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Read my new piece on Splice Today: https://www.splicetoday.com/writing/magazine-rejections-and-learning-to-love-the-hate

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.

You Are Somewhere Else

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

Fun news: I just published my 32nd piece of short magazine fiction, this time in Ink & Coda magazine.  You can read it for free on their website: http://www.inkandcoda.com/issues/4-1/bora-bora/.

Best wishes to everyone in 2017!

 

 

 

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First dig two graves. I think Confucius said that. But nobody started off by saying I wanted to stab my girlfriend and bury her in the backyard, but I was reading Confucius. So I dug two graves. Instead, they usually began with I really don’t remember. I’m not too clear on what happened. It was a mistake. It was an accident. I didn’t mean to do it. I didn’t do it. I did it, but she had it coming. She begged me to do it. I don’t remember digging. I didn’t dig. I’m on meds. I walk in my sleep. I’d had some drinks, Ambien, Klonopin. I couldn’t have done it. If I did it, I didn’t mean it. I didn’t do it but, if you say so, I don’t know. Maybe.

They started all kinds of ways, but they usually finished the same: You need to understand. If you’d been in my shoes. If you were me. If you only knew. You’d have done it, too. They wanted you to see, to make sure you understood, it could have been you. So put a No. 2 pencil through the left eye of your cousin because he took your favorite CD and then say, you’d have done the same thing. How can you say you wouldn’t?

On April 6, 2010, I sat in a motel room in Denver, watching people say this over and over. It was my last year of graduate school and because I’d picked up a paralegal certificate along the way to my PhD, I’d gotten a job transcribing around 100 digitized police interviews for a defense attorney’s office. The original transcriptions had been lost and they were desperate. I told myself it was just another job because it paid like one. But it wasn’t. It was a journey through human dread and pain. Watching those confessions brought back my nightmares, then my relentless insomnia, then my chain smoking, then a depression so thick and wide I felt like I was drowning.

I’d driven out from Kalamazoo, Michigan, two days before in a rented Ford Econoline 150 that I’d meant to use as a living space while I attended the AWP Writer’s Conference at the Colorado Convention Center. The van was completely empty except for the driver’s seat and some bungee cords. I had a sleeping bag, a cardboard box full of books, some clothes, my backpack, and a laptop. The Conference was four days long. I planned on driving over to the hotel every morning, then relocating to a distant parking lot every evening. It was a good plan in theory.

But I felt shaken when I saw the van start moving towards the interstate at a rest stop somewhere in Nebraska. I barely reached it before it rolled into traffic. And even though I’d found a cinder block to put under one of the wheels, I couldn’t relax after that. I kept imagining it going head-on into a family of six. So when I got to Denver, I found the cheapest motel room I could, charged it to my sad broken credit card, put the van in their empty asphalt lot out back with boulders and cinder blocks under all four wheels, and tried to calm down. I told myself at least I wouldn’t be sleeping inside it when the family went boom.

My memory of that time is intensely vivid. I’d never been to Denver before. And, though it was my third AWP Conference, I’d decided that this was the one that mattered. I was about to get my PhD in English; I was waiting on several university job interviews and had one lined up at the Conference; and it was possible, against all odds and popular opinion, that my career plans were actually going to work out. I just needed a little more cash. Hence, the transcriptions. I had a deadline, an envelope of flash drives, and a supervising attorney who never returned my emails. I was transcribing about ten interviews and confessions every day. And I was starting to feel not right the way one feels after watching Triumph of the Will or the 2016 presidential debates: this can’t be real.

I suppose I’ve been thinking about Denver because my old friend, Theo, emailed me the other day while I was watching the final Trump-Clinton debate. The last time I saw him was six years ago at AWP. So the fact that he emailed me suddenly, after so long, was surprising all on its own. But I opened Theo’s email right when Trump started talking about Clinton being okay with ripping babies from their mothers’ wombs, right as I was starting to feel the old out-of-control nightmare anxiety rising in my chest, the sense that things were not right, that I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

Theo wanted to know how I was liking Kentucky, if I was still writing, why he hadn’t seen me at any conferences. I thought, Kentucky? And then I remembered. That was the interview I’d had at the 2010 AWP, a small regional college located close to the Tennessee state line. While Trump was saying, “In the ninth month. On the final day,” I looked at Theo’s paragraph and thought, this is what he remembers about me. This is what motivated him to write to me after six years. Trump says, “That’s not acceptable,” and I think, Jesus Christ.

How do you make a true confession? You sit in an interview room at the police station, sometimes in a hotel room or a conference room. White walls. Simple table or none at all. It’s not often an interrogation room. It’s for interviews. It’s small and everything is plastic, metal, Formica. Maybe people walk around in the background. Maybe it’s completely quiet. Lean forward in the steel chair that’s bolted down and doesn’t swivel. Fold your hands on the table that comes directly out of the wall. Start off with: “I’m not sure. I don’t remember.” And even though he’s recording what you’re saying, he’s also nodding and jotting it down on a steno under your name, which tonight is something normal, like Jim. He notes that you have a wandering right eye, a cleft lip, and a green tattoo of a cat on the side of your neck. He notes this in spite of the fact that it has already been noted in your file because he’s bored. But you’re thinking, trying to remember. You’re a bit stunned. You think you can talk your way out of this.

File after file, story after story, it only got worse. Around 9:00 AM on the first day of the Conference, I found myself in the back row, watching a panel discussion entitled “Decolonizing Poetics: Womanism and the Art of Decolonization.” As I sat there, I listened with my right headphone to a man explain how he pulled his brother out of their burning vehicle. He’d been driving, had a BAC off the chart. He said he didn’t know his brother was dead. And in my left ear: poetry’s essential role in the decolonization of bodies from centuries of white supremacist, capitalist, heteronormative intrusion. It was hard for me to concentrate on the evils of patriarchal hegemony while listening to someone crying, saying I didn’t know. How could I know? And the detective saying, I understand. Take your time. I was typing furiously on my laptop in order to keep up. People thought I was taking lots of notes on the decolonization of la mujer.

The room was packed, which was good. My undergraduate creative writing students from Kalamazoo wouldn’t be able see me from the hall. I was in no shape to interact with them. Of course, I hadn’t slept. Around 3:00 AM, I’d watched The Mothman Prophecies in the motel room, probably not the best thing to do, given my state of mind. But it’s one of those movies you can sink into, like Blade Runner, Vertigo, or Chinatown—movies I always keep with me, maybe just to have them playing in the background while I’m doing something else. I’d shut the laptop in the middle of a deposition involving a juvenile accused of multiple homicide. Even though I’d only transcribed about one-fourth of the files and I was half a week behind, I just had to stop for a while. I smoked a pack of Camel Lights and watched John Klein have creepy phone conversations with Indrid Cold until the sun came up.

The supreme irrelevance of the panel discussions at AWP is a thing of legend. After 90 minutes of decolonization, I remember meeting Theo on the mezzanine, where we drank vending machine coffee and read the Conference program. “Play Ball: the Language of Sports,” “The Writer as Literary Outsider,” “Bollywood, Bullets, and Beyond,” “What’s Not Funny About Serious Disease?” “The Person Within Myself.” I thought they were hilarious and stupid, but Theo was upset. He took everything seriously and was trying to figure out why he’d flown to Colorado just to listen to low-rung literary celebrities talk about whether they wrote on a word processor or with a pen. I told him I’d heard there was going to be a meet-and-greet with some Big Six agents from New York. But Theo just looked at me. No one was going to be interested in his book-length memoir about teaching English in Guam.

Theo was skinny, had bushy brown hair, and wore ripped thrift store clothing, whether from choice or necessity I never knew. He also smoked but wasn’t concerned with quitting. I think he needed to smoke because, in his own very quiet, withdrawn way, he was just as stressed out as me, maybe more. He was about to hit the job market with no publications, no interviews, one composition class of which he’d been the teacher of record, and a six-year PhD in English that he’d financed mostly through private loans. I never asked why he’d done it like that or what he planned to do after we earned our degrees, but his protracted silences and occasional outbursts didn’t militate in favor of wine and roses. Instead, he sat across from me, slurping chemical coffee and shaking his head: “’Aroused, Parched, and Fevered: the Translation of Sexual Poetry?’ Goddammit. Why am I here?”

I didn’t have an answer. I was there for the interview. That was my reason and I felt it was a good one, maybe the only legitimate motivation one could have for going to AWP.

He stood up, said he was going to go wander around the area, maybe find a bar where he wouldn’t have to see perspiring writers handing each other business cards. I watched him walk down the convention center mezzanine as long as a football field. I didn’t know it at the time, but his brother had been involved with a conservative group demonstrating against the “Ground Zero Mosque” that was supposed to have been built near the site of the former World Trade Center. Theo was constantly talking about how crazy the Tea Party was, about how Obama couldn’t get anything accomplished because of GOP obstruction. At the time, I think we all felt that American politics couldn’t get any more embattled. And Theo seemed to suffer from the political upheavals that year the way we all do now, worrying that no one is capable of guiding us away from self-destruction, that our world is careening out of control.

I put my time in. My interview wasn’t until lunch the next day. So I drifted through random poetry readings and panel discussions, across the book fair area where small presses and magazines had tables covered with all the books they’d published that year. Lost Nose Quarterly. The Dingus. Barbaric Yawp. Boilerplate Cadenza Press. And then the big trade houses, tables manned by the best dressed interns in the world who’d drawn the short straw and had to sit there glowering at peons all day.

I knew a few people, grad students from my university, professors, employees of magazines that had published my stories over the years. I was happy to see a few of them. But I didn’t talk much. I simply exchanged nods or a quick word, keeping my distance. This is because AWP is a place of reckoning for most English studies people. You will inevitably notice your friends and colleagues there in the process of making horrible life-wrecking decisions. For example, if you’re going to walk around with your girlfriend where people will notice and tell your wife all about it, why not let it be at the world’s biggest book fair and writer’s conference?

I remember colliding with a professor I’d known for years, who normally dressed like Agatha Christie, but that day was done up in black leather and heels. A wispy undergrad who’d been unsuccessfully attempting a mustache was holding onto her arm with both hands.

“It’s you.”

“Yes,” I said. “It’s me.”

“What are you doing here?”

“I have an interview.”

She did a double take. Her companion looked from her to me the way one watches a flying squirrel jump from tree to tree. It’s alien and incomprehensible and a bit unnatural. But we’re all mammals, so one has to look.

“You do?”

“Yes.”

It seemed crazy to her that someone could be considering me for an actual job. I recall telling her where and seeing the look of relief on her face when she realized it was somewhere far away from anywhere she would be. Why? This happened a lot in my world and not just with me. It was as if people were living in pampered, self-congratulatory reality bubbles. And, when those bubbles collided, there was immense cognitive dissonance, distaste, even dread. I must have been a destructive force to her—someone presenting a very unflattering reflection. All that black leather. She’d bought it for a reason and I was ruining her cosplay experience with young Werther.

She mumbled out something like good luck and moved into the crowd, pulling Werther along with her. I watched her go, feeling grateful that Theo hadn’t been there to analyze, for an hour, why she and the kid and the conversation we just had was so fucked up. But that year everything was fucked up, painful, riddled with lies and disappointments.

At the same time, I was learning that the way to make a true confession is to believe there is a truth and you know it. There’s what happened. There’s what you think might have happened. And there’s what you confess. It doesn’t matter if you’re the only person left alive, the only one who saw, the only one who’s supposed to know. You’re being asked to tell a story. So you do.

Jim’s interview is long, full of silences, false starts, retractions. The detective has gone from uninterested to barely awake, murmuring his questions from behind the camera.

“I’m coming out of the Elbow Room,” Jim says. “It’s late. They kicked us all out at bar time. And that’s when I see Sean. He’s got a board.”

“A board?”

“Yeah, like a board with some nails pounded in it. And I say, ‘When you gonna give me back my Steel Wheels?’ And he goes, ‘Fuck you, Jim,’ and tries to swing on me. And I had a pencil in my pocket.”

I write it all down, word for word, but I don’t contextualize: maybe you’re not stupid, but you’re drunk. Or you’re not drunk, but you’re scared. Or you’re scared, but you’ve been in this steel chair before, which makes you really scared. Or you haven’t, which makes you terrified. And the detective says, I understand. Take your time.

Back at the motel, I made progress with the work, but it took a toll on my body as well as my mind. I subsisted on beef jerky, fruit cups, and tap water while I typed until my fingers ached. Like any good student, I had a due date. I had to get it done. I moved between the particleboard desk and the moldy bed, changing positions whenever my back started to hurt too much.

“You sure about that, Jim?”

“About what?”

“Him swinging the board at you.”

“I think he did. It looked like he was.”

And there you have it: the moment of truth, wherein Jim enters what could reasonably be called his own personal Air-Conditioned Stupid Place or The Shitcloud of Unknowing or, my personal favorite, The Solid Gold Stinking End of All Life—that empty space between the known, the unknown, and what gets said about it, where admissions of guilt are born and go to die. And you go with them. Maybe the only thing the court will know for sure by the end of its time with Jim is that there’s a right way and a wrong way to make a true confession.

Three people I didn’t know in a very warm room at the Hyatt Regency. I was sitting in the stiff-backed desk chair. They were sitting on the bed.

Left, Betsy: Victorian lit., floral-print dress under beige grandpa sweater, belly bulge, black leggings, bags under eyes, gray-streaked brown hair still damp from midday shower, unmistakable hangover wretchedness on her like some kind of odorless colorless gas. She scowled at me over her tumbler of coffee.

Middle, Jack: British Modernism, cadaverously thin, didn’t know what to do with his hands baby-blue polyester suit like a sagging dirigible, black tie with salmon swimming up toward the knot, rimless glasses—the expensive kind that darken when you go outside—now half-dark.

Right: Abeline: creative writing: Levis and a man’s white button down, hair combed behind her ears, tight practiced smile, multiple silver rings on each finger.

How long, I wondered, had this hiring committee been looking?

Abeline dropped her hands on her knees. Her silver rings clinked. “You know, it’s a funny story. We saw this guy in the elevator—where was he from?”

Silence.

Then Jack, to the carpet: “He—”

“Ole Miss.” Betsy frowned into her coffee, then snapped her gaze up as if I were about to argue.

“Yes. Ole Miss.” Abeline’s smile never moved. She leaned forward to refocus my attention. “He was wearing a wig and a fake mustache. Can you believe that?”

I opened my mouth, but she wasn’t asking me.

“Ha,” said Jack.

“Typical,” said Betsy.

They looked at me. I said: “That’s strange.”

“Not so strange. Actually, no.” Abeline tilted her head to the side in the way of a raptor about to steal an egg from a nest. I realized her smile was small so it could stay fixed without hurting the muscles in her face.

“Not so strange for AWP.” Jack shot a glance at Betsy, who glared at him.

“He was looking for a different job,” Abeline said. “Going behind someone’s back.”

I attempted a smile. “Are you enjoying the conference?”

Jack cleared his throat. “So we like your CV. It’s a good CV.”

Abeline nodded. “It’s a very good CV. You have a lot of teaching experience. I suppose that should count for something, right?”

I nodded. I was having trouble processing, following the implications. Something? Should count? Did that mean the default was that it counted for nothing? And if you stripped away my teaching experience; if you discounted my letters of rec.—which hadn’t and, I knew, wouldn’t be mentioned because they hadn’t been read; and if the entire committee was made up of two lit. professors, who probably didn’t read much outside their specialty areas, and a creative writer, who seemed more a product of natural selection than a sympathetic colleague; my hybrid fiction-theory dissertation wasn’t going to matter. I had nothing. I was screwed.

Betsy peered at me, a knowing grin spreading across her face. “What makes you want to work in our department?”

“Ha,” said Jack.

Abeline nodded, looked me over.

I’d prepared a speech. I’d practiced. Because I was scared. Because there was a woman who wrote on the internet about what not to do in an academic job interview and I’d believed her. Because I had one interview and this was it. I launched into a disquisition on their department, on who was publishing what and how I thought my work would make a good fit, on my student-centered decentralized teaching style, on my commitment to diversity. And, though all of it was true, I saw the expressions on their faces change like time-lapse of a decaying corpse. I saw each of my memorized bullet points float away into the abyss between me and the three professors sitting on the bed. But the woman on the internet had said, focus on what you can do for them, not on what you want them to do for you. So I focused. I focused like a motherfucker.

4:00 AM. Beyond exhaustion in the dead gray motel room, I was almost done with the transcriptions. Dry mouth, stinking of instant coffee, I didn’t even have the energy to feel my usual anxiety. I watched a tiny spider on the window sill laboriously rope the legs of a fly three times its size. It seemed to take a long time, the fly getting tired, then struggling in frenetic terrified bursts, the spider crawling all around its body, staying on top of it, relentless. It seemed like a big meal for such a little spider.

On my laptop, Albert Leek was explaining to John Klein that telling the world about phone messages from spirits accomplishes nothing. It was the scene where they’re standing in Leek’s “college professor’s house,” straight out of central casting, with the usual stacks of books, dust, sad photographs, and regret—Leek in a crew cut like some retired police captain who’s seen too much, a little heavy, a little tired, and Richard Gere in his Washington Post reporter’s overcoat. He’s supposed to be John Keel, aka John Klein, but he’s really just the same old Richard Gere, gently bewildered, just crazy enough around the eyes for us to believe he’d go looking for an author on psychism to explain Indrid Cold—the voice on the phone, the invisible presence in every scene, the psychopomp of Point Pleasant, West Virginia.

It’s a good scene, maybe the best scene in the movie. Leek is a tormented man, not just by ghost voices but by everything he’s lost in his attempts to tell the world about his discoveries—

“John, I had tapes of their voices! But so what? Nobody cared. I knew a building was going to blow up. I tried to prevent it, but no one listened . . .”

“What happened?”

“People died.”

—tormented the way we feel John Klein will be if he continues trying to reveal the truth.

Five hours later, after a shower, a fast food breakfast, and taking the wrong freeway exit on my way to the convention center, I found myself in “Tips, Trips, and Techniques for Publishing Insiders,” where I watched Charlie Sheen’s estranged twin go over each step in the publishing process as if he’d personally invented it. But I was still thinking about Albert Leek and Indrid Cold and that spider, as merciless as any force of nature, crawling around its prey.

The high point in the talk was when the blasé panel of Big Six agents and junior editors slid into Q&A and began to explain how tired they all were, how overwhelmed, and what this meant for the the future of publishing. Charlie’s twin, replete with slicked back hair and facetious grin, was saying something about having five novel manuscripts to read on his flight back to New York the next day.

Then a hand went up.

“Yeah?”

“But what are you reading for dinner tonight?”

She must have been 24 or 25. No one in the room seemed to know how to react to her question.

Even Charlie hesitated. “I think I’m free.”

Nice. There was an exhalation. Somebody clapped. People laughed. Love conquers all. An elderly woman with long silver hair, her face flushed purple, stood up, said, “Shit,” to no one in particular, and stalked out of the room. She couldn’t accept the inherent beauty of a community of writers coming together to engage in mutually beneficial intercourse.

I thought: somewhere Indrid Cold is watching all this. Toward the end of the scene, we realize John Klein can’t accept that the older man is just telling him to give up.

“I was investigated, almost arrested. My wife divorced me. My kids stopped speaking to me. Do you know what four years in a psychiatric hospital can do to you? Being right is worse than being wrong. If you’re wrong, you’re just a fool. If you’re right, you’re a suspect.”

I knew the lines by heart. Was it better to be a fool or a suspect? What do people want to hear? And why should anyone care? Bring your manuscript to dinner. Wear something sexy.

Somebody raised a hand and asked whether literary fiction, given Harry Potter, was finally dead. One of the editors started to describe how he’d first met J.K. Rowling and what a wonderful person she was. The woman who’d invited Charlie to dinner sat there with arms crossed, not looking at anyone, a smug expression on her face. That’s when I left, too.

If you’re smart, you don’t confess it the way you think it happened. You’re smarter than Jim. You’ll say, The thousand injuries of Fortunato I had born as best I could, but when he ventured upon insult, I vowed revenge. You’ll say, I swear I was in my right mind at the time, just as I am now, and I recall everything perfectly. I chose to do it. I planned to do it. Moreover, I’d do it again. As I transcribed those words, I’d know that you were lying. But the detective will merely sigh and say, go on.

To tell a true confession is to confess it like it’s true. It’s not about what happened, what Indrid Cold whispered to you over the phone at midnight. It’s about how you narrate what happened. It’s about your delivery. It’s about suspension of disbelief. If you want to tell it right, you have to set the scene. You lay down some back story. You make it plausible—even if you are lying and are trying to confess a crime you didn’t actually do.

“You always walk around with sharpened pencils in your pockets, Jim?”

“I just had one, alright?”

“How sharp was it?”

“Pretty fuckin’ sharp.”

“Give me the sharpness on a scale of one to ten.”

