if you wanted to be famous.)

Anyway, I noticed him standing across the quad, glaring with a mixture of contempt and disgust. Later, I had the misfortune of passing him in the hallway outside the department office. His expression hadn’t changed. When I was far enough away that a full conversation would have been impossible, he turned and called out, “Davis, don’t get used to this life for much longer. You’re not going to have it.

At the time, I took this to mean that I’d be graduating and moving on—and that thinking about this pleased him deeply. I also felt that Prof. Careerist disliked anyone who seemed remotely content not to be hustling and constantly self-promoting. When he noticed students putting thinking about art before trying to get ahead, it offended him deeply.

Ironically, Professor Careerist taught me as much if not more than any of my other professors—about what not to do. His negative example has served as a guide in very tough times. And what he said to me in the hallway has unfolded with many levels of meaning over the years. One of the most profound is: there is no free lunch, not in writing or in anything else. Because of this, an artist has to make a decision whether to write for a commercial interest or for herself or for a little bit of both. But she should never expect the world to take care of her (or even pay attention to her) unless she’s offering something of value in return.

The Kindness of Strangers

When Careerist said, you’re not going to have it, what he really meant was you’re not going to have it without my help. And, brother, that’s one thing you’re definitely not getting. In that, he was correct. I didn’t get his help and didn’t get that life.

Nearly every one of my fellow MFA students was a gifted writer. Some were shockingly brilliant. But today only a handful of us are still writing. And an even smaller group of us have found permanent teaching positions. This is not because we weren’t all talented, hard working, and sincere about becoming creative writers and teachers. It’s because some of us had help and some did not. Some of us offered something of value. Others sat back and waited for a line to form outside their door.

Prof. Careerist never helped me (deliberately), but others did—enough to help me continue. And, because I had very little to offer those who helped me, I have to add that maybe there is a free lunch sometimes. Maybe I was a rare, lucky exception to this cruel economy of patronage and fear. I’m still writing, still interested, still doing my thing. I seem to have had the knack for showing up when certain professors and administrators were about to do their good deeds for the day.

Dry Rot and Perdition

Years later, about to finish my PhD, I had lunch with a fairly well-known visiting novelist. I’d just published my first book of stories, Gravity, with Carnegie Mellon UP (through a largely serendipitous convergence of allegiances that had little to do with me as a writer). I also had 18 or 19 magazine publications and a handful of small writing contest wins. I was not (nor am I now) a big deal. But the novelist (who was a big deal) really wanted to know if the other graduate students in my program hated me now that my book had come out. I said that I didn’t know and I was being honest. My mom had just died horribly. My father had started a second pathological adolescence. I was worried sick about the future. I didn’t care what my fellow neurotics in the department had to say.

I guess the reason he asked was because something like that had happened to him. And he still cared, though he’d been out of his MFA program for close to 20 years. At some point, people had envied him, despised him, traumatized him. And this highly accomplished, famous, established writer was still thinking about it.

That night, at his reading, I sat in the audience while he spent half an hour talking about his creative process. His thinly veiled egotism curdled the air like a rotten onion for nearly 2 hours. I could see him, sitting at home, reading the AWP Writer’s Chronicle and giving himself an ulcer because so-and-so got an interview or some other bonbon and he didn’t. And I could see that even now, deep down, he feared he was a bum. This is what happens when writers forget why they write. This is what envy does to us.

So why do we do it?

I guess there are as many reasons as there are writers. But I think it often comes from the inability to separate commercial success from creative satisfaction. We’re told to eschew fame but emotionally wired to seek it. We’re told that success as an artist is a meritocracy—much like what we’re told in graduate school about finding teaching positions: if you’re good enough, there will always be a spot for you. Right.

Moreover, most of us hold ourselves responsible for our relative success or failure, forgetting that much of it depends on the opinions and assistance of others—people who may only be thinking about sales or who may be in the position of gatekeepers but who may have no aesthetic sense or artistic ability whatsoever. We often overlook (in fact, we’re often encouraged to overlook) the fact that a commercially successful career as a working artist depends very much on trends, consumer demographics, timing, and the decisions of those who may or may not stand to gain by helping us. Patronage is alive and well. We ignore this and we suffer accordingly.

When we do experience a modicum of success, we often celebrate a bit too loudly as a way to release all the angst we’ve otherwise acquired. Unfortunately, it is guaranteed that someone is hating us twice as much as a result. First, for our success. Second, because we seem to be enjoying it too much. And the extent to which we crow about our successes is the degree of envy we will feel when others pass us by. It’s absurd. It turns us into fools, victims, slaves.

Remembering Who We Are

Caught up in all the envy and jealousy, we tend to forget ourselves—that we originally became artists not for fame, wealth, or to demonstrate our worth to a cruel world. We did it because we wanted to create.

We have to keep in mind that the pain of not being able to create to our own satisfaction is only superseded by the pain of self-doubt that gnaws away at us and will not depart until we accept that we have limitations. Ultimately, being an artist is a love affair with our creative impulse—not with hype, not with fame, not with feeling clever or showing up the competition.

It’s far healthier to say, I am going to make this small interesting thing. I am going to do the best I can and then send it out into the world and forget about it. I am going to do this over and over because it makes me happy. So please don’t tell me what it should say, how much I should be adored at this point in my professional life, how much money I should be making , or who should be coming over for dinner.

You write your thing and I’ll write mine. And if I’m writing for pay, let me do the best possible work for my employer. If I’m writing just for myself, let me know my creative genius in the deepest possible way.

My friend and fellow writer, K. Murphy Wilbanks kindly mentioned me in a blog post focusing on what she’s working on right now. So I will follow suit. Though I have the usual 100 things blowing up my computer, I am focusing on a few big projects at the moment.

What am I working on?

First and most painfully, I’m working onVelouria, my novel about a guy who lives in Washington D.C. and works for one of the smaller Smithsonian museums. I’m just about to close out the first draft at 250 ms pages, which warms the cockles of my heart. I will be completing this draft in just over a year of toil and misanthropy in poorly lit rooms.

Then there’s Heavy Industry, my novel about snow, murder, and the food and beverage industry in Illinois. That is also nearly finished and waiting for me to come back to it. But, since I’m getting ready to finish Velouria, I’ve already resumed work on it a bit.

My third story collection is in progress. I think I need about four more stories. Cruel Stars, my second, is still making the rounds at small presses and literary contests. I’ve had a lot of close-but-good-luck-to-you interest in it. Sometimes, I wonder if it’s going to get published before I’m too old to remember that I wrote it. But that’s how it goes with literary submitting, specially with story collections. Everyone tells me to self-publish. I might do this around the 100th rejection. I’m only up around 20 or so. Yay. Let’s submit 80 more times!

I’m also working on a super-secret screenwriting project, which is one of the most enjoyable things I’ve done, well, ever. I’m also learning that screenwriting is different enough from fiction writing to present an entirely unique spectrum of writerly challenges. That, in itself, is cool because I feel like I’m learning more about narrative structure and how to control a story.

How does my work differ from others in its genre?

Literary fiction is a genre. But that doesn’t mean it has to march in lockstep with an editorial style sheet. At least, we like to imagine the best literature takes its own shape and carries its own unique message. A lot of this uniqueness comes from particularity—how a piece of writing expresses a vision that has not been expressed before. Of course, this can be highly threatening to those who spend a lot of time identifying with existing motifs and types in their genres in order to advance their careers.

So this question can be taken a number of ways. I prefer to read it as a question about particularity instead of the kind of theme-and-variation question we sometimes see in publishing industry blogs and magazines—designed to make hack writers and their handlers feel like they’re not just automatically churning out the same old thing. In other words, I’m not interested in a question that goes something like, how does your work stay faithful to the editorial hand that feeds you while still allowing you to feel like a creator? Whatever. I’ll answer this one: how do you imagine that your work finds a unique vision and voice relative to everything else? A writer should be able to answer this.

My answer is that I’ve gone through a long period of exploring idiosyncratic first person. That was what my first book, Gravity, was mostly about—seeing how voice can implicitly move a story forward without having to rely on the tired scaffolding of transparent, third-person realism. Basically, I was apprenticing myself to the tradition of literary maximalists in North American fiction. It’s a tradition that goes back at least as far as Stanley Elkin in the 1960s and runs up through David Foster Wallace and William Vollmann. But I’ve moved on now, I think.

Now I’m more interested in the atmosphere of place and the kinds of textures that can spontaneously arise from physical environments. I still have my obsessions: unemployment, suicide, social alienation, love, darkness, funerals, architecture, snobbishness, explosions, travel and petty theft—maybe a few others. But I’m thinking about all of these things in terms of environment now. I see my characters relative to their environments and how they interact with them. I think this makes my work particular. At minimum, it gives me a focus that other published writers don’t appear to have right now. I’m sure there are others out there who share my current interests. Let’s hope I don’t meet them before I finish this round of projects.

Why do I write what I do?

I write what I can. My work and my creative impulse are very closely aligned. So I don’t choose what I write as much as make myself receptive to what’s already there, if that makes any sense. I will write anything, in any mode or form or genre, that pleases me. Maybe it is better to say that I will write anything that pleases that part of me over which I exert little control.

It’s like sex. We like what we like. It’s not a studied decision unless we’re intimidated into functioning like whores. And then are we really enjoying it? Sometimes, maybe—the way any professional can enjoy the familiarity of an articulated process. Then again, I see a difference between simply being highly professional and being a highly professional artist. The artist puts the art first and the professionalism second becauseno matter what your publicist may say in that passive-aggressive conversation about how they might “position your book”professional polish and artistic creation are two different things.  A lover puts the love first and the sexual maneuvers second.  That isn’t professional, but it’s authentic.

That said, I think I also write because otherwise I would be a severely self-destructive, depressed, impossible person. It’s a common thing to say, maybe a cliché, but I think it’s true for me. Writing is my outlet. I have always escaped into my imagination. Now I do it so that others can join me there. That is very satisfying in a number of ways.

How does my writing process work?

I write as often as I can, ideally every day. Though, it doesn’t always work out like that. I try to write about 2 ms pages a day. This produces a story or a chapter every month. That’s as fast as I can do it and I find that’s all I need to do. It gives me time to think and keeps me from burning out.

I write what I feel drawn to write that day. Surprisingly, I get nearly everything done because I always have multiple projects in development. As long as I show up ready to get out of the way and let the creative impulse guide me, I’m good.

I sat down today intending to write a piece critical of certain shrill MFA voices that seem to have gotten shriller since MFA vs. NYC: The Two Cultures of American Fiction hit the shelves last February. Is “shriller” actually a word? It is. But it only takes meaning as a comparative adjective once something that was brittle, high-pitched, piercing, and so exaggerated as to be deeply annoying gets intensified beyond the bounds of reason and tolerance.

In fact, this was going to be one of those, “I think yon highly privileged (shrill) MFA Child Of The Universe doth protest too much, Horatio” posts. In it, I would have been sure to impart a sense of having been there and done that, taking care to insinuate that I was a hard bitten veteran of the academic creative writing hustle. I might have added a touch of weary exasperation that the culture of many workshop-based programs is about everything but the work. And I might have tried for a some kind of brief reversal three-fourths of the way through so that I could have ended on a slightly hopeful note.

Nope.

But come on. I’ve done all that. I’ve argued both sides: that MFA writing programs are excellent ways to focus on learning craft for two to three years without the distractions that would otherwise apply. I’ve also argued that the bloated culture of privilege and cynical, thinly veiled mediocrity in many of these programs short-changes students from the beginning. I still believe all of this. I also believe that if you go into it with open eyes, intending to use the program as a tool to facilitate your development as an artist, you will not regret your decision. If you go in and expect a big hug and Wonder Boys, your life will come to resemble a Muddy Waters song.

I’ve written a lot, here and elsewhere, on MFA programs—why I think we should still believe in them and the ways I think they utterly fail everyone involved. And by “everyone,” I actually mean anyone interested in the mission of creative writing, which I guess means everyone. The Big Everyone—like you, me, the kid on the big wheel down the block, President Obama, and Ray Kurzweil. Everyone. Because, in my opinion, the mission of art school is nothing less than cultural transformation. It’s founded on the assumption that the arts can and should have a place in society.

So I don’t know. Maybe I should recognize a certain degree of irony implicit in any post I write about gifted, neurotic, highly privileged 20-somethings in creative writing programs. I was one. In many ways, I still am. I feel at home with that crowd. And as a freelance writer and fiction instructor for the Gotham Writers’ Workshop, I’m still connected to the academic MFA world. I guess the question is whether there is anything new to be said about it. The perspectives in MFA vs. NYC have not been very surprising or insightful. It seems like the same old array of objections and justifications we’ve been hearing for years. Now they’ve been collected in a book instead of appearing in The Atlantic or on websites.

