The Start of Something – Chapter 1 (2016)

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I know what you’re thinking already.  Another shitty story from some nobody dropout whose life goals were unachievable and nothing more than chaotic pipe dreams.  I get it.  I prefer, though, to think of myself as a victim of society—or perhaps societal values.  Isn’t it interesting how much time, effort, and money we spend looking forward to the next “vacation” where we can finally “let go” and “relax”?  What many people don’t see in me is that I’m calling that mentality total fucking bullshit.  

That’s insane.

And we should all be ashamed to think that’s why we were placed on this gorgeous fucking planet.

Now.  Hear me out.  I’m a server.  Some call it a waiter.  I take food orders from people in restaurants, bring that food out to them, fill their fucking teas, waters, or beers in some places, and scoop their tips.  It’s not a mind-bending type of life or career.  It’s cash.  It’s mundane most of the time.  It probably has interesting roots—I imagine ancient Egyptians or something bringing meals to those in political power and rewarded with some trivial trinket or item of small value.  

Like most people who do my job, I did not sit around in high school looking forward to the day where I would be lambasted by a boss who’s on a uniform-neatness kick, stuck in an awkward position to listen to some grandma bitch about how her kids don’t bring her grandchildren over often like they used to, or worried that a girl at the restaurant I’ve been seeing is either cheating on me or looking for ways to let me down easily.  No.  Nothing terrifically dreamy about those scenarios.  Scenaria?  Anyway, I took this job when my college “career” went to shit and I haven’t done anything else.  It’s kind of like G-rated stripping or prostitution.  By no means is the money close to what I assume those girls take home, but in a way it’s the money (and the ease of obtaining it) that’s kept me here almost eight years.  

Eight years.  

Man that looks like a huge number when I type it out.  It’s shitty because it’s pretty much the same thing every day, but there are no two days alike.  I mean, one day, I’ll get some regulars, have some repeated conversations, help the new kids with the shit on the computer, and eventually sneak out of there with my ninety- or hundred bucks.  Once in a while, something crazy will happen in the kitchen.  Or they’ll play a block of AC/DC tunes at like the perfect time in the server alley.  

But I keep going back.  And I wonder if other people keep going to their own jobs with the same perspective.  Do they truly think they are adding to the value of their company, the community, and/or the people with whom they work?  Is it just a paycheck?  Is it just something people do in order to save up for that trip to Disney, Cozumel, or Venice?  Is working a job where the return is strictly financial worth our time?  

Don’t fucking ask me.  I wouldn’t be in the position I’m in if I knew any of the answers to my own questions.  

So, how do I manage through the muck of restaurant work year after year?  It’s pretty much with moments like this:

Me:  Hey, there.  I’m Bill.  You must be new this week.

Newb:  Hi.  I’m Latosha.

Me:  I’m sorry.  What?  How do you say it?

Newb:  Luh—tosh—uh.

Me:  Oh.

Newb:  What’s that supposed to mean?

Me:  Nothin’.  It’s just…

Newb:  It’s just what?

Me:  I mean…I thought it’d be pronounced differently.  I saw your name on the floorplan…

Newb:  Oh.  I get that a lot.  How were you thinking it should be pronounced?

Me:  I dunno…maybe like, er….”Mike.”  Or  “Jeremy”…

Newb:  What the fuck?

Me:  Dude, it’s cool.  I mean, I don’t care.  You’re gonna want to hide that adam’s apple a bit more.  

Newb:  My real name is Benjamin, but please don’t tell anybody, okay?

Me:  It’s all good, Latosha.  Glad to have you aboard.

And now I’ve got that dude on the hook for a big favor for about a week.  He might cover me while I duck out for a smoke or just give me one of his parties or something.  I don’t press for shit like that anymore.  That’s one thing I’ve learned about this job:  The money is fairly steady and reliable.  At least, in the course of a week or so.  People on commission jobs probably get what I’m trying to say way more than salary fucks.  You can have several shitty days in a row and your income is a direct result of that.  Some salary fuck can miss work, fuck up, stay late, get reprimanded by a superior—all in a couple days’ time—and still get the same exact paycheck as he did last time.  So, I have no clue why anyone would want to make enemies at a restaurant.  When servers are happy and work together, they make more money.  It’s not fucking college trig, ya know?  Come in, do your shit, put on a sunny disposition if you have to, and skidaddle with your cheddar for the day.  