“Are you kidding me? It was a pencil. All I know is it was sharp.”

Later, after “Horror and Sci-Fi Taken Seriously” and “Ecological Cowboy Prose of the New American West,” I decided drive back to Michigan the next day. Theo found me on the phone in the lounge of the Hyatt, letting the car rental company know. When I hung up, I could see that he was functionally yet unquestionably drunk.

I told him about the interview, how all they’d really wanted to know was whether I’d take a one-year teaching appointment instead of the tenure-track position they’d advertised. Theo shook his head the way you do when you hear your teenage cousin got arrested again. He’d been drinking gin steadily since the night before, his own bottle, up in his room.

I asked him what he’d gone to at the conference and he said, “Do you . . . think I could make it in sales?”

“Yeah, I guess.”

“Good. Because this English crap won’t hunt.”

I agreed. The English crap wouldn’t hunt. It wouldn’t bark or roll over or bring you your goddamn slippers unless you took it out to dinner. I told him I was driving back in the morning. But he was concentrating hard on standing up.

“Sales,” he said.

I nodded. “Sales.” And I raised my fist.

I finished the last transcript sometime after midnight, then finally got a little sleep. I left my plastic key in the motel’s after-hours drop box and got on the road before dawn, feeling like this was probably going to be the last AWP Conference I’d be attending.

I’d wasted a lot of money and time to bear witness to the fall of the academic-trade segment of the publishing industry with all its slaves, clowns, and dancing bears. I didn’t have a job offer or a book deal. Then again, I wasn’t the one getting plugged by a poor-man’s Charlie Sheen in exchange for him reading my novel manuscript. The road, at that point, felt like a relief.

I suppose Confucius said that you should dig two graves because vengeance is the path of destruction and that which you offer to others, you offer to yourself. The wisdom of this is beyond reproach. I’ve thought about it carefully. However, it does not account for how you will get your victim and yourself into the graves once you’ve committed the act—to say nothing of who will replace the dirt on top of you.

This means you will either need accomplices or the second grave isn’t for you. The entire interpretation changes. And the true nature of Confucius emerges as a lethal, cold-blooded killer. Don’t just take out your enemy. Take out his friend or a family member likely to avenge him. Do it in twos. You’ll be glad you dug the graves ahead of time. Then at least you’ll have a good story to confess.

So It’s the end of October now and I think I’m going to vote for Hillary, even though I have my reservations. I’ve seen too many lousy politicians come and go to consider the alternatives. But the harder thing will be what to say to Theo. I’ve changed a lot in these last six years. I’m not sure how I could possibly explain, in an email, the twists and turns my life has taken since I left Denver in that rented van. If Albert Leek is right, confessions make you into either a fool or a suspect. And I suppose what I’ve written here will do both. But it’s something. And it’s all true, as well as I recall it. Would you believe it? And believing, would you hear me out if my name were Indrid Cold?

I’ve written three books of fiction to date, all story collections; though, only one of them has been published. This is not remarkable or typical in any sense, even if I do have the stereotypical writer’s voice in my head telling me that I should be submitting to more book contests, etc. My submission schedule results in about 2-3 stories placed in magazines every year, a process I actually enjoy, and I have no plans to stop doing that. Still, I sometimes wonder whether the world needs another immature literary magazine, another lousy e-book marketing campaign (what Chuck Wendig calls the “shit volcano”), or another mediocre career-building novel entering the flotsam. What does the world need?

Better: what do I need?

Books are not the only way to be published, even if they are the fiction writer’s holy grail—specifically novels, ideally lots of novels—because they sell and therefore build careers. Or, as an industry professional once said to me at an AWP conference, “You need to write at least a novel a year for the next five years if you want to be a contender.” He was an important person in the publishing world, had a red nose, a cigar in his lapel pocket, and I was completely intimidated by him at the time. So I nodded as if I understood. But I didn’t and should have asked, “A contender for what, exactly?”

Publishing only feels like boxing. In reality, it’s business, the alchemy of transforming things into money. When business and art collide, a volatile chain reaction usually takes place resulting in all sorts of monstrous transmogrifications, creeping morbidity, and a certain amount of screaming. Put simply, how many writers have you heard of who built a career out of publishing a book a year? I can think of maybe one or two and none writing outside strictly defined genres.

The only literary writer who may produce full-length books with that kind of regularity is Joyce Carol Oates, someone as great as she is prolific but who is entirely unique. So “a book a year” might not be the best advice if you’re in this to make art. If you’re in it to make money, why aren’t you running a brothel, flipping houses, developing apps, or managing a hedge fund? You can probably make an app a year. Brothels, I don’t know, but I imagine their schedules are a bit more eventful.

Every writer asks a version of this question, sometimes on a regular basis: should I be writing harder, faster, longer, mo betta? Should I be soaking down the meadow like a frustrated stallion on horse viagra? How much is too much and why is it that by asking this question I feel soiled? Of course, as with most questions writers ask themselves, there are no answers. There are only opinions and that vague soiled feeling. To be honest, there is only subjectivity in this context.

So how much? Stop asking. Stop thinking about it. Just write. And if you want to be a “contender,” find a different metric against which to measure your progress.

I once took a creative writing workshop from Richard Ford, in which he spent a lot of energy inveighing against the epiphany in short fiction. This must have been in 1997 or 1998. Little did any of us suspect at the time that his vehemence was probably a reaction to a single bad review that had come out for Women with Men by some no-name writer with an ax to grind. The review criticized Ford for being unwilling to let his characters change or realize very much as they suffocate though postmodern American decline.*

I’ve tried unsuccessfully over the years to find that review. It has mysteriously disappeared from the internet. Does that actually happen? Does the writer now swim with the fishes? Maybe it came out in Kirkus or in the AWP Chronicle; though, I tend to think it wouldn’t have been the Chronicle, given how careful they are with avoiding the faintest whiff of contentiousness toward the darlings of the Big Six in one of the most atavistic industries in the world. So probably Kirkus. Or Salon. I think people at Salon could still read at that point.

Anyway, the review was scathing. I remember it not because I necessarily agreed with it, but because at that time I was in awe of Ford in one of the most unproductive and frankly brutal workshops I’d ever experienced. The Xanax intake in our class went up precipitously after the second meeting, while the likelihood of dissent dropped to 1938 Great Purge levels. All heads were bowed. Everyone had joined the party. Dissidence was shown zero tolerance. And I felt that our instructor had gradually begun to resemble Frank Booth offering Jeffrey a ride in Blue Velvet as if we relived that scene in each critique.

Ford’s ability to craft fiction nevertheless spoke for itself. That was the problem: you might think the guy tuning your piano is a surly misanthrope until he starts playing Rachmaninoff. Then you decide you must have been wrong about everything. How much more do you think a highly accomplished yet incredibly acerbic celebrity could shock a group of young students just starting out? Several of my classmates quit writing fiction for good after sitting through critiques that took apart their 20-page stories sentence by sentence. The rest of us were intimidated yet determined not to seem that way. We wanted to be real writers. We would endure. Since then, I’ve come to believe I was more impressed with Ford’s craft and less with his worldview; though, young writers tend to conflate the two when under the influence of a particular teacher and I certainly did.

So when he talked about the epiphany in fiction as being largely an empty obsolete convention, we nodded and wrote it down. What the hell did we know? Besides, the term had religious overtones. That was an absolute no-no. The largely white, upper-middle class Breakfast Club of terrified 20-somethings in my shop immediately started to write gutless (and mostly bad) Ford-Carver imitations—pared-down realism in simple declarative sentences where nothing much happens beyond a .000001% change in the protagonist’s depression.

The theme of every piece became: please don’t hurt the writer of this story. Joan, a secretary at a Toyota dealership—who’d decided to take a story writing class through open university because she liked reading Stephen King—was the only student who’d had the guts to write a scene involving prayer. I remember her story. Though it was painful to read, she may have been the worst writer and the best human being in the room. After her second critique, she developed a facial tic, but she kept coming. I kept coming, too, and tried not to notice that my cigarette and coffee intake had almost tripled as I subconsciously girded myself for fiction fight club. And I also took multiple beatings. You don’t forget beatings like that. They qualify as formative experiences, not because they help you be a better writer but because they show you what not to do, what psychological damage feels like, and how unnecessary it is.

Class and money, of course, were part of the problem. This was at a state university in California, the program I was in before I applied to the MFA at the University of Montana and learned that not all writing programs are created equal. Maybe fortunately, I hadn’t yet seen how students in Ivy or near-Ivy writing programs are coddled and courted as long as they have connections. In Montana, several of my classmates had agents before they even started (or wrote anything). Famous visiting writers showed up twice a week and yawned through their workshops, occasionally meting out a beatdown to the group pariah—usually the kid on heavy student loans whose parents don’t happen to be international art dealers. It makes strategic sense to do this. You look like you’re doing your job and a bit of focused brutality keeps the others in line. Plus some kid without connections won’t likely be a problem in the future.

To his credit, this did not happen in Ford’s workshop. Everyone took a beatdown. Then again, no one had an evident future in creative writing. So he might have been shouting at a room full of corpses, professionally speaking. He seemed angry about having to teach the class in the first place. I think he was there as a personal favor, produced no doubt through the clandestine machinery of patronage and obligation that keeps the MFA Ponzi scheme up and running even in the lowliest regional colleges. Look at the list of visiting writers on any half-page AWP Writer’s Chronicle MFA program advertisement and compare this to the names consistently showing up in Best American Short Stories over the last 20 years. Then look up who’s publishing those people and where they’re teaching now. Who takes those classes? Who can qualify to enter those MFA programs? You’ll figure it out. It’s not hard. And, after that, I’d like you to sweep out the break room.

However, there is another difference between the finishing-school MFA and the one I was in at that time: lack of tact. Students in the highfalutin MFA programs, especially the students on big loans, have a very powerful sense that they must not argue too loudly. They are, after all, being taught by MacArthur fellows and the Pulitzer winners. But go down to a state college on the edge of a farm community where Animal Sciences gets more funding than English, Art, and History together. There you will encounter a type of student looking for an education and angry that she isn’t getting it. Already alienated, many of these kids will gravitate towards the arts, not because it’s a cool thing to talk about at daddy’s dinner parties, but because they have become true believers. Debt is going to be part of their lives forever, but maybe they’re still idealistic enough to want to become artists even though their future as parking lot attendants is pretty much locked in at that point. Every class matters to them. Every text is something that they’ve had to sacrifice for. And if they’re going to be publicly abused and their work put to the question, they want it to be for a good reason.

Thus it came to pass that on the day we were talking about publishing (such that it was clear none of us would ever publish a damn thing because, hey, look around), Karin** raised her hand. I knew it was coming. I could feel the barometer drop as Ford, in mid-sentence, looked over at her. She’d had a pissed-off look since the first day and, meeting by meeting, she seemed to be holding in the rage. I never got to know Karin very well, but I remember that she had a lot of piercings and bright carrot-orange hair which must have been dyed. She was gravely serious about becoming a writer. She was making it happen through loans and waitressing at Denny’s. Moreover, she had a two-year-old son. Karin did not lead an easy life. She led a determined one. And she was not impressed.

She asked a question: “Can you talk about how you first got published? I mean, isn’t it true that you’re so famous whatever you write can get automatically published at this point?” In the spirit of Mark Twain’s after-dinner speech at John Greenleaf Whittier’s birthday party, “the house’s attention continued, but the expression of interest in the faces turned to a sort of black frost.” The daffodils in the faculty club immediately turned to ash and crumbled. Dogs began to howl. The corner of Joan’s eye began to violently twitch.

The way I remember his response was that it was something acidic and dismissive. It was not altogether as harsh as I had expected and, to my surprise, he did not command her to commit ritual suicide then and there. But Karin never came back to class after that meeting. I may not recall his exact words because, in that moment, I was having what can only be described as a major epiphany. I realized it wouldn’t make a bit of difference if I came to the next meeting or went to a bar and got drunk or wrote 20 pages of the best possible prose. What mattered was my attitude to my own work, how sincere I was while remaining dedicated to learning the craft. That’s what being a real writer is. I have Ford’s workshop to thank for that.

It was the first big realization I had in the writing life: every act of writing is an act of defiance. All else is opinion, vanity, and marketing. If that sounds too extreme, let me respectfully suggest that you’re not expressing yourself as fully or as honestly as you could. Let me suggest that you write something that people will disagree with and that you also happen to believe. And let me suggest that you put it out there to publishers and learn to deal with the inevitable beatings. And then defy those and do it again.

 

 

* Kathy Knapp does an updated version of this critique in American Unexceptionalism: the Everyman and the Suburban Novel After 9/11 (2014).

** Not her actual name but close enough for those who might remember.

It was the beginning of a time when it was almost as if the novel itself didn’t matter anymore. Publishing a shiny booklike object was simply an excuse for parties and glamour and goodlooking authors reading finely honed minimalism to students who would listen rapt with slack­jawed admiration, thinking, I could do that, I could be them. But of course if you weren’t photogenic enough, the sad truth was you couldn’t. – Bret Easton Ellis

John Berryman is supposed to have said that a writer never knows if he’s any good. He asks himself this throughout his life and dies without a satisfactory answer—no matter what prizes, money, publications, or objects of social approval have been tossed his way. It’s easy to conclude that this is just an egotistical hangup for celebrities with enough time and money to fish for validation. Am I good? Tell me. Really? Tell me again. But what Berryman didn’t say was that these doubts seem to come to every person in every field. And insofar as nothing in this world is ever finished or static, such questions must always remain open.

In fact, most things a writer may ask herself about writing (usually in a fallow time when she isn’t writing and feels hollow and dead inside) have no real answers. There is no objective standard for writerly success. You’re never going to know, quoth Berryman. Perhaps because of this, the path of a developing writer is fraught will all kinds of psychological pitfalls, uncertainties which emerge in the space between creation and judgment—writing the thing and then deciding whether it’s worthy.

Consider the luminous transcendent moment when Alice Munro won the Nobel Prize for literature. Let’s be honest: she fucking deserved it as well as anybody else. Do you mean to tell me she isn’t a skilled writer? That she hasn’t led the life? That she doesn’t deserve to get paid? Sure, the Nobel system is a politicized, public relations hype-sandwich. In that, it’s no different than the Pulitzer, the MacArthur Genius Grant, the Stegner, or any of the other smaller awards that function as patronage for writers.

Still, I had to laugh when Bret Easton Ellis—who is also great but very different—commented that “Alice Munro was always an overrated writer and now that she’s won The Nobel she always will be. The Nobel is a joke and has been for ages.” After the inevitable social media backlash, he added, “The sentimental hatred for me has made me want to re-read Munro, who I never really got, because now I feel like I’ve beaten-up Santa Claus.” That one kept me laughing for about a week. But the truth is a lot simpler than whether or not Ellis beat up Father Christmas: Munro might not be his cup of tea. But nobody can say definitively that she is “completely overrated” because nobody actually knows. Not even, I will venture to say, Alice.

Young writers (in years and / or in terms of artistic development) especially try to fill this gap with metrics designed to quantify success and banish their excruciating doubts. But most writers have to fight this battle, some throughout their entire careers. Over the course of many years in the writing life, one sees it all:

  • the hack machine who puts out a formulaic novel every three months like clockwork and points to this as the ultimate sign of achievement;
  • the bitter self-publisher, who has completely dismissed the Manhattan book industry as a hive of scum and villainy, and who now only writes direct-to-Lulu ebooks because nothing else matters anymore;
  • the one who can tell you any any minute of the day or night how much money his books are making and exactly why other writers are so jealous of his commercial prowess;
  • the defensive YA-ist (Young Adulterer? Young Adulterator?), who started out trying to be Pam Houston but after the first orgy of rejections turned to Harry Potter the way an abused housewife turns to brandy—it takes the edge off in the middle of the day, helps her convince herself that writing about fairy children with super powers is her true calling, and makes it possible for her to stop experiencing those week-long fugues of black existential dread in which she used to compare herself to Pam;
  • the lost soul in the MFA program, trying desperately to clone herself into Alice Munro or Donna Tartt or Jonathan Foer or Gary Shteyngart or whoever else is currently receiving the publishing industry’s golden shower du jour (Look how closely I can imitate X! Can I get a cookie? Do you love me? Why won’t anyone love me? You promised me a cookie. Where’s my cookie! I’ll be over there, cutting myself, until you bring me my cookie.);
  • the lost soul after the MFA program, trying desperately to justify himself to his drunk brother-in-law at Christmas dinner by mentioning all his literary journal publications (I just put a story in Bumfuck Quarterly! It’s my fifteenth publication! And fuck you, you philistine.);
  • the lost soul who got the two-book deal early on, enabling her to worm her way into a tenure track position at a small liberal arts college, and who behaves outwardly as if this validates every word she has written and will ever write (but who continually asks, Is this it? when she’s not buying cases of gin at the package store because maybe Gilbey’s is the only answer);
  • others, many and various.

I know. I’m being cruel. Although cruelty does come standard with the writing life, these are stereotypes and we all have a little of this inside us.  So pointing fingers is a bit hypocritical.  Call it the pathology of trying to be a writer in a system that presents itself as a meritocracy but functions via medieval power games and nepotism. And we can be as angry as we want. We can shake our little fists at the heavens or spend hours upbraiding ourselves in the mirror. But we’re never going to know how to be good. We’re only ever going to know that we want to be.

 

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.

I first noticed the wolf in East Africa. Heard of brothers fighting and killing each other outside Makamba, daughters poisoning fathers in Goma, laughing while their houses burned, and everywhere the ritual of suffering enacted with a kind of desperate abandon. So I knew it had come around to this once again: an axe age, a sword age, a wind age, a wolf age. An age of bullets. An age of scorn, of grief, of fire and ice and tongues of rust filthy with blood. In such times, no one has mercy or even remembers it. Instinct rules. Understanding is rare. And few hear the wolf creeping up behind.

I knew Bujumbura waited to impart such knowledge to me when I saw the catherine wheel in a stand of trees beyond the airfield—a frame for breaking and burning witches—with an empty metal folding chair waiting beside it. I stepped away from the plane and stared at purple thunderheads hanging low over the steaming hills. I’d arrived during the rainy season, prop wash of the Dornier 228 twisting bits of paper and plastic bags over fields of grass and ochre mud. Then into town on the back of a piki-piki, plumes of brown water shooting up behind the wheels into the rain.

Streets with broken ditches, piles of burning garbage that smelled like shit and rubber. And everywhere: singing, chanting, drumming, sirens, heavy bass, the crackle of French radio through the wet dark as we passed yellow rectangles of light cut by barbed wire, spiked security bars, the black silhouettes of branches waving in the storm.

Arrived at crumbling plaster villa with collapsed third floor, brooding and dark and unoccupied for months—the best the company could get me on short notice. Two blocks down the hillside from the President’s mansion, the house had its own water cistern on stilts, gate guards, and a cadaverous German Shepherd, who sat beside the front door and frowned at me as I carried my suitcase in. Rusted rebar lattices over the windows. The outer wall pitted by bullet holes and topped with broken glass. The bedroom ceiling covered with spiders. My home for a month.

In the morning: Laurent Nzikobanyanka pulls the outside bell rope. Bald, smiling, gold Masonic ring, pressed blue suit and cream tie, long handshake. Regional supervisor for the company—a man in love with absurdity and beer and the absurdity of beer. Straight to Ubuntu Résidence for pizza with bitter Goma cheese and 40oz bottles of the local Primus for hours.

Then slow, the ground tilting, we walk the Public Gardens while jogging clubs in identical berets run around us, three gravely serious men in yellow track suits do Tai Chi on the wet grass, and a laughing girl flips somersaults on her roller blades. A passing woman nods at Laurent. Ça va? Ça va bien. It starts to rain. People look up and laugh at the rain. And this, too, is Africa.

The report I’m supposed to write for Laurent—what report am I supposed to write? I take the Lariam I brought with me to keep off the malaria and have bad dreams, wake up in the middle of the day with cockroaches on my belly, kill them, go back to bed and have bad dreams of cockroaches. Laurent comes by and pulls the bell rope, but I don’t go to the door. Three days in, and I’m pale and trembling. I’ve started vomiting and shitting uncontrollably. I worry I might have typhoid. So I add Cipro to the Lariam and spend ten days going from bed to toilet. Ça va? Ça va bien.

On the eleventh day, I rise again, thinner, with clean intestines and more circumspection. Before dawn, dogs are howling all across the city at a WWII air raid siren being cranked for no discernable reason. The house German Shepherd, who I have learned is named Jean-Pierre, howls back one raspy and exasperated howl, his duty as a dog. But he’s heard it all before. I lean out the back door and give him an ancient withered galette from the tin I found over the sink. The dogs in the distance begin again. He holds the end of the flat cake in his mouth and looks up at me with something like sympathy. “Good boy,” I say. “Fucking eat it or I’ll take it back.” He growls a little, but he doesn’t put it down. When I close the door, I hear him whimper. Growl or whimper: life is simple until you need to do both at once.