Maybe an even better question is whether anyone sees MFAs clearly at all. What if I point out that there is a perceptual “distortion field” around MFA programs which encourages students to believe themselves at the center of the universe? What if I argue that, because of this world-view, many MFA students also believe that the universe is in a state of perpetual collapse—because its center has been revealed to contain semen, bent paper clips, and cotton candy instead of the fire of the gods? And what if I describe the almost universal malaise that seems to descend on these young lords and ladies of creation around the time they’re halfway through their programs? A certain melancholy made from dwelling on the absurdly large student loans they took out in order to be “student writers” and how this seems like a perverse existential joke considering their post-program job prospects?

Oh, don’t be sad. There’s enough cotton candy for everyone.

 

For me, writing fiction means staying wide open to human experience by giving myself permission to be vulnerable and to intuit how other people can be vulnerable in the same ways.  It’s about representing that complex emotional mystery with as much sincerity and authenticity as possible—not as some kind of living camera, but as an individual person limited by defects and inhibitions, who is nevertheless willing to express what he feels.  That’s why I will never be finished becoming a writer.  I’ll never get it done.  I’ll never be able to say, “Okay, now I’ve done my best work.”

Back in Michigan, I studied more literature than was required for my degree because I enjoyed being around lit professors and grad students. Once a well-meaning lit student in one of those classes said to me, “It’s great that you want to become a fiction writer.” I said, “Actually, I am a fiction writer. But I agree, it’s great that I want to become more of one.”

When you know and develop what you are–writer, artist, teacher, programmer, lawyer, entrepreneur, soldier, whatever–you radiate that. You become a catalyst for that kind of change no matter what you are doing or where you are. It’s not that you are what you do–because that implies that if you’re not doing it, you don’t exist. It’s that you do what you are, always.

So a photographer sits in the waiting room of her dentist’s office. She is a photographer in a waiting room. She is not someone who was a photographer for two hours yesterday and is now nothing or some kind of post-photographer waiting to be a photographer again tomorrow. She is what she is, and she is constantly thinking like a photographer. In her actions, conversations, thoughts, memories, and impulses, she is a photographer, whether she has a camera in her hands or not. By doing her art, she can deepen her sensibilities and technical ability. But she does not rely on anything outside herself to be who she is, even if she relies on cameras to express that state of being externally. Likewise, she does not need the recognition, money, or approval of the world in order to exist.

As a writer and a teacher, I am always writing and teaching–whether I am at my desk, in a classroom, watching a movie, or taking a walk across town. I radiate that and cause change around me according to it. It is the way I connect with the world. Moreover, I can recognize the same sensibilities in others.

My classmate understood this immediately. She said, “You’re right. I’m sorry.” But it wasn’t an awkward moment. I could see that she’d already turned inward and had begun to ask herself: “Who am I? What do I radiate? What am I becoming? What sort of change do I create?” It was a really good moment because these are the questions we all have to ask and never stop asking.

​Here are some random thoughts on getting creative work done with a minimum of grief.

Basic Artistic Needs.  In order to write, I need, at minimum:

1. Quiet.
2. Solitude.
3. Minimal levels of discomfort​ – i.e. not feeling feverish and sick (including being hung over, exhausted, or otherwise ill), the heater not turned all the way up / down, people walking back and forth through the room or shouting / throwing things against the wall next door​, the gardener blowing leaves under the window, etc.  ​The idea is to be able to forget one’s surroundings for a short period of time in order to free the imagination.  This can’t happen with constant chaos and upheaval. 

Artistic Time vs. Regular Time:

Artistic time is subjective.  If I haven’t written in 3 days, it feels like a week.  When I haven’t written for a week, I feel dead–like I may never have the enormous amount of energy it will take to find the particular emotional structure I was working on before.  This is why Bukowski, Hemingway, Carver, and probably every other non-hack in existence worries about waking up one day and realizing that one’s talent has disappeared.  But such worries just amount to performance anxiety.  I get back into the process and they disappear.

Money and Making a Living as Justification for Complaints:

I am unable to justify any of these needs in terms of what I need to make a living.  It is not persuasive to say: maybe if I had a regular schedule (i.e. a better day job, more money coming in) I wouldn’t be having these problems.​  Money has nothing to do with it and publishing advances will not ultimately validate these needs.  Personally, I am writing highly specialized literary fiction.  I will be most likely to publish in literary magazines and small / university presses​ where there is an audience for my work.  I will not be able to support myself with my work because there are not enough consumers to make it profitable.  Therefore, all the demands I make about needing time, needing space, and needing minimum levels of comfort must always seem baseless and unjustifiable in any practical sense. 

Keeping on Keeping on:

I meditate and exercise.  Music plays a large role in my process.  Whatever it takes to continue is what you need to do.  The point is to continue.

Objections are Inevitable:

Objection 1: Resentful voice from the Internet: “I am a scholar / artist / salesperson / programmer / thought-worker and I need time and space, too!”  (Yes, I completely agree.  This doesn’t mean that just because you are having trouble along the same lines, I stop having trouble as a writer.)

Objection 2: Spouse / flatmate / friend / parent / magical talking dog who lives in the closet: “I am doing my part to help you have the conditions you need to write (so stop complaining)!”  (My complaints come from my sense of frustration not from any perception of insincerity or failure to help on your part.)

Objection 3: Regular reader of my blog: “But you write in crowded cafes all the time.”  (I can write in cafes when I am surrounded by strangers I can ignore and only when they are sufficiently quiet or oblivious.  I am unable to write in cafes (a) where there is someone I know staring at me or walking back and forth; (b) where people are emoting too much–like irritated tourists or upset locals; and (c) where people are sitting too close to me.  Because the art-production process is rarely 100% systematic, there will always be experiences that stand as exceptions to these things.  Still, I am talking in general, not about the exceptions.)

​Objection 4: Upset writer trolling posts tagged with writing terms: “So-and-so produces ten times the amount of work you say you produce and has none of these complaints.”  (So?  Many writers and artists have these complaints​.  If you want to point out an anecdotal counter-example to me, ​I can again note that there will be exceptions.  Unfortunately​, I am more typical​ in my needs than atypical.  If this makes me somehow complicit in my own misery, so be it.  But if that is true, then I am joined my many, many others experiencing the same problems.)

Objection 5: My disillusioned ex-girlfriend who wanted me to stop writing and go into sales to support her modeling career: “Why do you choose to do this work in the first place when it is so difficult and thankless?” ​  (Because even though it is difficult and thankless, writing fiction provides me with intellectual, emotional, and spiritual relief that would be lacking if I were merely working to make money.  People have said that an artistic calling is a curse because once you develop yourself artistically, you typically feel compelled to continue no matter the personal consequences.  Nevertheless, I can say with a certain degree of conviction that  if I didn’t have this relief, I would exit life as quickly as possible.  This is not to reduce art to the level of therapy, but it is therapeutic.  And I believe that is a large part of what makes it compelling.  That said, no artist actually chooses art.  It chooses the artist, my young apprentice.)

Objection 6: Well-intentioned genre writer with anxiety from listening to editorial advice on how to be more formulaic and saleable: “I read that in order to be a professional you need to (a) produce 1-2 novels a year; (b) write at a 7th grade level; (c) have your work vetted by test readers that function like focus groups, guiding your revision process to the most genre-acceptable trajectories; (d) spend twice as much time self-promoting as you do writing; (e) give away free content to entice readers, etc.” (No.  These things come from a particular stratum of the publishing industry that is usually heavy with genre fiction​ aimed at a very tight reader demographic.  These professional standards are neither right nor wrong.  However, they are definitely narrow enough to apply only to the new pulp fiction industry that has emerged from the convergence of e-publishing, self-publishing, and a powerful online consumer base.  If you are a literary writer or someone whose aesthetic does not fit into the highly calculated style sheets of these pulp houses, don’t fucking worry about it.  The publishing industry is a lot bigger than it seems.  Do not make the mistake of thinking that just because a particular writer on a particular blog says this is how it is, that is how it must be for every writer everywhere.  Apply critical thinking.  And don’t forget to do that with what I’m telling you here as well.  Remember that I am just another writer with a perspective on his industry.)

Objection 7: One of my Facebook friends: “You like James Altucher, but he says publishing is dead and we should all self-publish.  How do you reconcile that?”  (I don’t.  Altucher is a good writer and is entitled to his opinion about publishing.  I don’t completely agree with him because I have had some success in traditional publishing.  I have not made much money; though, I am not concerned with making a living this way.  I will probably always have a day job.  If I were writing Harlequin romances to make a living, I would be very concerned and would probably put all my books on Amazon.com via Createspace instead–because I fundamentally believe what he is saying about skipping the middleman in the publishing process.  It makes sense.  I actually like that idea and am not ruling out self-publishing for myself at all.  I just don’t think that self-publishing is the only viable way to publish.  And if you’re alright with the (admittedly crazy) traditional methods, then relax and put your manuscript in the mail.  He uses 50 Shades as an example of a successful way of bootstrapping oneself into publishing using self-published material.  Okay but I would like to point out that the books he mentions reading are somewhat different from that and any given piece of his own writing is superior to that of EL James (I have read some of her work and am not making this criticism arbitrarily).  Altucher is too modest to make that claim for himself.  I also think 50 Shades of Grey is a good example of a turd that everyone has decided to eat.  For that matter, I think Eat, Pray, Love, She’s Come Undone, The Notebook, and most of what Random House releases every year is comparable.  This doesn’t mean I won’t read such books.  I will read them to learn more about what I like and don’t like.  Maybe I’ll check them out from the library instead of giving my money to the Big Six.)

Woof?  Woof.

Writing seriously means nursing enormous egotism, believing that your inner life is worthy of concrete expression, worthy of sharing. The outside world wants to constantly remind you that you are nothing but a small, failed, decaying byproduct of its grand mulching system.  But bringing forth what’s inside you gives independent life to something that never before existed outside your mind, something that cannot be immediately quantified, digested, and mulched.  Therefore, writing is subversive.  Writing is Occupy Consciousness.  Writing is black magic.  It’s an external frame of reference, a constellation of ideas, a place outside the compost heap.  And we can go there together.

I spend a lot of time writing about writing, but I don’t say very much about reading.  Since the line between what we write and read is always very thin, I think I should remedy that.  I’m planning a “creative writer’s reader response” post sometime soon.  For now, I think it would be fun to post something like an annotated bibliography of current reads.

Websites & Blogs: Here is a short list of some of the things I read online.  I’m fascinated by blogs that show me something new, and I find the following sites really interesting.  The subject matter skews sharply toward my interests in architecture, civil engineering, creative writing, Asia, funerals, life-hacking, languages, and abandoned places.

  • The Forgotten City of Iram – Natasha Edgington’s image blog.
  • Bones Don’t Lie – A PhD student in anthropology who specializes in mortuary archaeology.
  • Bridgioto! – A gifted animator who isn’t afraid to show her work toward becoming a better painter.
  • Grinding.be – Articles about dystopias, architecture, and post-humanism.
  • I’ve Infused Myself with Puppy DNA – Voice-driven creative nonfiction by a gifted, if sometimes unfocused, writer.
  • Japanese Rule of 7 – Ken Seeroi’s thoughts about living in Japan as an English teacher.  Smart and often very funny.
  • My Hong Kong Husband – Multicultural marriage, Hong Kong, strange things afoot.
  • Functional Shift – Lisa Minnick is a linguistics professor and a gifted teacher.  Her thoughts on the implicit and explicit uses of English are fascinating.
  • Ribbonfarm – Venkat Rao’s writings on the relativity of perception and other interesting concepts.  Very smart guy.
  • Rune Soup – Gordon White is a funny, insightful, somewhat pissed off, chaos magician.  Reading his blog gives me story ideas and that would be reason enough, but I should note that he is clearly one of nature’s prototypes.
  • Order of the Good Death – Caitlin Doughty, licensed mortician and founder of the Order of the Good Death, a blog dedicated to fostering an intelligent discussion of death and “death theory.”
  • Things I Don’t Understand And Am Definitely Not Going To Talk About – Jen Snow’s small, highly absurd posts sometimes read like status updates and other times like well-crafted micro-fiction pieces.
  • Judecca – a webcomic by Jonathan Meecham and Noora Heikkilä about three lost souls who live on an island in one of hell’s rivers.  It’s well done.  A love story in hell.
  • Damned to Deutschland – Poems and short shorts.
  • The Witch of Forest Grove – Sarah Anne Lawless is a real-life witch / shaman as well as a very talented crafter, illustrator, and herbalist.
  • Du Fuchs – Photography and urban research in Tokyo.
  • Life in Russia – Traveling through post-Soviet spaces.

Books: What am I reading right now?  What will I be reading after that?  (I do update Goodreads from time to time as well.)

At present:

  • The Beautiful and the Damned – F. Scott Fitzgerald.
  • The Sailor Who Fell From Grace with the Sea – Yukio Mishima
  • The Walk – Robert Walser
  • Oxfordshire Folk Tales – Kevan Manwaring
  • The Melancholy of Mechagirl – Catherine Valente

Waiting on my desk:

  • The Informers – Bret Easton Ellis
  • Amerika – Franz Kafka
  • Chasing the Dime – Michael Connelly
  • Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell – Susanna Clarke
  • The Prague Cemetery – Umberto Eco

Don’t buy into the romantic assumption that being a creative artist is easy for those who are truly talented and meant to do it.  This is a materialistic commercial lie.  Something I believe: art is part of being human and must therefore be available to everyone.  And those who do it right never find it easy; though, the publishing industry, for example, may find it easier to sell certain books if readers believe that the writers being published are like idiot savants.