My problem is not that I don’t look to the future for something better.  It isn’t that I really want anything else.  I’m content with making decent cash, paying my rent and utilities, and spending the rest however the fuck I want.  If I’m dating someone, I’ll blow a lot of cash on her early on.  If it fizzles out, so what?  We had fun, right?  We didn’t plan a safari for six months and eat fucking generic mac and cheese every night until the big trip either.  

So, I actually like what I do—even if it isn’t what I thought I’d do as I’m nearing 30.  It’s my life, ya know?  Why the fuck does anyone else care?

I’ve dated tons of servers too.  Most of the time, it’s short-lived and one of us ends up leaving the restaurant only to just pick up a job elsewhere by the end of the week.  It’s probably common in college towns this size.  It’s the only city I’ve really known, though.  When I say date, I should be more articulate.  I show interest in a girl and typically a group of us go out for drinks or whatever.  I make a move and it’s either received well or it’s received poorly.  I’m cruising at about a sixty-five percent success rate.  Most of the rejections stem from them having boyfriends or at least claiming they do.  I’m not all about trying to wreck anybody’s good thing.  If they’re lying about being in a relationship, at least it saves me the embarrassment while I’m getting hammered at four bucks a drink.  The girls are all pretty good natured and usually just drift away.  Maybe they go home for summer break or maybe they find a better job.  Some are crazy and some are super horny.  You don’t know me all that well, but trust me when I say I’m very respectful toward them all and I take it all in stride.

Except for one girl .  Real quick, lemme give you dudes a heads up on a certain type of girl.  She was twenty when she started and I was the first guy she hung around with since she’d left her hometown to come to college.  She was pretty and had joined a sorority, but it was not like the type you may expect.  They had been on probation for like three years for some super fucked-up shit that went down during homecoming or rush or whatever, and they were basically desperate to get a new breed of girls in their club.  Mellaaddy (pronounced as “Melody” but yeah, it was fucking spelled like that) jumped at the chance and was rising up the authority totem pole quite quickly.  Well, here’s the red-flag, gentlemen:  She ran a sorority-presidential campaign by using the new-found popularity of those vibrantly colored vinyl or plastic bracelets.  She’d thought it was quirky to make a hashtag with her name on these and give them out to the girls who were in the sorority or trying to be in the sorority.  

Then she gave me one to wear.  

And she wasn’t fucking around either.

“I don’t get it.  I’m not even a student…”

“Oh, I think it’s cute!  If you wear it at work, maybe people will ask about it and you can tell them—”

“Oh.  Okay.  Well.  Thank you.”

“Put it on.”

“Now?”

“Sure!  The election is in two months and I really want to win…”

It’s pretty obvious, I hope, that she and I didn’t make it to the night the votes were cast.  

I kept the fucking bracelet though and it’s on the shelf next to my shaving cream behind the mirror in my bathroom.  Every day or so I see it and am reminded to keep the crazies at a distance.  

It’s worked so far.

And I’ve also figured out the girls who were so fucking mysterious to me through late high school and into college.  This just happened last week.  The girl’s name is Kendra, and she’s probably around twenty-three.  Not too young, I know, but she looked a little younger but acted a lot older.  Does that make sense?  So like, her age was an average of her look and her personality.  Something like that.

Well, this dude rolls up and is just standing near the kitchen pass-through.  Not in the way or anything.  But standing there.  It’s a place where either really forward people stand if they want something like napkins or a ketchup bottle that actually has ketchup in it, or a spot where past or present employees linger to get someone’s attention.  This bulky dude was the latter.  He was dressed like a biker—probably was one, I suppose—and it was still pretty warm out so he had a short-sleeved shirt under his leather vest.  I didn’t catch the local brotherhood of riders’ name on the back (something like Sons of Halitosis or Evil Do-Gooders, I’m guessing) but I did notice the rather unsettling red bulbs emerging from his forearms on both sides.  It was one of those things the eye catches and you know you’re already staring at it too long, but it’s so fucking intoxicating to examine that on the one hand you’re peering into some chemically charged abscess while subconsciously weighing out what you think this fucker is going to do to when he realizes you’re staring at his fucking ghastly arm.  People who wear that much black leather aren’t typically the most secure people when it comes to visible abnormalities or proper English.  Thus, I looked away as quickly as I could, but those bulbs lingered in my mind for days afterward.  