Laurent takes me to meet Father Martin, a Catholic priest, a descendent of a Tutsi king, and an initiate of Imana, the old creator god. Father Martin has no problems with this. We walk through his small, crumbling Église de l’Ascension while he talks to us about water issues, the rebels, the Evangelical Christian missionaries defacing ancestor shrines outside Gitega. Half-burned pillar candles in wrought iron stands line the bare walls. Spiderwebs over everything. The tiny arched windows have no glass, only black bars set deep into the frames. A breeze twists down, guttering the candles, lifting the webs like an invisible hand.

That night, there is mass and then, in a tent behind the church, the worship of Imana. Drumming. Singing. I pass out on a bench and no one notices, not even me. When I come to, Laurent is gone. Covered in sweat and smelling like incense, I walk through silent black streets until I find my way home, where I drink and smoke cigarettes and talk to Imana in the dark of my bedroom.

Day fifteen, halfway through the report, chain smoking, writing what the company wants me to write to calm the investors: emerging technologies, very good, country is on the upswing, great opportunity for development, everything is wonderful, god is in his heaven, all is right with the world.

I don’t mention the child who’d been thrown in a pool of acid when he was three, who is now eighteen and assigned to guard my front gate in a blue uniform with only half a face. I don’t mention the woman who weeps every night somewhere nearby or that I heard the catherine wheel was used a month before I arrived to break every bone in a woman’s body. They said she used sorcery to make her boyfriend impotent. Grenade attacks at gas stations. Shootings in the central market. The Muslim Brotherhood taking revenge for someone taking revenge for something another group did in some other country at an earlier date. A rebel general in the hills above Kigali, raping and murdering villagers, mounting their heads on spikes by the side of the road. The wolf age. The wheel of iron, come back around for its bloody payment.

Sicker than five dogs, but no time to relax. I stop writing only when Laurent insists that I get out of the house for my health. I stink and speak incoherently and sweat and grope for a cigarette every few minutes. But Laurent is determined. We have lunch at New Parador with Jessica Stanley, a functionary from the U.S. Embassy so far up or down in the hierarchy she doesn’t have a job title. Blonde, early fifties, stick thin with a pearl necklace and a pained squint. “What do you do?” I ask. “I work at the embassy.” “And what does that involve?” “It involves embassy work.”

Laurent smiles broadly and orders three big beers.

She goes thirty minutes later, her Primus untouched. Laurent drinks it slowly and sighs. “An unfortunate woman, but someone I thought you should meet.” I don’t ask him why. The interior of the New Parador dining room is covered in chipped gold leaf. The ceiling drips water into a plastic bucket. I decide Laurent is too sincere to be putting me on.

With the month almost up, I write continuously, pausing only to feed galettes to Jean-Pierre and drink filtered water that smells like an unwrapped condom. Before I can finish, I’m visited by Reverend Moonstar, an old high school friend who used to be named Sean Roberts. He got rich importing wicker things from the Congo and selling them in Manhattan. Now he practices polyamory and runs a coven of divorced Wiccans in Italy.

Reverend Moonstar has become pale and obese. He tells me Wiccan bitches are all succubi while he mixes a pitcher of martinis in the kitchen. “You know, this light in here, I think it’s flickering ‘cause it’s broken, Mikey. And, uh, you’re not living here permanently, are you? You’ve got a serious fucking roach problem.” I tell him he’s got a dirty mouth for a man of the cloth. The reverend offers a martini to Jean-Pierre, but the dog nips his hand. Even this doesn’t bother him. He laughs and sips his martini while I bandage him up. In the morning, I open my eyes to see Jean-Pierre snap a cockroach off my shirt, bite it in half, spit it out, and lie down again with his head on my body. I don’t know how he got inside, but I decide he gets double galettes later.

I finish the paper and Laurent is pleased. He pats me on the shoulder and hopes I get over my chronic cough, trembling, and fever. I have started to sweat profusely and I’m out of Cipro. The Lariam gives me dreams of my dead mother, memories of my father on one of his two-week whiskey benders where he called the house and told us he’d been elected governor of Alaska, dreams of a man-sized cockroach kneeling by the bed, hissing terrible things into my ear.

I’ve got an extra week paid for if I want to stay and Father Martin has invited me to another service. The Public Gardens are empty and covered in mist. I walk through them in the morning, feeling like the mist is more solid than my body, like I could hike up the side of the mist to heaven where Imana waits to explain Burundi to me, the wolf age, the twilight of the gods. I realize I know nothing. I have learned nothing. And, at best, I am seriously ill.

So I take a moto-taxi out to the airport where the catherine wheel is now soot black. They have broken and burned another witch since I arrived—always a poor village woman or a rape victim. Never someone like our Reverend Moonstar, who can wear pentagrams and talk about spells and Wiccan bitch-succubi all he wants. I vomit twice in the airport bathroom and pay the attendant 500 BIF for the trouble. A mustard yellow gecko crawls out of my laptop bag before I board the plane.

Brussels. I miss my connecting flight to London and get a closet room at the Hotel Friederiksborg instead. Too weak to get to a clinic, I soak the bed with sweat and think about dying. I think about Jean-Pierre, my best and only friend, and that I should have taken him with me. Room service leaves bottles of carbonated Spa outside my door with dry toast. The conceirge is understanding and discrete; though he is clearly worried about what to do with my corpse should I kick off in the middle of the night. I live on bread and mineral water for a week until I can keep it down and am strong enough to bathe myself and walk outside.

I look up friends of friends who live on Rue de Lakenstraat—three Estonian girls who give me tea, wine, and chocolate. In my lingering dizzy exhaustion, they seem to me like creatures of pure air and fire, filling up my glass, laughing, wanting to know—everything—how many people there are in Burundi; what the climate is like; why I went there; whether I have read a certain Polish travel writer; what I think of Belgium; what I think of Obama’s administration relative to the Bush administration and if there is much pro-American sentiment in Burundi; if anyone I know has been a victim of the grenade attacks; what my dissertation was on; what they should see if they visit Rwanda other than the gorillas; and whether I am a vegetarian. I look around and tell myself none of it is real. Any moment, a man-sized cockroach will sit down next to me and raise his glass. Cheers.

When I leave I feel I’ve spent time with the fairy court in the kingdom of the Shining Ones. But when I walk along a canal into a bad part of town I see dull-eyed prostitutes leaning against the buildings and the primered chassis of an Audi up on blocks behind a chainlink fence. And I remember the catherine wheel and decide that I am somewhere on the earth after all.

In the morning, the money comes through. Job well-done. Everyone is happy. Glowing praise from Laurent. In the unfathomable machinery of coincidence, I am offered a small part-time position at the university in Tallinn, Estonia.

Sure, I think, why not? I can spend some more time with the Shining Ones in a beautiful European city. But, of course, it’s not that easy. Even now, in my dreams, the empty roads are still and silent under windows painted with the brown of old gore. And the ragged lines of cities have given way to sand and weeds. And no one cares about the trash in vacant lots or whose bones lie there, warm and pale in the sun. Of these things, only those with eyes to see can recognize the Ouroboros coming full circle again. The blackened catherine wheel. The rows of heads by the side of the road. Only those with ears to hear will notice the wolf sniffing at the door in the dead of night or recognize the riddle of our beginnings tied to the wheel and broken by the ignominy of our end.

 

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Painted Bride Quarterly, Print Annual 6 (2013)

Astrid went up the spiral stair and, keeping her knees bent, made her way to the back corner of the deserted observation deck where her mother sat knitting and frowning at Nebraska.

“This state is endless,” her mother said, an expression of abject disgust in the turned-down corners of her mouth. “And boring. I have to agree with you on that.”

Astrid sat down with a sigh and pulled her brown hair back into an elastic band. “You’re the one who wanted to take the train. I wanted to fly, remember?” She looked at the cornfields sliding past, a carpet of unruly green to the horizon. In the distance, a miniature water tower proclaimed the existence of yet another small town. The name had faded from the side of the cistern. Only the red diamond-shaped background was visible. Astrid wondered if the town was named “Diamond” and if there were hidden diamond mines under the corn. The thought made her smile, but her smile vanished when she looked back at her mother.

“I’d rather be bored than be dead,” her mother said, returning to the indeterminate woolen something she’d been knitting since before they’d left San Francisco for Virginia two weeks ago. They were on their way back to California from visiting Astrid’s father in Arlington National Cemetery. This was the third summer they’d made the trip.

“What’s the difference?” She stood up again and had to catch herself on the metal pole beside their booth when the train lurched.

Astrid never met her father when he was alive. In fact, most of what she knew about him, she’d learned from the movie that showed how he and his buddies crashed their helicopter in the desert and fought their way back to a US outpost. Sean Penn had played her father. And as much as Astrid felt it was probably a good thing that people paid their respects to men like her father who’d died serving their country, she suspected her mother made her come wholly because she hated Astrid’s boyfriend, Julian. They could have flown just this once. But she knew her mother had insisted on the train again because it took up more summertime that Astrid could have been spending with him.

“You want some money for the dining car?”

“Save it.”

Without looking back, Astrid made her way to the other end of the observation deck where the little spiral staircase led down to the main body of the train. She could feel her mother’s eyes on her and a faint smile passed over her face. It wasn’t over. It wouldn’t be over until she called her mother a stupid, desperate whore obsessed with a dead man who’d never loved her and wouldn’t marry her. Astrid was saving the words up, rehearsing them over and over in her mind. It had become a way to pass the time while the Midwest slipped behind the train hour after hour. Every time Astrid imagined her mother’s reaction, a spark of malicious joy flared in her heart.

This was the third time she’d walked the length of the train from their sleeper compartment in the back to the observation car up front behind the forward engine. She had a key card that opened the sleeper, but there was only so much sleeping a person could do. And whenever she sat in there by herself, listening to music or to the faint hiss of the air circulating through the vents and the thump-clack of the rails, all she could think about was Julian. She’d written him three letters during the trip, each about 15 pages in length. When she got back, she planned to give them to him in a big envelope with a red bow on it and say, read these—then we can talk because otherwise they’d be out of synch and things would go bad and she’d feel stupid, like her mother had won.

She bought a Coke in the concession car and sat down at one of the tables. In the evening, the observation deck would be crowded by those who hadn’t paid for sleeper compartments and couldn’t get comfortable enough to fall sleep in their seats. But, during the day, people would linger at the concession car tables—all long-distance travelers, all bored to death and willing to make temporary friends in order to pass the time. It could become a party atmosphere, especially given the number of Marines onboard, and Astrid wondered whether the train made more money from alcohol than it did on tickets.

Sitting at the table across from her, a man in a wrinkled green suit drank canned martinis with a fat red-faced biker sporting a gray ponytail and a Harley Davidson muscle shirt. She counted six of the thin white cans on the table between them. They spoke but hardly moved their mouths as if they’d been injected with a slow setting concrete.

At another table, three enormous Marines played cards and traded their own cans of Budweiser out of an large baby blue Playmate cooler they kept in the aisle. Their voices filled the car and when the enormous blond Marine with the scar on his jaw won a hand, he half-stood and whooped like a cowboy. People had to edge around their cooler to get to the concession counter, but people did and no one complained. No one even looked their way—except for the man in the white button-down and khakis sitting by himself at a far table, who’d look up from his laptop with a level stare whenever they got particularly loud.

Astrid watched the Marines, pretending she was looking past them or at the writing on her Coke can, which she held in front of her face from time to time like it was a fascinating alien artifact that required further study. She decided that none of them were handsome, exactly. But they had an unstable, rollicking energy that magnetized the air around them—an invulnerable wall of sand-colored fatigues and muscle. If the train derailed and everything turned sideways, she imagined they’d still be sitting there, laughing and tossing each other beers while everybody else screamed for their lives.

“Fuck off, Smits. You got shit and you know it.” That was the one who had stubble and squinted a lot like he didn’t believe anything at all. His name was Leitner. Smits was the big blond with the spiked up hair. And the other one—shaved completely bald, even his eyebrows—was Johnson. That’s how they addressed each other: Smits, Leitner, Johnson, not private or lieutenant. Astrid wondered if they were old friends from high school who’d met up in the Midwest after being on duty in different parts of the world and decided to ride the train somewhere together and play cards all the way.

Julian’s last name was Kettlefield. She tried to picture him sitting at their table in sandy fatigues with Kettlefield on a rectangular patch over his heart, saying Fuck you, Johnson or Gimmie two, you cheatin’ bastard, but she couldn’t. Julian was wiry, an inch shorter than her, with beautiful eyelashes, long black hair, and a cousin who was a pro skater. His two deepest secrets were first, that next year, after they graduated, he planned to steal a bunch of money from his dad and move to Hawaii so he could go into business in a skate shop with his cousin. And second, that he’d gotten Astrid in black cursive tattooed on the flat smooth place right above his pubic hair.

She couldn’t imagine Smits with a tattoo like that. He have a name like Rosy or Sheresse or I Love You Mom in barbed wire around a bleeding heart. And it wouldn’t be above his pubic hair. It would be on the hard slab of his thigh or the side of his neck or high up on his shoulder above a skull with a knife in its teeth. She noticed that Leitner had a blue scarab tattooed in the webbing between his left thumb and fingers. Johnson had a black thorn pattern inscribed around the back of his neck, the kind she’d seen posted up as examples in the windows of tattoo parlors in Berkeley.

Smits won again. This time he jumped out into the aisle, gyrating his hips like Elvis, saying, “That’s right! That’s right you sonsabitches! Keep makin’ me rich!” The other two tossed their cards down and cursed, but they were still smiling as if it didn’t mean a thing. Smits sat down and scooped up the pile of dollars on the table. The scar on his jaw was long and pale. The rest of his face shone red with beer and joy.

They traded up more cans of Bud from the cooler. And she noticed that the biker and the businessman had also reprovisioned with six more little white cans between them. Now they were slouched way down in the circular booth seats around their table, looking sedated and completely unaware of anything in the world, least of all the soldiers directly beside them.

Astrid smiled at her empty Coke can. This was far more interesting than staring at Nebraska with her mother or listening to sad songs on her iPod in the sleeper while she worried about Julian.

It got even more interesting when the man in the white button-down cleared his throat and said, maybe a little too loudly, “HEY GUYS. You think we could dial it down? I’m doing some work over here.”

Leitner and Johnson turned around in their seats and looked back at him. Smits just sat where he was, his enormous freckled hands folded on the table beside his beer. And there was a moment of silence in which the air in the concession car seemed to have solidified in a way that would hold them all there forever: the businessman and the biker with drooping eyelids, the old train guy sitting over behind the concession counter, the Marines glaring at the man in the white button-down, and Astrid.

Then Smits frowned. He knitted his eyebrows in a look of intense deliberation and said, “Fuck it. He’s right.”

Johnson nodded slowly and scratched the top of his bald head. “Excuse us. Sorry to have bothered you.”

Leitner just turned back around. The three of them looked at each other for a moment. Then they burst out laughing just as loud and as violently as before. They laughed for a full minute with Smits slapping the table and Leitner losing his unbelieving squint while he rubbed a hand over his stubble and listed against Johnson.

That was when Smits looked across at her and said, “That’s some funny shit. I love this train.”

Astrid felt a bolt of white hot electricity explode in her chest. The three Marines were looking at her, grinning, expecting her to say something. But her mind was blank. She was now a senior at North Beach Preparatory Academy, and Astrid felt she had better judgment than most girls she knew. She could certainly call things better than her mom, who was a sad stress case most of the time and only seemed to come alive on these miserable summer trips to Virginia. Astrid also felt she had an extrasensory awareness of when guys were looking at her like that. And she didn’t mind when they did because looking at girls like that was part of being a guy. But the like that of Smits, Leitner, and Johnson seemed overwhelming in its suddenness and their good humor did nothing to lessen its impact. Astrid knew she was blushing and hated herself for it.

“Yeah,” she said, giving them a weak smile.

The man in the white button-down stood and slammed his laptop shut so hard that it sounded like a bullwhip. Leitner and Johnson turned to watch him go.

“Have a nice day,” Leitner said to his back. The man didn’t turn around and the far door of the concession car hissed shut behind him.

Smits was still looking at her. He thought for a moment, then made up his mind and slid into the circular booth on the other side of her table. “What’s your name?” he said.

Johnson slid into the booth next to Smits. And Leitner moved in next to her, shifting the Playmate cooler two feet to the other side of the aisle. He handed out a round of beers and smiled at her with the squint back in his eyes. “Drink?”

She gave a half-nod and Leitner immediately replaced her empty Coke can with a full can of Bud, opening it for her with a flourish.

“Astrid,” she said to Smits.

“Astrid,” he repeated as if he were savoring the way it felt on his tongue. “Ever hear of a name like that?” he asked Johnson, who scratched his head and said, “Can’t say that I have. What is it, a name of a flower?”

She smiled and shrugged. She touched the side of the beer can with her thumb and felt the little nubs of ice stuck to the metal.

“She don’t know,” Leitner said. “Right on. Americans don’t know that shit.”

“Yeah,” Smits said. “Well, if it’s a flower, it’s got to be a pretty flower.” His face was wide under his short crown of spiked blond. He had lines on his forehead and a dusting of freckles there and over the bridge of his nose. Astrid looked at his pale blue eyes and smiled down at her beer.

“I’m just fuckin’ with you, Astrid,” he said with a shrug and another grin. “Let’s play some cards. You play cards?”

When she hesitated, Johnson said, “Don’t worry about it. We’ll teach you.” And he slid a small square of lined paper across the table to her. It had a fairly realistic line drawing of her face in the center of a sunflower with the sun laughing down at her from one corner and the moon weeping from another like comedy and tragedy. Under the drawing, he’d written Astrid in over-exaggerated script.

“Oh my god. Thank you. That’s beautiful,” she said. “Did you do that just now?”

“I did.” Johnson bowed, clicked his ballpoint, and put it in his pocket. She noticed a Gothic E.I. tattooed on the inside of his wrist. “I’m quick on the draw,” he added.

“He’s a quick shooter,” Leitner said.

“A real speed demon” said Smits as he brought out the deck of cards and started shuffling them.

Astrid took a sip and remembered she hated the taste of beer. She swallowed it anyway and pushed a loose strand of hair away from her face. “What’s that tattoo mean?”

Johnson looked down at his wrist then back up at her and smiled. One of his eye-teeth was dark silver. “That? That’s Latin. Stands for Ex Inferis. All you need is love.”

“That’s the goddamn truth,” Smits said, drinking half his beer and dealing cards around the table. “That’s all you ever need. Right, Astrid?”

She laughed. “Right.”

“And beer,” Leitner said.

Johnson pointed at Leitner and made his eyes big and round. “Truth. Cold beer and warm women.” Then he winked at her.

For her benefit, they played a few test hands of hold’em, described by Smits as “the purest game of cards given to man by god.” But when they started to take out their wallets, she still felt hopelessly lost. The way they spoke was so full of inside jokes and loaded references that when they’d gone over the rules, it was like they were trying to explain the grammar of one foreign language by using another.

The half-can of beer she’d drunk in polite sips had made her woozy and tired. Astrid thought she might want to crawl back to the sleeper compartment and take a nice long nap until dinner, but the incomprehensible bulk of Leitner was blocking the way—a squinting, beery pile of cinderblocks dressed up like a Marine. And now they’d been debating something and they were looking at her, expecting an answer.

“What?” She raised her eyebrows and tried not to burp.

“Do you have any money?” Smits said, leaning back in the booth and gesturing to the freshly shuffled deck on the table between them.

“Look,” Johnson said, “she don’t have no cash. How old are you anyway, honey?”

“21,” she lied.

“Exactly,” he said to Smits, “you can’t take no money from a 16-year-old girl.”

“But you can give it.” Leitner nodded at her, a faint smile at the corners of his mouth. “You can sure as hell give it.”

Smits held up his hands, palms open, in the universal gesture of diplomacy and reason. “All I’m saying is this is a pure game. You don’t bet, you’re not really playing. Might as well play checkers. But, shit, I’d want to bet on that, too.”

The three of them laughed and Astrid laughed along with them, thinking that she should have understood why it was funny. She noticed that the businessman and the biker and all their little canned martinis had gone. Their table was deserted as if they’d never existed. The sun had slipped farther toward the cornfield horizon on the other side of the train, and the shadow of the concession car had gotten deeper and thicker on the gravel beside the tracks. How long had she been sitting here? She wondered if her mother were angry, walking through the train looking for her, holding her cloth knitting bag in front of her like a Geiger counter as she swayed down the aisles.

“Alright. I have a solution.” Johnson took out more of the paper that he’d used when he drew the picture of her. Astrid saw that it wasn’t a pad but an extremely long sheet Johnson had meticulously folded into three-square-inch sections. When he put it on the table, it expanded like an accordion. He carefully tore off the top section and then tore that into quarters. He did the same with two more pieces. Then he wrote Astrid Chip $5 on each little square and pushed the pile towards her. “This is Astrid credit,” he said. “Every $20 you’re in for pays out a kiss. Okay?”

