Peeing and Nothingness – a short

Peeing and Nothingness – an Existentialist Urinary Tract:

I went over to the Koolaid stand thinking ‘Gee, I really don’t like Koolaid and never have‘ , but the Cub Scout kids were out there with their parents in front of the supermarket on a Saturday, and I think I knew someone who was a Cub Scout once or maybe their kid was and anyway, it was a hot day and I was thirsty so one thing led to another so there I was, waiting in line for Koolaid. While I was waiting in line I couldn’t stop thinking about all the time I’ve spent waiting in line and wondering if it all adds up, if you could really get an accounting of all the time you spent doing this or that in life and whether reading that document would be worth the time it took to read it. I’m pretty sure I’d rather not think about it. And it’s only moments, instants accrued, because nothing actually spans time. It’s only flashes of awareness flickering in and out of consciousness. We imagine a continuity but there is none, just a lot of concurrent complexity we mostly filter out.

I can tell you that I was third in line when I got there and then I was fourth because I let this lady go ahead in front of me because she was in a hurry or so she said and her grandson was a Cub Scout although not in this town but “over the hill” and she never let an opportunity to “support a worthy cause” slip by. This made me feel guilty because I have let so many of those opportunities “slip by”. Then she told me about how her grandson’s best friend was recently in a Volvo that was crushed by an overturned big rig that was carrying an enormous amount of dirt and how it took the authorities several hours to dig through all of that to find the boy suffocated and smothered in filth. I didn’t need to hear that, any of that.

I was only waiting in line for Koolaid and I never liked Koolaid anyway.

The lady in front of that lady turned around and wanted to know if that was the same overturned big rig that blocked the Magdalena exit on Monday and yes it was and what a shame. She then offered to let the victim’s best friend’s grandmother go in front of her in line, so now that lady was the next in line and I was still fourth. The person at the front of the line was having a very hard time deciding between cherry and grape Koolaid. Is there really a difference? I wanted to ask. I didn’t though. I kept my big mouth shut because of the big rig and all that dirt and it seemed completely wrong and out of place to say or think anything at all. For a decent interval, at least.

Then I thought how rude it was for that lady to unload that mess onto me and the other people who were merely waiting in line for Koolaid, not at all deserving or expecting to be dumped on like that. I too felt a little smothered by that truck, and I was already sweating. It was hot and it was Saturday and there were Cub Scouts and their parents and suddenly I had to pee. There were already two more people in line behind me, and the first in line still hadn’t made up his mind and I could tell from his body language that the grandmother had spilled her load onto him too, because he stepped aside shaking his head and let her go first.

She quickly snapped up two packages of cherry Koolaid, because for every two you bought you got another one for free and two was the minimum to get that deal. She got her free Koolaid package and dashed right out of there and I remembered suddenly that I’d heard about that over-turned big rig on the news and there had been no casualties, just a traffic jam, and darn if that old lady didn’t know how to work a line. I’ll bet she’d spent a lot less time waiting for stuff than most people did. Her final accounting was going to have a gold star next to that item.

Suddenly I loathed all Cub Scouts and their parents and especially Koolaid which I realized (again) that I had always hated, cherry or grape or whatever color they put on the granules, and I really had to pee, so I gave up my place (where I was third once again) and went into the supermarket. I wandered all the way to the back, past the butcher and the seafood, through the swinging doors and into the smelly hallway where the filthy men’s room was, and immediately found myself in line again. I was third. There were two other guys ahead of me and I’d only been there for about twenty seconds when some old guy came up behind me. Sure enough right away he launched into a story about a prostate and a blockage and emergency surgeries and almost dying like Thomas Jefferson and blood spurting out of his wherever. I didn’t believe a word of it, but before I could even blink I was fourth in line and he was at the front.

