they said don’t leave us but who could look where he was looking and not leave, that’s what he asked himself as he was pulling away the brick, the first brick, down on his knees in the basement near the cistern, pulling away the brick and sliding down in the hole, or falling into the hole, stretching thin and just zipping down there, blasting into that dark fire, that dark fire, like an electric flare he’s pulled, zipped or zapped, like a hand reaches up and grabs him and pulls him thin, pulls at that one thread until all of him unravels and he’s just a longer sort of thread, and he’s gone, and who would he understand a thing like that anyway? Who would miss him now that May was gone? He’d go over to the Waterson’s where Frank is surely on the porch watching the finches, old Frank who wouldn’t remember his own name if Dave or Doris or one of the others didn’t say, Now Frank, or Here you go Frank, or How about a grilled cheese? Once, when Billy himself was a child, way back at the beginning of the thread, he’d gone to the Waterson’s to see Dave and there was Frank passed out on his stomach in the middle of the living room floor, ass hanging out for all the world to see, and Dave said, Ignore him, he’s so gross, and he’d never been able to see Frank the same again, even after Frank was on the wagon and sang in the church choir in a red robe. His voice carried through the whole church, a deep and lovely bass, and even though he never could shake the image of Frank lying dead drunk and buck-naked, he was sorry that he was so far gone that he couldn’t join the choir when they sang for May, Amazing Grace, it was nice, sure, but Frank Waterson’s big bass voice clear and sober as a judge ringing out, you couldn’t just replace that, and May would have enjoyed it so, and then he was home, eating tray after tray of casseroles and lasagna and deli-platters and hiding in his room drinking cans of Coors and then hiking down to the overpass and wishing for something awful to happen and then he was down in the basement looking at the old cistern and he saw the bricks move, just one at first, just the one, and the light coming from behind the bricks and it only made sense that something else was happening on the other side of the bricks and the field stones and the soil and the sediment and the layers of shale and granite and iron and all that pressure so far down, it only made sense that he’d see the opening when he was down on his knees, that’s how you found your way he remembered as he reached out, tugged on the brick, that’s the only righteous path, to be on your knees, looking in the right direction, and then he pulled the brick free and he was a long string zipping down into the core, either filling up the world or being filled with the world, he couldn’t tell which, and he was light, a particle, a wave, radio, x-ray, gamma, ultra-violet, transverse, longitudnal, electromagnetic, mechanical, a string, a thread, oh May, oh, he was gone
All you have to do is list the words in order, and then divide the second and third word by the first word and everything unfolds with precision. There are only a few basic formulas needed to understand even the most complicated literature. Place the quotient of the first division in the brackets with the square root of the verbs. Pardon? Well, yes, the past, present, and future tenses each have a corresponding ratio, which can make them a little tricky, but it’s no more difficult than learning how to operate your average coffeemaker. Speaking of coffee, do I smell a pot brewing as we speak? Would you mind so terribly if I asked for a cup? Tutorials often sap my strength and I am saved by the mystical properties of the caffeine molecule. Milk only, please. Sweetened coffee sickens me. No, thank you, I ate before I got here. Maybe next time. Homemade, you say? Well, maybe one. Then you must align your figures using Persipicoles’ legendary Corrective Modifier Algorithm. Prepositions are easy but if you miss a single one the structure of your analysis will be unsound. My this cookie is tasty. Old family recipe? Thank your mother for me, please? I don’t think I’ve had a tastier treat in years. And the coffee is certainly hot! My own little cup of the sun. We’ll just set that off to the side for now. You’re really supposed to learn such things in elementary school. How did you miss it? You never discussed the Bozwell’s Grand Unification Theory of Metaphor, Allegory, and Symbolism? How are you supposed to understand even the simplest of texts? See Spot? See Spot run? Run, Spot, run! It’s really language at its most basic level. You’ve never studied Feesley’s Polymorphic Analytical Model of Super-Compressed Lower-case Alliteration nor Murky’s Theory of Associative Symbolic Chiaroscuro in Writs and Decrees (1502-1567)? Have you never read Schilling’s Basic Course in Pre-Cerebral Plotting and Nascent Thematology? This is where No Child Left Behind gets us as a country. One step above the literacy of an amphibian. Do you think I might have another cookie? I need time to think. I’ve never encountered a student as bereft of the most fundamental tools one needs to understand literature—or even conversational English! Ah, thank-you. I grow more famished with every word. I suppose I can lay out the formulas and show you the relevant passages, but you must promise to commit to the work or our efforts will be for naught. It will not be an easy task for you! You shall be challenged, young Kevin, more than you have ever been challenged before. Most, if not all, of the neural pathways we use for these delicate matters have long been assigned to other duties. You’re how old? Fourteen? À la recherche du temps perdu! It’s like asking you to begin learning a foreign language! Imagine not having Latin at your disposal until age fourteen! Pardon? Please, no more Phillip. I cannot bear it. I shall merely pretend that you are fluent in Latin and if you cannot follow my occasional digression in that most nobel of tongues, I shall turn a blind eye to