Everyone has an aptitude for some kind of creative process.  Finding out what it is means finding out more of what it means to be human and alive.  Not investigating this firsthand means voluntarily accepting an impersonal, commercially interested assumption about one’s creative potential—some external story about you imagined and written by someone who doesn’t even know you.  It’s an affront to everything unique and valuable in the individual self.

Moreover, it elevates money over art, which is fundamentally disconnected from the reasons we make art in the first place.  This is essentially stupid.  Therefore, we need to appreciate art.  We should create it and consume it, but we should not assume that it is something  mysterious, selective, elite, or random.  It is better to think of artistic ability as an attainment, a product of self-cultivation that uses materials we already have.  And our job is to understand it, interact with it, develop it, and teach this praxis to others.  Our job is not to worship those being held up to us as a select, anointed group.  Our job is to understand how commerce reacts with art and then to set all that aside so we can do our own work.

Planisphaeri Coeleste

Planisphaeri Coeleste

The structure of what I write is the structure of my emotional life.  My fiction isn’t autobiographical in any overt way.  Yet how I approach my subject matter depends on the way I see the world and myself in it.  Therefore, conceptually, perceptually, structurally, I write the narrative of my life the way I write any narrative—certainly in words but, in a deeper sense, in images.  Strung together in the mind, they form a constellation of emotions unique to me.  The physical manuscript is a chart of these moments, an inner star map, a personal zodiac that makes it possible for others to see what I have seen and feel the way I have felt.  The secret of such navigation is not in the words but in the structural relations between them, not in any given star but in the proportionality of the constellation.

This is my current understanding of creative writing: building associations between emotional states instead of focusing on monolithic things (characters,  paragraphs, settings, scenes).  A character is a humanlike set of particularities that exist in relation to something else.  A paragraph is a movement, an emotional gesture.  A setting is an environmental set of particularities, also significant insofar as it relates to something else (even to the eye of the reader, Mr. Fish).  A scene is all of the above moving together and in relation to all the other scenes.  And all of it exists for one purpose—to map a structure of intricate emotional movements that took place first in my mind, now in yours.

Is this difficult or complicated?  Not really.  But it is more honest, more elemental (-ary), than saying, “according to so-and-so, a character should do X, Y, and Z in a dramatic scene.”  Focusing on X, Y, and Z misses the point.  I don’t write to fulfill a preset arrangement of static constituent categories.  I write to move my reader.  And that is just as dynamic, relational, and variable as any emotion I might feel.

The following is taken from my response to a former student who asked: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?”  In other words—how I decided to construe the question—how do you break scenes and create implicit transitions between them?

When I started training myself to think in scenes, I relied heavily on the “white space” as a time lapse / separator.  The visual analogue of this would be the classic “wipe” transition from TV and movies.  It’s technical shorthand for “there is nothing more of significance to show in this particular time and place.”  We can use this because modern writers have pretty much stopped trying to adhere to the Aristotelian unities of time, place, and action.

Here is one theory about this departure.  As a form, the novel is older than the short story and the stage play is older than the novel.  Each form owes a lot to its predecessor.  Even late British stage melodrama generally observed the Aristotelian dramatic unities.  In other words, the only “jumping around” were the extremely conservative transitions between acts and scenes on stage—existing primarily so the stage hands could change the scenery and the actors could change costumes, etc.  But as western culture changed, public and private space got redefined, and middle class leisure reading became important (Habermas is the man to read to understand this in conjunction with the rise of the novel).  Fiction in English began to transform from highly episodic, picaresque shipwreck narratives (think: Defoe) and expositions of female morality (think: Richardson) to the highly stylized escapism of the Gothic novel.  The aesthetic of Gothic romance rebelled against tightly controlled forms.

Enter: Jane Austen and Northanger Abbey, her first published novel and pretty much a parody of the Gothic style.  As soon as we got this, we were ready for Victorian realism in the novel, which kept the idea of what a novel could be (a long, sometimes convoluted, graphic portrayal of a person’s life) and dropped the Gothic melodrama.  This is important because Edgar Allen Poe, one of the most significant figures in the early development of the short story form, argued (roughly around the same time) that a story should be readable in one sitting (back to Aristotle).  His reasons were less aesthetic and more practical: he wanted to encourage magazine fiction as a legitimate market (here is a good summary of his motivations).  So the story form emerged in a time when the novel (as the dominant form of fiction) was breaking away from classical, formal assumptions about when / where / how.  And the short story was defined (and marketed) as something compact that you could read out of a magazine in a single setting.

This is where the use of white spaces comes in.  Early story writers either used them to tell broader more “novelistic” stories or didn’t use them and scaled everything down in order to tell a more compact tale.  The idea was to produce a single emotion (incidentally, where we will get the modernist concept of epiphany).  Twain used white spaces like this.  Hemingway adopted them but more sparingly (we see them also in Fitzgerald and Maupassant)—still trying for that definitive emotional moment.  But in the 1960s, the maximalists rebelled against this, arguing that life actually wasn’t at all the way modern realism made it out to be.  Given the highly subjective, variable nature of human experience, the early maximalists (think: Elkin, Barthelme, Coover) found “minimalist realism” to be highly unrealistic!  This means that in their work technical moves like white spaces could be a lot of different things (look at the Coover link).

Realists loudly criticized such maximalist departures from what they considered to be a highly defined, clearly articulated form.  Needless to say, their vehemence fit right into the tradition I’ve been describing (Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance by Pirsig is a wonderful exploration of the tension between classical and romantic aesthetics).

Can we use the white space to good effect, defining what it will be the way Coover does in his famous story or in the way of William Vollmann, David Foster Wallace, Lorrie Moore, Denis Johnson–the recent postmodern maximalists?  Yep.  We can.

So back to the original question: “When writing a story and you find that you need to hop around from one scene to another, but not start a new chapter, what do you do?”  Given everything I’ve said, here’s the answer that might not have made sense otherwise: first determine what you’re trying to make the reader feel.  Because “form” should follow function instead of a set of classical assumptions about how to dramatically interpret experience through structure.

Moreover, everyone wants to write a story that will show up in the New Yorker or a novel that will make them famous with the NYC publishing machine.  But the corporate model for success as a fiction writer actually cannot be taught or learned.  That kind of success is as serendipitous as any other—no matter what the book industry would have young writers believe.  So if I were to tell students, “Do what feels right and make your own rules,” no one would listen.  Instead, I have begun with “let’s follow some of the rules.”  Only later have I followed that with: forget about what people say you should do.  Study literature as your guide and learn from what other writers have done.  Then do your own thing.

Right now, I’m writing a story, a novella, and working on a full-length novel.  In each of these, my only goal is to create the emotional movements / moments I need to create.

AIR AND LIGHT AND TIME AND SPACE

”– you know, I’ve either had a family, a job,
something has always been in the
way
but now
I’ve sold my house, I’ve found this
place, a large studio, you should see the space and
the light.
for the first time in my life I’m going to have
a place and the time to
create.”

no baby, if you’re going to create
you’re going to create whether you work
16 hours a day in a coal mine
or
you’re going to create in a small room with 3 children
while you’re on
welfare,
you’re going to create with part of your mind and your body blown
away,
you’re going to create blind
crippled
demented,
you’re going to create with a cat crawling up your
back while
the whole city trembles in earthquake, bombardment,
flood and fire.

baby, air and light and time and space
have nothing to do with it
and don’t create anything
except maybe a longer life to find
new excuses
for.

– Charles Bukowski

Like most who went to college in the early 1990s, I had the misfortune of first encountering Bret Easton Ellis’ work indirectly via the movie adaptations.  I rented Less Than Zero and thought it was okay in a rich-kids-get-the-blues-and-make-bad-life-decisions sort of way.

Cool yet deeply annoying.

Cool yet deeply annoying.

James Spader was simultaneously cool yet annoying.  And that pretty much characterized my opinion of Ellis’ sensibility for a few years.  The people he wrote about were outside my experience; though, I’d known a few self-entitled wealthy narcissists at my private high school in San Diego—daddy owned a boat and mommy took valium, that sort of thing.  But what I didn’t realize was that I had been reacting to the oversimplified (maybe clichéd) Hollywood tropes that had been extracted from his writing—a serious case of lost in adaptation, particularly for Less Than Zero and Rules of Attraction.

During my MFA, my professors were so determined to dismiss Ellis—I thought, mostly out of jealousy—that their vitriol actually piqued my interest.  I went through everything he had out at the time—Less Than Zero, Rules of Attraction, American Psycho, The Informers, Glamorama, and Lunar Park.  I read them with an eye for plot structure.  I paid attention to his use of short chapters and perspective shifts.  But mostly I apprenticed myself to his idiosyncratic first person voice.  I think that’s his strongest stylistic quality as a fiction writer.

Consider this beginning to one of Lauren’s chapters in Rules (and note the Hemingway-esque beginning in media res via “And”):

And it’s quiet now, and over.  I’m standing by Sean’s window.  It’s almost morning, but still dark.  It’s weird and maybe it’s my imagination but I’m positive I can hear the aria from La Wally coming from somewhere, not across the lawn since the party is over, but it might be somewhere in this house perhaps.  I have my toga wrapped around me and occasionally I’ll look over and watch him sleep in the glow of his blue digital alarm clock light.  I’m not tired anymore.  I smoke a cigarette.  A silhouette moves in another window, in another house across from this one.  Somewhere a bottle breaks.

Stoltz cannot save your movie.

And it continues this way.  The entire chapter is a long paragraph—not atypical for the novel or its predecessor, Less Than Zero.  The speaker’s voice—her tone, how she frames her perceptions in words—shows more about who she is than what may or may not be taking place in the physical setting.  Just as each voice-driven passage sets up a rhythm using long and short sentences to evoke the personality of the speaker, the lengths and arrangement of the chapters does the same thing on a larger scale.  By the end, we realize that the novel works not only because the main characters (speakers) have fully formed implicit arcs, but also because the novel itself has a vocal arc.  Rules weaves each of the character arcs together to push beyond their particular experiences and make a broad statement: this is what’s happening to your children, America.  Or, maybe, this is what happens when you give your child a gold card and send her off to college.

Great book.

The broad message is what it is: disaffected youth with too many resources, upper-class dry rot.  We can watch any movie about the idle rich and enjoy the cliché of the vacuous aristocrat.  In my opinion, those things are less important than what we can learn by paying attention to Ellis’ writing style.  He has been put down for having a trite, narrow message (and for his off-color comments on social networks and the media), but I think we definitely miss out on what’s great about his work if we let those things take precedence over the writing itself.  When I want to solve a problem using voice and I don’t know how to do it, he is one of my teachers.

RIP Elmore Leonard.  A great talent has gone out of the world today.  He will be missed.

Elmore Leonard

One mile out of Chicago O’Hare the plane turned around, grounded, the flight to Los Angeles cancelled due to a burning engine and pounds of ice in the wings.  Three degrees Fahrenheit and a column of smoke on the runway.  I sit by the gate and watch the fire trucks spray, their flashing red lights piercing the dull gray blizzard.  Inside the terminal, the heat has overcompensated and those of us now waiting on standby are sweating, eyes watering, human cargo left to suppurate.  When I try to call my wife, the little triangle on my phone blinks red.

People pace in front of the gate and stare out the glass windows, uncertain, deplaned.  I stare, with everyone else, at the nervous, middle-aged man who had started talking loudly about terrorists as soon as he got on the plane.  He is being detained by hard-looking Homeland Security ladies wearing surgical gloves and nightsticks on their hips.  His eyes are wide, mouth hanging slightly open.  They hold his arms and hustle him into their golf cart.  Every now and then the former passengers shoot mean looks at the airline agent behind the desk who seems both bewildered and terrified, her blonde hair sprayed up like the crest of a frozen wave.  She speaks into three telephones at once and taps on her keyboard.

Over by the news stand, a young, fat woman in florescent polyester growls at her three children as if she hasn’t had more than an animal thought since civics class, senior year of high school, last year.  She screams at her boys not to scream and swats them with her open hand.  They shriek and run in circles, listening to her probably as much as she listened when she was their age—as much as necessary to know where food, feces, and shiny things go.  Her post-adolescent husband sits at the small round table.  He has a military haircut, acne, and a black T-shirt.  He stares despondently into his fruit cup.  Occasionally, his wife turns to him and says something hard-edged, after which he says, “Behave,” to the kids.  And they do not.  They squeal and run.

“Can you believe this shit?” asks the guy in the row of seats behind me.  He’s wearing a blue Hawaiian shirt and a Dodgers cap.  He has a silver ring on every finger and two on each thumb, the Tribune open on his lap.

“It happens.”

“No, dude, this doesn’t happen.”