They say nice guys finish last. I say they end up waiting a little longer, but what are you going to do? Chances are you can hold it. It’s probably not a big deal. The people who hustle and bustle and get ahead in life, like somebody speeding on the freeway during rush hour, they get ahead of you by maybe twenty seconds. That’s no time at all. You can still pee and get back out there and go on with your life. Not everything is a big deal. Not everything is worth the trouble. I waited a little longer, took my turn and left.

The Last Tailgater – a short story

When he said “let’s make the impossible possible”, it wasn’t a joke. It wasn’t an idle threat, either. He’d been making the impossible possible all too frequently those days. It was an out-an-out freak show at times. He was the one who’d turned the balloon animal into a real animal, after all. Had you ever seen magic like that? The stupid giraffe was even bright red! He would make you see things, not just imagine that you saw them but you really did, right there in front of your face. Hayley saw her long-dead mother. Brittany saw her favorite movie star, and got her autograph, even, and sold it online while she was at it. Haruki was the Truth and what did he use it for? For nothing. Trifles. A sideshow at best.

When they asked him what he wanted to be when he grew up he smiled and beamed into the camera. He said, “I don’t worry about that. I will never grow up”. The world in its entirety lost its shit over that. What could he possibly mean? Would he literally remain a nine year old boy forever? Who, after all, had ever seen his baby pictures. He’d come onto the scene in a flash. He looked the same that day as he had when his first video went wild, the one where he turned the water into orange soda, and the orange soda into seventeen cantaloupes, and then the melons into robots that could recite the pledge of allegiance backwards.

Maybe he meant that although he would age like a normal person, he would keep that same childlike wondrous spirit, those big brown eyes, that shock of black bangs falling halfway across his face. Of course that’s what he meant, not that he would die and be reborn, again, exactly the same, over and over again, like he did.

Was he even a person? When they cut him, he did bleed. When they hit him, he bruised. And they did cut, and they did hit. Not at first, of course. It took a while for the audience to turn against him, to change utterly from devoted followers to unstoppable stalkers. He taunted them at that.

“Come on,” he teased in that half-African accent that maybe was part of his routine, being at first full Japanese, and then choosing countries at random around the world in which to reincarnate, returning whole and in the flesh no matter how or where they’d executed the little brat. He was not insensitive to pain. Oh no, he suffered. That was certain. When they burned him alive in Singapore they first attached electrodes to his skull to measure the pain response. It was literally off the charts. And when they whipped him to death in Saudi Arabia you could hear the wailing from clear across the planet.

He overdid it like that. Kind of a show-off, he was. What he liked best was making the impossible possible and the audience could never resist. He had his own TV show whenever he wanted, at a moment’s notice, location spurious and spontaneous. You never knew when he was going to be doing it, or what he was going to do. When he raised an entire army out of the desert, twenty thousand mostly young men, Iraqis and Iranians who had died in the midst of murdering each other, and he had them wordlessly set about burying one another alive until the very last one was forced to do it to himself. Meanwhile Haruki narrated, and he told us exactly what he thought of every one of us. Phonies and fakers. Liars and takers. He enjoyed most of all telling us how God preferred the thinnest, weakest blade of grass to the best and most beautiful of humans. God had had enough of us long since, he said. We didn’t like that.

Or maybe it was the time he turned all the pretty young girl into ugly old hags and guaranteed that was their future. He didn’t spare the boys at that. He added fifty pounds right around their waists, and peeled off most of the hair on their heads. He did all this while chortling his trademark hysterical hyena-like laugh. How we hated the sound of his voice. How we despised those big brown eyes. He never did grow old but stuck around to torment us forever. He transformed the music of the world, detuning our ears so it all sounded awful. He modified our taste buds so we loathed all food. He re-arranged the colors we could see. Making the impossible possible indeed.

He took requests, and laughed at them. We only wanted him to leave us alone. With all that power, with all the initial hope evaporated, we only wanted him to stop, to change things back to the way they were, to change us back, to let us be. He said evolution couldn’t wait. It had to get rid of us once and for all, for the sake of all other living things. We begged him to do it, then, if that was the only way we could be free of that petty, horrifying miracle worker and all his crimes.