“Always thinking, Johnson.” Leitner smirked and replaced Johnson’s beer.

Smits sighed and held up his hands again. “Well, it’ll fuck up the natural rhythm of the game, but I guess it’s better than nothing. What do you say, hun? You okay with that?”

Astrid hesitated. But this time Smits didn’t shrug and grin like a schoolboy or say he was just fuckin’ with her. He waited for her answer along with the other two, the new breath of seriousness between them completely unlike the mock solemnity they’d shown the man in the white button-down ages ago. Was it ages? It felt to Astrid like a different lifetime.

She thought of Sean Penn playing her father in Fallen Arrow, a film Astrid had seen many, many times because her mother watched it whenever she was feeling depressed. There was a part where Penn and his surviving chopper crew—a farm boy from Missouri named Lieutenant Barnes and a British intelligence agent named Mr. Streeter—are captured and held in a cavernous dungeon by the Taliban. The night before they’re scheduled to be executed, the local village girl tasked with feeding them and tending to their wounds helps them escape—but not before lifting her veil to share a passionate kiss with Penn, who swears he will return for her someday. Only he doesn’t. He dies in a firefight, sacrificing himself to save 20 men pinned down by a sniper in the last scene. Her father got a bronze star for that.

“Okay,” she whispered.

“Atta girl,” Leitner said, drinking the rest of her beer and putting a new one in front of her. “Game on.”

“Game on,” said Smits.

They played a few hands and she was surprised that she’d won more than she’d lost, always folding before having to contribute more than $15 in Astrid credit. Finally, Johnson threw down his cards in disgust. “Beginners luck,” he said. “Thus, I must go take a piss.”

“Don’t be a sore loser.” Leitner came back to the table from the concession counter with three six-packs of Bud to restock the cooler. He started pulling the cans out of the plastic rings and placing them in the ice, which was now floating in a miniature arctic sea. The cans made a koosh sound when he dropped them in.

One of the cans slipped out of his hand and missed the cooler, rolling down to tink against the base of the concession counter. The concession man brought it back and handed it to Leitner.

“Concession’s closing now,” he said. “You want to eat dinner, the dining car’s opening back that way.” He nodded, put his hands in his pockets, and then paused to look at them. He had a white handlebar moustache and a shock of unruly white hair. It took Astrid a moment to bring him into focus but, when she did, she thought he looked like Mark Twain—a guy who’d stepped out of a different time, someone who seemed right at home standing around on a train with his hands in his pockets. All he was missing was a pocket watch on a chain. He looked at her. Then he looked at Leitner and Smits, who gave him a blank stare in return.

“Check,” Smits said.

“Sounds good,” said Leitner.

The concession man looked at her again and raised his eyebrows. “Okay,” he said. “Whatever.” Then he was gone and Johnson came back.

“What’d I miss?” Johnson looked from Smits to Leitner.

Smits shook his head. “People never cease to amaze me.”

Leitner dropped the last can in the cooler. “Which is the source of your troubles,” he said.

Astrid had never drunk three beers on an empty stomach. And though that might have explained her eventual losing streak, it could also have been due to what Smits called the “beginner’s curse”—the moment when your beginner’s luck runs out and you have to pay your dues. He said you never knew how deeply you were going to be cursed before you started winning again. By the time the sun disappeared completely and the train’s interior lights turned the windows into scuffed black mirrors, Astrid had been cursed enough that she owed both Leitner and Johnson a kiss.

When she kissed Leitner, that sense of him as a mountain of bricks returned, the roughness of his stubble, the smell of beer and deodorant. Then there was Johnson, who let her give him a peck on the top of his bald head and bowed to her over the table—a grinning tattooed knight with a dark silver tooth.

But it was Smits who took her back to her compartment when she fell asleep. Later, she’d have a vague memory of holding onto his enormous neck while he carried her through the darkened coach cars. People were wedged uncomfortably in their seats, trying to catch a few hours before the next stop, and he’d said, “You gotta be quiet now, hun. There’s people trying to sleep.” But she felt it was important that she explain to Smits about her mother and their trips to Virginia and how Sean Penn was probably nothing like her father and how he’d gotten the bronze star even though he’d never come back for the woman he loved.

When she woke up at 10 AM the next day, her mother had already eaten breakfast and taken her place on the observation deck. They’d left Nebraska far behind in the night and were now well into Iowa, the noticeable difference being that the fields were brown as often as they were green and the water towers were closer.

She would no doubt have to work up an explanation for being carried to the sleeping compartment by a strange beer-doused Marine. But that could wait. Astrid walked through the upper and lower decks of the train several times, looking for her three friends, lingering in the concession car just in case one of them came back to restock their cooler or even look for her.

Astrid waited there most of the day before she realized that they must have gotten off at one of the nighttime stops. And although she tried to focus on Julian that day, she couldn’t. When she discovered a few of the little pieces of paper that said Astrid Chip $5 in her pocket, she felt that something precious had come into her life and then disappeared forever before she could understand it. She looked at the little drawing Johnson had done of her as a flower between a laughing sun and weeping moon and wondered where he was and whether anyone had ever given her mother something like that.

 

 

* Note: this story first appeared in Small Print Magazine, Winter/Spring 2014.

On the second day of the third week of the fifth month of her marriage, she already wanted to kill him. It was after the pills, after the night cab to the airport, after the restaurant fit. He didn’t give a damn. It was November.

She bought a whip. She started smoking. She changed her wardrobe to blacks, leather, reds, PVC, nothing. Some of it worked. Some of it made her think of something else. But she was all alone. She had an allowance, a gold Rolex, an eight bedroom house in La Jolla by the water. Fuck all that. She tried to burn the house down but stucco doesn’t burn. And as hard as Andy tried, she couldn’t cry.

She told people her name was Condra, but they called her Anaconda at the Sports Club, even though she didn’t touch anyone and no one touched her. No one got close. She wore silk on Thursdays. What was life for? She didn’t know. The bitches at the club all hated her when she walked in. $2000 got the burns on the house removed before Conrad got back from Japan.

He was on tour when he wasn’t composing, teaching, rubbing his tired eyes at the piano. She walked across the carpet naked like the mechanical duck that comes out of a clock when the little door opens at noon. Automated. Ignored. Displaying her body. But she might as well have been dead. Corpse porn. Conrad was killing her. He was there, playing Mahler. She knew Mahler. Mahler was dead. And so was she.

She looked at him.

He stopped playing and said, “Yes?”

Her hand twitched. “Fuck Mahler.”

He resumed playing.

***

Her gossipy, mouthy friend, Dimitria: “Just have an affair, Andy. Just get it out of your system, you know?” Dimitria wore a lot of purple. She was divorced and fantasized about Conrad. He was so sensitive; he had beautiful hair; he’d done a classical performance on PBS and wasn’t it brilliant? She’d saved the piece in TIME where he’d sat on the leather couch and talked about his muse. Andy stopped inviting Dimitria over a long time ago. Dimitria had a kid and lived in a sad bachelor apartment in Brea. She was a secretary in an insurance office.

“Just do it. Fair is fair. You’re not getting any younger? Am I right?”

“They call me Anaconda at The Sports Club. They think I’m a dominatrix.”

Dimitria lit a thin cigarette and rolled her eyes. “Please.” Purple lipstick on the filter. “You want one?”

Andy took the Whopper while Dimitria ordered another through the drive-up window. Andy blew smoke over the orange carpet that ran across the top of the dashboard.

“Your car’s a box of shit.”

“It’s a Corolla, Andy. Of course it’s shit. Eat.”

Andy ate.

“Remember that Chevy Nova I had in high school?” Dimitria laughed. Dimitria always asked Andy if she remembered the Nova. And then Dimitria always laughed. Andy looked at her with a mouthful of burger and sighed through her nose.

Dimitria dropped her off at a shoe boutique on Rodeo. Then Andy walked 15 blocks back to the Burger King and ordered another Whopper. And another. Then she vomited behind the dumpster on the other side of the parking lot and rode the 3:15 bus to the Amtrak depot at Union Station. She bought a ticket back to San Diego and sat down on a wooden bench to wait for her train.

A bum said, “Hey Vamparella, how about a dollar?” She gave him three fifties and the ticket for her return flight to San Diego that she wasn’t going to use. He handed the ticket back and said, “Baby, I don’t fly.”

It was the funniest thing she’d heard in a long, long time and she said so. He said, “Blow me” and shuffled off.

Right, she thought, everybody but Conrad. Her train boarded thirty minutes later. She got on and watched the tracks speed past. Then she slept.

Anaconda. What did it mean? It was a snake. Woman becomes snake. Was that sexy? All those pictures of Nastassja Kinski. Everyone agreed Nastassja Kinski had been very sexy. But why? Andy had a framed poster of Richard Avedon’s “Nastassja Kinski and the Serpent” in black and white over her bed. It was a mystery. Andy lay upside-down with her feet on the pillows, and stared at Nastassja, the serpent wrapped around her, emerging from between her legs. Nastassja had a belly and the snake was a boa constrictor, not an anaconda. But still. Nastassja’s belly was small. But still. What was it about her? She tried to imagine Conrad staring at that belly and masturbating, but she couldn’t.

A horn honked down in the circular drive. That would be his cab to the airport. A week with the Boston Symphony. He’d been practicing for it all year. They’d said their good-byes the night before at The Marine Room. He’d ordered the Brandt Farm beef carpaccio with chowder. She’d had the free range veal tenderloin and two martinis.

“I’m going tomorrow,” he said. “I’d invite you, but I know how you hate Boston.”

He looked like an alien masquerading as a human. Or a mock-up of a man done in white porcelain with stylish hair to his shoulders and Armani glasses. Or maybe fine china. She could knock him backwards and he’d shatter.

“You could say good-bye.” He blew on a spoon of chowder. “Do you have emotions anymore, Andrea? Really. If it’s the meds, we can change them, I’m sure.”

She stood. “Blow me, Conrad.” He flinched. That was something, but she knew it was just because there were people sitting all around them, looking. She was wearing a black latex Oscar de la Renta minidress with a vintage white Members Only jacket over it. She slapped her thigh. It went SPACK!

“I’ll call Dr. Bundt from Cambridge and get your prescription adjusted.” He ate his spoon of chowder.

Now he was gone. The sound of the cab faded. But still. A snake like that. It didn’t look like a penis. More like a limp fire hose. Was that it? Limp dicks to put out the fire?

That night, she went to The Sports Club in one of Conrad’s winter suits. It’s wasn’t Thursday and his suit wasn’t silk. It was a Herringbone Stanwyck Stripe Navy, the pants and the jacket. She had to cinch his belt to the last hole. Would he miss it if she pushed it into a trash can and walked home at the end of the night in her red thong? Had he worn the suit even once? The coat smelled like closet. She hadn’t taken her meds in over a month, even though her mother called every Sunday to ask if she had. She always said yes.

“So, you a dyke or what?” Blond. Say, twenty-two or twenty-three. Rugby shirt. Stupid. Not even sharp enough to be president of his fraternity, but fraternity was all over him.

“Probably more of the what.”

“You want a drink, don’t you?” His friends across the room, making faces at him.

“Drink is good. Go ahead.”

“What do you drink? The weird shit? You always slick your hair back like a dude? You want an Obsidian Death March? I can’t believe I just said that. Obsidian Death March.” He had trouble with the words, laughed at his own cleverness, one hand on the bar.

“Sure.”

Then the inevitable question: “So what’s your name?”

“Conde Nast.”

“Like nasty? You like it nasty?” Loud enough for his friends to hear. Somebody whistled, hooted.

“Contrara Nosferatu. You like that? You like it nasty? What’s your name? Brad?”

“Yeah. I like a nasty bitch. My name’s Penguin.”

Two Obsidian Death Marches. Purple black cough syrup. Jaegermeister base. $60. His wallet had an inch of bills.

“Bottoms up, Penguin.”

“You’re not even fuckin drunk.”

“Oh, I’m wasted.”

“I knew it,” he said. “You’re a dyke.”

“Look at this.” The whip. Conrad’s coat had hidden it well. Andy drew it out with an air of mystery and a smile.

“That’s a fuckin bullwhip.”

“Yeah, Penguin. It’s a fucking bullwhip. What’s wrong? I thought you liked it nasty. You want some of my nasty?”

He got pale, took a step back. “Fuck you, you fuckin dyke.”

“Come on, Brad, how about another drink? Let’s talk about your feelings.”

She could live or she could die. She felt like he could hit her and she might feel better. Andy tried to imagine what it would be like. It wouldn’t feel good. But what felt good? Maybe bad was good. Or better. She left him by the bar, staring at her, and went to the ladies’ room, where she purged the Obsidian Death March with two fingers just like mom taught her when she was 15. It burned like white fire. Blurry octopus cloud in the toilet. The phone number on the stall had the name ELIAS over it in black Sharpie. She called it on her cell. No such number. No such Elias. Poor Elias.

Andy uncoiled the whip and let it drag on the floor as she walked out of the restroom. Brad the Penguin was back at the fraternity table. She could live. She could die. She could die twice. Maybe bad was better. What would Conrad do if BP and friends killed her? He’d play Mahler. He’d buy her a tasteful casket. The upscale crowd didn’t come to The Sports Club on Monday nights. Just knucklehead frat boys living it up in the posh wood-paneled booths and paying $15 a beer.

“So Brad. How are you feeling now? You get it touch with your inner pussyboy? You still want the strap-on? It’s gonna cost you, Brad. I got an eight-inch dick out in the trunk. Come on, Brad. Fuck these guys. Let’s go.”

Uproarious laughter. The other three: two blonds like The Penguin with fake tans and whitened grins. One dark-haired boy who needed a shave. Sweatshirts. K ball caps on sideways. Teasing: Come on, P. You know you want the input. Don’t say no. We won’t tell. No blood left in the Penguin’s cheeks. Bitten by the Vamparella.

“Fuck you,” he said and threw a crumpled napkin at her.

“Fuck me? Fuck me?” The bullwhip took one of the tall beer glasses off the table. The glass shattered behind her. They all tried to stand. But it’s hard to stand up in a booth with an oak table that’s bolted to the floor. And, anyway, she’d been whipping cigarettes off the edges of brandy snifters for three weeks. A hat came off. A bloody strip across a face. Screams. The dark-haired one—she whipped him as he climbed over the back of the booth, cut straight into his ass through his jeans. A bullwhip could be incredibly precise and satisfying instrument of destruction. But you had to practice. Andy shook her head. It was all about self-discipline and practice, precision, and lots of wrist. The Penguin was screaming the long distorted scream of the terrified and the damned. He had pissed his khakis. Andy whipped him hard around the neck and he dropped to his knees, fumbling to undo it.

26 hours later, she was released by the SDPD with a citation. A notice to appear would be coming in the mail. The duty officer was in his fifties. He had a long head and dimples from smiling too much. But he wasn’t smiling.

“You can’t go whipping assholes in bars, honey. You could put someone’s eye out.”

“Actually you could kill someone with a thing like that.”

“Yeah. That, too. But they’re not pressing charges and whips aren’t classified as deadly weapons no more in the State of California. And those four dumbshits were high as hell. You got lucky.”

“I have problems with how I express my emotions, officer. I’ve got medication, but I haven’t been taking it.”

“You’re just like my daughter,” he said. “But she’s in the Army.”

They did not return her whip. Andy wandered through downtown San Diego to Seaport Village and then up to the port. She sat on a shipway and watched a rusted trash barge spackled with arrows of white bird shit carry its load south to Mexico. She imagined what it would be like if she swam out to it and climbed in, riding it all the way down to Jalisco. At dusk, she called a cab and threw Conrad’s suit jacket in the water.

She didn’t see anyone for four days. This, too, was part of her discipline. She shaved her head with a Norelco electric razor from Rite-Aid, listing to Sweet Dreams on repeat, so loud the walls of the house vibrated and a painting fell in Conrad’s bedroom. Then she lathered her head with shaving cream and Bicced it down to the skin.

On the second day, she shaved her eyebrows and her bush and her legs and under her arms.

On the third day, she drank a bottle of Grey Goose and shat herself in the bathtub.

The fourth day was for mourning. She wore a black veil and walked through the neighborhood feeding pigeons. She placed an ad in the San Diego Reader: “Cheap Castrations – Outpatient Only.” She placed another with a different credit card and phone number: “Thank you, Saint Oedipus, for Mommy.” She thought about the randomness of the world. She told herself she was Shiva, God of Death.

When had she eaten? She was dangerously thin. Her pelvis could be seen from space. She had no hair. She looked like a prisoner of war. The shag carpet was growing into the bottoms of her feet. The stars were winking at her. The universe had a Morse Code and she was receiving it. She was melding with the rocks. She had creeks and valleys. Andy looked at her naked body for hours in the bathroom mirror. She was an A-cup and had never cared about being anything other than an A-cup. But what if the universe wanted her to be a C-cup or a D? You don’t get breast implants just because the universe is horny. But fucking the universe would be amazing. Nastassja Kinski had fucked the universe, was fucking it eternally in that picture with the snake. You could see it on her face. She had a little belly. But it was there. It was definitely a belly.

On the fourth day of the second week of the sixth month of her marriage, Andy called Dimitria. “I’m taking you on a trip. Pack your suitcase.”

“I can’t. Some of us have to work, doll.”

“I’ll pay your salary.”

“But I won’t have a job when I come back.”

“Goddammit, I’ll pay your stupid fucking salary for the rest of your sad fucking life, you whore. Now get ready.”

“Okay.” Dimitria sounded very small.

Andy didn’t care. They were going to fuck the world. Both of them together. Like a road trip back in high school. But, of course, Dimitria had her job and her 8-year-old boy named Chris and her fantasies about Conrad. She weaseled out of it with a text message. It was just like her. Mouthy. Weasely. Texty. The trip never happened. What could you do with someone like that? Andy bought a blond wig with pigtails for $700 and a special hypo-allergenic adhesive to stick it to the top of her head. She bought salmon-colored lipstick and a red PVC corset with lace-ups from House of Harlot. It was a 4, the smallest they had. It was uncomfortably roomy. What could you do?

She could have called Dr. Bundt, her cheerful roly-poly psychiatrist with the special pills. Pills that compressed her emotions into crystal spheres that floated hither and thither through her brain. Hideous: knowing that she was feeling emotions without feeling them, looking at Conrad behind his piano every day he was home, thinking, I hate him; I really hate his fucking Mahler ass, while smiling pleasantly on her morning corpse walk across the den. Andy did the walk every morning when he was home. Next time, she’d wear a snake.

Sometimes, if he were feeling magnanimous, he would smile, back—the dreamy smile of a musician occupied with his music or thoughts of beautiful raven-haired Danica Gepura, who taught vocal performance at the university and who he’d been sleeping with for two months. Danica didn’t have a snake, either. Or did she?

Sticks and stones. You can’t fuck the world when your emotions are floating away in crystal spheres. She bought a past life regression cd and booked a weekend at the Disneyland Hotel. When the cab came, she left the front door of the house open, the alarm off.

“I need a whip is what I need. I had one before but the cops took it.”

The cab driver eyed her in the mirror as they pulled onto Mission Boulevard. “For reals?”

“For reals.” Under her white fox fur coat, Andy was wearing the PVC corset and a navy thong, matching navy heels with diamonds on them.

He adjusted the rearview and swerved when a car merged in front of him. His eyes took up the whole mirror. “Shit, I been waiting for you my whole life.”

She smiled. “Just drive.” Her lips were very red.

Andy did all the old rides. She did Tomorrowland with a pint of peppermint schnapps. Small World depressed her. She opened her legs and the paunchy father of three almost fell out of his teacup when his wife wasn’t looking. She bought a novelty whip and broke it trying to lash the receiver of the Mickey Mouse telephone in her suite. She hated Mickey. And Goofy always seemed high. Minnie was just mousy eye candy with polka dots. Three college girls with too much makeup flipped her off in line for the Matterhorn and screamed at her because she was wearing fur. She blew them a kiss and laughed when all three of them turned around and started whispering to each other. She fantasized about whipping them bloody. She felt she understood Charles Manson.

Past life regression was all about reclaiming your cycle of reincarnation, working back through your memories until you bumped against your mother’s vagina. And then farther. Going back up the birth canal. Back to the moment of your previous death. Then getting over that and going even farther. You were supposed to learn things about why you were here now. She did a few of the guided meditations sitting cross-legged on the king-sized waterbed shaped like a giant Mickey head. All she got was mom slapping her when she couldn’t vomit, the weekly weigh-ins, the feeling terrified about gaining a pound.

Her father was a blur. She could barely remember him, barely knew him as a child before the acrimonious divorce that turned mom into a fire-breathing lizard. Her father never visited. He was management in a company that made ships and he lived somewhere in Rome. When he left, her mother started dieting more heavily, tanning, wearing more gold. Now, as an adult, Andy would have foreseen that you couldn’t go down that road without encountering collagen. But back then she was just a kid and collagen injections were still experimental science.