Delicate, porcelain-skinned Japanese women in black leather, drift into the terminal.  They don’t sit.  A swarthy, Cockney-looking man missing his right ear holds up a sign for them in kanji.  He smiles to them, bows.  They smile and nod.  He says something and their laughter is soft and sudden like the wings of birds leaping into flight.

Bing Crosby’s White Christmas plays in the ceiling.

“Look at that,” I say, as much to myself as to the guy behind me.  “People don’t hold up signs at the gate anymore.”

“Yakuza,” says my new friend.

The kids shriek in unison, what I imagine tearing plate glass might sound like—a high-pitched squeak under a hiss, the alien keening of something being rent that was meant to shatter instead.

Linda, the flight attendant, has been divorced twice.  She still wears an engraved, white-gold sorority ring, Cal Poly, Tri-Delta, ’98.  Linda has no children.  She likes to keep fit.  She’s a Scorpio by birth by a Virgo by nature.  This is what Linda has told me.  She likes to sit in the terminal with the passengers because pilots, she says, are all the same.

“What about flight attendants?”

She rolls her eyes.  She has folded her blue uniform blazer on the seat beside her.  We are the only people in our row of interlocked plastic seats, but I can feel the guy with the rings listening behind me.  “What do you do?”

“I’m a monkey trainer,” I say, “for a circus in San Dimas.”

Linda smiles like she doesn’t believe me.  “I’ve been to San Dimas.”

“You’ve been everywhere, right?”

“Hardly.”

“I bet you’ve been to Togo.”

She laughs and shakes her head.  “What’s in Togo?”

I drink the last of my coffee and watch the young mother shake a child with one hand while she holds the other by the back of his collar.  Her face is round and scarlet, a rare moon glimpsed only on the feast days of certain Confucian saints—the hard, terrible, idiocy of nature, raw and elemental.

“Monkeys.  Hundreds of them.  That’s where we get them.”

“You’re funny.”  Linda smoothes a strand of hair away from her face and leans toward me, hands on her knees.  “Funny’s good.”

“Yeah.  I guess so.”

We look at each other.  She smiles.  I blink slowly and massage my temples.

“So where are you headed?”

“Fresno.”

“Fresno.”  As if suddenly she’s discovered that the monkey thing was true.  “Who’s in Fresno?”

“My wife.”

When a structure burns long enough that the outer layers are consumed, the frame will linger in place for a time, glowing veins of fire sunk into the crossbeams, now part of them.  There may even be a point where the fire is the only thing holding it all together.  Linda’s expression is suddenly like that—held together with flame and not much else.

“Great.”  She leans back, hands no longer on her knees.  “You sure you’re not a pilot?”

“Once you spend time around monkey trainers, you’ll see we’re all the same.”

Linda stands and shakes out her jacket.  “I’ve got to catch a plane.”

“Where are you headed?”

“Go fuck yourself,” she says.

“What a bitch, says the guy in the Dodgers cap behind me.  His silver rings click on the molded plastic seat beside me when he leans over.  “She say she was a stewardess?  What airline?”

“Didn’t say.”

“Yeah.  Don’t feel bad, dude.  She’s full of it.”

An elderly couple creeps across the terminal, the old woman bent over, almost horizontal to the ground.  Her husband held her arm.  He looks upright and wiry with that spark of nervous energy people get from eating right and worrying their whole lives.“Where’s the wheelchair?” he yells.  “Come on.  Can’t we get a wheelchair?”  People stream around him.  He glares at them as if, through the act of glaring, one of them will be unmasked as the wheelchair bringer.

“Then again,” says the guy behind me, “maybe she could have hooked you up with some flights.  There’s that.”

“I’m a cop.”

“Jesus Christ.”  He stares at the side of my face, betrayed somehow, then moves three rows back.  I can feel him staring at the back of my head.

I tell him I’m kidding, but he looks away.

The old woman collapses, and those formerly streaming past now stand in a circle around her making nervous sounds.  People with walkie-talkies run and join them.  Paramedics arrive with a gurney.  The husband stands by with tears in his eyes.  “The wheelchair,” he says.  “We needed the wheelchair.”

The kids and their parents all seem temporarily mesmerized by the scene, waiting for something else dramatic to happen.  The mother’s face is no longer red but, like her kids, is suffused with expectation.  I think of Linda cruising somewhere above the clouds, thinking about earlier, happier Tri- Delta times.

A woman sets a small wire dog carrier down on the seat beside me and asks if I’ll keep an eye on it while she uses the bathroom.  I say okay.  Inside, a little terrier puppy blinks up at me through the bars.  It’s white with black spots and a tiny pink smudge on its nose.  It wags its tail, distracted only by the new shrieks of the kids—no longer interested in the old woman being wheeled away.  I raise my eyebrows and give the puppy Linda’s disbelieving smile.  It sighs and puts its head down on its paws.  And we wait.

It looks like my story, “The Catherine Wheel,” has made it into the Painted Bride Quarterly Print Annual 6.  Buy one here. ~ Michael

002

* Note: this was written a few years ago, but I never submitted it to magazines. ~ M

My enormous, perfumed, fedora-wearing friend, Walter Kaminski, sits across the table from me outside a Starbucks in San Diego and tells me there is no god.  I look at him like he’s crazy and he smiles as if nothing could be more predictable.  In a way, he is probably right.  We are both predictable.  He sits there, heavily cologned, with his absurd hat and about 20 more pounds since the last time I saw him, looking as contemptuous and amused as ever.  And then there’s me: unemployed, disenrolled, and back home with my folks at age 31.  Somewhere, it is probably written that things should be this way.  Walter smiles and sips his coffee.  He is happy.  Happy and content in the fact that he has a job and there is no god.  He reminds me of Maitreya Buddha, the laughing Buddha, found on Chinese restaurant counters everywhere as a fancy donation box that one feeds a quarter for luck and wisdom.

“I can prove that shit,” he says.

I nod.  I believe he can.

This happens on a weekday in the summer of 2005.  A month earlier, I’d arrived back at the house in which I’d spent the first 18 years of my life, back home from the University of Missouri, with no PhD, no means of gainful employment, and my few worldly possessions packed into a small-sized U-Haul that lost its brakes in New Mexico and blew its front left tire in Arizona.  And so I could care less about Walter’s atheist hypotheticals.  What I need is a job.  A job from good Walter, who, in our undergraduate creative writing workshops at SDSU used to furtively raise his hand when the instructor asked how many poets there were in the room.

I think of this while I look at him.  He used to have long hair.  Now he wears a fedora.  Instead of transferring to UC Irvine and then going to graduate school like me, Walter has built a fine career for himself in information technology management with the Target Corporation.  I must ask him for a job because I now have less than $100 left in my account and no direction—because, as I walked my bike out the front door this morning, like I did when I was in high school, my mom pushed a folded $20 into my shirt pocket.  “In case you want a cup of coffee or something,” she said.  I took the money, but I couldn’t look at her.  And pure shame fueled my pedaling for the hour it took me to bike across San Diego to the Starbucks near Walter’s office.

“It’s like this.”  He sets his grande latte down, smiling at it and turning it carefully on the table as if we’re in some kind of variant tea ceremony involving humiliation and loss of faith.  “If everyone can make their own reality, if it’s all just subjective and relative, you could go jump out in front of a bus and believe there’s no bus, and there would be no bus.”

“When did you become a philosopher?”

He drops his smile and I ask myself how arguing with him is helping my job search.

“Of course, I can see where you might have a point,” I add.

“It’s the spiritual dimension.  This world is the bus.  God is believing there’s no bus.  But you still get hit by the bus.”  Walter looks at me, wanting a reaction, his eyes narrower than they were a moment ago.

So I nod.

We were friends in grade school, then in high school, then as freshmen at San Diego State University.  But he never forgave me for transferring to a better school and then going after a masters degree in fiction writing.  I never forgave him for not at least trying to be a grownup poet.

“How’s work?” I ask.

“Work’s work,” he says, pushing back his fedora in the way of an old movie detective.  “50k a year ain’t much, but it pays the rent.”

You fucking fool, I want to tell him, and you don’t believe in god.

Actually, I don’t believe in god, either.  I believe in Carl Sagan, which is to say, I believe that if one wants to make an apple pie, one must first create the universe.  In fact, I have been trained to create universe after universe.  My MFA in fiction writing didn’t give me permission to do that, but it did show me how others have done it, over and over in various literary traditions, while I wrote bad fiction that slowly got better.

The degree was time to think, to write, to worry a little less about the practical exigencies of life.  Such was my training—not unlike the spiritual instruction a good friend of mine underwent in India.  After giving away everything she owned and moving to Hyderabad, she found a guru, who told her to carry handfuls of dirt from one empty room to another all day long for a month.  A few days into the program, she went to him in great frustration and said, “I’m miserable and I can’t help but feel that I was a lot happier in my old life back in the States.”  “First lesson learned,” said the guru.  Getting a MFA in creative writing was very much like that, only the “handfuls of dirt” are the misconceptions one has about being a writer.  And the “life back in the States” is the love of writing one had before entering graduate school and being saturated by style and craft—a love to which I believe one must return in order to be a real artist.

The story Walter really wants to hear is what happened after the MFA, when I went on for a PhD, when the universe I’d created began to collapse.  Sitting across from him outside Starbucks in the middle of San Diego, I feel that he is, in fact, as full of shit as ever.  I would like to tell him that a bus may be a bus, but it may exist, just the same, in a world I create along with apple pies and fedora hats.  And then a bus may be whatever I want it to be.  I would like to say that I believe in unseen forces like inspiration and heightened states of consciousness and lust and honor and art and even love, and that I believe all these things might just approximate god, bus notwithstanding.  And listening to the half-baked philosophy of my former friend, who I must now entreat for a lousy data entry position, I am clearly, painfully aware that I also believe in disgrace.  And this is my profession of faith.

On some level, Walter knows all this.  And that might be the saddest thing of all: he knows about his position and mine.  He knows about art and writing.  And I know that deep in an inner un-fedoraed hole of his being, Walter still believes that something exists beyond all his neat, flaming little shit—beyond data network and Starbucks and being comfortable with not trying.  But here we sit: him enjoying every moment of our very American ritual of thirtysomething comeuppance while I suffer.  Soon, we both know I’ll get around to the big question: are you going hook me up with a job or not, fucker,

for old times’ sake

for five creative writing workshops

for two attempts at dating my girlfriend when I wasn’t looking

and for an abundance of resentment, a multitude of beers—all of it being nevertheless okay up to the point at which I got serious about being a writer and left town.  And even after that because we might, we just might, want to let these petty resentments go.  So I ask, directly, with as much dignity as I can, and Walter shrugs.

“I think we can work something out for you in one of our stores,” he says.  “I don’t know about data entry, though.  Retail’s what I’m thinking.  Weren’t you trying to get a masters or something?”

“I got that.  Then I went on for my PhD.”

“Oh, right.  Are you, like, Doctor Davis now?  Is the doctor in?”

I understand that there might be a time and a place where this could be funny or, at least, cute.  But I’m still hearing the word, retail.

“No,” I say and look straight at him.  “I dropped out.”

“How come?”  He wants to know mostly because he’s envisioned this scenario for a long, long time and he wants to enjoy it as much as possible.  I should get on my ancient Schwinn and pedal away, but the kindness in my mother’s face comes back to me, and I don’t move.  Instead, I begin to tell Walter the story of my return.

In May of 2003, I had created the universe, and my apple pie was baking nicely.  Or so I thought in the deep pie days of an almost-finished MFA at the University of Montana.  Missoula was glorious.  I liked the snow.  I liked the crazy cowboys fighting in the bars and the bikers and that lesbian separatists would come into town to pick fights with men after bar time.  There was violence in Montana, but also great kindness in the way that violence and kindness often come together and feed off of each other.  The university was only one small part of the experience, which included mountains right behind the campus, deer in the streets, and a sense of enough time to work and do the things one wanted to do while crazy things were taking place one block over.

Of course, there was also enormous talent in the writing program.  I geared up for workshops as if I were about to be put to the question.  In those fiction classes, the graduate students mixed equal parts of brilliance and hostility in an unheated narrow room beneath a picture of Richard Hugo holding a beer.  It was the traditional Zen-Inquisition method of the Iowa Writers Workshop with an extra gladiatorial aesthetic.  A friend of mine would read the Hagakure on days he was critiqued.  I would listen to Nixon’s “Cambodian Incursion Address”—as a joke at first but eventually paying attention to his voice, how he kept it steady.  If one man could face down an entire country, I could handle a room of 12 people.  It was never boring and the workshops made me capable of shrugging off the worst and best things said about my work.  I wrote a lot of lousy stories, a few good ones, and I published some of both.  I edited the literary journal.  I drank and had more varied and interesting friends than I ever would again.  I looked at the universe I’d created and saw that it was good.

Then we gave our final readings and submitted our theses.  And things began to change.  Those with trust funds went on one last ski trip together in Vail.  The rest of us went to AWP, the world’s foremost book fair and trade convention for publishers and writers, which seemed then (and continues to seem) more like a human spawning pool.  AWP was the first real sense I’d get that this flawless bubble world I’d created for myself might someday vanish, that art was not the great equalizer in which the privileged and the determined, the wealthy and the impoverished could come together in some kind of sincere community, and that after the end of the current academic term, I was just about fucked.