So this dude is just chilling there, and if he’d looked like anyone else less menacing I might have struck up a simple “May I help you” scenario, not so much as to appease whatever his request was but rather for my own selfish get-those-fucking-things-away-from-me needs.  That, and some dopey newbie sweetly asked him if she could get him anything and all he said was Kendra’s name.  I passed by during this brief exchange but could tell with his single word response that he was probably itching to get back on the road (presumably not toward a dermatologist’s office, I might add) and was growing impatient with each passing second.  

Kendra took her sweet ass time getting to him and had a muffled conversation right outside the pass-through.  I busied myself with making drinks and remembering where the damn state-required sanitation pumps were because I was not a hundred percent that Gruff Daddy’s arms didn’t come in contact with my own.  This was just last year, and I have my whole life still to live.  

About a half-hour later, I had a few seconds next to Kendra and asked if that was her boyfriend.  

“Who, Keith?”

“I don’t know the individual’s name.  The guy who wanted you a little bit ago.”

“Keith.”

“Okay.”

“Don’t you know Keith?  He’s a dish guy.”

That at least spoke to the irritations on his arms.  “Nope.  Never seen him.”

“Well, he only works weekends here.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.  That’s why.  Anyway, no.  He needed a ride.”  She paused, but not for anything other than stifling a burp, I think.  “You know I’m like, super gay right?”

“I..did not know that.”

“Yeah.  So.  No.  Not my boyfriend.”

“Mmmkay,” was all I could muster.  I was suddenly sixteen and completely thrown off by looking at a woman who was into other women.  I’m sure I’ve known more, but Kendra was astronomically more comfortable with her lesbianism than anyone else.  This was only like the third night we’d worked the same shift.  

The place was getting quieter and a bunch of the other servers were already gone or about to go.  Kendra was wiping down a drink station and I was filling an ice bucket.  I thought, what the hell.

“Sorry if I said anything wrong earlier,” I began.  I knew she didn’t give a shit.  I mean, she wasn’t like offended or anything.  She was proud of who she was.  I wanted to make jokes.  I wanted to sarcastically say all the things I knew other people had said to her over the last several years (or however long it’d had been since she first came out) like “But you’re so pretty” or “Do you think it’s real or just a phase?”  All the stuff that it’s pretty uncool to say now.

So, instead, I began by apologizing unnecessarily.

“It’s good.  I just thought you should know.”

“Can I ask you something?”

“Sure.”  She had a tinge of nervousness in her voice.  She probably knew I wasn’t some college douche, but at the same time I was still a man.  A guy.  And we have a fucking long-ass record of asking dumb questions.

“Isn’t it funny that you and I probably get off to the same porn?”

She fucking lost it.  I blindsided her and she had no way to reply.  She cackled so loud that it caused Misfit Brian to emerge from his hole of an office to ask what the noise was.  

“Seriously!”  I continued.  I had her hooked now, boy.  “I mean, we barely know each other, but I feel like you and I could discuss multiple girl-on-girl videos we’ve both seen!”  

She snorted.  I was all jittery.  I get like that when I say something that gets such a positive reaction.  People who don’t know me too well will comment from time to time that I should be on stage somewhere.  I’m not trying to believe it’s just that easy, but it is very close to a medicated high when it happens.  Like a non-sticky orgasm.  

“You’re too funny, dude,” she said when she caught her breath.  What are you doing tonight?”

A porno reel began in my head, but I knew any joke there would fuck things up.  

“Shit.  Nothin’ special.  Get some fuckin’ tacos or something and watch a movie or something.  Think about what I did with my life.”

Her face shifted to serious, not knowing if I was being genuine or sarcastic.  “That’s fucking deep, man.  Seriously.  Wanna meet my roommate?”

I did, absolutely.  But I had to stay cool and somewhat indifferent.  “It’d be alright, I suppose.”  Then, toward the nothingness of the nearest wall, I announced, “Guess you’ll have to wait a day, Ben Affleck!”  She laughed and bit her bottom lip.  Still sexy to me, whether a girl likes dudes or not.  “What ya wanna do?”

“There’s a shitty sports bar not far from here called Buckaroo’s.  I mean, it sucks if you have standards, but we go there because no one else does.”

“Is that Buckaroo’s – apostrophe S, or just Buckaroos—plural S?”

She glazed over.  “What?”

“Nevermind.”

“Well, it’s crusty and probably going to close before Christmas, but we like it.”

I nodded and said something about running home to change, but she cut me off.  

