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Archive for May, 2009

For today, something completely different.  With Ugly and the Beast out to an agent, I’m looking at one of my projects that stuttered to a halt while I wrote Ugly last year.  This is a portion of chapter two of Lie, Lay, Lain, where one of my two main characters is introduced.  It’s a bit of an oddity for me, because I don’t usually “introduce” characters.  Typically, they just show up in the story and pitch in.  So I’m curious if it works and holds readers’ attentions.

***

Olivia was born with a third thumb, which was removed before she entered kindergarten. The scar remained, sickle-shaped, a ghost tucked into the webbing between the forefinger and thumb on her right hand. When she drew her thumb alongside her fingers, the scar disappeared into a fold of skin. For most of her childhood, Olivia had believed the extra thumb was a sign from God that something was wrong with her. If you asked her about it now, if you said, “Do you think it means something that you were born with an extra thumb?” she would laugh and say, “That’s silly. It’s just an oddity. Like people who have extra canine teeth.”

If you asked, that’s what she would say, but after a few hours, her mind would creep back to the days when her brain was a five-year old turtle in a not fully hardened shell. She would remember not that she had once believed something was wrong with her, but that something was wrong with her.

Mitten

Mitten

Her mother, Barb, occasionally forgot and called her Mitten, her baby nickname. Standing at the kitchen sink, hurrying through the dishes to get to church on time, Barb sometimes said, “Mitten, did you get your dad’s coffee cup?”

When it happened, Olivia grabbed the mug off the table and forced herself to set it on the kitchen counter, instead of slamming it down. In that instant of restraint, Barb often realized what she had done, and instead of letting it go, which was what Olivia wished for, Barb apologized. In the course of the apology, she invariably used the nickname again.

The name itself didn’t bother Olivia, but the lie surrounding it did. When you have a baby with an extra thumb, it’s not the easiest thing to talk about, but it is easy to cover up. You simply slip a mitten on the offending hand, and when people ask, you say, “She’s a thumb-sucker. The doctor recommended the mitten.” Olivia’s mother told the lie often enough that she seemed to have convinced herself. The first time she accidentally used the nickname in front of one of Olivia’s high school friends, Barb told the lie without a moment’s hesitation: “When she was a baby, she used to suck her thumb, so we made her wear a mitten over it.”

Over them! Olivia wanted to shout. Instead she said nothing, but she worried that her mother was going to hell. Not in a hurtling ball of fire, like a murderer or a rapist, but in a slow, steady slide, like other liars. Her mother lied all the time, and never about anything important. Olivia knew it should not be a big deal, but in her heart, she couldn’t forgive her mother. She wasn’t sure she even believed in forgiveness.

That was why what happened with the paramedic was so painful.

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In the long, painful process of submitting queries to agents and short stories to magazine editors, it would be nice if the feeling of success were ever clear-cut.  Black or white, unambiguous.  I tell you: it ain’t so, my people.

Last year I had a very nice string of acceptances from a variety of magazines: five short stories and one essay. Among those was an acceptance from Karamu, the venerable literary magazine out of Eastern Illinois University. When I told a former writing prof, G.W. Clift, about the acceptance, he made a deeply disgruntled sound and said, “I’ve been trying to get them to publish one of my stories for almost forty years.”  Of course, I was pleased, but uncertainty quickly reared its ugly head.

Karamu

Karamu

In addition to being venerable, Karamu is also quite old-school.  It’s a traditional print magazine that still processes all of its submissions correspondence through the post.  They have a website, but it hasn’t been updated in years.

As opposed to the rapid-fire communication via e-mail, correspondence via post is much more leisurely, and in that leisure-time, doubts can arise.  I submitted the story in question–Water Landing–in September of 2007.  In March 2008, I received notice of Karamu‘s interest in publishing it, to appear in the Spring 2009 issue.

In the intervening year between acceptance and the arrival of my contributor’s copies, I conceived a monstrous terror that the story just wasn’t “any darn good,” to borrow one of Clift’s phrases.  Every time I thought about the impending publication, I got a knot of dread in my stomach.  I tried to steel myself for inevitable humilation.

Yesterday, my contributor’s copies arrived.  If I had a spouse who was willing to read my work, I would have foisted off the job of opening the magazine and seeing my own personal horror splattered across the page.

Instead, I put it off for several hours, still fretting.  When I finally dared to open up the issue, I was relieved to find that the story was better than I feared.  Better than I remembered, even.  In short, my anxiety was nothing more than a terrible, year-long nightmare, from which I have now awoken.

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I promised I’d try to run a teaser excerpt that shows Axyl’s alleged softer side.  In the scene just previous to this he and the ugliest girl in the world have sex in the backseat of a stolen Lincoln Continental.  Despite how ugly she is, it goes just fine until Axyl has a pretty sickening thought: is she really willing?  She’s his prisoner and less than half his size.  Maybe she thought saying no wouldn’t do her any good.  This unpleasant realization produces a rare twinge of guilt for Axyl and a rarer emotional outburst. Or as he puts it:  So I was that pathetic loser, who cries when he shoots his wad. I buried my face in her hair and hoped she wouldn’t notice.