That year, AWP was held in Chicago.  One must travel 1574.11 miles to get there from Missoula.  Five of us covered the distance in one day of continuous driving in a brown 1962 Thunderbird Roadster with bald tires and ruined alignment.  The car slid most of the way.  Gas cost us about $160, which I remember because an hour into the trip, Jim, the owner of the car, told us he thought there might be a hole in the fuel line and so it would probably cost us “a little bit more” to get out to Illinois.  The fact that we made the roundtrip just fine with each of us only having to pay for one tank of gas still amazes me.

We were all cautiously friendly with each other on the way out, but, as soon as we arrived at the hotel, it was over.  A certain suspiciousness descended, casting all the feverish glad-handing and deal-cutting of the place in the worst possible light.  Us became me, and me was just shorthand for what I’m not getting (employment, a break), for time to reevaluate my life choices (military? vocational training?), for what have I done?  And the five of us failed the way one can only fail at AWP.

Mei, who often introduced herself by noting that she left med school to get a MFA, went to every possible event and lecture with a voice recorder and a spiral notebook.  Esther, a sweet middle-aged mother of two, who’d beaten cancer and decided that a decade working for Wells Fargo was quite enough, spent her time in the hotel bar, striking up conversations with drunk writers.  Bob, who already had three books of poems and said he planned to join the Peace Corps because art was dead, got depressed by the scene and left to explore the city.  Jim introduced himself to every publisher present and handed out business cards until he was so exhausted that he had to take a nap in a folding chair.

I tried to do a little bit of everything but, mostly, I drifted through the crowd of writers and publishing industry people, looking at their faces.  My people, I told myself, though I couldn’t believe it.  Feverish.  Desperate.  Anxious.  Aggressive.  Aggressively cheerful.  Starving.  Put several hundred writers in two big rooms—over half of whom are out of work and in survival mode—and the energy generated can warp the space-time continuum.  One begins to hallucinate.  One begins to smell others—the fear, the wild estrus of migratory poets outside their natural habitat.  One begins to ask hideous, existential, bridge-jumping questions: Why did I do this?  What have I really accomplished?  What does that magazine publication actually mean and do more than 10 people actually read it?

After my own exhaustion set in and to save money, I bought a cheap bottle of vodka a block from the hotel and went back to the room, intending to spend my first evening drinking and watching Chicago television.  But Mei had beaten me to it.  She was sitting in the middle of the bed, hugging a pillow.  The Weather Channel was on T.V.  She’d taken off her black-rimmed glasses and put on her faded CAL sweatshirt.  I didn’t know Mei that well, but I had a feeling that exchanging glasses for faded undergraduate sweatshirt and pillow was a personal meteorology that foretold precipitation.  The bottle of booze and a forced smile were my own: Creative Writing Industry Conference Job Search Rictus of Disillusionment, Mark I.

“I saw David Foster Wallace,” she said to footage of a twister going through Kansas.

“Yeah?  How’d he look?”

I took a swig from the bottle and handed it to her.

She drank.  “I don’t know if it was him.”

Silence.  The twister had flattened two towns.  People were getting treated in an emergency tent.

“Who else did you see?”

“I don’t know anybody.”

She drank again and handed it back.

The weather news reporter said five surrounding communities had pooled their resources.  People had left work to drive vans and trailers of supplies.  Whole families had already received canned goods and able-bodied volunteers were working nonstop with the fire department to remove rubble.

“We’ve got two more days.”  I made my rictus as cheerful as possible.

“Give me the bottle,” Mei said.

I got very drunk that night, passed out on the floor, and didn’t fully recover for the rest of our time there.  After three days, no one had any interviews or made any meaningful connections.  Jim, who mostly wrote creative non-fiction, was the only one of us who’d thought to make business cards.  On the long drive back to Missoula, he admitted that he’d brought 150 of them, handed out 50, and 40 of those were handed right back or thrown out while he was still speaking.  I will never forget the silence that ensued after he said that.  It was night and we were somewhere just past Rapid City, South Dakota.  The five of us stared at tiny pinpoint lights far off in the dark reaches of the Mount Rushmore State.

“Well, you’ve got ten of them out there working for you,” Esther said.  At that moment, Esther was probably the best human being within three counties.  I don’t know what happened to her after we went our separate ways, but I hope she’s happy.

Ten business cards, I thought.  Ten miniature, cardboard apostles doing Jim’s good work out in the writing world.  They were very simple: Jim’s full name, then Writer and his cell and email in a nice tasteful burgundy-on-cream script.  I still have one of them, even though I haven’t heard from Jim in six years.  The last time we spoke, he was driving to an Indian reservation to work as a librarian, English teacher, and carpenter.  I can recall wishing him well and making plans to get together sometime.  Jim had been a carpenter before graduate school, and I imagine it was the deciding factor in him getting the job.

“But you wrote a book or something out there, right?”  Walter’s eyes track a middle-aged woman coming out of the Whole Foods next to Starbucks.  She sits at the table beside ours, her plastic grocery bags on the ground in two lines as if the caravan has now parked at the oasis.  Her small dog barks and shivers in her lap.  The slice of watermelon she’s trying to scoop with a green Starbucks spoon is the same size as the dog.

“Oh, I accomplished things, Walter.”

“So it wasn’t a total loss then.”

“I never said it was a loss.”

Walter plays with his now-empty coffee cup and stares past it to the place where the goddess of information technology dispenses all palliatives and anodynes.  Somewhere, in a more systematic, calmer reality—perhaps in the antiseptic stasis of Target Corporation’s IT hive mind—men do not flirt with chaos and return.  There are clear boundaries between the known and the unknown, and the artists, priests, and lunatics who inch over the line are expelled from the society of the right-minded.  But here we are, sitting on the prow of our very own Nellie with me implying that this also has been one of the dark places of the earth—not Conrad’s image of the Thames, not the story of where I went, where Walter could have gone but chose not to go—but the story of my return in itself.

This, the return that brings knowledge of dark places on the map, beyond the whited sepulchers of good sense and steady income, is what the first century Greeks called mysterion, divine mystery, that which can only be expressed at the intersection of metaphor and silence, through art or trance.  Conrad writes that “One ship is very much like another, and the sea is always the same. . . . for there is nothing mysterious to a seaman unless it be the sea itself, which is the mistress of his existence and as inscrutable as Destiny.”  And thus the divine mystery of the writing life appears to me through Walter’s eyes: by getting a MFA, by pausing at the crossroads of metaphor and silence, I might just have returned, steeped in mysterion, from my personal kryptos—that which is hidden, dark, not easily understood.  And, all of a sudden, I don’t feel quite so ashamed, and I don’t envy Walter so much.

He has been neglecting his mistress.  And his reality has now forked suddenly away from questions of loss and gain, cost and benefit.  Something in my story, something about Mei or Jim or the experience of AWP, hooks into what he remembers about being an undergraduate writing student and having to argue with the binaries that writers must confront when they take their work seriously: success-failure, fiction-nonfiction, poetry-prose, truth-representation.  The truth in writing and the truth in not writing.  The lie of not writing when you’re a writer.  And the absolute, objective verifiable truth that there are no absolute, objective verifiable truths—or even true standards—in creative writing as an industry or a vocation.

There is only mysterion.  Or runa, the Norse rune-word for it.  I wear that rune on a leather cord under my shirt, the scrimshaw of it done by a Flathead Indian woman one afternoon at the Black Creek Lodge outside Missoula.  She told me the piece of bone was cut from the horn of an Iberian bull killed in the Coliseum de La Coruña, but I suspect it was from a local ranch or wasn’t even from a bull, which nevertheless fits into the runa.  As Walter fiddles with his coffee cup, trying to think of something to say, I feel the bone pendant through my shirt and think about the old Starbucks goddess that the company simplified and de-paganized into a more abstract, inoffensive logo when the Christian Coalition got offended by her breasts.  Such Victorian Will to Blandness is what set Conrad’s characters fleeing onto ships, the undeniable resonance of the mysterion, of the kryptos, in the sound of the sea.  I tell myself that I would have left the Starbucks logo nipples-out.  As my ego reinflates, I keep deciding what my story means—that it does mean something—moment-by-moment, justifying it as much to myself as to Walter, who’s growing more uncomfortable by the minute.

Arête,” I say.  “All things brought to the highest level of excellence.  That’s what it all meant.”  And I just manage to keep a straight face while I say it, even though I know that part of me really believes in things like ancient Greek mystery words, runic mysticism, and the possibility of excellence in graduate school.  I suppose I would have gone for the MFA even if my bright future in retail had been assured.  I tell myself that it was not necessarily assured.

“Okay.  Arête.  So the PhD was all different and miserable then?  That’s why you’re back?”

Nice, Walter.  Recalibrate.  Try to resurrect the shame.

“Yeah.  There was no arête in Missouri.”

The dog in the woman’s lap wiggles loose and manages a bite of watermelon before she shrieks and swats him off.  He travels about two feet to the side and then the collar yanks him back.

“Not your pooch?” asks Walter.

“Not your business,” says the woman.

“Oh.  Wow.  Okay.”  He looks at me and raises his eyebrows, adjusts the fedora, spins his coffee cup on the table.

The dog breathes heavily and, when the woman stands, she puts her arm underneath his body in a puppy come-along.  With great suffering difficulty, she hooks her five bags of groceries on one finger and makes her way into the parking lot.

“I’d offer to help,” I say, “but I don’t think she wants any.”

“Dog should piss on her.  That’s what I’d do.  Dog arête.”

I nod.  “Dogête.  Like karate.  Way of the Dog Hand.”  This is something we can both smile at, something outward, beyond both of our egos.  For a moment, it feels like old times—back when we’d both had a sense of humor that didn’t default to meanness.  Then the moment goes.

“So what’s your thesis about?  Montana?”

I watch the woman put the groceries in her trunk with one hand, the dog locked to her chest with the other.

“A lot of things.  It’s got a Montana story in it.”

“Yeah?  Where can I buy a copy, or will you be giving me one?”

There’s a Barnes & Noble just past Whole Foods.  My thesis is not in it because my thesis is not published.

“Soon,” I say.  “Maybe this year.  I’ve gotten some very encouraging responses from publishers.”  Actually, rejections.  Actually, form rejections.  Form rejections on little pieces of Xeroxed paper with fuck off and please don’t send us your lousy writing ever again phrased in the most artful yet unambiguous publishing euphemisms.  This is not what we’re looking for right now.  Thank you for your submission to Lost Loaf, but we are currently experiencing a backlog of manuscripts.  Dear author, please excuse us for passing on this one.  Dear _______, Lagniappe Press wishes you the best of luck in placing your work elsewhere.  We have recycled your manuscript.

“Oh,” says Walter.

“But I’ve published in numerous small magazines.”

“Oh.”

“What about you?  Writing at all?”  My voice sounds high-pitched.  I clear my throat.       Walter smiles: my shame resurrected.  Suddenly, I am pathetic once again, a pitiable ground rodent shaking my angry little claws at the heavens.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” he says.

We sit in silence again, and I’m about to depart and go nurse my weasel ego as I imagine that little dog is nursing his—lick my fur, yowl plaintively at the cold, unforgiving hardness of life—when Water decides he really wants to know.

“So what happened in Missouri?  What?  Did you bang some professor’s wife?”

“Yes.  That’s a given, Walter.  That’s what happens in graduate school.  Wife banging.  And the odd sex party with your students.  You’ve heard of freshman composition?”

He doesn’t get the humor.  Alright, maybe I don’t get the humor, either.  Because my time in Missouri was no joke.  And there wasn’t much sex taking place in the English department at the University of Missouri—that is, normal sex, sex between mature adults that doesn’t result in emotional fallout with a half-life of years, that doesn’t ruin careers or potential careers.  Beneficial sex might have been the solution.  Moreover, I wish whoever is there right now, suffering through that misery, great golden fornications—and not as the receiving end of UM’s graduate program in English, which had its nasty way with 15 of us in the Fall of 2004.

When I arrived, I’d been lifting a lot of weights.  I may have been in the best shape of my life thus far.  Very little body fat.  I did about 300 sit-ups a day, practiced yoga, and performed the Soo Bahk Do hyung I’d studied since age ten—a very hard Korean martial art designed primarily for breaking joints and killing people as efficiently as possible.  My tolerance for alcohol was also extremely high in spite of my constant training.  And it is safe to say that I’d developed a drinking problem in Montana—a thrice-weekly habit of blackout drunks, alone in my apartment, on cheap Canadian whiskey and the occasional 40oz of malt liquor.

I missed Missoula.  I’d become irritable without friends or future, having applied to PhD programs right out of my MFA because, as much as I loved living in Montana, I didn’t have many other options.  Steady jobs don’t often come to MFAs, at least not the steady jobs MFAs grow to want.  So, when I moved into a two-story duplex on a grassy hill just outside Laughton, MO, I put a weight bench in the living room, unfolded my futon, and hooked up some speakers.  I owned about 10 books, which included The Riverside Shakespeare, The Complete Stories of Isaac Babel, The Complete Stories of Anton Chekhov, and Marcus Aurelius’ Meditations, books I found solace in when depressed, which was often.  When I wasn’t in class or teaching composition (something I deeply and openly enjoyed—a sentiment the other grad students and even a few of the English professors viewed with abject suspicion), I was working out or wrestling with the whiskey.