“Tell you what,” he challenged us. “Ignore me. Go ahead. I dare you. It’s the only thing that can save you from me. Pay me no attention. Don’t watch my TV specials. Don’t look at my videos. Don’t read about me in your articles and books. Ignore me completely and then I’ll go away. I’ll declare un-victory. I’ll rewind time and you can have it all back, just like you say you want, but you have to ignore me completely for one year. That’s all.”

We couldn’t do it. Not even one of us. Of all the nine billion people left standing on the planet, not a single one was able to avoid Haruki for even a month. Forget about a year. He was the only thing on anybody’s mind and every day, it was all we thought and all we said, and we knew it was our doom and there was nothing we could do.

He’s supposed to be on again tonight at ten. That’s what I heard. He’d been hacked to pieces by racist coal miners in Pennsylvania, and popped right back up again in the Argentinian pampas, where he promised to show us something truly remarkable, something amazing. We don’t have to worry about what channel he’ll be on. He will be on all the channels, all the television, all the radio, all the social networks, all the chat rooms. He will be in all the movie theaters, broadcast live on all the subways, all the airplanes, all the buses. You can see him on your smart watch. You can see him on your phone. You don’t have to wait in line. You have a front row seat. He is everywhere,right in front of you and beside you, in your car, and in the car ahead of you, and in the one that’s creeping up behind. What’s he going to do next? I hope he makes us all feel special. We only live for him.

 

(I apologize for this. Donald Trump made me do it!)

On Proof Being in Puddings and so forth

Some character or other in Jonathan Lethem’s “Motherless Brooklyn” repeats the phrase “the proof is in the pudding” as the ultimate guide to authenticity, to knowing that something is genuine, real. We want our fiction to resonate with reality too, and “Motherless Brooklyn” is one of those novels that strains so hard to capture the world you can almost hear its jaws snapping.

I read two novels this weekend, one of which felt true, and one which felt like counterfeit to me. Oddly enough – or not at all – the true one was the farthest from realistic. “Concrete Island” by J.G. Ballard is allegory, straight up, and makes no bones about it, even references Robinson Crusoe directly as if to say, ‘yes I know exactly what I’m doing here’. A superficial waste of a man is speeding in his superficial waste of a car along the “motorway” and careens off it, sliding down the embankment and crashing to a halt amidst a pile of similarly wrecked and abandoned cars. Surrounded by steepness above which loom the elevated highways, he is trapped, in the middle of the city, in this ‘island’.

Ballard tosses in a few general details, not the names of the roads, not the names of places or buildings other than London. The only fact we know is that it is London. He doesn’t cement the story in time either. It’s sufficiently modern. There are cars and motorways and office buildings in the distance. There are lights and planes overhead sometimes. He describes only the wasteland in great detail, the ruins of a a neighborhood that was decimated to make room for the roads, the tall weeds, the rubble, the garbage, the piles of discarded tires. This is the landscape in which we make ourselves at home.

By contrast, “Motherless Brooklyn” is replete with names and places. Every neighborhood in Brooklyn and some in Queens are given appropriate shout-outs. Every kind of shop, every kind of ethnicity, every single variation of new york underbelly cliche finds its pigeonhole in this recipe collection of nostalgia. It’s enough to make you cry uncle. What stopped me in my tracks was a mere detail, the fact that the mobster handed out twenty dollar bills gave me pause, because I was the age of the character at that time and at that place and I know very well that twenty dollars is seriously overpaid. I made two dollars an hour in those days as a teenager. Twenty for a couple hours of moving boxes? I didn’t buy it.

I didn’t buy it, and I didn’t by the Tourette syndrome, which gave the author an excuse to pretend to write like James Joyce in Finnegan’s Wake. “Look at me playing with words! I can make the spin around and do tricks!” Drove me nuts.