your confusion. A tutor can be asked to contend with only so much. When your mother called the service and requested assistance, I had no idea what I would be stepping into. She said only that you needed help with a paper. What was the book? Oh, yes, The Old Man and the Sea. A short book with a relatively complex formula. Hemingway could be tricky when he wasn’t being pedantic. Your mother told me that you’d really enjoyed the book, but hadn’t done very well on the essay. She said that you declined to accept, let alone elucidate, any of the commonly associated symbols integrated into the text? Is that correct? You suppose so? It’s a yes or no question, Kevin. She told me that you didn’t see Christ in the story at all. She told me that you saw no Hell in the blazing sun over the poor man in the boat? She said that you claimed the fish was but a fish and the old man but an old man and the boat but a boat and sea nothing at all but a sea among many great seas? Is all of this correct? She said you found the novella to be a simple story of an old man beset by old age and physical frailty who confronts the final failure in a lifetime beset with failure, and that he, Hemingway, gave the old man his small share of glory for merely persevering as all men must? This is true as well? My dear boy, it’s clear that the public schools of our great country have failed you in the most devastating fashion. I do not know if I am a man made of the right stuff to halt, let alone reverse the tragic chain of systemic bankruptcy that lead to your C+ grade in Mrs. Hockler’s Freshman English Course, but I am bound by the tutor’s code and my own personal ethos to attempt to be your unerring guide. To work our way through Hemingway, we’ll need Portman’s Calculations By Which the One and Two Syllable Word May Be Transmuted. Then maybe—maybe I say!—we might advance to Lillian Perocci’s Theorem On Textual Compression. I fear that we shall work through this night and many more as well, but I shall not waver in my dedication. Young man, we will get you your B, but such a letter grade will require many, many more cookies.
I’m working this winter with Peter Markus in his online workshop. I had once vowed to never take another workshop again in my life–I’ve done my time in workshops and writing groups and while they’ve been really helpful and have saved me an immense amount of time, I generally feel that I know what I want in my writing without the group feedback. But Markus is such an inventive writer and when the opportunity to work with him arrived, I took the plunge. Why now? There are a lot of reasons for this. Mostly I struggle with the idea of being a writer at all. It’s not a question of talent or skill; I don’t think it’s being egotistic or overconfident to state that I’m a talented writer. One would hope that I have some talent, being that I teach writing and publish short fiction. Talent is overrated anyway. The less talented writer that works hard is going to get to the same place that a talented writer get to, eventually. Of course, there must be some core impulse that guides either writer. I often think that the only difference between the talented writer and any other writer is the talented writer’s willingness to follow his or her imagination as far as it needs to go. All of this is really neither here nor there. Maybe I’m just lost as a writer. I’ve been plugging along for nearly twenty years at this with little to show for my efforts beside hundreds of drafts and a job that allows me to talk about writing. There are many days that I don’t even think of myself as a writer–or not only as a writer. It’s that old doubt spiral. When people ask me what I do, I say I teach. On my tax returns, I’m a teacher. What is a writer, anyway?
I know that asking any writing workshop to answer any of these questions is a little insane, but perhaps it can shake something loose and allow the bucket that holds my fears and doubts to plunge into the creative space in a new way. At the very least, I’ll be able to steal a bunch of his ideas to use in my own classes (feel free to imagine an evil, maniacal laugh if you’d like). Either way, it’s on. I’m writing.
Tonight my eighth grade daughter asked me to look at a story she’d written for class.
What do you want me to look for? I said.
Misspelled words and anything that needs fixing, she said.
And so I did.
Afterwards, I went over my comments with her and she worked on the revision.
She accepted some of my comments and rejected others. In several places she kept phrases that seemed awkward to me but which she really liked.
This is good. This is what I tell my students all the time. Listen to comments but stay true to your creative self. It made me happy when she decided to keep a phrase I suggested she cut. She liked the way it sounded. The story is hers.
Later, my wife said it was nice listening to us talk about her story. She said my daughter sounded excited.
I said, Well, it’s the only thing I’m good at. I’m glad I could help her.
My wife said, I wouldn’t say that at all.
And then she added, slyly, You’re not that good at it.
She was kidding.
Conjunctions: 57 The Kin Issue
I was very excited to see my contributor’s copy of Conjunctions arrive today. Many thanks to the wonderful team that but this issue together. It’s a beautiful book. Many thanks to Bradford Morrow for including my story “Charlie Moon’s Last Performance” amongst stories and poems by so many wonderful writers (including, among others, Joyce Carol Oates, Rick Moody, Karen Russell…and my story follows fiction by Ann Beattie and precedes fiction by Peter Orner). Here are some photos:
Here’s the third and final segment of my short story, “My Father’s Shade.” I’ll start a new story tomorrow. Thanks to everyone for listening and saying nice things. Please send the links or tweet the stories to like minded lovers of short fiction. I’m nearly done revising a story that I think is my favorite story I’ve ever written. I look forward to reading that in the next week or so. Onward!