On more nights than I can count (or remember), I found myself sitting at the card table in my kitchen, listening to talk radio and drinking towards oblivion.  Other than on booze, I spent very little money.  My food budget was less than $10 a day and gas ran me about $20 every two months because I only ever drove two miles to campus, store, and home.  And, in a very short time, everything in my life changed.  I found that interpersonally, emotionally, I was becoming a different person.  My social life was different.  The amount of people with whom I had contact on a daily basis rapidly decreased to classroom, grocery check-out line, and graduate students.  I found myself looking forward to brief exchanges in the market above all else—unencumbered moments that didn’t involve mentoring freshmen or an emotional exchange with upset graduate students that would stick with me for days afterward.  When all else is dystopia, the grocery store will be the bolt hole of sanity.

The Laughton nightlife, of course, was different.  In Missoula, before the bartender (who probably knew you in some other way outside the bar) asked you how your week had been, he’d pour out two shots for you and two for himself.  These shots would be free and you’d immediately order more of the same because that would be exactly what you liked to drink.  Missoula was comfortable.  Every drinking establishment had a card table or three and even the worst places had old timers who’d come in around noon to sit at the bar and bullshit over a Pabst.  Not in Laughton.  My first few outings were dismal, reminding me more of the southern California beach bars I’d snuck into as a kid: a lot of similarly dressed people who’d arrived together and who’d leave together.  In the meantime, they didn’t want to talk to you.  Surrounded by them, you could be standing in a packed room yet feel utterly desolate.  So I stopped trying to recreate Missoula and spent more nights at home.

I eventually quit drinking and it was agony.  Night sweats.  Insomnia.  Overwhelming anxiety and a lust for sugar so powerful that I quickly gained 10 pounds.  I fought back by becoming even more irritable, more obsessive about working out and drinking gallons of water.  My writing stopped because I couldn’t focus.  But, slowly, I was taking charge of the parts of my life that I understood, trading enjoyment for control.  It wasn’t pleasant in any way, and I asked myself more than once what had possessed me to undertake a Puritan upgrade.

My Montana friends would call sometimes, often from a bar.  They’d say Hey man,  say hello to Bill.  You remember Bill?  The guy with the white hat?  He’s a funny motherfucker! as if I’d been away for years.  What are you doing? they’d ask.  Nothing, I’d say.  And then there would be silence.  Or rather, there would be the roar of music, bottles clinking, people laughing and ordering drinks.  Then we would say good-bye and I’d pace around my apartment for an hour, depressed.

The only time I felt something akin to normal was when I was teaching my two classes: beginning fiction writing and freshman composition.  The undergraduates at UM were bright, healthy, and optimistic.  Nearly all of them sincerely worked hard, and I found myself preparing more thoroughly to teach them than for the classes I was taking.  Some of those students have since become professional writers.  And I do not flatter myself that they continued on because of my efforts.  Though, if what we discussed somehow contributed to their progress as artists and thinkers, then I will be satisfied that my time in Missouri wasn’t a total loss.

Teaching aside, it sure felt like a total loss to me.  I was beginning to appreciate many of the subtle facets of life-encompassing misery, the great variety of which could be experienced in graduate school while one is drying out in isolation.  A brief overview will include a body of morose grad students sustained by psychotropics and alcohol; a faculty at war with itself in hallway screaming fights and decade-spanning feuds; a degree of marital infidelity that would make Lucrezia Borgia blush; and a Kafkaesque bureaucracy, whose matrix of requirements kept students in for five years, eight years, and in the case of my cubicle-mate, Orrin, eleven years.

(Eleven years!  Orrin, where are you now?  You’d put in 11 years when I arrived and you should be writing this, but you disappeared that Fall and never came back.  I like to think it was a positive change—a good life, a secret wife, maybe some nice AA meetings beyond the sunset—but I remember you and I worry.  You once told me nothing good could come out of the graduate program apart from the good of getting away from it.  And that escaping, in itself, was a feat.  Did you accomplish this?  Anguish and massive self-change did it for me—a commitment to my own well-being above all else and a healthy appreciation for mystery, for the beauty of the writing life that has nothing to do with institutional narcissism and everything to do with individuation.  I wish something like that for you.)

In fact, we were not encouraged to look forward to graduation, reminded at all times in myriad ways that the job prospects in the humanities were more dreadful than the lives we were currently living.  There were meetings.  I liked to call them “Convocations of the Politburo,” but people didn’t laugh at that for long.  Roll was taken, and we were given one academic credit for attending once a week.  On paper, these meetings were meant to “facilitate communication between graduate students and faculty.”  But, in reality, Josef Stalin would have felt right at home.

It was always the same.  A random assortment of English professors would sit in folding chairs on the stage of a lecture hall, looking extremely uncomfortable, while trying not to make eye-contact with each other or with the grad student audience.  And the grad students would stare forward with the thin-lipped intensity of adults about to be chastised like infants.  Some wise souls learned how to sleep with their eyes open or how to seem like they were paying attention while surreptitiously grading student papers.  I felt there was deep wisdom in there that I had missed.  They were the bodhisattvas of the program.  Like all enlightened beings, they were few and reclusive.  No one taught the art of mental detachment or covert paper grading.  It had to come intuitively from the heavens.  I was not one of them.  I couldn’t look away.

Graduate Director Robinson—who appeared and sounded very much like Christopher Lee’s Saruman in the Lord of the Rings movies—would stand at the podium and open each meeting with, “Questions?”  There were never any questions.  For a brief moment, his eyes would sweep over us.  And then he’d nod, satisfied.  There shouldn’t be questions.  A guest speaker—someone who had been in the program or managed to graduate from the program—would come up and foretell the future.  Then the guest speaker would ask if there were any questions.  There would be none.  Only silence.

Sometimes the speakers would have very cathartic experiences while presenting.  I can recall one of them breaking down in tears when telling us about the life she’d had to lead after graduate school.  She’d received a PhD in British Restoration literature.  Now she was a hospice nurse.  And she still couldn’t fully reconcile the years she’d spent (“sacrificed” was her term) with what she was doing now.  But she said she was coping better these days.  “These are the best years of your life,” she told us.  Then there would be announcements, like at the end of church.  In all the meetings I attended, the professors on stage never spoke once.  And they gave off the distinct impression that they, too, were under some kind of edict, some kind of post-tenure sorcery that compelled their bodies, like stiff marionettes, onto the stage and into the chairs.

Off stage, some of them were well-meaning, very brilliant people, bewildered as much as anyone by the reversals and exigencies of the academic life.  But, in my experience and that of the graduate students I knew, most of the faculty came in somewhere between Saruman and an angry raptor—spiteful and depressed, yet dependent on certain encompassing illusions about themselves and the world.  And as the evolutionary midpoint between undergraduate and professor, the graduate students were drawn into such dream worlds, wrapped up in Machiavellian power games, competition, long-standing resentments, departmental politics.

Fortunately, I was careful.  Others were less so.  If Professor A’s cheating wife was getting together with Professor B, and you were studying with Professor B, you’d better know to avoid A or become A’s punching bag.  This happened to Pete, a lit. student who’d been a middle manager for a multi-national beverage company.  He was married and had two kids when he decided to go get the PhD he’d always wanted.  This displeased his wife.  After months of late nights and angst, they had their second divorce talk and she moved into the local Holiday Inn, where she remained with the kids, for the rest of the academic term. She was perhaps the most bitter and, unfortunately, the most clear-headed and honest human I encountered while in Missouri.  When she took it upon herself to complain to Professor A for quadrupling her husband’s work load, A’s response was that if Pete didn’t like it, he could go study with Professor B, who seemed to have a lot of extra time on his hands.

For 15 weeks, Pete did not sleep.  I would see him in the basement cubicle farm that served as the graduate student offices.  He’d usually be standing, his desk covered with books, papers, Styrofoam coffee empties.  Pete once explained to me that he automatically went to sleep whenever he sat down, no matter the conditions or the amount of caffeine.  Though his wife was still at the Holiday Inn, she’d started driving him to school in the mornings.  Such was life.  I felt bad for Pete and for others like him, who’d blundered onto battlefields they didn’t understand.  But I kept my head and did my best to avoid A and B, to teach my classes, to be a nondescript entity; though there were still problems, even for someone living as monosyllabic an existence as I was.

Winter came with sleet and ice.  My apartment heater was broken and the management company kept saying they’d send someone out but never did.  I bought a space heater that looked like an enormous toaster oven.  It very effectively heated up the 6-foot block of air directly in front of it and nothing else.  After melting the bottom of my polyester futon, I decided I couldn’t risk using the space heater while sleeping.  Once, I left home with the kitchen window cracked open and found that ice had formed on the ceiling.  So I slept in jeans, two sweatshirts, and a coat.  At a local sporting goods store, I bought a green ski mask, which I also wore to bed in order to feel my face in the morning.  I was a sight.  But nobody had to know.

Directly behind my duplex, the electric company had a fenced lot of transformers and switches that gave off a high-pitched whine at all times, rain, sleet, or snow; though I hadn’t noticed it when I’d first visited the place.  That Fall, I would lie in my clothes every night, looking as if I’d just gotten home from a bank heist, and listen to the sound of the electrical field.  Some nights, I thought about the people I left behind in California, in Montana, in the other places I’ve lived.  Most nights, I’d look at the bars of light on the ceiling, listen, and wonder what was going to become of me.

Getting an advanced degree has never been, nor should it be, a throw-away experience.  It should push those who are already competent to become more of who they already are.  It should open new areas of inquiry and recontextualize what has been taken for granted.  And we can joke about arête, mysterion, and exploring the kryptos in our lives, but I believe it really is possible to experience such things through a course of graduate study—personally, transpersonally, transdiscursively.  I’ve seen it in myself, in my MFA experience, in the PhD program (far away from the University of Missouri) to which I ultimately made my way.  And, even when I was in Missouri, I saw it hidden in the individual bubble-worlds professors would create.

Dr. N taught an excellent Harlem Renaissance seminar in which he announced at the beginning that we would have to make a commitment to 50 pages of critical writing.  On the second class meeting, only five of us remained.  4 of us lasted to the end.  We produced the pages.

Dr. H, the rhet-comp expert, wanted us to understand the rhetoric of institutions, governments, universities—the hegemonic bureaucracies into which college graduates are knowingly and sometimes unknowingly interpolated.  We analyzed the rhetoric of power relationships inherent in prisons, hospitals, corporations, the military, and even UM, stopping just short of a direct critique of the English department itself.  We read poststructuralists alongside the ancient Sophists.  And I came to think of Dr. H as perhaps the reincarnation of Quintilian when she sat at the end of the conference table, eyebrows raised, fingertips pressed together.

There were others, people like night-blooming flowers—beautiful but only for limited intervals that went mostly hidden in a general darkness.  In November, Professor L refused to teach her graduate poetry workshop, fed up with her students arriving unprepared.  Pissed off beyond all restraint, she told them they were worthless, that if they wanted to learn they could teach themselves, and she went home.  This was related to me as I walked across campus with Alma, a woman who’d been in the shop and who seemed overjoyed at the recent developments.

“Was she right?” I asked.  “You guys sound pretty worthless to me.”

“Don’t be stupid.  Nobody ever does reading ahead of time.”

Ah, I thought.  This is why there is screaming.  This is why there is unrest.  People who are reading do not have time to despise each other.  Or, at least, they have less time.  I considered the possibility that the entire department had stopped reading.

“She called us a bunch of no-talent assholes.”

“Maybe you’re a bunch of no-talent assholes,” I said.

Alma rolled her eyes.  “Let’s get a sandwich.”

And so it went: with Professor L being forced to teach poetry writing to her beloved graduate students under pain of immediate suspension.  This was not considered overly scandalous, as the wife-drama between Professors A and B had recently escalated to a parking lot fistfight.  Faculty meetings were now being held via email.

As the term listed slowly into November, one of the grad students got diagnosed with a severe lung infection.  Tests arranged by her attorney revealed that the mold in her lungs had come from the basement of the English department where the graduate cubicle farm was located.  Water damage beneath the ancient mustard green carpet had gone long unaddressed.  A suit was pending.  Worried about the possibility of a multiple-plaintiff action (clusterfuck was the term I first heard), UM lawyers recommended that we all be issued paper air-filters, the common type that people wear in emergency rooms, when installing drywall, and in Shanghai to stave off black lung.  Whenever we were officially holding office hours, we were instructed to wear the masks.  We were also advised to wear them whenever we were down there and began to feel “queasy, dizzy, or overly anxious with burning in the lungs or other difficulty breathing”—symptoms which might have described the graduate experience at any point on any given day.  There were two cardboard boxes of about 500 masks each at the bottom of the basement stairs.  A few people wrote things or drew cat whiskers on theirs.  I wore mine constantly.

