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A short short about interpretive horticulture.

 

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

Luke says he’s not afraid anymore.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“She was beautiful that day.”

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

“I don’t understand,” I say.

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

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

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

“She always seemed happy.”

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

“You met her twice,” he says.

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

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

“Is that why—”

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

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

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

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

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

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

“None taken.”

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

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

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

“Marianne thought so.”

“Sorry.”

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

“Nobody’s ever sorry,” he says.

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

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

“Did you kill anything else?”

“No.  Just the dog.”

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

“It didn’t suffer.”

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

“Where are you going now?”

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

“Jesus Christ, man.  I mean—”

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

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

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

“I believe you.”

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

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

A letter story after Bret Easton Ellis.

The funeral was horrible.  And you want me to say it wasn’t.  And I want that, too.  But every time I lie, I feel worse.  I don’t blame you.

What to do.  Where to be.  What we should have done.  How it all might have been better.  Or different.  Or maybe just not so bad.  I think about this shit all the time.  I should stop thinking. 

So you’re out in Spain.  That’s cool.  Spain gets you away from all this.  It’s a good choice.  Seriously.  And I hope Patty’s making it.  At least, I hope she’s physically alright.  Have some gazpacho for me, okay?

This morning, early, I drove out to Mount Lee, hiked up behind the Hollywood sign, looked out between the L and the Y where it happened.  The air was pretty clear and I could see all the way to downtown.  Of course, Bella didn’t come.  She won’t even say Alisa’s name. 

Bella’s been drinking a lot more now.  She looks pissed off all the time.  But you understand, right?  I mean, you and Patty went to Spain.  Drunk is Bella’s Spain.

There’s nothing up there now.  No police tape.  Not even trash since it rained.  All gone.  I thought I’d put some flowers down, but I forgot to get any.  So I just stood there and thought about the funeral.  I can’t begin to explain how depressing it was.  Trust me, Spain was a good move.

One thing Bella said two weeks ago, when we had our first big relationship-defining fight that we’re still calling a conversation: “Alisa was a money-hungry talentless slut and this was about attention.”  That was Stupid Drunk Bella going on.  You know. 

I broke my hand that night after she took off.  I don’t know why because we weren’t even screaming.  I had some klonopin.  We were in the living room with the lights off, trying to talk about boundaries or some shit and whether I should get my own place.  It seemed like we were making progress for about 10 minutes.  But now the Toyota needs a new passenger window.  

I think about Alisa for no reason at all.  About all of us, really.  You two were hooking up and, no, you don’t have to deny it.  We’re beyond that and you’re in Spain.  So don’t worry.  Nobody’s going to tell Patty.  I think that’s why Bella hates Alisa.  I keep telling her it’s ridiculous to hate a dead person.

I was fucking Bella behind Alisa’s back and you were fucking Alisa behind Patty’s back.  And all we did was sneak around and fuck each other and lie to each other.  We were so much better when we were friends just living together and failing at life.  What happened?

They had an open casket.  It was a bad decision.  The bullet did things to Alisa’s face that makeup couldn’t fix.  I thought her cousin was going to puke when she walked up to view the body.  Alisa was too pretty to have an open casket like that.  I don’t know what the logic was there.  I can’t get it out of my head.

Bella and I are still together, even after everything, because I think it’s just easy.  It’s easier than sleeping in our old bedrooms and having to be polite and pretend.  I guess we’re sleeping in the same bed and doing that.  She’s auditioning all the time.  I think she’s in a commercial for some kind of bean dip.  You should google her.  She’s good.  But she doesn’t make me want to buy the bean dip.

I’m still waiting tables at Earth.  It’s boring, but I don’t have to be home a lot that way, which I know is a fucked up kind of therapy.  But I guess it works well enough.  I go up to Mount Lee a few times a week.  I can’t sleep.