“Nah, don’t fuck around.  TNF tonight, boi!” she howled and whisked away.  I didn’t have time to say in my best droll voice that nobody calls it “TNF.” Thursday night football is the one exception, it seems, where Americans are willing to pronounce all five syllables.  

That was the night I met Valerie.  And Valerie brought some friends from high school a few weeks later.  And one of those friends brought her roommate who was looking for a job.  And that girl is Stacey who started at my restaurant.  Kendra quit a couple weeks before Stacey started.  I heard her bitchy girlfriend left her with no note.  Not that any of that matters, but I thought I should share how things work in my world.  We wait tables and get together and drink and usually start by making fun of the fuckers who gave us shit and complain about managers’ shitty micromanaging, and the straight girls would usually bitch about nursing classes being harder than they thought and the cosmetology girls would talk about hundred-dollar make-up and Kendra and/or Valerie and I would talk shit about the game that was on and how many women on the pro tennis tour were gay and whether or not gay men fantasize about threesomes with one girl but no one in our group could shed light on that one.  

They’d ask me if I went to school or if I ever went to school and I was nothing but forthright.  I gave them the story you’re reading now.  I went to school like most idiots who didn’t have a fucking plan and lost control of the situation and found myself unable to sign up for classes.  They told me the community college would take me and that my credits would transfer back but that sounded like a whole lotta years in the classroom not making money.  So I changed the game and balled in restaurants for forty hours a week for a while until I realized I could get a second serving job down the road and make another couple hundred or so.  Nothing was tying me down.  Nothing kept me from going after that easy cash, boi.  

If I wasn’t serving, drinking, or sleeping, I was usually reading in those days.  I mean, I told Kendra that first time she invited me to Buckaroo’s that I was going to watch some dopey movie, but that’s because you don’t tell people you’re going to hurry home and read.    

Covered (2016) Excerpt #1

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After feeding, it’s nap time.  Yes.  Baby nappy.  Momma nappy too, sweetheart.  Oh, baby.  I’m just so—yes, sweetheart.  Mommas get sleepy too.  Yes they do…oh, they sure do, sweetheart.  Trust me.   Okay, baby girl.  You did a good job eating your breakfast.  Let’s burp it out and take a nappy, okay?

“Hon?”

Shit.  Okay.  Good job.  Now let’s just lie you down.  Go to sleep now, darling girl.  I’ll be right in the next room.

“HON!”

No, no, baby.  Don’t cry.  Aww…sweet girl, don’t…please?  It’s just daddy.  He’s…well, he forgot you were about to take a nappy.  I’ll leave the door cracked…just..like…this…

What is it?

“Oh, shit.  You were putting her down.”

Duh.

“Did she–?”

Yeah, but she’ll fall asleep soon enough.

“Is that her?  She’s still cry–”

I know.  Amanda said it’s hard to let’em cry it out at first, but there’s nothing wrong.  Otherwise, we’ll never get any—.

“Okay.  Well, I’m sorry I forgot…you were going to put her down as well.”

It’s fine.  What did you want?

“Umm…well, I couldn’t find the remote.”

Remember Arn Anderson?

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“Remember Arn Anderson?”

I didn’t hear any response.  The guys are in a booth and I’m at the counter.  My head hurts and I pour Cholula on my omelet in order to give it flavor.

“He was a wrestler,” the same guy continues.  “Oh my god.  He had a brother, right?  Well, do you remember when we would watch TBS on like Sunday nights?  It was always the final match of the episode or whatever right when dinner was ready?  This was the days when Mom insisted the TV had to be off.”

He stops.  Perhaps to sip his coffee.  I get a crispy nugget of bacon stuck in my teeth.  The Western is shaping up.  My feet are cold.  It’s a steamy day inside and out.  The cook whose head pops up through the pass-through window from time to time must be sweltering back there.

“Dammit, man.  We must’ve watched that shit every week for what…a year?  More?”

He laughs.  I bite.  Chelsea, the lone counter girl, scrolls through her phone.

I can’t hear the friend’s responses because he’s facing away from me.  It’s weird to sit here and hear one side of a conversation.  I pretend to look at the classifieds that somebody who had been beside me left.  Did he give me a glance and assume I needed a job or is that something that people do at diners?  I’m not a regular or anything.  I just wanted to sit at a counter and have coffee and not think about work or home or my kids.  For an hour.

“Oh man.  Those were some crazy fun times, right?  Seems like a lifetime ago.”  He pauses again.  I want to order two buckets of coffee to shove my feet into.