You could only get the injections in Europe, which her mom did, which lead to the collagen accident—the swelling of her lips and cheeks to monstrous proportions. Hospitalization. Four years of psychotherapy and a lot of plastic surgery. Hideous allergies. A suicide attempt in their Park Slope condominium. But you can’t kill yourself with a vacuum cord from a chandelier. Even someone as light as her mother. Now, at age 68, she was very calm. She knitted. She lived alone and dreamed about the days her husband would pick her up in a forest green MG and take her out to the best clubs in New York.

Andy wore jeans. She wore baggy boy shorts. She wore a cream linen blouse and a sweater set that made her look like Barbara Billingsley. She got sick of Disneyland and wandered around Anaheim in Chanel glasses that hid half her face. In the Cathedral Bar on 4th Street, she met a short fat guy, named Wilson, who wore a white track suit with a yellow stripe down each leg.

“You repulse me,” she said, after he’d bought her a second vodka tonic.

“Yeah, I’m fat. I gotta do something about that. But I got too much life to live. You know? Who has time?”

“Take me somewhere. I have to get out of here. Let’s go to a concert.”

“Okay. Let’s go to a concert. I don’t give a shit. I can go to a concert. What do you like? Kenny G? Metal? Violins? Let’s do it.”

Wilson said he was going to the bathroom to smoke a rock and he’d be right back. When he returned, he didn’t look any different. He was a little sweaty. “Let’s go. Let’s ride. I don’t got a car. You got a car? I can probably get a car.”

They took a cab to a mall where Wilson said there was a Ticketmaster. But there was nothing but an organic market, a Starbucks, a massive gray Home Depot sprawling to infinity.

“I gotta piss,” he said. “Wait here. Don’t go away. Just wait here. Really. I gotta piss.”

He went into Home Depot and she walked down the street. She went into a diner and sat at the counter. Outside, two men with torn clothes and ruddy skin were trying unsuccessfully to take the rim off a truck tire with a small crowbar. She took her coffee outside and watched them.

One of them stopped and straightened up. He looked at her jeans, her cream blouse, the beige sweater tied around her shoulders.

“What do you want?”

“I’ll give each of you $100 to throw that tire through the window.”

His friend put his hands in his pockets and looked at her. “Bullshit,” he said.

Andy took the money out of her little black purse and showed it to them.

“Why?” The first one was a little rougher looking. Blond. Paint-stained T-shirt. Pants that had never been washed. A moustache straight out of the Old West.

“I don’t need reasons. Take it or leave it.”

The second one grinned. He was missing his front teeth. “Okay, your highness. Money first.”

Andy handed each of them a bill. They did a test-heave with the tire but they couldn’t coordinate enough to do it together. So the first one said, “Somebody might get hurt. We better create a diversion.”

“A what?”

“Just do your thing and act stupid.”

The toothless man understood that. He grinned, nodded. They calculated. They walked up to the window then back to the tire.

The man with the moustache sighed and shrugged. “This ain’t never gonna work. We don’t got enough torque.”

“What the fuck is torque?” asked the man with no front teeth.

Andy put her hand on her hip.

“Like, am I gonna throw this discus style? I’d have to stand in the street.”

“So stand in the street,” Andy said.

“It’s dangerous. There might be oncoming traffic.”

“That’s true,” the toothless one said. He took a watch cap out of his back pocket and pulled it over his wild pepper-gray hair. “Well, maybe her highnessness could keep an eye on the street and give a holler if there’s like a truck coming or something.”

“Whatever,” said Andy. She set her coffee cup beside her foot on the sidewalk.

“Yeah.” The blond man leaned the tire against his leg and folded his arms. “What do you want us to do this for anyway? We could go to jail. I hate jail.”

“I hate jail, too,” the toothless man said. “I been there half my life. What, are you mad at the folks that run this place? It’s a good café.”

His friend nodded. “Good warm coffee. Good pepper steak.”

“They got a wicked chili bowl. You ever try that?”

“Yeah, man, like every day of my life. They put that cheese on it. I love that fuckin’ chili bowl.”

“You remember when Armando used to work here? I ate here all the time back then. I had that job down at Liviccio’s flipping pizzas.”

“Right. And we all got those free Rams tickets that one time? What was that, like 1988?”

Toothless nodded. “That was a long-ass time ago.”

“Look, I don’t have all day,” Andy said.

They both looked at her. The blond man handed his $100 bill back to her. His friend sighed and did the same. She looked at the bills, then back at them. “I thought we had a deal.”

“You thought wrong,” said the blond man.

“Yeah,” said the other, “wouldn’t be ethical. Wouldn’t be good for the neighborhood.”

“I can’t believe this.”

“Believe it.” The blond man lay the tire down on its side and picked up his crowbar. “We’re union. Machinist’s Local 173.”

“United Food and Commercial Workers, 312, out of Pasadena,” Toothless said, pointing at his chest with his thumb. “And I voted for Obama.” He said it and smiled as if he’d just beaten Andy at cards.

“Oh,” she said. “I see. Well, give this to Obama.” She tore up the bills in front of them and sprinkled the pieces on the sidewalk.

“That’s very wasteful,” the blond man said.

Andy turned away and started walking down the street. They called out something else, but she wouldn’t turn around. Her face was twitching.

Wilson caught up with her at a bus stop four blocks away. “What’s with you? What’s wrong? I said don’t go anywhere and you walked away. I thought we were gonna have fun. I thought we were going to a concert.”

“Give me some rock. I want to smoke it.”

“You’re not a rock smoker, girl. You’re not a rock smoker. It’ll ruin your looks. You don’t want that. You have beautiful hair. You’ve got good looks. I mean, damn, you’re good-looking.”

“It’s a wig. My hair. I’m dying of cancer.”

“That’s not a wig. That’s bullshit. You’re a natural blonde. I know a natural blonde when I see a natural blonde. And you are. I mean, it’s obvious.”

“Nothing’s obvious.”

“Nothing’s obvious? You’re obvious. I mean, you’re very obviously fucked up over a guy.”

She looked at him. Wilson’s brown hair was stuck to his forehead. Pale. He smelled like an old locker room. His smile looked gray like fish scales, like rainclouds.

“What’s wrong with you?”

“I’m a crack addict. But it makes me feel better. So who’s the guy?”

“My husband.”

“I should’ve guessed it. A rich bitch with a cheating husband. You got it written all over you. And you’re a natural blonde. He’s stupid, n’est-ce pas? That’s French. See? I know my shit.”

She smiled. “Yes, you do know your shit.” She took his hand and pressed it against the inside of her thigh. His hand was limp as if he were afraid that if he gripped her thigh something horrible might happen.

“Let’s go to a concert,” she said. “Fly with me to Boston tonight.”

The bus stopped and the driver opened the door. There was no one on the bus. The driver wore black aviators. He looked at them sitting there, Andy holding Wilson’s hand against her thigh, and shut the door to the bus. His face registered nothing. The bus pulled away.

Then Wilson said, slowly and clearly, “I would be honored to accompany you.” A drop of sweat fell off the tip of his nose and she kissed him on the mouth.

Symphony Hall was on Massachusetts Avenue. When she called the concert director’s office and identified herself, the director’s secretary immediately booked her into the Presidential Suite at the Back Bay Hilton three blocks away. Andy used the voice of the pearl-wearing society women who frequented the university concert series at UCSD. She told the secretary not to inform Conrad. Her arrival was a surprise and she didn’t want to disturb her husband on the first night. The same concert—Mahler’s Symphony Number Five, Grieg’s Piano Concerto, and Sibelius’ Finlandia—would be given for three consecutive days. But the first night was always the most tense. Everybody knew that.

Meanwhile, Wilson was out scoring more rock. She’d bought him a gray Burberry suit with Italian shoes and a wool tweed belted topcoat. And when he returned from his quest, shaking and wet from the snow, Wilson looked like a well-to-do middle-aged businessman coming home after a long day at the office.

He went into the bathroom and, when he came out, his pupils were enormous. A dark gleam radiated from his face and his smile reminded her of a shark. He poured them whiskey from the wet bar and shook his head. “Boston rock is intense rock. Quality shit. You don’t get quality shit like this back on the west coast. No way. You just don’t. This is—this is ghetto fabulous.”

After handing her the drink, he added, “And this, for a classy lady with great pigtails.” From under his coat, he drew out a new bullwhip. Andy gasped and held it to her chest like a baby. Fragrant leather, cured and woven the way it should be, the handle widening out into an evil-looking knot.

“How did you get this at 7 PM on a Friday night?”

Wilson winked. “I have my ways. I’m magic.”

So they went: Wilson in the suit she’d bought for him and a tastefully muted black and gray tie and Andy in a crimson Terani Coture cocktail dress with white nails, white eye shadow and lipstick, and her blonde pigtailed wig. She had black-toned stockings and red heels and when they walked through the lobby, everyone in the building seemed to be offended. Nearly all the men wore tuxedos and the women were in black evening gowns.

The concert director met them at the inner door—a reedy man in a white tuxedo with nervous eyes and a deliberately tousled black mop of hair. He began to perspire the minute he laid eyes on them, handing them off to an usher and putting as much distance between them and himself as possible. Andy and Wilson were placed in the second row, center, right behind Danica Gepura—in her black evening gown and sapphire earrings. The sapphires looked like deep blue stars against her fair skin.

When Conrad walked out on stage, Danica looked up adoringly and Andy imagined Danica was made of porcelain or find bone china—brittle, delicately wrought in white, blue, and black. So in need of protection, of nurturing. Danica needed a glass display case, not a snake. Andy imagined strangling her from behind.

After the orchestra began—the first movement of Mahler’s fifth—Wilson started to shake uncontrollably. He put his head between his legs and began to retch sharply and prodigiously. The white-haired woman sitting directly in front of Wilson shrieked as the violins rose, and the distinguished-looking old man on the other side of Danica half-stood, staring down at his feet. That’s when Danica interrupted her trance of musical rapture to turn around in her seat and look straight into Andy’s eyes. They’d met before. As soon as Danica recognized her, a look of such profound shock crossed her face that Andy felt it was almost better than strangulation.

Then Danica turned back around, double-triple waves of horror washing over her, and the first movement continued as planned—except that, for a while, everyone around them could hear Wilson choking and groaning when the volume of the music went down. Did Conrad notice, enveloped in his bubble of Zen musician concentration? A spotlight was directly above him. When he played, the Steinway resonated like a force of nature, like the musical part of god. People had said he was the greatest concert pianist in the world.

Andy called Dimitria and, when she answered, Andy just held the phone so they could both listen. Conrad was a boorish, self-obsessed prick, but when he played—played for real, with an orchestra, with a crowd—even Andy couldn’t deny that he was beautiful. She watched his calm expression, his white cuffs glowing in the spotlight. And, for a time, Andy forgot all about snakes and bullwhips, about her corpse walk and why she wanted to die and even about her meds. She only listened, even if the truth was that she hated, hated, fucking hated Mahler.

When Danica looked back again and opened her mouth to say something, Andy said, “I voted for Obama” and gave Danica the finger. Andy thought she now understood what the toothless guy in front of the diner had meant. Danica shook her head. She turned to say something to the old man in the seat next to her.

Wilson tapped Andy on the shoulder. “You gonna fight?” Vomit-putrid breath, but he still smiled.

“I’m gonna slap a bitch.”

He nodded. “Thought so. I got your back.” And he handed her the whip.

That Wilson, wasn’t he just a precious wonder? She stood and bunched the whip in her hand. Danica looked up.

And it was on.

 

* Note: this story originally appeared in The Atticus Review (2013).

Oh no. She’d send you there, wouldn’t she? She’d transport you there just so she could feel your pain and write about it. But you’re not going. You’re never going back to Texas. Not for fame. Not for money. Not for the glory of Victoria Volt. Not for that article she wants you to outline. Not for anything. Not on your life.

Sure. You check your bags in at SFO and get on the plane. You hate everything about yourself as far as Nevada. You can’t imagine the number of things Victoria demands, all the things she wants from you. You don’t want any of them back. There might have been a time when the deal could have been reciprocal. But now, no. Now you’re lost in lackeyland. If you had a personal life, it’s dead. Working for Victoria kills.

While you’re cursing and grinding Delta peanuts and hating yourself for giving in again, the perfect date is going on two blocks east of Coit Tower back in San Francisco at a little café called Nunu’s—where the perfect couple is getting together under a Tiffany lamp with carpets on the floor and drinks and everything good. There’s no weird. There’s no crazy. No pretend happy. No dull-eyed shrugs. No lying. No flight to DFW. Your boyfriend, Dane, and his new girlfriend, Adriana, will have their perfect date and then get married and live the rest of their lives together and die on the same day and be buried in the same grave and everyone will talk about how right and how beautiful it all was.

None of that will ever happen in or anywhere near Texas. The last time you were there, you saw a house out in the desert half-full of sand, a dead horse by the side of the road, a coyote wandering in circles because it drank from a poisoned spring. Years ago, your older brother, Stevie, dead in a Lubbock parking lot. The Klan and rancid TexMex and border towns that look like the zombie apocalypse. There’s a vein of spite flowing up in the contrails of the sky and blocked up anger in bowels of the earth. Texas is a tragedy. It hates you and maybe your dog and the President. It isn’t a state of the Union; it’s a state of disunion, a wretched state of mind, of being in a rotten place at a lousy time with locusts and bad Santeria and guns. To hell with Texas. But that’s redundant.

Victoria doesn’t believe in direct flights and always sends you coach. The plane is packed and smells of all the drama and passion of the Lone Star State. You can’t get away from it. The guy sitting next to you once had curly brown hair but now it’s gray and his name is, in fact, Curly. Dark blue jeans, plaid long-sleeved shirt, suede blazer, his fingers covered in silver and turquoise. Curly introduces himself at pushback, shaking your hand a little too long, grinning a little too much. He drinks beer after beer, telling you about his life in San Antonio and asking too-personal questions when you’d prefer to brood in silence.

“Little lady, whatcha got there? What do you do for a living? You married?”

“No.”

“Got a boyfriend?”

“Yes.” No hesitation. Because you do, right?

“You live in San Francisco, don’tcha? I can tell. You got a San Francisco accent.”

He tells you he owns a chain of vegetarian restaurants and he figures that being from San Francisco, you’d be into that. You look at Curly and think, yes, he looks like Texas. He drinks beer like Texas. His name is Texas. And you’re thinking that everything about him comes straight out of the old stereotype you knew as a girl, when your dad would make you drive part of the way, long distance from Bakersfield to his refrigerator factory in Lubbock. You hated Texas for that reason alone. On some other level, you knew it was your father’s attempt to spend some quality time. But it didn’t feel like anything but a rolling prison to your 12-year-old self, forced to drive the truck while your father read the paper or slept in the passenger seat. That drive from Bakersfield to Texas. It was shit. And then your brother died.

Still, you’re thinking that this Curly might actually be okay. Slightly unstable—but who doesn’t seem slightly unstable if you look closely enough—an affable old coot. And when it comes to men from Texas it might not get much better than “old coot.” Old coot might be the best that Texas ever has to offer. So you think: maybe. Maybe the odds are getting better. Maybe, on this trip, Texas won’t be what it has always been, a depressing, disturbing bout of alienation and repugnance.

Then he starts talking about his restaurants. “Are you a vegetarian, little lady?”

“Yes.”

“Well shit you have to come to my restaurant in Houston. I own about 15 of the fuckers.” He gives you his card. It says Silver Star Vegetable HouseCurly Morgan, CEO. A white card with an embossed star in the middle, shaped out of silver leaves.

“Really? Texan vegetarian cuisine?”

“We grow all our own produce. Science is amazing. I can grow a bell pepper half as big as a Volvo. Have you ever eaten a mutant bell pepper just for dinner? A stuffed bell pepper? We put sour cream in those fuckers. Shredded cheese? Fake tofu bacon chips? Just dump it in there. I got some of them bigger than a plate. They look like small dogs. It’s amazing. People love it. And you know what? You don’t have to eat meat to have food that good.” He pounds the arm rest, takes a fierce gulp of beer. Curly really cares about his mutant peppers.

“That’s interesting.” What else are you going to say? You’re stuck with the mutant vegetable restaurant tycoon of the universe for the next three hours.

“Yeah, and it’s real popular with the tourists who come from, you know, California.” He winks. “A lot of tourists come in terrified, traumatized, because they think Texas is all just steer and beer. But we grow our own stuff.”

At this point, you’re fighting a flashback, thinking of Jim Logue, your father’s partner. Creepy Uncle Logue, who always came by for dinner whenever you and your father got into Lubbock. He managed the refrigerator factory and did everything while your father was home in California. Uncle Logue used to poke you in the shoulder and say you were growing up to be a sexy little thing and to call him in 5 years.

That creepy-crawly feeling you’d get from Uncle Logue—that’s what Curly’s giving off. Only he’s not thinking about you. He’s thinking about a Honcho bell pepper as big as a small dog. It makes you wonder what Curly gets up to with his mutant bell peppers at night when nobody’s around. And suddenly, all the possible ideas you have about what Texas could be, vanish into what it clearly is. You look around the plane and realize that nothing changes—that every city in Texas has a different permutation of the same dysfunctional human blight. Uncle Logue was supposed to teach Stevie the business. But Stevie got killed. He’d only been in Texas for a few months.

“People need it big. They want it now, you know? And if it moves, we can kill it dead. And if it don’t move, we can cook it,” Curly says with his vegephile grin. That’s how it is. People need it big.

Why you choose to live in California: everybody who hasn’t been to California says Los Angeles, fires, crazies, gangs, riots, San Francisco, godless homosexuals, cults, earthquakes, falling into the ocean, weirdo freak Democrat liberals. But maybe that’s okay. And even if that’s all there is, you’ll take it any day. In fact, the perfect day in San Francisco goes like this. You’ll get up late and you’ll take the BART from Hayward into the City. You’ll have a crepe at Tart-to-Tart and walk down 7th Street pleased with the world. Then you’ll go by the Japanese garden in Golden Gate Park and look at the dogs playing on the grass and at the wandering peacocks and the Korean girls trying to make sense of tourist maps on rented bicycles.

The sky will be blue. And someone will be doing Tai Chi beside a pond. The disc golfers will be laughing. You’ll pause to watch a mime do the entire second act of Hamlet, playing all the characters himself. And then you’ll go sit by the stone lion in front of the de Young museum, where there’s an Andy Goldsworthy installation that’s just a crack that runs down the center of the entryway. You’ll wait and nobody will notice it, thinking it’s just a crack in the concrete. And you’ll enjoy watching everyone, until a crowd of extremely self-conscious tourists in electric blue jumpsuits arrives on Segways. And then you’ll go in and look at the art. And this will be your day.

Curly’s ordering another Amstel, flirting with the flight attendant. You’ve bored him. You put his card in your pocket and close your eyes. You’d give anything to have a job that’s stable, that would allow you to pay your bills and live back in the City. And then Dane would realize that you are around and that he really does love you. But life isn’t like that. It would be too perfect. That perfect couple on their perfect date back in San Francisco are as far from Texas as Texas is from anything good.

Knowing this, you also know the fault is yours. You’re the one that got on the plane, telling yourself you had to. Your last experience in Houston (fiancée George, dentist, mistake) was as horrific as your first experience in Waco (12 years old, on a trip with dad, thrown from a horse, six weeks in bed). Sitting in the factory office in Lubbock for hours with nothing to do but watch the workers load refrigerator shells into the backs of trucks. Stevie in his coffin, laid out in a black suit that he’d never worn while he was alive, the deep cuts in his cheeks spackled and rouged. Texas has enough bad memories and ghosts for you to fill the back end of a horror story—when all you want is to make up with Dane, at least to break even as friends, at least to walk with him down Embarcadero one more time and look at the bay. But here you are.

So you touch down in the mutant cyclops state that only gets one star. DFW’s full of idiots in cowboy hats, morons in mongoose, monitor lizards in Durango dusters. And you’re going to get on that connecting Fokker F-27 and it’s going up in the sky and coming down in Houston. Blind date in Texas? Oh yes, motherfucker, you’re all about it. You’re doing it for Victoria. You’re doing it to get paid. You’re doing it because she forces you to do things like this. And then she’ll write about it as if she did it herself and you’ll fade into freelance vapor. You’ll try to recover, curling up in your studio apartment in Hayward, feeling like a beaten animal, nursing your wounds. Blind date in Texas? Shit, you’re helping Victoria Volt get famous. You’re fueling her image, doing what she’s supposed to be doing instead of raising her son on 7 acres in upstate New York, eating vegan, and going to yoga twice a day. Research assistant? There’s no such thing in Texas. You’re going to wind up skinned in a barn, tied up on a farm, overwhelmed by locusts, lynched by rednecks.