***

Stolen Lincoln

Stolen Lincoln

We sprawled across the back seat for a while, not talking. I tried to smooth her hair out, thinking I oughta say something, maybe, “Was that okay?” or “Are you okay?” Before I could, she got herself untangled from me and sat up.

“It’s very messy,” she said. “The book didn’t say anything about that, either.”

“Sorry about that. Here.” I got my t-shirt off the rear dash and handed it to her. It was sticky when she passed it back to me, but I pulled it on, cum stain and all, and did up my pants.

“My hair is wet, too.”

“Like you said, it’s messy. So, what book d’you read?”

“Encyclopedia Britannica.”

Holy shit. No wonder sex wasn’t quite how she figured it’d be. To have something to do with my hands, I got my cigarettes out and lit up. Still naked, Shona leaned over the front seat, gave me a good view of her ass in the moonlight. Nice but reflective white.

“I got your pants here and I think your t-shirt’s in the other floorboard,” I said.

“Thank you.” She took the pants from me, but didn’t put them on. Instead, she sat back down, brought something to her face with both hands, and started in nibbling.

“Hey, Squirrel. You got another apple?”

“No. This is the last one, but I’ll share it with you.”

She gave it to me, and I chomped off a big bite–about a third of the apple–before I handed it back to her. It was weird how she could say something without a word. The way she shifted her head, I knew she was giving me a look like, “You greedy bastard.” After a second, she took a grumpy sounding nibble that made me laugh.

“Why did you do that?” she said.

“I figured I better take a big bite, in case that was the only one you give me.”

“You can have another bite.”

She held it out, as trusting as the first time. I leaned over, but didn’t take the apple, just steadied her hand in mine and took a little bite. Her shoulders softened, the way they did when she smiled. Sitting there naked in the back seat of a stolen car with a convicted killer, eating an apple and smiling. Hell, I liked her.

“Maybe your idea is a good one, too,” she said.

“What idea?”

“To take the biggest bite you can. I always try to make it last, in case I cannot eat for a while.”

“You go hungry?” I said, thinking about how skinny she was. Her wanting the other half of my sandwich but not asking for it.

“Sometimes.” She took two big crunches and tossed the apple core outta the car. “You’re hungry, too.”

“I am?”

“That’s why–.” She reached for my hand and cupped it over one of her little tits. “That’s why you want to do that, to nurse on me.”

When I laughed, she let go of my hand, but I kept it there. Rubbed my thumb over her nipple until it got hard. She shivered. Got me to thinking I was good for another go round.

“Sugar, you got it all wrong. I don’t wanna nurse on you.”  I pitched my cigarette and went to lay her back on the seat, but she had to keep talking.

“Then why do that? I think because it reminds you of your mother.”

“It ain’t nothing to do with my mother. I do it ’cause it turns me on. Besides, I got news for you. All men like to do that. Not just me.”

“But your mother–.”

“You need to shut up about that.” I said it in my serious voice, but she didn’t take the warning.

“You’re angry, but it wasn’t her fault that she never came back.”

“Shut the fuck up, you crazy little bitch. Don’t you talk about my mother like you know anything about her.” I grabbed her chin, turned her toward me, but I couldn’t see her face in the dark and I didn’t know why I wanted to.

“I know–.”

After I popped her on the mouth, she didn’t say what she knew.

***

Hmmm…so that didn’t turn out so nice.  Oh well. That’s Axyl for you.

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Ooo-weee!  Looks like Nathan Bransford really hit a nerve with his blog post about writing as an identity.  Apparently, part of the irritant was his original use of the word hobby to describe the work of writers who aren’t earning a living from their writing.  People got so mad Nathan actually backed down on describing writing as a hobby.

Here’s my question: since when is hobby a dirty word? Why do so many writers assume that what they do requires more passion or resolve than what quilters or train aficionados do?  Are we back to pretending that we’re ah-tists instead of craftsmen?  (Craftspeople, if you prefer.)

As a writer who has given up every other hobby I ever had to pursue writing, let me tell you a little something about compulsions and consuming passions.

1934 DeSoto

1934 DeSoto

In high school, I dated a man whose uncle probably spent half his annual income and all of his free time on refurbishing his collection of 34 1934 DeSotos.  (Yes, you read that right.  He owns thirty-four 1934 DeSotos.)  His goal over the last forty years has been to get 34 with consecutive VINs and to get them all into mint condition, with identical upholstery and identical paint and chrome work.  At this point, they are all in driveable condition and he rotates through them, driving a different one each day.