The classifieds are shit.  And, though it takes me a moment to realize, they’re four days old.  I have no choice but to imagine how many uncleaned hands have scanned this creased paper and how washing my hands has to happen even though I’m using a fork.

“Guess it sorta was,” he says, I assume, in reference to the ‘lifetime ago’ comment.  I don’t know if he said anything in between.

“Order up!” the tiny man from behind the window calls.

Chelsea springs into action as quickly as anyone else her age with a phone such as hers.  That is, she sighs, scrolls a bit more, squeezes her phone into her apron’s pocket, and stretches in the same manner that people who actually work while they’re at work do.

“I’m so tired,” I hear her say to no one.  Somebody down the counter says she can use his hotel room while he’s at the office.  I think she says “Not that tired,” but someone around me clanged some dishes and I may have missed it.

Without staring, I casually watch her—eyes on newspaper, eyes on her, back and forth—whisk two plates toward the guy’s table behind me.  The wrestling guy whose booth-mate is inaudible.

“Your friend not coming?” I hear her say.

“As fate would have it…”

She puts down both plates, though I’m still pretending not to be engaged in this.

“Well, I’ll take it back–”

“Could you leave it?” he asks.

“Umm…” She probably bites her lip here.  I can tell this exchange will be a major part of her Snap story this afternoon.  “What’s that?”

“That’s…my friend Matt.”

“What’s his picture doin’ over there?”

“Well, I’ll tell ya…is it Chelsea?”

She agrees to his pronunciation.

“I’ll tell ya, Chelsea.  That there is my best friend Matt and he’s not here in body, but he’s here in spirit.  Do you believe in that?”

“What, the spirits?”

“Yes.”

It hits her.  “Oh my!  Did your friend…pass away?”

Her reaction to his apparent nod confirms her suspicions and deductions.

“Sir, I am so sorry,” she says, finally.  “I didn’t mean to–”

“It’s fine.”

“No, I mean…I was…not so nice earlier.”  I don’t know what she’s referencing, so I’m left to assume she was less than courteous when she first talked to him and offered coffee.

“It’s fine, dear.  You couldn’t have known.  He was my friend.  And my brother.  My actual brother—not like one of those guys who you call brother but–you get it.  Different dads though.”

“Oh,” was all she could muster.

“Thank you.  It’s fine.  We used to come in here a lot more often back in the day.  My therapist said if I talked to him more—god, I sounds crazy when I say it out loud like that.”

“I am so sorry, sir.  Here.  Look.”

I hear paper torn.  “My manager says he’ll allow me one screw-up per shift for the first month.  After that, I gotta pay for my mistakes.”

It seemed like a fair policy, and the wrestling guy agreed verbally.  My feet got icier somehow and my omelet was just as cold as my feet.

“Enjoy your pancakes, sir.  I’ll be back with some coffee later.”  He told her it wasn’t necessary.

I don’t need the classifieds.  That is, unless there’s an opportunity for me to go back a week and not tell Turner what I said that led to getting fired.  I’d love a job, but forty-one is not usually the desired audience of the listings that announce “Trainees Needed.”

I get up.  It’s time for me to go.  I have to change something in my life.  The wrestling fan is well into his bottom pancake.  I didn’t know some people ate them one at a time and worked their way down.  There is no one in the booth across from him.  There is, however, a wooden-framed picture across from him.  Kind of behind a syrup bottle.  The guy has on a John Belushi “College” sweatshirt and holds a football.  I see all this in the split second that I glance at the table.

I remember losing my brother a decade ago.  This guy and I could be friends in another life.  But who talks to strangers in a diner other than the waitresses?

I gotta piss.  This has been happening more and more lately.  It just hits me with little warning.  I’ve been pissing more and more in public these days.

The diner restroom is exactly as you’re picturing.  Its odor is the combination of cheap air freshener and truck driver stools.

The door swings open and I’m mid-flow.  It’s the wrestler guy.

“Yeah.  It was mostly improvised.”

“Huh?” I say.

“Told ’em you just died.  Brought that picture from school.”  He listened for a second more.  I zipped up.

“Aight, buddy.  I’ll be over soon,” he said.  He zipped and turned toward me and tapped a button on the bluetooth in his right ear.  “What’s good, man?” he asks me.

 

 

 

 

 

UWT #2 – “Buttering the Bread”

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Years ago, my creative writing instructor gave a short lecture during a workshop about this concept.  He may or may not have called it “Buttering the Bread” but that’s what I’ve called it for years.  Consider this type of storytelling and consider the point in it where you lose interest.