You get off the plane and avoid the urban cowboys, the dudes with handlebar moustaches trying desperately to look like Sam Elliott. You sit in a small bank of chairs far away from everyone between the boutique that offers bells and little glass angel chimes and the food court with four varieties of Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que. It’s a trade-off. You have to smell the meat, sauce on a slab of death, but it’s far enough from the gates to discourage new cowboy friends.

The first thing you have to do before you read the files Victoria sent is check your email—the special account you have just for messages from She Who Must Be Obeyed. You open your laptop and go through the motions. There she is. She’s left you the usual video message. She has the clearest skin of any woman you’ve ever seen. Short brown hair in a bob and a radiant white smile—so constructed, so perfectly put together that it makes you think of an artificial sun. She wears blue contacts, does Yogalates multiple times a day. She has an obese 10-year-old boy named Frederick, but there isn’t an ounce of fat on her body. In fact, Victoria has biceps cut so severely you can see them ripple.

Her face is frozen on the screen in that perfect smile, ready to deliver the usual instructions, veiled threats, and warnings about spending any unnecessary money. You plug your headphones into the computer and notice Curly embracing a tall Asian man, dressed in a black suit, black Stetson, and a clear glass bolo tie with a spider encased in it. They’re standing right in front of you, but Curly doesn’t notice.

Curly says, “Well, shit, Robbie, what the hell have you been doin’ with your life?”

Robbie bows. “Do you want me to get your bags, Mr. Morgan?”

Then you hit play and your patron and mentor, Victoria Volt, begins her pronunciamento, which will regulate and define all things for the next minute and 38 seconds of your life: “Hi Allison,” she says, losing her smile a little as if your name were a term for something necessary yet disappointing. “I hope you’re well. By now, I’m sure you’re already either on the plane or touching down in my favorite state. I understand it’s not your favorite state, but let’s not forget this is a job I need you to do. You’re going on a blind date, Allison! This should make you happy. Does it make you happy? It makes me happy thinking that you’ll be getting out for a change with an eligible guy. This is as much for you as it is for me. You need to get out more, you know. By sending you on this trip, I’m doing my part to help you out. And if writing comes out of it, then all the better, right? Think of it as a paid vacation. I’m paying you to go out on a date. How much better could it be? And this guy, Harley Winslow, he’s perfect for a human interest piece. I discovered him through a friend of mine at the Houston Chronicle. Harley’s amazing. He used to be a travelling preacher, but now he raises alpacas on a farm and it’s really fantastic because he wrote a book. Would you believe it? It’s a book about dating.”

She holds the book too close to the camera then pulls it back and the image of a glowing white crucifix on a hill comes into view with a man and a woman holding hands and kneeling before it. “It’s called Sacred Love: the Words of Jesus as the Ultimate Guide to Life and Romance. How about that? I think he might be an idiot, which would be perfect.” She puts down the book and raises her eyebrows. Directive number one: make sure you note any details that would make him seem like a fool.

“Anyway, he’s not very attractive. Not too hunky. At least by my standards. But he’s certainly interesting. You need to find out all about him. I think he’s human interest gold. Magazine readers would find him very entertaining. Don’t you think so? I hope you do. You’d better.” Victoria smiles—not at you, but beyond the webcam lens at the Universe, with whom she shares various running jokes. You watch the video a second time with a certain Zen detachment.

Victoria’s real last name, her maiden name, is Vichinsky. You have no idea what her husband’s last name is. Victoria would send you into a swamp to investigate alligators. But she’d do it with a wink and her supernova smile. Every time she sends you on a job, which is about once every three weeks according to her writing schedule, she frames it as something that’s good for you, something that can make you better and more like her. If you thought in such terms, you might be flattered, since she’s the most attractive competent woman you know; though, you suspect she spends hours a day on her appearance. You also suspect she’s OCD, a hypochondriac, and very possibly an agoraphobe.

But that’s all beside the point. The point is: you have a job to do. As you watch people from the plane drift into Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and drift out, looking slightly bilious and poisoned, you realize that part of Victoria’s success and beauty lies in the fact that she hardly ever leaves home or deviates from her schedule. She lives on several acres of old farm land in upstate New York in a barn that has its own air purification system and is riot-proof. It’s even got a moat. On those rare occasions that she does go out, she checks the driving routes in case everything hits the fan while she’s on the highway. Her husband carries a gun to protect her.

She has only granted an in-person audience to you once—when she hired you. And, even then, there was a certain skittishness about her, the sense that you might, in fact, be a vector for some kind of bacteria that would eventually kill her and her entire family. These are things the world doesn’t know about Victoria Volt, columnist, celebrity, who has appeared on Oprah, Doctor Phil, The O’Reilly Factor, and even Charlie Rose. Radiant avatar of failed marriage and doomed romance, hidden away in her secret temple in Saugerties, New York, who has written many books, who is everywhere and yet nowhere. The times she has to do a show or an interview are periods of great stress and there’s always a blackout interim before and after in which she speaks to no one—probably doing Yogalates.

You open the Word file that Victoria sent. It gives contact details, your motel, what she wants you to do. Victoria writes that Harley calls himself Lord Harold sometimes, which is his bowling club nickname. He was an itinerant preacher on the old chitlin circuit. He went to Hosanna Bible College of North Texas and drove around in a 1972 Winnebago with a box full of Gideon Bibles, sanctified nails, and gallon milk jugs of holy water. He was casting out devils, exorcising the peoples—until he had a faith crisis and became a Unitarian. Then the Longree Pentecostal Sanctuary in Bethel kicked him out. He started selling power tools door-to-door, but that didn’t work, either, because he was more interested in talking about the Lord. So now what does he do? Now he’s a cell phone salesman at The Galleria in Houston and he raises alpacas. He does Christian Star Wars reenactments in his spare time. This is the guy she wants you to go out with—the embodiment of everything Curly could have been had he made slightly different decisions and not had a fetish for oversized Honcho peppers.

There’s a small photograph embedded in the Word document. Harley’s details: 6’2” tall; sunburned pink scalp under sparse blond hair; blue eyes; small nose; thin lips, but a prominent chin with a cleft. In the picture, he’s wearing a western shirt with pearled snaps. And you think he isn’t attractive, but he doesn’t look that bad. More like an extra in a cowboy movie. Someone you take for granted as you’re watching a young Clint Eastwood put a steel plate under his poncho to stop bullets before a gunfight. Victoria has set you up on a date with this man in order to vicariously live it and write about it. Yes. Okay. You can do this. You’re a professional. But dating for money sounds like something else—something that almost came up before. What if Victoria decides to write about what it’s like to be a hooker again? Does she send you out to some guy’s apartment and tell you it’s going to be good for you? Every now and then, she tries to broach the subject.

You’ve got 20 minutes before boarding starts for the short flight to Houston. So you wander around the airport. There’s a kiosk with shelves of tiny ceramic dogs. Serapes are hanging everywhere for sale, more serapes than in all of Mexico. And DFW smells like dust. The hot dust of Texas. Even in the hermetically sealed biodome of an airport, the outside world will seep in over time. And this is true even here at Dallas-Fort Worth. The airport resembles a dystopian bubble city from bad 70s science fiction—with its own rail system and outlying terminals designed to contain a terrorist blast. You think DFW probably has machines in the basement that could independently support it as a city-state in a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Logan’s Cattle Run. You can even see the dust on some of the people just in through security. You wonder if you’re going to smell like Texas when you get back and how many showers it will take to get it off you. This is something Victoria would know.

In the restroom, you look at yourself in the mirror, your brown hair has streaks of gray in it like little lightning bolts of death. Gray already at 31. You keep your hair tied back most of the time. It’s easier that way. You haven’t worn nail polish or lipstick in a dog’s age and why would you? All you do is work. And the type of work you do doesn’t require you to look like Victoria Volt. It requires a laptop, focus, and self-discipline most days. When you have to meet with someone, you have the basic ensemble ready—a black two-piece Donna Karin business suit, a few silk blouses.

But right now, you’re wearing the blue Cal sweatshirt that belonged to Dane. You kept it because giving it back would have been like giving him back to the world. And that isn’t on the docket. He’s still your boyfriend. Looking at yourself, at your gray in the mirror, you feel a wave of sadness rise up through the center of your being. But nothing’s changed. Everything’s on track. You’re going to do this job, make 2 gs. You’re going to go back to the bay area and call Dane and he’ll actually answer the phone and you’ll go out and have dinner at the aforesaid chic little café called Nunu’s, his favorite.

If you don’t call him your ex, he’s not really your ex—Dane now has Adriana and, yes, she’s from Brazil. But it’s because you’re never around. And really, let’s not kid ourselves, it’s because of Victoria. Adriana’s a model who doesn’t shower. And even though she stinks, she’s possibly the most well-put-together woman you’ve ever seen in real life other than Victoria. Her father owns a villa in Belo Horizonte, which you know because Dane has a framed picture of it on his wall. And when you come by his place to check on all your things still in his closets, Adriana’s always there and you leave faster than you arrive. Victoria wants you to write about that, too—at least to make an outline for her as usual and work “frenemy” into the title.

The crowd on the Fokker F-27 is sparse, which is strange because the trip from DFW to Houston is popular, but today there’s hardly anyone on the plane. You have an entire row to yourself. Below, the tawny lion hide of Texas goes past as the plane reaches 37,000 feet. The flight attendants are all female, blonde, and look vaguely porny. Centerfold material. They have a festive air. They’re telling jokes to each other, imitating people they know and laughing hysterically. The few passengers consist of a South Asian gentleman who goes to sleep immediately, three old ladies sharing a crochet bag, a business man on his day off in an Izod polo and a baseball cap, reading the Wall Street Journal, and you.

It will be a short flight. You consider watching Victoria’s message again. But you know Harley’s waiting for you. He told Victoria he’d pick you up at the terminal. You won’t have a chance to put yourself together. He’s going to be there from the minute you set foot in Houston—another thing you don’t like. But you’re not being paid to look good for Harley Winslow or even to like him. You are a prosthetic eye that will not be touched and that’s how it’s going to be. You are the agent, representative, and sometimes ghost writer for a famous author. So you put your laptop back in its leather shoulder bag, drink the 7-Up that Miss November just brought you and close your eyes, listening to the hiss and rumble of the plane. Someone had too much Authentic Texas Bar-B-Que and it’s evident. Your seat is up against the restroom bulkhead. You close your eyes and try to ignore the smells and sounds of air sickness coming through the wall.

This is your life. You had a Confucian exit strategy as recent as last year—the cheerful retreat, the thank-you-for-teaching-me-so-much-master, the take-care-can-I-use-you-as-a-reference sort of thing. But reality: you don’t know how to operate a hydro-encephelator or manage IT security for an auto parts chain or give MRIs. You could apply to wash dishes at Golden Wok across from the library in Hayward. You could maybe get a job selling shoes at the mall. Instead, Victoria pays you $2,000 to spend the weekend riding along to meth labs with the LAPD. She then sells the article to Vogue, “Dark Days: Victoria Volt goes Undercover in the Inland Empire.” Your title.

She acts like she’s your mentor, like she’s grooming you to be her. But you’re already Victoria in many ways, her muse, her lackey. She supports herself with blogs and pastel-colored books on divorce. She’s the divorce queen. The diva of despair. Five Things I Learned from Divorce. Vengeance and the Abandoned Spouse. Things You Should Never Do After a Divorce. Men: Do we Need Them? Seven Things About Me You Didn’t Learn Until You Divorced Me. You Haven’t Divorced Me…Yet! Maybe You Haven’t Divorced Me But It’s Like We’re Already Married So Maybe You Could. And What I Hate About You: A Book of Holiday Lists.

Victoria has a problem. But it isn’t divorce. She’s married to a guy she calls “The Plumber” because he’s a plumber. But there’s supposed to be a double meaning in that. He doesn’t get a name. He’s just The Plumber. She has attempted to castrate him 17 times with a wood chisel. It’s an ongoing project. And she writes about it, about how he’s distantly amused by it: The Plumber comes into the room and says, “Tried to use the chisel on me last night, eh?”

She has written that the Plumber sleeps in a different bedroom. She needs to pick the lock every time she wants in. But he’s always one step ahead of her. He leaves crumpled up newspapers around his bed. He has pepper spray stashed everywhere. He doesn’t talk much, this plumber. But they communicate in absolutes, in physical essentials, like: “Did you try to castrate me with a wood chisel again?” or “Did you lock me out last night?” According to Victoria, she hasn’t had sex in seven months, 22 days, and 7 hours. She has some scheduled for around Christmas Eve—when she’ll put down the chisel and he’ll unlock the door and first they’ll go have prime rib in some restaurant in Saugerties and she’ll blog about it later.

But you’ll be shivering in someone’s basement with a can of pork and beans, even though you’re a vegetarian and you hate pork and beans. You’ll be eating it anyway for some kind of experiment of Victoria’s—because she’ll want to know what it’s like to spend Christmas alone in a cold basement and eat pork and beans out of a can. And that would be the lesser of evils. You’ve dug out latrines and spent the night in subways and halfway houses and bungee corded into rivers and all sorts of other things that Victoria wanted to pretend she’d done. Only Victoria and The Plumber know about you. Whenever you narrowly escape something awful, she says, “I think your reportage is really coming along.”

And how much is she paying you and why do you do it? It’s because you majored in English. That’s why. Because there are no jobs. Because you’re not good at poker and you couldn’t afford the gas to Vegas anyway. You answered the ad in your last year of grad school: Research Assistant for Nationally Recognized Columnist. Must be obedient, smart, and hard working. Victoria said you got two out of three, but it was enough. She liked the fact that you didn’t know how to dress yourself when you flew out for the interview and she offered to teach you how to write because people don’t learn anything in graduate school. “I’m absolutely willing to learn” you said, which was code for: soon I will have a MA in Victorian lit., which is to say, soon I will have nothing. I have massive student loans. And I need a job like I need the air. “Breathe,” Victoria said.

Harley drove 47 miles from Bethel, Texas, to pick you up. Harley opens the trunk of his white Crown Vic in the airport parking lot and points everything out because he thinks you’ll want to write about it. In his trunk: a rubber tourniquet, a box of spoiled Taco Bell chalupas, duct tape, a bag of shriveled biscuits, a Taser gun, a Dragunov SVD sniper rifle, and an enormous fucking jar of Metamucil.

You wonder what Victoria told him about you. He’s a lost tumbleweed that blew up against your door. The last thing anyone wants to do is take something like that in, break it open, and see what kind of strange sick thing is curled up inside. The whole research project has felony murder potential. It’s the tumbleweed of death. It’s a tractor wheel rolling downhill and killing an old lady at a bus stop. A random bolt of lightning. The zombie apocalypse. It’s the end times. You look at the rifle—DRAGUNOV SVD on the stock in slanted black letters—and decide that going on a date with Harley just so Victoria can write about it isn’t even a real job. It’s a tragedy. You tell yourself this won’t become a felony murder. And the sky won’t be filled with bullets. You tell yourself it’s just another research project. But you’re not stupid. You can’t deny your sense that the excrement is heading for the air conditioning. And Texas is where it’s at.

“I collect all kinds of stuff. I just keep it all in my trunk. You ever heard of Watts Towers?”

“I’m from California, Harley.”

“Watts Towers is a beautiful thing, man. I got five books on it.”

“I’m not a man, Harley.”

“Have you accepted Jesus as your personal savior, Allison?”

“No.”

“I realize that this is some sort of test tube experiment for that writer. But could we at least try to make the best of it and be friends?”

“You’ve got a rifle and a tourniquet in your trunk.”

“Sniper rifle, honey. And that’s actually a hospital grade medical tourniquet.”

“Are you a junkie or a juicer of some kind?”

“I have been known to make a mean banana-guava smoothie.”

“What’s a former preacher doing with a Taser?”

“Technically, it’s a stun gun. Don’t tase my balls, bro! You see that video? That was funny. Internet. It’s on the internet.”

“I’m going, Harley. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.”

“Don’t you want a ride?”

“I’ll get a cab.”

It was supposed to be a date that lasted three days. The first day lasted three minutes. After a year of working for Victoria, of coming up with ideas and outlines for chapters of books and magazine columns, there’s one thing you know for sure: as long as you get her a nice article to write—not too serious, not, as she says, “offensively smart”—she’ll love you long time. You’ll get paid. Victoria will get the credit. Life will continue.

It’s 7:00 PM in room 14b at the Roundup Motel when you decide to call Dane again. His cell phone rings and rings. Sometimes it’s good just to hear his voice on the outgoing message. You used to leave messages for him, trying to sound casual:

It’s me. Just checking in. Just want to see how you’re doing.

Hey, I saw this funny thing on Facebook and I thought—hey, are you online?

Hey, I thought maybe you and—your friend—want to catch a movie. Or maybe just you.

Hi, it’s me—wondering what you’re up to. It’s so weird. I’m going to be in the neighborhood again.

Hey you! Thinking maybe we could meet up if you want to get a cup of coffee, may at that café down by the tower. What was it called?

Everything in room 14b is vinyl. It has a Bates Motel lamp hanging loose by a cord from the ceiling—something to send shadows all around the room while an occupant gets knifed. The motel is outside the city on Highway 35. Victoria’s all about the work and never about luxury. You can’t count the number of roadside motels you’ve stayed in—Motel 6s, Super 8s, Red Roof Inns, Budget Suites. Truckers welcome. Once, she sent you to Osaka for two days and you stayed in a coffin hotel—which, although creepy and uncomfortable, was still infinitely cleaner and better put together than any American low-budget motel you’ve used.

The smell of the dust is here, too. But this time, it’s not Texas dust per se, just motel dust. Still, you unroll your sleeping bag on the bed because there’s no way in hell you’re getting in those sheets. At this point, you feel you know about motels. The only vegetarian fare on the menu is a small apple and a bottle of water. You have suspicions about the water. Somehow, Texas would find a way to put meat in it.

So you sit there in the mustard colored bank chair with cigarette burns in the wooden armrests, looking into the mouthpiece of the ancient room phone. It’s holes are crusted with the creeping crud of the ages. You listen to Dane’s outgoing message: Hi. You’ve reached Dane Robbins. Leave a message, okay? He doesn’t mean it. You call back and listen to it three times. His voice is beautiful. Like him. At the beep, you always hesitate. What do you say? Dane, I’m in Houston but I’ll be back in a few days. (Would you be interested in leaving that stinking bitch from Brazil? Moving in with me? Getting married? Having 2.3 children? Changing our names and moving up to Pacific Heights where we’ll have perfect jobs, perfect happiness, and relief from the horrors of life?). But you just listen and hang up.

For some reason, your cell phone can’t connect whenever you call Dane, but you won’t believe he blocked you. When you call him, you always have to do it from hotel phones. You wonder if Victoria has paid attention to those charges because she always requests the motel receipts. She knows you have no living family. What does she think about the fact that you call the same San Francisco number every time? She has to wonder. But she’s never brought it up. Hopefully, she never will.

The psycho killer lamp, the single light source in room 14b, is dim. Not enough light to read. The TV is a Zenith. Its screen is a dark 1970s olive green. You turn it on and get the agricultural channel, three channels of Spanish news, and Doctor Phil. Tonight, he’s featuring real life vampires and the people who love them. You turn it off. Outside the hotel, there’s a truck stop gas station and a Burger King. You’re scheduled to be picked up by Harley at 4:00 PM tomorrow, when he will take you on a tour of his alpaca farm and then buy you dinner. That’s the plan.

You take a shower and get back in your sleeping bag, but you can’t stand the buzzing of the gas station floodlights, enormous orange sodium vapor floods that cast a flat matrix of light and shadow around the motel. The 16-wheelers are giant rumbling monsters blinking their headlights and hissing in the dark. It will be a long night. So you hop over to the TV in the sleeping bag and turn on the Doctor. It’s the middle of the show. A very large pale man with purple streaks in his long black hair and a silver stud below his lower lip holds hands with a heavyset woman in an orange sundress. Doctor Phil says, “Really? And you go to these clubs and you never have any trouble with him getting together—”

They both start talking at once. Then the woman holds up a hand and says, “It’s a lifestyle thing. This isn’t like cheating.”

The crowd boos.

“I’m not being unfaithful,” the man says. “It’s just part of our vampire culture. We’re predatory. We need to hunt.”

“Yes.” The woman nods. “It’s a need.”

“And you’re okay with this? You take precautions? Isn’t this sexually dangerous?”

This time, the man holds up a hand bedecked with steel rings. “Being a sexual outlaw is part of it. You take a chance in your life walking across the street. But, you know, it’s like playing roulette. We don’t expect the mundanes to understand.”

Everyone laughs.

Doctor Phil raises an eyebrow the way Victoria might if she were proposing that you walk naked through Times Square just so she could learn what it feels like. “Sexual roulette? You’re sexually gambling?”