“Could you take that off?” asked one of my students, who’d refused when I’d offered her one.

“No.”

“It’s creepy.”

“There are spores in the air.”

“You’ve got a problem,” she said, looking around at the masked graduate students going about their breath-filtered business.  “What’s wrong with you people?”

“Health comes first,” I said.

Spores were everywhere.  That week, the no-talent assholes assembled the Comintern for a new guest speaker, a woman named Carol, who had received a MFA in fiction writing and had then gone directly to veterinary school.  She brought her St. Bernard, Ramón, who sat happily on stage, radiating canine goodness at the feet of the uncomfortable-looking professors, while Dr. Carol spoke about the writing opportunities available in animal medicine.

I was the only no-talent asshole who’d worn my breath mask.  I drew many amused stares and the twin death beams of Graduate Director Robinson, who seemed to be growing more Sarumanish by the day.  He’d taken a sabbatical to Morocco the year before, and that day he was wearing the white kaftans he’d bought there.  With the kaftans, his white beard, long white hair, peaked black eyebrows, and uncommon height (about 6’7”) he looked more like the Lord of Isengard than anyone, I imagine, in greater metropolitan Laughton.

After Dr. Carol’s presentation, there were no questions.  But people did go up to pet the dog.  I went with them, partly because I cannot pass up an opportunity to pet a dog and partly because Dr. Carol was 28 with long brown hair, green eyes, and a beautiful voice.  To someone surrounded by graduate student DNA most of the time, Dr. Carol looked like a divine being.  I took off the mask.

“Hello, Ramón,” I said.  The dog raised his enormous head and smiled at me.  Petting him was like touching a plush bowling ball.

“He likes you,” said Dr. Carol.  “But why the mask?  Allergic?”

“The whole department is.  They issued us these.”

She nodded.  “Sounds like a good policy.  Especially in that basement.”

Dr. Carol understood.  Of course she knew about the basement.  She was beautiful and she had survived UM, which meant she had incredible hidden powers.  Moreover, her dog liked me.

“Remember when you asked if there were questions, and there weren’t any questions?  I might have some questions.  About what you said.  If you feel like getting a cup of coffee sometime.”  I was proud of those sentences.  In my estimation, I sounded no more awkward and ridiculous than I usually did when talking to anyone about anything.

She took my hand in both of hers and smiled.  “What’s your name?”

“Michael.”

“Michael,” she said, “I’m a lesbian.”  She kept smiling when she let go of my hand.  Ramón kept smiling, too.

“Okay,” I said.  “Thank you.”

When I turned, I noticed that Graduate Director Robinson had materialized directly behind me, frowning, his eyebeams focused.  I looked up at him and put my mask back on.  Then I walked deliberately, evenly out of the lecture hall.

That night, I watched The Legend of Dolemite and drank for the first time in 3 months.  I smoked a pack of cigarettes, too.  And the sudden repollution of my otherwise purified and filtered body cause a certain amount of vomiting.  It was probably a necessary experience—a catharsis, a purgation of the bad mojo I’d internalized thus far.  But I came out of it weakened, shaken in willpower and confidence.  The next day, when someone mentioned that Orrin hadn’t been seen for three-and-a-half weeks, I felt a great deal of dread, a sensation that can only be described as an immediate upheaval, a moment in which I began to sincerely question my reasons for being at UM.

More ubiquitous even than the allergens and spores was the incredible sense of loss that permeated every gathering there—loss of youth, loss of employability, loss of comprehension (Graduate Director Robinson’s half-joking advice to us at the beginning of the semester: don’t get romantically involved with undergraduates.  They’ll never understand you.), and loss of everything true, good, and beautiful in life.  There was a pervasive feeling that even though those things still existed in the outside world, we’d forfeited them by seeking a higher academic status.  And I began to see that the negative side to following the mysterion was not that one might find something hiding in the darkness, waiting to pounce.  Rather, it was the constant fear that there might be nothing, absolutely nothing, in our dark spaces but an endless void into which we might suddenly fall with regret as our only companion: the terror of a sailor who knows he can’t swim and still follows the sound of the sea.

The Vikings, when they crossed the North Atlantic, carved runa on their longboats as a ward and a guide because it’s one thing to see yourself dead on the battlefield (one can accept: these are my entrails; this is my enemy; that is his spear) but getting sucked into the bottomless depths entails a different and much more profound level of horror.  Take my steaming entrails if you must, but leave me my soul.  And there are still dark places on the map we would like to explore: the psyche, for example, and the all invisible presences that drive and condition our lives—family hatreds and loves and feats of great beauty and perhaps greater stupidity.

We would gladly venture out onto these oceans, just like the Vikings, as long as we felt securely tethered to the mundane world such that we could safely return and, over a cup of coffee, speak with confidence about what Conrad called “all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the forest, in the jungles, in the hearts of wild men.”  But we are, without a doubt, children staring down the hallway in the middle of the night at the half-open closet, daring ourselves to walk over and put one foot in.

It may not be surprising that “the mysterious life of the wilderness” had little to do with the mysterious life of being at UM.  After yet another aborted fiction workshop in which our professor burned most of 45 minutes asking the submitting writers to read their work aloud (to cover the fact that he hadn’t looked at the material, but, then again, neither had we, the dry rot of apathy having assimilated our workshop), our entire class drifted back to the basement cubicle farm.  Everyone put on their masks.

I sat at the desk I shared with Orrin, listening to myself breathe and staring at the one item of his that he’d left in the cubicle: a large pearl-and-gold framed photo of him holding his cat in one arm and his girlfriend in the other.  He’d mentioned to me that she’d died years before from brain cancer.  And it was a younger Orrin in the photo—without the pepper-gray beard, sunken eyes, and deep creases in his face.  There was a light in his expression as if he liked whoever was holding the camera.  Though, his girlfriend was not the sort you’d expect a poet to have.  In the picture, she was brassy blonde, curvaceous, and slightly older than him with an air of appraising intelligence—the sort of woman who owns her own business and doesn’t suffer fools.  But she’d suffered Orrin.  And she’s suffered herself, dying that horrible death, which I imagine is a lot more like the void than the battlefield.

To this day, I hope that if Orrin’s disappearance meant he was going out to find her in the depths, he kept runa before him and his tether secure.  But I fear that was not the case, as he’d seemed increasingly solemn and withdrawn in the times I’d seen him around the cubicle.  I’d have given him my bone pendant had I known he was going.  I liked Orrin.  Maybe I liked him more than any of the other graduate students because he had an sense of pained honesty about him and they did not.  Orrin gave me the feeling that he’d say exactly what he thought about anything no matter how awkward that might prove to be.

That afternoon, the cubicle farm looked more like ER receiving with all the intense eyes over white paper masks and the unhappy sounds emanating from beneath them.  I heard angry talk of circulating a complaint petition about our professor and fearful questions about what good that would do.  I heard the same old talk of ailments and molds, the crappiness of the student health insurance, and of people missing their Paxil.  As usual, I also heard Prozac mentioned the way one refers to Arpanet, card catalogs, and the rhythm method: we’ve come so far since then.  Yes, I thought, packing up my books.  Soon we will succeed in completely erasing ourselves and all the anxiety will then subside.  I walked up the stairs and out of the building into the iron light of a Missouri winter.

A block away from campus, I stuffed my breath mask into a snow-filled trash can.  I wasn’t headed anywhere particular.  I was simply walking and thinking about the future, about the writing life and, though I didn’t have the language for it then, about mysterion and all the things I’d thought I was pursuing when I came to UM.  After about 15 blocks of snowy sidewalk, I had to admit that the things I’d been seeking were elsewhere, that I’d made another life-mistake, and that I would probably be taking a permanent hiatus from Laughton, Missouri, before long.

Somewhere on my way back to campus, I came upon one of my freshman composition students, laughing at his car engine.  The hood was propped up and a thick column of oily smoke was coming out.

“Hey, Mike.  Check it out.  My car’s on fire,” he said.  Tiny pieces of snow were stuck in his beard.  We stood in front of the car, staring at the smoke as if it were some kind of oracle.

“You think it’ll blow?” I asked.

He grinned, shrugged.  “Maybe.”

And I moved on, listening for the thump of the gas tank, back to my own soon-to-be-junked car, parked in the graduate lot under a pyramid of snow.

Maybe, I said to myself.  Maybe it blows and maybe it doesn’t.  Maybe, maybe, maybe.  And all our yesterdays and yestermaybes have lighted fools.  And all our tomorrows may be limned with absurdity as we inch down hallways toward dark closets.  But hand out the Paxil and we’ll be okay.

Walter sort of gets it.  At least, he gets the part where I decide that Missouri is nowhere.

“Well,” he says, “you’re back in paradise now.  It doesn’t get much better than America’s finest city.”  He stands and a wave of his cologne passes like a semi-tangible ghost—an advance image of himself that he sends forward on the wind to check for reality buses and bottomless pits.

I’ve now decided that there will be no job forthcoming from his lordship, retail or otherwise.  And, strangely enough, I’m alright with that.  Walter is the first person to whom I’ve spoken honestly, without reservation, about why I left Missouri.  I can tell by the depressed look on his face that he doesn’t know what it all means.  I don’t know what it all means, either.  But, having released some of that morose energy in Walter’s direction, I’ve come closer to figuring it out.

He tells me to call him, and I watch him move slowly, almost mournfully, through the parking lot to his truck: his bulk, his fanny pack, black fedora over giant white polo shirt.  In two years, Walter will die of a heart attack.  But, as I watch him walk away after our difficult conversation in 2005, I’m not thinking about his weight problem or my job problem or any problematic decisions I’ve made in the past.  I’m wondering whether Walter has a folder of recent poems and whether, if I offer to send him my most recent story, he’ll reciprocate.  And I realize that I must have arrived—not back where I was before I heard the sound of the sea and took it as a mistress—but to where I’ve been heading all along, the path that will lead across a great ocean and back and out again.

In a few days, I will have found a job teaching English and speech at a private high school in central California.  Two years after that, I’ll be back in a PhD program—the right one this time—knowing a lot more, following the mysterion to the extent that I understand it.  As I write this, I am at the end of that program with a published book of stories and few regrets, reasonably confident that when I get up to write in the dark hours of the morning and say runa to the page, the page may say nothing, or the page may say kryptos, or it may say follow.  And I will.

Something new: “On the Art of Talking to Oneself.”

http://superstitionreview.asu.edu/blog/2013/02/23/guest-post-michael-davis-on-the-art-of-talking-to-oneself/

The alligator gar was a magnificent fish.  Even in the dark room, it glittered: long, a ribbon of dimes floating in the tank.  Empty tank, clear water.  Seen from the bed, the gar seemed more like a static picture behind gray glass as if it would never move.  And, in truth, Hoki had not seen it travel more than an inch forward or back in the enormous tank.  The fish never showed more than the slightest muscular ripple, its tailfin drifting gently to the side.  The tank filled the top half of the wall beside the bed.  Hoki watched the fish.  The fish watched Hoki.

“Stop it,” said Rina.

He heard the flick of her lighter, the hiss of her cigarette.  Hoki lay on his side, his back to her, his head resting on his arm.  He often woke in that position, staring at the gar, listening to Rina’s quiet breathing or to her already moving around her house.  The mouth of the enormous fish was slightly open, flensing the water back through its gills.  It’s row of white teeth like a saw.  It’s black button-eye in a silver iris.

“How can it know I’m watching?” he said.

“It knows.”  Smoke in the dark.  The fat hiss of her long black cigarette with a golden band where the filter began.  “It can feel you.  Trust me.”

Rina felt things like that.  She always knew when to call, knew when he was asleep.  Hoki often wondered how she managed it.  Rina never did what he expected.  He’d turn in mid-sentence and Rina would be dreaming, her breathing deep and slow.  But when he was least expecting it, in the middle of the night, in the dark hours of the morning: the flick of her lighter, the hiss, the gar looking at him through tinted glass.

Hoki rolled onto his back.  Bars of moonlight through the blinds striped rumpled sheets, Rina’s thigh.

“So tell me its name.”

“Stop asking.”

“You can’t just keep it there in an empty tank.  It’s inhumane.”

She laughed.  The cigarette hissed.  “I’ll be the judge of what’s humane for my fish.”

Hoki didn’t look at her.  He slid off the bottom of the bed, walked barefoot down the long oak hallway in the dark—warm wood, even in winter, even without turning on the heater.  Wood that made the soles of one’s feet feel good, that cost a lot of money.  Not his wood.  Not his money.

Not his bathroom, either.  Hoki waved his hand over the switch.  The lights came on dim, got brighter until he waved his hand again.  He didn’t want it too bright that early in the morning, after a night with Rina.  Hoki rubbed his eyes.  His spiky black hair seemed to have gotten grayer at the temples.  At 33, he felt twice that.  These nights with Rina were sending him to an early grave.

“What are you doing?” she called.  “Get back in here.”