Tom got hungry, so he went downstairs for breakfast.  He normally ate toast, so he decided to open the breadbox, remove the Wonder bread, untwist the tie, and withdraw two flimsy slices.  Customarily, he re-tied the bread and returned it to its resting spot within the fly-free confines of the box.  Taking two steps east, he placed each slice in the toaster and pressed the lever with no more or no less authority than any other day.  He watched as the wired inside his dorm-room toaster heated to a bursting orange and sizzling red state.  Just when he could not wait any longer, the toast appeared innocently.  Tom took the butter from the refrigerator.  It was cold and hard to spread.  He’d learned from his grandmother that he could heat his knife quickly by holding it under hot running water.  It worked again, and he padded each slice with a unhealthy square of the stuff everyone calls butter but is actually margarine.  Tom had a big day ahead since it was his first interview, and he wanted to make sure he did not leave the house hungry.

—or—

Tom made some toast as he always does and thought about his interview.

Granted, the first one is considerably longer, but is it good writing?  Is it significant to the events of the story?  Is the author adding anything worthwhile?  Does it seem, perhaps, that he is just padding his word count total?

No.  No.  No.  Yes.

Don’t butter the bread.  Get to it and move forward.

Finding Your Legal High

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A week ago, my nephew and I had a brief chat that has since redirected (and refocused) my goal.  I had my laptop open and was skimming through the novel I started writing last November during NaNoWriMo.  I mentioned the word count (something like 36K) and he wanted to know what it was about.  I gave him some of the major points I could recall, but then I began thinking as I was talking.

I’ve had numerous excuses to explain why it’s not done: teaching HS and evening classes, family obligations, computer malfunctions, buying a house, etc.)  Where do those get me?

I do most of my writing within the confines of the month of November, but I never push myself as much during the other eleven months.  When I write–when I REALLY write–I get a rush that is unequaled by anything else I know.  I don’t mean to suggest it’s even in the same ZIP code as playing with my children, seeing my wife’s face when I’ve been a part of her happiness, or even getting through to one of my students about anything whatsoever–those are different “highs”.

No.  Writing, though, gives me that positive surge that reminds me how life should feel all the time.  I’m completely grateful for everything I have achieved in this life so far.  I do not often realize how good I truly have it.

But I want to take this just a few steps further and write a book good enough for a publisher to want to try to sell.  That’s been a goal for something like 15 or 20 years, and I’ve not pushed myself hard enough for it to happen.

I talk to my students a lot about the “fixed mindset” versus the “growth mindset.”  I commonly remind students that growth is always possible if you want it badly enough.  I’d be a hypocrite to say that I’m just not good enough to be published.

Imagine a world where everyone loved what they did for a living.  Imagine a time where people sought out their goals and didn’t always play it safe.

“Find the Bad Guy” – Jeffrey Eugenides (2013)

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Finally got around to reading this story from The New Yorker from almost a year ago!  He’s rapidly becoming one of my favorite contemporary writers!

Don’t read any more of this short analysis without reading the story yourself.  For example…here ya go.  Click the following words

“Find the Bad Guy” by Jeffrey Eugenides

Hey!  You’re back!  If you’re really wise, upon finishing this essay, you’ll seek out a couple more reviews and perhaps decide to write one  yourself.  That is, of course, unless you are Jeffrey Eugenides.  (If you are he…Hey, buddy!)

Okay.  I’d like to talk briefly about two elements of this story that stood out.  Prior to this story, my experience with this author was zilch, unless you count watching the movie The Switch dozens of times late at night with my wife.  Charlie D. is, hold on now, a rather likable guy.  Sure, he made a poor decision during a booze-induced, wife’s-outta-town depressive state.  Who hasn’t?  Seriously, though, let’s step down from our high horses for a few and evaluate the guy.

The guy is a jokester who loves his kids and tries to love his wife.  He’s very good at measuring distances with his eyes, but that talent was superseded by his inability to properly read a temporary restraining order.  There’s no doubt that the relationship with the babysitter should not have progressed in the manner that it did; Charlie seems filled with regret when thinking of that version of himself.  It’s a deal-breaking event, but he’s slowly returned to civilized behavior.

The fire pit, on the other hand, is a wonderful symbol.  Throughout the story, we learn its varying value to the key players–it’s a wasteland to his wife, a sanctuary for Charlie, and a rite of passage for the sitter.  For anyone who has experience with doomed relationships, the situations here become (ahem) close to home.