The woman grips the armrest of the chair with her free hand and leans forward, displeased. Then she says, “It’s not random like that. He has this ability.”

“Yes,” the man says. “I can sense my prey. I can sense when someone wants it. Can’t you, Doctor Phil?”

Silence and then a few tentative boos from the audience. The camera pans over the faces—people straight out of middle America. Weight problems. Bifocals. Chunky sweaters and bad haircuts. The disapproving frowns of suburbia. Doctor Phil makes an interested face with an under layer of extreme boredom. He says that after commercial they’ll be back to talk to someone who claims she must drink blood in order to survive.

You fall asleep with that thought: some people have to drink blood to survive. And you dream that you’re in China in the Forbidden City. And Sun Yat Sen, dressed in saffron robes, is giving you a tour through its empty rooms. And then he’s sitting at the foot of your bed, smiling and nodding and telling you the location of the emperor’s silverware that he hid many years ago—a treasure room of such vast proportions that it’s amazing it has never been found by the government. A treasure room cunningly hidden far below the Forbidden City. And even in your dream, you’re putting together an outline on this for Victoria.

You eat a greasy truck stop breakfast and drink a small chemical orange juice. Then you call a cab and take it into downtown Houston and walk around, feeling lost, feeling like a ghost, a Sun Yat Sen poltergeist. You snap some photos with your cell phone for Victoria so she can write more convincingly about what the place looks like. She wants photos, video, sounds of people talking, images of food, descriptions of the weather, major landmarks. It works quite well. The final copy of her articles read as if she were really there. She always wants you to start with downtown—places, she says, that the rednecks might avoid, even in Texas, because she hates rednecks. This takes you several hours, as always, before you go to Starbucks to email it all.

While there, you look at Victoria’s latest blog post. It reads like straight fiction. “The Chisel Report: How to Know What You Need in a Man.” It describes her latest attempt to overpower The Plumber while he slept. This time, she picked the lock early and waited all day in the closet, razor-sharp chisel, mallet, latex gloves, coffee, bag of doughnuts, penlight, the question: Does he really need his balls to be my husband? circling through her thoughts. But Victoria fell asleep.

Four or five paragraphs into the post, she speculates: was it was the extra cruller? Too much milk in the coffee? The lack of movement and light? The warm closeness of The Plumber’s overcoats and suits around her like a comforting wooly uterus? Victoria admits that she doesn’t know exactly why she drifted off. When she awoke it was the middle of the night. She crept out into the dark bedroom, feeling a sense of triumph, tasting victory at last.

However, when she drew back the comforter, she saw that he had anticipated all of it. He’d shaped an outline of himself with pillows under the blankets and left her a note that said he’d been living at the Holiday Inn Express in Tannersville for the past week. Toward the end of the post, Victoria admits that she hadn’t noticed his absence.

In the last paragraph, she writes, This is what I need in a partner instead of husband-ballast, dead weight, a man who brings nothing to the table. I need a man sharp enough to stay one step ahead. This is what we all need in a partner if it’s going to last and I know I’m a fortunate girl. This is love in case you were wondering. Are you lucky in love?

You think this might be one of the worst pieces of writing you’ve ever seen from Victoria. It’s surprising. But she’s told so many lies about her life and herself at this point—her participation in Viet Nam protests as a toddler; beating and making a citizens arrest of a potential rapist in Central Park using only a rolled-up magazine and Krav Maga techniques; turning down an invitation to MENSA. The Victoria Volt image, brittle and constructed, a gilded eggshell.

During a Skype call in which you were waiting for Victoria to come back from the restroom, The Plumber once paused on his way past the computer to ask you how you were. He’s a short paunchy man who wears baseball caps and has a pencil-thin moustache. And, as he stooped over the webcam, he seemed like someone from a different era, maybe the 1930s—the sort of man who’d peer carefully through a peephole before opening the door to a speakeasy. He wiggled his fingertips at you and said, “I admire your skills and so does Victoria. We’ve got a lot to thank you for.” At the time, you didn’t know what to say. Now, if you could relive that moment, you might say, “No, actually you don’t.”

Doctor Phil is always on. You return to Room 14b and watch a rerun of an earlier broadcast. No vampires this time. Now it’s people who secretly try to make their spouses obese. The panel members on stage are very large and very unhappy. They speak over each other, a certain dark luster in their eyes. You picture them skinny under their voluminous T-shirts and muumuus with pillows strapped to themselves so they could be on TV. You try to imagine the hidden world of such people, delighted, desperate, depressed, full of the need to be on television, to be seen.

The sun goes down and Harley never shows. Once again, you watch the telephone, imagining the best worst Dr. Phil episode: Ex-Girlfriends in Denial Who Call from Texas. Some of them are sad and desperate. Some of them will drink your blood. It’s easy to be in denial when you don’t know what went wrong. You have four pictures of Dane in your wallet and you lay them out on the bed like Tarot cards: Dane playing water polo with his headgear pushed slightly back, his arm in mid-throw. Dane in his living room trying to play a didgeridoo. Dane riding his father’s horse, Sugar, in Connecticut. Dane laughing at the Gypsy palm reader that day in Berkeley.

You shut off the TV and the room is silent. You think of the last time you saw him. You’d gone out for a drink to celebrate his acceptance by Hastings. You said congratulations and he just shrugged. “I’m so dedicated to life,” he said, “that I can’t tolerate weakness in others for very long. It gets disgusting waiting for the world to catch up.” But Dane had cried like a baby when he didn’t get into Boalt Hall and stayed drunk for a week. He’d hired a ringer to impersonate him and take the LSAT again. You didn’t bring these things up. Why would you?

It’s then that you see the procession beyond the curtains of Room 14b and you forget about Dane completely. Maybe you notice it out of sheer luck or fate. Or maybe it’s just something randomly ejected from the great machinery of happenstance that turns beneath the sodium floods outside all one-horse motels. It doesn’t surprise you at first because you’ve heard about the kinds of things people have seen in Texas: ghost caravans emerging out of the fog, a semi-transparent circus, a silent menagerie floating north toward Nacogdoches, invisible by dawn.

A heavy mist, maybe a fog, has risen six feet above the ground. A ghost mist from which anything might emerge. But you’re not prepared for a night procession, cars rolling past, a hearse covered in flowers, various old convertibles driven by skeletons, and at least 50 mourners afoot, each carrying 7-day vigil lights, little sugar skulls. Some are dressed as the Grim Reaper. Some carry statues of saints. Some have burlap bags over their heads, inching forward in prayer. All in perfect silence.

You stand in the doorway to your room and close your mouth. If there is anyone else staying at the motel, their cars are gone from the parking lot, their windows dark, curtains drawn. Maybe they’re terrified of this. You look at your long shadow stretched out before you in the light from the room. Then you look at the procession still going by and take picture after picture with your phone. No one looks at you.

What are you now? Are you the ghost? The ghostwriter? Are you a journalist? Are you still that prosthetic eye and is this something that the eye should see? Is this something you could tell Dane about? Maybe it’s not something you could describe to anyone. It’s not something Victoria would ever write about. It’s not something Doctor Phil would want on his show, five kinds of Grim Reaper sitting on the stage and an audience in skeleton drag.

Taking a step backward, you almost fall. You’re dizzy with surprise and unsure whether to shut the door. You could zip yourself all the way into your sleeping bag, like a body bag, and pretend that you, too, are part of it somehow in the dust and vinyl of Room 14b. Or you could walk out and take more pictures and follow this strange parade.

You run back into the room, pull on your jeans, Nikes, a T-shirt and the Cal sweatshirt. Then you lock the door behind you and fall in with the mourners, your heart triphammering in your chest. No one speaks to you or looks your way, except for an old woman who hands you one of her candles—a white taper with a paper guard to keep hot wax off your hand.

Silent, you walk for over an hour according to the clock on your phone. And when you reach the graveyard hidden from the highway by buttes on either side, it’s a quarter past midnight. When the hearse rolls down a dirt path and stops at an open grave, you realize it’s November 1st, the Day of the Dead. This is someone’s funeral mass. You make your way to the front of the crowd and kneel with the family by the mound of fresh earth as the coffin is lowered.

The priest is all in white with a green stole. And the graveyard is already full of burning candles like a fairy metropolis, pinwheels, tiny chimes tinkling in the wind. The priest says, “Oremos” and everybody bows their heads. You do, too, even though you were raised atheist and have never been to a religious service in your life.

Escuchanos, Señor,” the priest says.

“Amen,” responds the congregation.

A woman beside you collapses forward, wailing. No one touches her. She drops her candle on the mound of fresh dirt, digs in it with her hands. She pulls on her hair and moans and says things not in English or Spanish but in the special language of grief that everyone eventually learns. And part of you feels you should take a picture of this, if not for Victoria, then for yourself. But it wouldn’t come out or make sense if it did.

The image of your brother beaten to death by someone you’ll never know. He’d had an open casket and you were not grateful for that. No embalmer’s art could completely obscure the lacerations or reconstruct the extent to which Stevie’s cheekbones had been crushed, shattered, they thought, by a metal bar. Hit by a bar repeatedly, they said, in the restaurant parking lot.

Then you’re crying, too. You’re looking down at Stevie laid out in the bottom of the grave in his cheap black suit. His eyes are open, staring at you. Dizzy, you can feel the tendrils of the mist on your neck as you listen to “Bendito seas por siempre.” And the great world seems hollow, the great gilded eggshell world—a fragile empty thing made to seem fine and rare but secretly thin, as brittle as bone, and capable of shattering in an instant.

Hit by a bar.

You think of all those years back and forth to Lubbock with your father, who has now also passed on. And a great terrifying knowledge rises up inside you where before there has been merely an empty space that sometimes filled with longing. This knowledge, like the rising mist, like the body now in its coffin, like Stevie’s broken face staring up: the knowledge that you will return to Hayward, that the sun will come up, and that these moments will be hidden by the lying, prevaricating customs of the daylit world. You will submit your outline and materials to Victoria, carrying on the gilded fairy tale that everything is fine, that Victoria Volt is a brilliant journalist. You will continue to think of your brother as the victim of an impersonal tragedy—as if he’d been caught in an earthquake or drowned at sea instead of being beaten to death in Texas by someone he knew holding a metal bar. Beaten repeatedly. The heart of things, the truth, will sink back into the rotten shell of the earth where no one wants to look. But you will have seen the Forbidden City, at least in your dreams.

This is how you spend your night, crying silently with a Mexican woman dressed in black with dirt in her hair, watching, listening, kneeling. They take communion by the open grave. And by the end of the service, people start drifting back toward the road. You follow, feeling that you’ve left your body, that you’ve seen something hidden, horrible, beautiful—something that you shouldn’t have seen, something that cannot exist after sunrise, that could not be true in the same universe as Victoria Volt, that has never existed anywhere near Coit Tower or Dane Robbins or a chic little café named Nunu’s.

When you reach Room 14b, the sun is rising from the middle of the road beyond the Roundup Motel. The mist is gone. Your TV shows the morning news. They’re talking about a Day of the Dead gun battle between rival gangs in downtown Houston.

Later, as you doze, Sun Yat Sen comes to you again in a dream, dressed as a Buddhist monk. He takes you by the hand and leads you through hallways of filigreed gold, down red carpets with embroidered dragons, through hidden doors beneath Fou dogs. You travel far beneath the Forbidden City into the caves, through waterfalls in caverns as big as football stadiums. You follow him down a twisting stair into a darkness, where his torch shines like a lingering candle flame in a hidden graveyard. And when you reach the bottom, he’s no longer there. But you do see the Emperor’s silverware—enormous mounds of it, forks, spoons, knives, chopsticks shaped like dragon claws, like tiny Dragunovs, like the mandibles of great golden scarabs. And there are horses made of rubies. And there are mountains of inlaid plates and loving cups and jade bowls. And even a mountain of brass bullet casings, smoking in the torchlight. You wake up covered in sweat, your sleeping bag stuck to your bare skin. And you breathe the dust of the motel and you still want to cry but you tell yourself there’s nothing to cry about.

A few hours later, you wake up and listen to Dane’s outgoing message again. The connection picks up but there’s nothing on the other side other than the sound of whistling air, a series of clicks, a weird insectoid trill. What does this mean? You know it should upset you. You should take it as a sign. But something is different. You can’t say, Hi! I’m just up the street! because you aren’t. You can’t say, I just attended a midnight mass and saw the ghost of my dead brother. It seems that those clicks, that empty whistling, that computerized insect song is fitting—wind through an empty shell. You hang up, dial again, and then hang up before it connects.

There was that day after you both had class. You walked down Telegraph with Dane and saw the Psychic Hoodoo Palm Reader. You both went in just for fun, Dane repeating that he didn’t believe that horseshit and you daring him. “What’s the problem, then?” you said, winking, happy, laughing.

An older woman dressed in stereotypical Gypsy silks, as if she were in a perfectly arranged Gypsy Halloween costume, with a head scarf and big silver hoop earrings and electric blue eye shadow and blood red nails. All part of the fun. You sat in what used to be the living room of a house but was now done up in purple velvet. Her name was Madam Philomena. The requisite crystal ball was in the middle of the table. She held Dane’s right hand in both of hers as if it were made of fine china.

You remember that moment when he couldn’t control the muscles around his mouth and she said, “A dark-haired man with blue eyes. Your uncle has an evil cloud over his head. He’s addicted. He’s speaking Spanish to a policeman. He has a message for you.”

And Dane looked sick and terrified. “Where is that in my palm?”

“It’s not in you palm,” she said. “It’s in your face.”

“My uncle has blonde hair.” He stood up and threw down a twenty. But what he didn’t say was that the rest was exactly right. His uncle died a few months before, trying to bring cocaine over the border.

As he walked out, you took his picture, laughing again, ha ha, what a joke.

He grinned. “The stupidest twenty dollars I ever spent.”

Neither of you brought it up again. You held onto the picture of Dane you took that day because he didn’t want it. His family told everyone that his uncle got framed by corrupt Mexican police, that he was a victim. That it just happened like a rainstorm or a flood, another innocent American victimized south of the border, shot for being in the wrong place. In time, even his family believed it.

You dial his number again by heart, one last time, and this time it doesn’t even ring. There’s only that whistling sound, that black space, as if the wind is twisting through a hole in a window that no one cares to replace.

Your hands won’t stop shaking. So you buy a pack of Marlboro Lights at the truck stop, even though you haven’t smoked in months. You’re halfway through it when Harley knocks on the door.

He looks you up and down. “Rough night?”

“You could say that.”

“Yeah,” he nods. “For me, too. But I guess we gotta do this. I promised.”

“Let me get in the shower before we go. Do you mind waiting?”

“Not at all.” Harley bows slightly. “I’ll be in the car.”

When you come out, you’re almost awake. But you bring the cigarettes in your purse. As soon as Harley pulls away from the motel, you ask him if he minds.

“Just roll down the window,” he says. “I personally have never smoked, but it doesn’t bother me.” You go through two cigarettes before he gives you a sideways look. “I guess you’re supposed to be interviewing me or something. But maybe you want me to ask a few questions like, what happened to you last night?”

“I went to midnight mass.”

“You mean the graveyard mass they have sometimes back down the road? They do it for Day of the Dead if somebody’s died around that time. I hear there was some pretty bad stuff back in the city.”

“What do you really do, Harley? You don’t sell phones in the mall.”

The highway opens up and every now and then when a car or truck passes, heading in the opposite direction, people raise their hands in salute. Harley does the same.

“What do I do? Well, I suppose you’re asking because I stood you up yesterday. I suppose I owe you an explanation.”

“You don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.”

“I’m a known exorcist, Allison. You know what that is?”

“I read something—you travelling around with holy water. Something like that.”

“Something like that.”

He turns right onto a dirt access road and everything gets bumpy. You still feel like you’re not completely in your body, not completely present, like part of you is back at that service the night before, kneeling on a grave with candles all around. If asked, you might have considered trading the experience for more of Curly and his Honcho peppers. That you can understand, expect, laugh at. But this? You can’t shake the image of your brother, of those candles amid the headstones, of the priest like a ghost floating above the grave, and the mourners drifting by the motel—a secret parade that only appears on the night of the Day of the Dead.

“Here we are,” Harley says. “My place.”

It’s a nice one-story ranch house. A big affair with two backyard pools and a guest house done up in Western-brick-fireplace grandeur. But he doesn’t take you inside. And you don’t want to go in anyway.

“I was going to show you the ’pacas, but quite frankly, I hope you don’t mind if I just go to the range.”

“The range?”

“The firing range. I hope that doesn’t bother you.”

You light your 15th cigarette off the butt of the 14th with slightly trembling hands and shake your head. “Whatever. It’s all for Victoria.”

Harley coughs and squints at you. “Right.”

His trunk, in addition to the Dragunov SVD sniper rifle and the various other items he showed you before, now contains a large box of assorted melons. He places them at periodic intervals of 900 feet, head high along a wall of square hay bales. Beneath every melon, he tacks a fresh black-and-white bull’s-eye target with numbers on the rings. Then he comes back.

“You ever shoot a rifle?”

“No. You?”

He laughs. “You got quite a mouth on you. I’ll give you that. But that’s okay. I guess I deserve it 90% of the time.”

Harley unrolls a felt blanket on a slight rise of earth. He puts a clip into the rifle. He chambers a round and adjusts the scope. “Stay behind me.”

DRAGUNOV SVD is written on the stock, but you might have guessed a name like that. It looks like a long black mandible, a sleek dark stinger with nothing on it that would glint in the sun. When he takes a shot, a cantaloupe vanishes in a mist.

“Marine sniper school,” he says. “That was my real job.” The brass casing ejected from the gun smokes on the ground beside him. “You can take the man out of the Corps, but, well, you know how the saying goes.”

A loud pop like five balloons punctured at once. And what used to be a honeydew melon is no more.

“Nothing I have says you were a military sniper.”

“Yeah, well, it’s not something I necessarily put on my resume anymore. I like to think of myself as a godly man.”

Pop. Another melon down.

“How do you justify it?”

Pop.

“Justify it? I know it’s a waste of good melons, but you gotta pick your battles.”

Pop.

“No, being a sniper and being, you know, a preacher.”

“I did two turns in Iraq. I gotta believe in god, honey. If not, what was all that killing for?”

“I never accused you of wasting melons.” You’re thinking of that midnight mass, the woman on hands and knees clawing the dirt from the open grave, the carpet of candle lights between the headstones in the darkness, the priest with his hands outstretched. You’re thinking about Harley as a young man somewhere in Iraq, dug in with a rifle just like this one, sighting into a building, saying the Lord’s Prayer. You’re thinking of your vision of your brother in a black suit, staring up at you from the bottom of the grave.

Pop.

“I guess this isn’t much fun for you and for that I apologize. But exorcisms will change a man. They leave a spiritual taint. And you don’t get that off you for a couple days. I’m afraid it sours my disposition.”

Pop.

“When the devil gets up in someone, you gotta pull him out. It can go on for hours. It can go for a whole week. And you better pray hard.”

“You want to tell me about how you do it?”

“Not particularly, Allison. I understand you came here to parody me. Well, I can be parodied and that’s fine. Most of my life is a bad joke. But I’d prefer that my spiritual beliefs not be made fun of by some New York writer.”

“I can understand that.”

“Thought you might.”

He kills two rows of melons in silence with only the pops and the mist of melon juice as punctuation. Then he does a round of wine bottles. And then he starts on the paper targets. 90 minutes later, you’re back in the truck. He hands you the targets and you hold them up so you can look through the bullet holes.

“You can have ’em,” he says as he pulls up outside Room 14b. “I suppose that will give your boss something to write about.”

“I think it will, Harley.” You extend your hand. He takes it and kisses the back.

“I’m honored to have made your acquaintance, Allison. And I hope that someday our paths may cross again, if only for the pleasure of seeing you once more.”

You’ve smoked all your cigarettes. When the white Crown Victoria pulls away, you stand in the parking lot of the hotel and think of Stevie buried up in Lubbock and that you might go find him sometime.

Your flight leaves at noon. Before the cab arrives, there’s time to walk out to the hidden graveyard. You leave Dane’s four pictures beside a burned-down vigil candle. You look around the graveyard at all the drippings, wax spilled onto headstones, wrought iron fences tilting into the dirt over forgotten graves, tall glass holders lying on their sides, flowers and an ornate black and white cross made of sugar laid on the freshly filled plot. It’s here that you will put your love for Dane to rest and let the sun bleach the pictures. You will never come here again. It will be as if you had never visited this secret place. No one for a thousand years will discover your path to the emperor’s silver.

Waiting in the room for the cab to come, you see the same things on television, the agricultural channel, the news, the temperature at the Alamo, Dr. Phil coming on in 14 minutes. Then you go back to the parking lot with your suitcase and breathe the hot dust of a Texas afternoon, composing your letter of resignation to Victoria. It will say, Dear Victoria, I appreciate everything. I’ll remember everything. But the time has come to lay our relationship to rest. Harley Winslow might be insane. But even if he is, he’s still too good for you. Come meet him yourself. She’ll be furious. She won’t say that your reportage is coming along. She’ll say she’s going to bury you, that you’ll never work again, that she’ll hound you to the ends of the earth. But none of that will be real.