He makes no money off this pursuit, but to denigrate that kind of crazy, obsessive passion as a mere hobby, that’s the mark of self-absorbed, high-horsed ignorance.  That’s no mere hobby, that’s a glorious, consuming, whirlwind of a hobby.  And it’s nothing to be ashamed of.  Before folks get all het up and feel belittled at having their writing called a hobby, they need to consider whether they’re putting as much time, energy, and passion into their writing as this guy puts into his DeSotos.

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In today’s teaser excerpt, Axyl goes to visit some old friends.  And by old friends, I mean people who testified against him and whom he would like to kill.  Only problem, this all takes place two weeks after Axyl’s execution.  People act funny when you’re supposed to be dead.

***

Big Bruno’s Tattoos was off the main drag, in an old firehouse with brick floors in the truck bay. One corner had racks of tattoo flash and in the other corner was a couple couches. Some college kids sat there looking through flash books. On the back wall was a counter with a curtain behind it and from back there come the buzz of a tattoo gun. When I walked in, a woman stepped out and said, “Hey there. Can I help you?”

She was pasty white like Shona, but covered in tattoos. She woulda been pretty enough, except she had about a dozen things pierced through her face and she talked with a lisp from the stud in her tongue. As many nuts and bolts as a hardware store. Made me think fucking Shona wasn’t bad. Hell, I’d put a bag over tattoo girl’s head if I was gonna fuck her.

“Yeah, I’m here to see Scott. I think me and you talked on the phone.”

“You must be Axyl. I’m Monica. I’m Scott’s girl–I was going to say that I’m Scott’s girlfriend, but we got engaged two weeks ago. So I’m Scott’s fiancée.”

“Congratulations. Which of them is your engagement ring? The one in your nose?”

It was an asshole thing to say, but she laughed and flashed me a diamond on her finger. She leaned toward me over the counter and said, “So, you knew Scott in high school?”

“Yeah, we go way back. Knowed him almost twenty years.”

“What was he like back then?”

See how we was already buddies? Me and Scott’s fiancée having a little chat.

“He was a geek,” I said.

“Oh my god. I knew it. He won’t show me any pictures from back then. He says he doesn’t have any. You have to give me all the dirt on him, okay? Promise?”

“Yeah, sure.”

She grinned. “Let me go tell him you’re here.”

BuzzBuzzBuzz

BuzzBuzzBuzz

A minute later, from behind the curtain, I heard Scott say, “Don’t fucking joke about that, Monica. You think that’s funny? Can you see I’m trying to work here?”

“I’m not joking. He said he was a friend of yours from high school. Is there a problem?”

“Yeah, some asshole is trying to mess with me and he’s going to get his ass kicked.”

I woulda loved to seen that, because Scott couldn’t fight his way out of a paper bag. I was always the muscle in that crowd. Him and Joel liked to talk shit in bars, but whenever some pissed off guy come over to shut them up, it was my job to stand up and scare him away.

The tattoo gun went quiet and then Scott pushed open the curtain and stepped around the counter. He said, “Which one of you fuckwads is calling yourself Axyl Witt?”

That was my first look at him since my trial. He looked about the same, a little heavier. His hair was less blond and he was starting to lose it in front. Had a ring through his nose like a bull.

Scott, though, he went from tough to pudding in the time it took him to figure out it was really me. He staggered back against the counter and knocked a styrofoam cup off. It popped open and chunks of ice scattered all over the floor. Reminded me of how Jenny McClure dropped her Big Gulp cup after I shot her boyfriend.

I stepped up and grabbed Scott, hugged him like he was my long lost brother. Like I wanted to break his fucking back. I squeezed him so hard, I felt his heart pounding against me, felt when his knees went weak and I was actually holding him up.

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Stories about the end of the world as we know it have been popular…well, at least since John of Patmos wrote his little Apocalyptic story that Christians now call The Book of Revelation.  Even before that, pre-literate cultures the world over loved to tell stories about how the world would end and what would happen after.

As for me, I love Apocalyptic and post-Apocalyptic stories, and I’m clearly not alone.  It’s everywhere in our culture: books, movies, comics, and even music.  We simply love to contemplate what will happen when our nice neat shit goes up in flames.

I have a good friend who is terrified of robots (or ro-butts, as we like to say).  She can’t even stand to see posters for the upcoming 4th Terminator film.  If she were faced with a robot Apocalypse, she would probably throw herself off the nearest tall building.  And her fear of androids is even more profound.  You can’t even mention the Phillip K. Dick book around her.

Pet Zombie!

Pet Zombie!

One of my online writing buddies and one of my college buddies both have full-blown zombie-phobia.  College buddy hyperventilated about fifteen minutes into the nouveau-zombie film 28 Days Later.

As for me, I’m one of those people who’s sure that Sartre was right: l’enfer c’est les autres.  Hell is other people.  For me, neither zombies nor robots are as scary as my fellow humans.  I could only read The Road in broad daylight and I won’t be going to see the movie.

So that’s my question for today: when you think about some hypothetical “End Times,” what scares you most?  Which of the four horsemen haunt your dreams: death, war, famine, pestilence?

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