Creative Writing Class – Week 9 (Revised Fiction)

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Note:  This is a recent piece that got a little polished this week.  I’m still not calling it a final draft, but it’s a tad better and (I hope) clearer.

I appreciate any and all critiques.  I want to do this well…I’m too old to get defensive about my amateur work 🙂

Cushion

The moment my marriage changed, my husband Marv was snoozing on the beige felt couch we picked out together over twenty years earlier.  I think it’s in fine condition, but our children are ready to buy us one if we don’t do it ourselves, or so they say.  Granted, he had woken up only a few hours earlier that morning because, as he always says, he can’t stop being an early riser.  Let me tell you, when we were younger, that expression had a completely different meaning!

I had just finished the previous night’s dishes.  I had made him pork chops, but I had also taken a late-night call from Debbie Wasnidge, who had no one else to talk to about what she and her therapist discussed.

The nature of this marital change was one that would make his father—God rest his soul—disown him and his children abhor him.  Okay, maybe that’s a little rough.  He’s my husband, so I should start a little differently and accurately.  Marv has had commitment issues, but then again, what man hasn’t?  Whether it be with me or his work; he has always seemed to lack follow-through.  When we first started dating–can it be thirty years ago, really?–he was young.  I was too, but he was adventurous.  He had ambition.  “Driven” was the first word I used to describe him to my father the week before Marv’s first Thanksgiving at my parents’ house back in 1977.

As a young father, Marv immersed himself in our children.  He didn’t quite live vicariously through them or anything, but he certainly put his own goals aside–for decades–and helped me raise them to be responsible adults.  We succeeded as parents, but not as a couple.

Before he actually retired, he began talking about it whenever our children were all home.  He didn’t do it in hopes of having some grand, celebratory send-off or anything; he probably just liked hearing himself say it more often.  You know, to make it more real.  Like when you teach someone else a skill–you tend to learn more about the skill the longer you explain it.  Perhaps surprisingly, the children—all three of them–were relatively indifferent toward his choice to let go.  They certainly didn’t care about the financial rationale, which evolved as the overwhelming theme of his narratives.

Also, before he stopped working for good last spring, I began to see that old spark.  Until then, our entire relationship had accumulated decades of normalcy.  The old spark to which I now speak contained messages of road trips, new hobbies, extravagant dinners–the things we did before having children and responsibilities.

However, over the last seven months, I have realized they were just words.  Then I began to reflect throughout our marriage how often he did that.  Simply put, he has always calmed me down with words, filling me with so many hopes that never took flight.  Do I feel manipulated?  A little.  However, did I adopt and use the same behavior and use it toward him–and our children?  I’d be lying if I said no.

Marv has had an affair.

I still struggle with putting those words in a sentence like that.  Part of me would have rather said “Marv has Stage IV testicular cancer.”

It began that morning with me answering the phone, even though those large white words “Unknown Number” appeared clear as day.  Debbie Wasnidge’s therapist might offer a solid analysis as to why someone my age would wish to suddenly answer the phone in situations such as these.

            Don’t you know about telemarketers, Susan?

            Are you aware that hackers exist, Susan?

            People will go to great lengths to hide their identity, Susan.  Just don’t answer it.

Marv had been up for his daily walk but had come back only to fall asleep again while watching one of those silly small claims court programs.  He had been sleeping more and more, and I had been having trouble doing as much as I would have liked to do around the house.  With the dishes finally finished and my feet encouraging me to rest,  I thought about reading.  I’d donated my Mary Higgins Clarks to the church rummage sale two weeks earlier and had not found anyone else worth reading yet.  When you age, you tend to worry about odd things connected with your mortality such as “What if I start a book series and never get a chance to finish it before I die?”  Debbie Wasnidge had tried to force one of her trashy naked cover books to me, but I had respectfully declined.

So after I answered the unknown number and had listened to that nervous young woman speak, I only remember staring into my cooled chamomile tea.

“Ma’am,” she said after a long pause.  She thought I’d hung up, I suppose.

“Yes, I’m here.”  I cleared my throat but didn’t plan to say anything else.

She breathed deeply.  “I can only imagine how upset this makes you.  Please know this was a call I’d hesitated making for some time.”

It didn’t help, but I was glad she said it.

“You have to know, ma’am, that whatever happened between your husband and my mother had to have been short term at best.  For years, I was told my father died in a fishing accident and never had any reason to doubt my mother.  Who does at that age, you know?”