* Note: this story first appeared in Forge 8.4, April 2015.

It got dark and they fell in. The water was cold. They turned together under the surface, Janelle’s hair twisting like smoke, her eyes closed. Blaine could barely see her face in the dim moonglow through the high gym windows. He thought again about his own death, how easy it would be to drown, to let go. But then he inhaled, choked. It hurt and he panicked, pulling her up with him.

He coughed while Janelle vomited water. Then she rolled on her back, looked at him, and grinned.

“Your eyes are fucking crazy,” he said. He was flat on his back. Janelle was beside him, her pale shoulder glittering with droplets.

Your eyes are fucking crazy. Along with the rest of you. Where’s my shirt?”

The water slapped against the tile. The pool filters gulped. Somewhere, far above in the dark, a wall clock thunked one minute forward. Blaine had a dim memory of boosting her up through one of the men’s room windows. They were in the Women’s Gymnasium, CSU Fresno. What the fuck.

“You put it on that kid’s head. The one who grabbed your ass.”

“He shouldn’t have done that.” Janelle sat up and raked her wet hair back. “Gimmie your shirt. Did I burn the place down this time?”

He could see her ribs in the moonlight, the bumps of her spine, the goat’s head pentagram on the back of her neck. Blaine sat up beside her and started unbuttoning his soaked short-sleeve. “You tried.”

“No shit? Well, that’s what happens when you smoke K.”

The kid hadn’t been smoking K. That had been Janelle. They took the elevator up to the second floor and climbed back out the bathroom window, slower this time. On that side of the building, it was only a short drop to a closed dumpster. Then they walked across campus toward the sirens.

The kid’s only crime had been being drunk and horny. He’d done what any loaded 19-year-old will do when a woman takes off her shirt in the middle of the frat party and grinds on him. He didn’t deserve a front kick to the sternum.

“Holy shit,” Janelle said.

Yes, thought Blaine, holy shit. Across Shaw Avenue, the Zeta Beta Tau house was on fire. Red-orange flames licked out of the windows. A crowd had formed. A wilted group of sorority girls in tiny shorts and sweatshirts sat on the curb, crying and holding hands. A few people still had plastic cups full of beer. The police had set up a perimeter and two water trucks were spraying the third floor. Then a deep thud came from within and a green fireball busted out towards the sky, raining hot glass on the firemen. They immediately turned away and dropped to one knee like synchronized swimmers or medieval soldiers when a volley of arrows comes down.

“I guess you succeeded,” Blaine said. The air smelled like smoke and melted plastic. The heat had already dried his T-shirt.

“Maybe it wasn’t me. I don’t remember a thing.”

“It was you. It’s always you.”

Five campuses this spring and three fires. Deaths? Blaine didn’t know. Why would he want to know something like that? And yet he felt he should know. He should find out. So when they got caught and someone threw them both in a dark hole, at least Blaine would know why. Someone was tracking them. Someone had to be.

“Shit,” Janelle said. “Look.”

Two sorority girls and a frat brother with a ball cap on sideways talking to a cop and pointing.

“Go,” Blaine said. They walked. They didn’t look back. When they got a block away, they started running—silently, simultaneously, the way the firefighters had knelt, perfectly synchronized, as if the two of them had also been trained. Some mad dance: arson, fire, and blame.

“You gonna hit it or what?” she said when the Dodge Monaco wouldn’t turn over. Blaine touched the screwdriver to the top of the solenoid inside the mangled steering column—nothing.

“It’s dead, babe. We have to go. Get something else.”

Janelle sighed. She’d found some black lipstick in her duffle bag, but she was still wearing his short-sleeved button-up. She was a beautiful woman, no doubt about it. Fair skin, long raven hair, blue eyes. She’d even look good when all she had to wear was a prison jumpsuit. The yellow-white streetlight made her jawline and cheekbones look extra severe. Her hair framed her face in graceful arcs. She looked well put together, as if she hadn’t just gotten high on horse tranquilizer, burned down a house, and almost drowned.

“Give it here.” Janelle slid over to him and planted a black kiss on his cheek. When she used the screwdriver to cross the terminals on the solenoid, the Monaco lurched and started up with a high keening deep in the engine. She kissed him on the lips, made the heavy metal horns with her right hand, and said, “Love me.”

“Listen to that. It won’t last.”

“Nothing does, Blaine.” She winked, then slouched against the passenger door and shut her eyes. It started to rain. They went down several tree-lined streets to the squeak of the wipers and the death cry of the engine. Blaine headed for what he thought might be the direction of the 5 North. He rolled down the window and lit a cigarette, listening to the sirens in the distance.

It was dangerous, life. He was falling. Always in his dreams, falling or burning or screaming. Not so different from when he was awake. He’d done too many drugs. That was one thing. Ketamine. Meth. Rock. Hash. Shit Janelle cooked up on the way. How did they both still have their original teeth? Blaine didn’t know. Cancer was probably locked in. Arthritis for sure. He creaked when he walked. He’d turned 37 four days ago and hadn’t said a thing about it. What would Janelle have done if he had? Bake him a cake?

Now she’d gotten the portable lab stuff, the hot plate, their tiny generator and some ingredients. She was over in the woods doing her thing. You could make meth from lots of substances. And you could make it anywhere. All it took were a few household products, a heat source, and patience. He’d taught her how, at first, but now it was all Janelle. Maybe it was bullshit, the patience part. But they were careful. They hadn’t had a cooking explosion in a long time. Still, what did he know? These days, he waited by the car. She never let him watch.

Maybe she was cooking down another batch of that liquid K they’d bought in Arizona. Or something else. They could make more in the long run selling meth to hillbillies in trailer parks, but that was dangerous. So they stuck to universities. And the college crowd liked K just fine. Dissociative. Hallucinogenic. Snort a bump of ketamine and you go outside your body. Tastes like oven cleaner if you smoke it. But it’s good for the nervous high-maintenance types. Blaine had seen it all. Rich kids with suitcases of dope. Wheezing trailer trash rednecks in wife beaters, no teeth and orange hair. Secretaries with death in their eyes. Fun-loving idiots who had no idea. Addicts. Future captains of industry. Future guests of the state. Kids on fire, feverish, drowning, disintegrating, disconnected, coming down, shot up, strung out, freezing in the heat, melting in the cold. Kids headed for the gutter, jail, the grave. Everything.

Pop the trunk. There it was. A shit-ton of meth in two lady’s handbags. Three more 12oz. cylinders of liquid ketamine. His usual bag of travelling hash. A cardboard box of lab equipment, solvents, a folded tent. A crate of cold pills in individual boxes. A box of powdered rat poison. All that special goodness.

Janelle came back grinning, armpit rings and a V of sweat on her T-shirt between her breasts. She smelled like cleaning supplies and burned hair.

“We’re good.” She took the cigarette from his lips.

“How good?”

Janelle sat on the bumper of the Monaco, smiled, smoked. “Just wait.”

Four hours later, after dumping the chemical remains in an orchard and getting a filthy dinner at Denny’s, they drove through downtown Chico, looking for the state college. She had directions written on a ripped piece of graph paper. 11:30 PM on a Friday. Packed sidewalks. All bars wide open. Drunk blondes in glittery dresses. Subwoofer thumps at the stoplights. A ten-year-old with a mohawk in front of a lit-up laundromat breakdancing on a piece of linoleum, black silhouettes around him in the bonelight.

“Go left,” she said. And there it was. Chico State. Dark as a crypt. The place looked like Atlantis sunk beneath the waves. Blaine imagined a shark snaking between the red-brick buildings. They went around a field to the other side of the campus, then went left again and rolled down another quiet tree-lined street. It looked just like the one in Fresno where they’d parked the car before selling the first batch of K to the ZBTs and then ruining everyone’s night. Every campus in the country had neighborhoods like that around it. Quiet old houses. Not too much money, but clean and neat. Window boxes with geraniums. Cats. It was the sort of area Blaine used to live in when he worked at Chemical Dynamics in San Diego. But that was more than five years ago—when he had a job, a wife, a life. Ancient history. Before he failed his drug test three times in a row. Before Janelle.

“Here,” she said. “Yeah. This.” Small two-bedroom house. Peach stucco. The rust-colored drapes everybody had in the 70s tied to the sides of the front window. Dark inside. He went by, did a three-point turn, and parked across the street from the house. Janelle opened the trunk and wrapped something in a plastic grocery bag. Then they were ready. They walked down the driveway past a minivan and a Subaru with a CSUC Faculty Parking sticker in the corner of the windshield. The backyard was a small rectangle of flat grass surrounded by trees and walled with fix-foot trellises. The neighbor’s floodlight shined around the spikes of a wrought iron spite fence, striping half the yard and house with fat bars of light. More bonelight. Pale. Spectral. Ghost city. Dead light.

Nothing on in the house, but they didn’t have to knock. He came out immediately and shut the door quietly behind himself. Fat guy. Round belly and a double chin. Early forties. Brown hair down to his shoulders, parted in the middle. Khakis. Lionel Richie concert shirt. Hello, it said across the bottom, is it me you’re looking for? He had a long face, small full lips, and the expression that people get at graveside funerals—mournful, a bit uncomfortable, a bit like he thought he should be somewhere else, like maybe he’d killed the person in the casket and was afraid people might catch on. He stood on the cement step just below his backdoor and frowned at them.

“What do you want?”

“Who else comes up to your backdoor at midnight?” Blaine said.

“That’s not what I asked you.”

“We’re here to sell you illegal drugs.” Janelle smirked and held up the bag.

He looked at her for a long moment. His frown got deeper, brows pushed together. Then he laughed. “Well good.” He looked Blaine up and down. “And what are you here for?”

“What the fuck does it look like?” There was something about this guy that seemed extra wrong. Not the usual wrong drug shit, but reptile wrong. The kind of guy who goes to AA meetings to find a date. That sick vibe. He was a college teacher? Of what?

“Wait here.” He went back inside, taking care not to make a sound. When he turned, they could see the handle of a gun in his pants pocket. Blaine looked at Janelle. She shrugged.

The fat man slipped back out with a yellow plastic bong in his hand. “Let’s see it. And keep your voice down. My wife’s asleep.”

Janelle unwrapped the plastic grocery bag and took out a large Ziploc full of white powder. The K. She held the bag in the light. It cast a gauzy spider web on the back of the house. Bonelight, boneweb, thought Blaine, everything dead or dying, falling apart, falling away.

The man’s mournful expression had returned. He offered the bong to Janelle. “Go ahead. Do the honors.”

She looked at it and shook her head. “Sorry, Nate, I don’t feel like it tonight.”

“You serious? How do I know it’s for real? How do I know it won’t tear a thousand little holes in my lungs on the first bowl?”

“Killing customers is bad for business,” Blaine said.

Nate turned his head slowly and raised his eyebrows. “Was I speaking to you?”

“I was speaking to you. If you want the shit, pay us. Otherwise, we’re out.”

Nate looked at Janelle. “I think he’s bad for business.”

“He’s my boyfriend.”

“Oh really. Well tell him to relax. And at least pack one for me.”

She put the bag on the ground. “Why don’t you do it?”

He sighed. “Because of this.” He took the gun out and pointed it at Blaine. It was a little gun, the kind women keep in their purses. Dull black metal. Not a movie gun. Not an ego gun. A gun people buy along with shooting lessons because they’re planning on using it and afraid of it at the same time. A gun you get shot with in a parking lot or in someone’s living room or in a dark backyard.

“What is this?” Blaine said. “You’re robbing us?”

“Lower your voice. My wife needs her sleep.”

“You’ll wake her up if you fire that thing,” Janelle said.

“Aw, shit,” he smiled and tossed the bong to her with his free hand. “You got me there. Then I guess I’ll have to shoot her, too.”

It’s not even his place, thought Blaine. He broke in and killed everybody. He’s a psychopath.

“Hurry it up,” Nate said. Then he looked at Blaine and winked.

Janelle carefully loaded and tamped the bowl with her thumb. Then she got out her lighter and offered it to him.

“No way,” he said. “You first.”

She gave him a look of pure hate but took a hit. The smoke was thick and unnaturally white when she exhaled. Cartoon dragon smoke. She made a face and blinked a few times. It smelled the way the house fire had—hot chemicals, melted plastic.

“That good, huh?”

“Always tastes like that.” She croaked the words out and spat on the grass.

Nate nodded and sighed. “Okay,” he said. “I’m satisfied.” Then he unzipped and took out his limp penis, a small pale tongue hanging out the mouth of his fly. “Now you can blow me.”

“Fuck you,” said Blaine.

“Right.” Nate shrugged and fired into the ground. The gun made a pop no louder than a balloon. Lines of gray smoke came out of the barrel and flowed up around his hand like tiny serpents. “I can do you and then pick up with her. It’s all the same to me.”

Blaine looked at Janelle. She had dead eyes. She put down the bong. “It’s cool,” she said. “Just be cool. Blaine, why don’t you go sit in the car.”

“He’s not going anywhere,” Nate said. “Now get with it.”

She wobbled as she walked over to him. She knelt down and took his penis in her mouth the way she sometimes did with Blaine, then started bobbing her head.

Blaine’s throat tightened up. He was breathing hard. He stared at the gun still pointed at him. He was maybe five, six feet away. He started to sweat.

But Nate was looking straight at him, grinning. Nate didn’t look away, even when he slapped the side of Janelle’s head. “Slower” he said. “Take your time.”

She slowed down.

The wind rose in the leaves above the backyard. Black branches waved in the starless sky. It took a long time for Nate to come. He made a little sound and told Janelle to swallow. And then Blaine thought they were both going to die. And he thought about falling in the pool; the time they were both shitfaced and Janelle drove them off the freeway into a canyon; the time he came home high and his wife Sarah started screaming because he’d gotten cut to the bone and was covered in blood and didn’t realize it; the time Janelle tried to burn a Hummer and it had a locking gas cap and wouldn’t burn and she kept pouring gas over it from a can and then, when she finally gave up, it exploded and they were both deaf for a week. A hundred other times. Waking up in the hospital. Waking up in a ditch with blood in his hair. Waking up on an enormous concrete pipe in a construction site. Waking up in people’s homes, in stolen cars, on roofs, in movie theaters, on shit-stained mattresses. Death was easy. It was right there all the time. It was drugs. It was that bullet in the ground. It was Janelle. It was Blaine himself, his own mind. Maybe it didn’t matter whether you tried to live or die. Sometimes you lived. Other times you died.

“That was real sweet,” Nate said. Then he gestured with the gun. “Now get lost before I change my mind.”

They backed away from Nate, the bong, the bag of K, his erect penis sticking up out of his fly, glistening in the light. They walked up the driveway in silence, past the Subaru with its faculty parking sticker, past the minivan with a plastic Goofy on the dash.

Janelle got halfway to the car before she started vomiting. Blaine tried to put his arm around her, but she staggered up, almost fell, and ran down the middle of the street. He watched her go. She went across the intersection at the end of the block and almost got hit by a truck. She didn’t even look.

He started searching for her about an hour later. The Monaco wouldn’t turn over. Blaine worked the screwdriver across the solenoid from ten or twelve different angles before the current connected in the steering column. Meanwhile, the house across the street stayed dark.

Blaine drove around the neighborhood, smoking cigarette after cigarette. He was thinking about guns. He was thinking about handcuffs and about injecting oven cleaner into Nate’s balls and letting him stay like that until he died. He was thinking maybe Janelle was going to kill herself—because she’d tried to before. But he was also thinking she’d want to burn one more house down first, that she wouldn’t go out so easy once she got angry. And he knew she was angry.

So he cruised the gas stations in the area. Janelle knew a hundred ways to start a fire, but gas was her favorite. It was her thing. She loved the smell of it. She loved the way it burned, the way it made a fire breathe. She said a gas fire was better than a poem or getting high. It got her high. Just the sight of it.

But he couldn’t find her. He went down the same streets twenty, thirty times. Not knowing where else to look, he drove back to Nate’s house. It was almost 2:00 AM. He parked in exactly the same place, got out, and leaned against the car.

There was Nate in the front room, sitting in a recliner, watching T.V. He had a beer resting on his belly. A woman came in. She was wearing a pink bathrobe and she had a baby on her shoulder. She was patting it on the back, doing a little rock-a-bye dance. Nate said something to her, then looked at the T.V. and started to laugh. Then she started to laugh. They laughed for a long time.

Something was real funny. But the baby was crying. It was wearing one of those animal pajama suits, all one piece with little rabbit ears on the hood. She held the baby at arm’s length and said something, then she started patting it more rapidly on the back, doing that rock-a-bye dance. She and Nate were still laughing. He got up and put his arms around them both and they started waltzing across the living room. Waltzing and laughing. The woman did a one-handed pirouette. And he bowed like an 18th century lord.

That’s when Blaine looked around and noticed Janelle sitting on the porch steps of the house behind him. She had two red metal gas cans beside her, the sort you see strapped to the backs of Jeeps. She’d been crying. Maybe she’d cried out all her tears. He walked up and sat next to her.

“There’s a baby over there,” she said. “He’s got a baby. They’re dancing.”

“He’s got a wife, too, from the look of it.”

Janelle nodded slowly. “I guess she woke up.”

Now Nate was back in the recliner, holding the baby on his belly where the bottle had been. He pointed at the television and said something to the kid. The wife had disappeared.

“I can’t do this.” Janelle looked down at the gas cans, rested her hand on them. “I want to, but I can’t.”

It started to rain. They stared through it at Nate until his wife came back and took the baby. Then it was just him. He turned off the lights. The blue-white flicker of the television flashed on his face like lightning.

“We could get him now,” Blaine said. “Get the crowbar from the trunk. Throw a rock through the window. Go straight in at him. Beat him in front of his wife and kid. He fucking deserves it.”

Janelle thought about it. But she shook her head. “He’s got a baby. The baby’s innocent.”

“So we don’t beat on the baby.”

“Come on,” she said. “Let’s see if the heater works in the car.”

Blaine drove to a 7-11 and they bought doughnuts and coffee. Then he got on the 5 going south this time. Neither of them felt like spending the night in Chico. They hadn’t talked about where they were going to go next. It didn’t matter. After an hour, she looked at him.

“You know,” she said, “some people lead their whole lives and never go dancing.”

Blaine remembered the kid with the mohawk breakdancing outside the laundromat in that dead bonelight. Maybe that kid was high. Maybe he was just a normal kid. Maybe he had no home. Maybe he was some kind of genius. Maybe he’d grow up to be a rapist like Nate. It made no difference. Blaine would never know him.

“But then maybe they do dance. Maybe they just decide to and they do it,” he said.

She coughed, nodded. “Yeah. I mean, it doesn’t cost anything. No one can stop you. You say, I’m going dancing. You just make the decision and you go.” Her voice wobbled a little. She looked very young to Blaine right then.

He smiled. “Anybody can.”

“Yeah.” She looked at the rain being pushed along the passenger’s side window. “Even us. We could go dancing.”

“We could. I like dancing.”

“I like it, too. It’s better than dying.”

The keening from the engine had gotten worse—like an animal caught in a cruel trap, screaming in pain. The wipers squeaked. The steering column made an electrical zap sound and smelled like hot metal.

“Blaine, can we go to San Francisco? I think my mom lives there.”

“We could go down there,” he said. “There’s nothing stopping us. San Francisco’s better than dying.”

“I think I need some help.” She slid over and put her head on his shoulder. “Can we stay there for a while?”

He said yes, okay, if that’s what she wanted.

“Yes,” she said. “And I want to go dancing someplace like normal people.”

Blaine thought about it. Normal might be good. They could try normal. So he said he might like that, too. The night was almost over. The bonelight had faded back to the drug world, the world of the dead, the lost, the dreaming. Ahead there was only sunrise and the mad dance of the sober, daylit world.

 

 

* Note: this story first appeared in Redline, Best of the Year Issue, 2014.

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.

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.

​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.

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.

Good times.  My story, “Ghetto Fabulous” is forthcoming in the Atticus Review.  I will post more information when I know the particular issue.  Whee!

It looks like my story, “The Catherine Wheel,” has made it into the Painted Bride Quarterly Print Annual 6.  Buy one here. ~ Michael

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“The Catherine Wheel,” my story about living in East Africa, will be appearing in the 85/Displacement of Print Annual 6 of the Painted Bride Quarterly.  Check it out. ~ M

About the magazine.

Welcome . . .

I write fiction and nonfiction for magazines, work as a freelance writer / editor / journalist, and teach composition and fiction writing.

This blog is mostly dedicated to writing about politics and media, travel essays, creative non-fiction, discussions about books, the MFA experience, publishing, and work I’ve already placed in magazines. But I might write anything.

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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

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