I found the video of the camping trip we took last summer.  I’m attaching it in case you care.  I don’t recommend it unless you actually like feeling bad, but I looked at it a few days ago.  I was in the living room, playing it on my laptop and crying a little, when Bella came in.  She just got the lead in the new Mata Hari opening at the Vantage because someone poisoned the person ahead of her.  She was in a good mood for once, singing, twirling around the room, which made me break down in a complete mess.  Things didn’t really go anywhere that night in terms of human decency.  She says she still wants to be with me.  She just doesn’t want to live with me.  I don’t want to live with me, either.

If you were here, I guess I’d ask what you think, if you have an opinion on any of it.  But I seriously do not want you to write an email back to me like this one and talk about Alisa’s suicide.  I know you don’t want to.  I don’t even expect you to have read this far.  I wouldn’t.  Just enjoy Spain and be nice to Patty.  Drink a lot of beer.  Go to a museum.

I keep having this thought.  I keep thinking that I knew Alisa was going to do it, that I was watching her slip away, and I didn’t do anything.  Why?  I don’t understand how we could just let her get worse and worse.  Like when she didn’t get the part in Veracity and took all your valium.  I mean, what the actual fuck was that? 

Bella says it was  about attention, but why weren’t we paying attention?  It fucks me up.  And how did she get a gun?  Nobody knows a thing.  You want to guess about that one for me?  Because I know it wasn’t mine.  I’ve never owned one in my life.  We were up our own asses is the answer, which is no answer at all but still absolutely true.

Last week, I hiked Mount Lee just before dawn.  L.A. looked like a bunch of orange stars under a black sky.  I was thinking that more people have killed themselves in this town than all the lights you can see from there.  It’s morbid and it’s also beautiful.  Like Alisa.  We should start naming the lights the way we name the constellations.  I’m probably going to keep going there.  Because what else is there?  Maybe some morning I’ll be able to figure out which light is her. 

After years of teaching creative writing and going through many creative ups and downs of my own, I’ve developed a very simple philosophy to guide what I do: don’t think about it; just put it out there and move on to the next thing.  Or, as a professor of mine once liked to say, be quiet and take your lumps.  If you develop a regular writing habit, I believe this is what you absolutely have to do—that is, if you intend to stay sane.

Consider that any amount of time a reader spends on your work is a compliment and a gesture of implicit encouragement.  Got a bad review?  That’s a lot more than the 10,000 other writers standing behind you got waiting for theirs.  Got a magazine rejection telling you not to quit your day job?  Do you realize how many submitters just got the form rejection or nothing at all?  Many.  Got panned on Twitter by a journalist with a chip on her shoulder?  Great.  You wrote something compelling or irritating.  That’s very good.  She’s helping you out, amplifying your message. 

You broke out of the silent apoplexy that turns most writers to stone.  You made someone feel something for a change.  That’s the point.  No matter how hostile or kind, excited or blasé readers act, the end result is the same: they spent their precious time considering what you wrote when they could have been doing something else.  The more you think about that, the more it will seem like a remarkable gift.  The only real failure, in that sense, is to misunderstand what you’ve been given.

Many writers misunderstand.  They’re so busy flogging their platforms, soothing their fragile egos, and vehemently promoting themselves that they start to act entitled, even if they don’t truly feel that way deep down.  It gives them a brittle exterior.  They risk being crushed by a bad review or even an apathetic response from their audience, which is a shame.  When they started writing, it wasn’t for applause.  It was to find creative satisfaction.  But over the years, they forgot about that.  Now they’re like a raw nerve.

So it can be helpful to remember that indulging in self-entitlement is a very bad idea.  While talk is cheap, words happen to be your business.  You have to be a word factory, constantly producing, constantly submitting and posting.  And if you can do that, you will realize yourself through that consistency, not by appealing to the fickle vagaries of taste.  But this also means sometimes you will take a public beating.  This is the meaning of take your lumps.

Of course, you don’t have to submit everything you write.  Conventional wisdom tells us to sit on a draft until we get some distance and objectivity.  I did it that way until a few stories I thought would never get published got taken right away and a novella I’d slaved over and considered and re-drafted and polished remained in submission turnaround for several years.  It taught me a valuable, counterintuitive lesson.  I realized I’m the worst judge of my own work and so is everyone else.