I thought of our kids and the few white lies I had dispelled whenever I was forced to field life’s tougher inquisitions.  I had to agree with her.

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, I’m here.  I’m sorry. I’m…”
“I understand,” she said.

She didn’t—no one who has not gone through this could—but I stayed mute and examined the arrangement of tea grains at the bottom of my #1 Mom mug.

“My mother and I have always been fairly honest with one another.  I’m an only child and she never re-married.”

Re-married?”

“Excuse me.  No.  Never married.  Forgive me, I’m so used to telling this story under my previous assumptions of what happened to my father.”

A long pause.  The mere idea that Marv had had a whole other marriage to attend to tackled my ticker, which Dr. Patel said needs “nourishment” and “rest.”

“Ma’am?”

“Yes, I’m here.”  I swallowed and rubbed my free hand along my thigh. “You were saying?”

She was crying.  I had no idea what she looked like, but for reasons I cannot still fathom, I pictured a thin woman beside a window–perhaps in a hotel–putting the phone to her chest to mute her uncontrollable bursts of emotion.

She sniffled.  “My fiancé,”

“Pardon me?”
For a few seconds more I listened to her attempt to overcome her obvious attachment to whatever she was about to say.  I took the phone away and listened closely for words, not sobs.

“A medical history…” she eventually said.  “I was sick a little while ago and eventually ended up talking to my GP about my history.”

Over the next few minutes, I learned that her mother had gone with her, offering the expected level of comfort in that situation.  The doctor sensed something from the mother once questions about the woman’s father–evidently my husband–came up.  He casually stepped out of the exam room with her mother.  She said she only heard muffled voices after that.  Then, however, her mother came back into the room alone and broke the news about her father not dying years ago as she had described.

“Ma’am?” she asked.

“I’m here.” Then I interrupted her before she could continue.  “Forgive me, though.  How did you happen to call me about this?”

She began to answer but I stopped her again.  Weirdly, it felt good.  I controlled the moment.

“How am I to know any of this is true?  What is it you want?  Why am I still talking to you?”

She must have sensed my urgent frustration because she pleaded with me not to hang up.  “I’m sorry, ma’am.  I know it’s…well, this whole thing for me has been…”

She eventually got around to explain her rather rudimentary detective skills.  Marv, unbeknownst to me, had succumbed to our children’s request for us to join Facebook.  The woman with whom I was now speaking had found him in a matter of moments.

I stood to take my mug to the sink when I heard Marv stretch.  Men his age are incapable of stretching soundlessly.   I stepped out to the sun room and glared at the empty grass where our children had played and yelped.

“You make coffee?” he asked.  I had assumed he was still on the couch but upright and probably doing that thing with his mouth that he knows I hate.

Then I listened to him ease to the kitchen.  I didn’t have to turn my head to know he was staring at the empty carafe.

“Miss?” I whispered.

“Yes, I’m here.”

“Could you give me your mother’s name?  Perhaps where she was living when you were born?”

She provided both, the second as if she were reading from the notes she’d scribbled on the thin pad hotels provide.

“I want you to call back in a few minutes.  Rather, is your mother around?”

“No.”

“Well, then,” I thought.  “Call back anyway and identify yourself as your mother.  Say nothing more.  My husband will answer it, and I’ll watch his face while you explain to him what you’re telling me.”

“I’m…I mean…okay, but…”

“It’ll be fine dear.  I have to do a little acting here for him to pick up.”
Marv cleared his throat and hollered, “You want some?”  I heard him unlocking the clasped canister.

“Miss?”

“Yes.  I’m here.”

“Ten minutes, okay?”

“Okay.  But please know my doctor needs my family history this afternoon.”

“Just call.”

I clicked End without saying anything formal and walked into the kitchen. “No, hon.  None for me.  I had tea earlier.”  He was filling up the carafe at the sink.  I placed my phone on the counter at the room’s threshold into the dining room.

“Marv?”

“Yeah, hon?”

“When was the last time you took me out for brunch?”

He smiled but did not look up and stopped the water.  “This morning, looks like.”

“Maybe look at some new sofas?”

“Anything, dear.”

He kissed my cheek.  Leaving the carafe beside the sink, he tucked in his shirt and smoothed his white hair.

He joined me at the doorway.  “Need your phone?” he said as he took his keys from the wooden Home key rack by the door.

“Don’t think so,” I grinned.  “Nobody calls anyway.”