Everything in the bathroom  was dusty blue marble and steel.  He took a cotton ball from a chrome jar and soaked it in rubbing alcohol from a bottle below the sink.  Hoki knew where everything was—the bottle of codeine; the dark towels Rina’s husband, David, never used; David’s bottle of Viagra that had given Hoki the most painful and long-lasting erection of his life; the sterile needle and thread taped underneath the middle drawer just in case.  His shoulder might have needed re-stitching this time if Rina had kept on.  The places where her bites had punctured his skin burned when he swabbed them.  He washed his face and dabbed it dry with a burgundy towel that he re-folded and placed beneath a neat stack of identical towels in the side cabinet.

“Baby get in here.”  Rina was not a patient woman.  But there was one last thing.  Hoki found the tube of Preparation-H where he’d left it beside the rubbing alcohol.  He carefully smeared a bit under each eye, where the skin had begun to sag, and counted up to fifty.  Baggy, tired eyes were not acceptable, even in the dark.

When he went back to the bedroom, he felt more put-together.  He stood beside the bed.  Rina ran her fingers over his stomach muscles while she finished the last of her cigarette.  She smiled.  The sheet had bunched in her lap, bars of moonlight across her breasts, the black ringlets of her hair.

“You’ll tell me its name someday,” he said.

“Don’t waste time.”  She blew a line of smoke and threw the sheet aside.

He climbed onto the bed and went down on her, realizing too late that he had forgotten to wipe off a bit of the Preparation-H below his left eye.  There was no fixing it now.

Hoki dressed while she was showering.  His T-shirt and jeans smelled like sex.  She’d bought him a new pair of Bottega Ventanas on a whim and Hoki made sure to wear them when he came over.  They still smelled like new shoes.  But eventually everything he wore would smell like her Sobraines, her Clive Christian at $800 an ounce.  The black marble box with white veins sat on a narrow table right below the tank.  Just large enough for six crisp $100 bills.  Hoki folded the money, put it in his back pocket.  The gar stared.  And Hoki paused as if the gar were about to speak, to explain everything.

“I’ll get your name,” he whispered.  “You’ll see.”

The gar’s tailfin flicked gently.  It’s gills expanded, contracted.

Hoki always waited until Rina left the room before he went to the box.  It was good that way and it wasn’t vulgar.  Then he went down the hallway in the dark.  She wanted him gone by the time she got out of the shower.  That was part of it, the night over and a new day beginning.  He keyed the house alarm and closed the front door behind him.  By the time David got home from the airport, the sheets would be changed, windows open, another black Sobraine between her lips.

You must stay drunk on writing so reality cannot destroy you. – Bradbury

And if you can’t write, maybe just get drunk.  A teacher of mine once said, “I’ve known a fair number of writers who spent their time drinking when they should have been writing.  And I’ve known even more who were writing when they should have been drinking.”

True, that.  True, that.

“Don’t try,” Bukowski said.  But trying is all there is.  All he did was try.  If he’d stopped trying, he’d have died long before writing Post Office, Ham on Rye, Women, Hollywood, “The Most Beautiful Woman in Town,” “Kid Stardust on the Porterhouse,” and the stories in the posthumous Tales of Ordinary Madness, outstanding things that people need to read and talk about.

So try.  You’ve got to be tough to be a writer.   Think: James Crumley, Andre Dubus Sr., Raymond Carver, Kurt Vonnegut, Flannery O’Connor, Vladimir Nabokov, James Baldwin, Shirley Jackson.  These are some of the people who define tough. They ate nails.  Pour one out for Charles Bukowski, too, even if you don’t buy his romantic hustle and don’t believe he was as hard as he tried to seem.  If a person writes one good story, that is direct poof that that person took a handful of nails and got down to business.  One good story, in itself, is something amazing.  There are people who would pay big money to produce just one and can’t or won’t or think they can’t.

What about P.D. James, John D. MacDonald, Elmore Leonard, Charles Willeford, Ursula LeGuin, John Fante, Denis Johnson, Truman Capote, J.D. Salinger, Melanie Rae Thon?  Read them with reverence and awe.  Go take your hat off at the grave of Theodore Dreiser.  Go absorb some brilliant Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald and then apprentice yourself to Michael Ondaatje and Paul Bowles and Isak Dinesen and learn all you can about the work of Somerset Maugham.  What?  You haven’t read anything by Maugham except The Moon and Sixpence?  Shame on you.  Shame.  Go to the library and get The Razor’s Edge.  Now.  And while you’re there, get Labyrinths by Borges and anything by James Jones and everything by Anita Loos.  Will you?  Will you read John Cheever?  Will you start?

So try.  It’s a miracle that any stories get written at all.  And the aforesaid writers produced many good stories in spite of the undeniable and obvious fact that the universe hates, fucking hates, serious art and artists of any kind.  And the world especially hates writers who aren’t in the service of momentary commerce.  In fact, all good writers are exceptions to the rule that says if it isn’t easy, you have no business making art, and if you were any good, you’d have made it by now.  That’s the publishing industry talking.  That’s the Random House Marketing Strategy.  That’s the substance of jacket quotes and blurbs that say so-and-so is the Next Brilliant Voice of American Literature.  Forget that.  There are no rising stars.  That light you see up there is already dead.

It takes so long to get any good at making art, especially fiction writing.  It takes so much endurance and dedication and authentic, highly personal unattractive suffering.  Once you get an idea of how badly the process is going to mess with your life—usually several years after you’ve made a serious investment into becoming a fiction writer—you’re either hooked on the energy and don’t care or you’re in the process of losing things.  You may and probably will lose spouse, custody, car, respect of family / friends / self, teeth, your temper, your self-confidence, your identity as a functional and enfranchised member of grownup society and, without a doubt, that crappy job you’d hoped would give you more time to finish your novel.  Maybe you’ll lose all of the above and be reborn as some purified Zen idiot who only knows how to write and lives in a flop house.  And maybe that will be the way for you.

I got hooked on the energy of the creative process and stopped caring around 1997.  Although I’ve had many moments of caring—convulsive episodes of remorse and dread that come on like a special kind of writer’s epilepsy, I’m still at it.  My worst moments have coincided with various losses from the list above.  But I still have my teeth and my spouse and no one ever took me that seriously as a functional adult anyway.  So losing that one was moot.  Otherwise, it has been a long road to get a book and 20 stories in print.  I’m proud of that because I have to be, because that’s where my 20s and most of my 30s have gone.  Now I’m 38 and getting close to books 2 and 3—a new collection of stories and a novel.  And that has to matter to me.  I have to care.  I’m compelled to try, to keep going, to fight, to get up every day and put my time in even if those nails hurt when I swallow them.  Like a junkie who might die from cold turkey, I’m too far along to ever get out.  I have my bad moments.  But I’m never quitting the juice.

So when I came across the quote at the top of this post from Ray Bradbury—I think I read it once before, years ago, in an interview with him or something—I started to think about being in east Africa and about writing and isolation.  I started to think about what it means to keep calm and carry on as an artist when most of the “reinforcing hits” from the outside world (the sort of identifications that our culture uses to let us know who we are) have vanished.  It’s easy to keep trying when people are telling you that you shouldn’t give up your day job.  That was pretty much my MFA program and at least major sections of my PhD.  The hard part is when you find yourself in a culture that doesn’t even care enough to want to starve you out.

Most people here in Bujumbura are grateful that the political situation is reasonably stable.  They like the fact that they can work, that their families are okay, that the government isn’t systematically killing them.  If I said something like, “Hey, I’m having a bitch of a time with closure in this story I’m writing,” I’d likely get a polite smile and a thumbs-up.  If I said something like, “I’m doing this working artist thing because it really matters to me,” the Burundians I’ve met would likely agree—with all their characteristic tact and quiet reserve—that it is a very good thing to do.   But a population worried about typhoid and tomorrow’s dinner may also tell you to take your difficult plot arc and try to eat it.  Will your characterization take away my daughter’s fever?  No?  Ah, excuse me. . . .

Most writers here, the few there are, work in isolation—way more isolation, it seems, than is usual or necessary for the creative process to work.  I think it might be different in neighboring countries; though, I hesitate to speculate at this point.  I can say that Burundi is still recovering from the last 20 years of political instability.  And as a foreigner here, as one of the few North Americans, I’ve often found myself turning inward, focusing on how my professional, artistic, cultural identity contrasts with the dominant ethos of the people here.  I’m told there is a gentility in Burundi that does not exist in many other parts of Africa.  But I might extend that: there is a gentility here that does not exist in many other parts of the world.  How, then, does a 38-year-old writer construct himself in a context where the sort of social friction that fueled his work in the USA simply does not exist?

My only answer—at least, the only one I can come up with right now—is to keep writing and hope the question answers itself.  Keep trying.  Don’t stop.  And this is what I recently told a student from years ago who emailed me with the Big Question.  No, she was not proposing.  She wanted to know what I thought her chances were for a career in creative writing if she went to a MFA.

In my capacity as a creative writing instructor, people are always asking me the same thing: whether I think they have talent to, you know, go pro.  I try to be nice about this when they ask me, but I have no idea how to answer this question.  I can say, look, you submitted two great stories to the workshop.  I think they’re great because I liked them and felt moved by them in certain ways.  Please note that not everyone felt the same way in the critiques.  Also understand that my opinion is just one among many.  I do not have the ultimate secret formula for quality writing in my back pocket.  I can tell you what I see.  And maybe I see more than the student critiquers because I have been doing this longer and to a more intense—some might say desperate—degree.  But that’s it.  Only YOU can determine if you have talent.  You do this by trying to produce something of value every day.

Most often, I say: I have no idea and then feel bad when they decide I’m being disingenuous.  I imagine that in the minds of most adult humans, the same script is running daily (given certain variations): what if I lose the house?  What if she’s really going to that motel on I-80 instead of yoga class?  What if I fail, I freeze up in the clinch?  What if the deal falls through?  What if that spot on my leg keeps changing color?  What if I can’t perform?  What if they already know I’m a fraud?  What if they’re laughing at me behind my back?  What if it all goes away?  What if inside me there is just an empty void?  The writer adds two more: what if I’m deluding myself about wanting to be a writer?  What if everyone who says they like my work is lying?

Well, what if?  You don’t have to eat too many nails to be a writer—not handfuls, at least.  Maybe you just swallow one roofing nail every day you can’t write.  After a while, you’ve got a stomach full, poking through to other organs, tearing you up little by little.  I don’t know if Ray Bradbury ever ate nails; I know less about him than some others.  But I do know he wrote some very cool novels.  I know he learned things about being an artist that I don’t know—yet.  I know if I try hard enough, I will eventually discover such arcana.  Even if I’m the only person in Burundi writing a story set on a train in Nebraska.  Even if I’m in an empty room with a notebook and a bowl of rice with Pili-Pili sauce next to me.  Even if I have to eat nails.  Even then.

mission24: perseverance

mission24: perseverance (Photo credit: greenkozi)

Creating reproductions of other works requires an extremely high level of technical proficiency.  One’s subject matter will always be personal, but I want to encourage my students to deliberately acquire new technical skills by taking on the aesthetic of the writers they read.

In this sense, every text is a potential writing instructor.
 
I have taught myself a lot by doing this assignment.  For example, by imitating Melanie Rae Thon‘s imagistic descriptions, I learned how to make an idiosyncratic first person voice graphic.  By imitating Hemingway, I learned greater control of the line, of syntax, as a mode of characterization.  By imitating Thom Jones, I learned to appreciate tragicomic realism, which led me to the work of Denis Johnson, which ultimately led me to Maupassant and Isaac Babel.

I want my students to learn to see how one writer connects to another stylistically and thematically.  I tell them to imitate everyone.  Fill notebook after notebook.  This is how one practices, how one acquires a technique that can render and evoke anything the story needs at any point.

And it never ends.  We should use the library as the ultimate resource for self-education, the ultimate art studio.
 
None of this will cause a writer to forget herself or her own voice.  On the contrary, it will enrich her style, inform her subject matter, and teach her more about who she is as a working artist.

http://doctormike.posterous.com/the-genius-of-imitation

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

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To educate is to seek meaning in everything. It is to teach others to seek the meaning of things. This means mixing the dreams of children and young people with the experience of adults and the elderly. This exchange must always take place, or else there can be no humanity because there would be no roots, no history, no promise, no growth, and no prophecy.

— Pope Francis, 5 June 20

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I write it myself, edit it myself, censor it myself, publish it myself, distribute it myself, and spend time in prison for it myself.

— Vladimir Bukovsky

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If you’re going to try, go all the way. Otherwise, don’t even start. This could mean losing girlfriends, wives, relatives and maybe even your mind. It could mean not eating for three or four days. It could mean freezing on a park bench. It could mean jail. It could mean derision. It could mean mockery—isolation. Isolation is the gift. All the others are a test of your endurance, of how much you really want to do it. And, you’ll do it, despite rejection and the worst odds. And it will be better than anything else you can imagine. If you’re going to try, go all the way. There is no other feeling like that. You will be alone with the gods, and the nights will flame with fire. You will ride life straight to perfect laughter. It’s the only good fight there is.

― Charles Bukowski, Factotum

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— Joe Biden