We never know if we’re any good and no one else knows, either.  We know what we like.  We know what our aesthetic values tell us is and isn’t quality work.  But those values are arbitrary to culture and conditioning.  They’re not immutable Platonic forms.  There is no universal objective standard for quality in the creative arts.  There’s only what I’m seeing from where I’m standing and how I got there. 

Maybe I’m a library or an archive or the Pulitzer committee or an English department.  And so I have a certain amount of status and gatekeeping authority conferred on me by said culture and conditioning.  But that doesn’t change anything.  It means some writers will have their scrolls preserved in the basement of Cheops and others will see their words crumble on the wind.  The “test of time” is no test of quality.  There is only what is being spoken, written, and read in this moment by these eyes.  The rest is a dream of something written in that past or a vision of something to be written in the future.

What an upsetting idea!  If that’s true, why do we even have English studies?  The answer to that is what the legendary Dr. Richard Kroll gave me in his office at UC Irvine when, as a naïve undergraduate, I asked a version of that question: we study English to be able to read and write with clarity and intelligence.  The rest is work for archaeologists, curators, and antiquarians—good work, valuable work, but not the work of words themselves.  Writing exists in the reader right now or it doesn’t at all.

For people who write stories, poems, essays, and plays, this has radical implications.  One is that critical feedback, while sometimes interesting and useful, is more like a eulogy than a prescription.  The work has been read.  The moment has passed.  And whatever rhetorical effects have been created, whatever ideational structures rose up in the mind of the reader, either accomplished their work or didn’t.

Another implication is that taste—especially publishing taste and the marketing that oozes from it—is a creature of recent history, not really of the moment.  By the time you finish taking that class in commercial screenplay writing that guarantees you’ll be producing blockbuster scripts by the end, the gaze of the industry has already shifted.  Writers constantly producing derivative work in the service of whatever is supposed to be commercial are always playing catch-up.

The answer to this can be a bit scary: don’t worry about it.  Flying blind is the only real way to fly.  It means taking a horrendous risk with your time, emotions, and energy every time you sit down at the desk.  But you wanted to be a creative artist, not a scholar of other people’s past art, right?  Then shut your mouth and take your lumps.  There will be lumps, many and various, if you’re doing it right.

On the other hand, it’s a reason to be joyful.  If you’re committed to the idea that you cannot objectively judge your own work and neither can anyone else, you reach a point where it’s not about them.  It’s about you finding your subject matter and your voice.  It’s about pursuing the development of those things as a way to realize yourself.  This is incredibly freeing.

My mom, who was a brilliant painter and sculptor, put it like this: once you finish a work of art, it doesn’t belong to you.  It’s not your baby.  It’s separate from you.  Whether or not you formally submit it to others makes no difference.  In an existential sense, it has entered the world.  It’s now a syllable in the dialogue of creation, for better or worse.  So get over it.  Once the ritual is complete, the magic has been sent forth to cause change.  And it will.

A short short for Wynonie Harris.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A spontaneous short short, written at midnight.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The dirt lot behind the bar.

The bar, a filthy violent place.

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

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

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

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

Welcome . . .

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

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Readings for May 2020

Fiction
Last Exit to Brooklyn, Hubert Selby, Jr.
Nine Stories, J.D. Salinger
City of Night, John Rechy
Jesus’ Son, Denis Johnson
Almost Transparent Blue, Ryu Murakami
The Complete Short Stories, Hemingway
New York City in 1979, Kathy Acker
Non-fiction & Creative Non-fiction
Notes of a Dirty Old Man, Charles Bukowski
Child of Light: A Biography, Madison Smartt Bell
Swimming to Cambodia, Spalding Gray
Arguably: Essays, Christopher Hitchens
The Geography of the Imagination, Guy Davenport
Continued from Last Month
Narrative Design, Madison Smartt Bell
Alive Together: New and Selected Poems, Lisel Mueller
Transmetropolitan, Warren Ellis
Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ’72, Hunter Thompson

We are here to unlearn the teachings of the church, state, and our educational system. We are here to drink beer. We are here to kill war. We are here to laugh at the odds and live our lives so well that Death will tremble to take us.

— Charles Bukowski

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