In the end it seemed to me the opposite of proof being in the pudding. Instead, the pudding was a mess of reasonable doubt. I kept finding myself saying “I doubt it” like the old truth and dare game we used to play as kids. I don’t believe it. You’re making it up. This is bullshit.

When you find yourself disbelieving a novel, it’s an odd feeling. Of course it’s not real. It’s obviously and self-evidently not real. It’s a novel for heaven’s sake! But I believed a lot more in “Concrete Island”. I never found myself saying, “nah, who would do that?” because clearly Robert Maitland would. He did! That guy was spiraling down so fast! It worked for me. And I want to believe. That’s why I read fiction. I want to be convinced and go somewhere else and be there. I don’t want to be pulled out of it by false notes and clumsy pretension and clunky execution. If you’re going to build a world, build a real one, where reality is not measured by any yardsticks that come from outside of the story or outside of the characters but is only generated from within, from the heat of its own internal combustion.

 

The Look of the Place – a short

I was nineteen when I should have died. I say that now in light of everything that’s happened since, and because of the look on the face of the boy who could have pulled the trigger. It was the look of a place, not just a person. It happened somewhere far away – or at least it’s far away from where I am right now. I won’t tell you where. I wouldn’t want to deprive you of the pleasure of experiencing it for yourself. It’s one thing to read a fictional account, another thing to go there and see the look of the place for yourself. The look where everything is telling you in the clearest of possible terms to go away right now and never come back again ever.

I should not have been there in the first place. If destiny is the path you’re on, then destiny can be mistaken sometimes too. It is not immune to the conditions of existence. Sometimes destiny screws up and there you are in the wrong place at the wrong time. You know it’s true. I don’t believe in the chain of events. I am in fact against, in principle, the laws of cause and effect. This opposition doesn’t do me any good, but I take my stand nonetheless. One thing may or may not lead to another. It’s possible that one thing and another might collide quite randomly instead. This is what happened to me.

It wasn’t really a trigger the boy could have pulled. It was a knife, and he did pull it. And there wasn’t just one boy. There were two of them. And they were not alone. There were two men too. Another time it was just two boys. And another time it was just one man. And one time it was an actual trigger that belonged to a machine gun that was cocked against my skull. One time it was a group of kids, no knives or guns, just hands and feet. All of them conspiring to send the message of the place, wearing the look, and saying the words in a foreign language.

I was just passing through. This is the excuse of the innocent bystander. I say it and immediately I want to take it back, because it sounds like one thing leading to another. I was one place, I was going somewhere else, and I was just passing through along the way. The truth is I really screwed up. I made mistakes. It wasn’t just me. Other people were involved. People I trusted when I had no reason to. At nineteen I didn’t understand that you just can’t go around trusting people or believing what they say. People will hurt you for the hell of it and they don’t give a shit. They stand around and laugh. They say what the hell. They say fuck him, who gives a damn? Some people at nineteen know these things.

Apparently I didn’t, and yet I’d been on my own awhile by then. I wasn’t just some rookie or rube that wandered off and got lost in the big bad city. I knew my way around. No one could tell me anything. Do somebody a favor, they will owe you one. Give and get. Put a deposit on faith and get a bonus award on credit. That’s why I would do the things I did. Help a poor ex-leper. Take some money to the bank. Help an old lady cross the street.

This lady had warned me once and did I listen? No. She had the look of the place and I didn’t even see it. I didn’t come to recognize that look until a long time after the facts. The look was the last bus leaving just before you got there. It was the blank page on the passport where the rubber stamp should have been. It was the ticket home waiting in a suitcase in a closet in a city far away. It was the look of railroad passengers ducking beneath the seats while the bullets shattered windows and the workers fell on the tracks outside in the rain. It was a jail cell they charged you for, top dollar.

Listen. When they offer to sell you cocaine, and you don’t know who they are, you should probably not say yes. Or when it’s two kids with switchblades hanging out in the hallway you should probably stay inside. Or when somebody wants you to cash in counterfeit bills at the National Bank, you should probably just say no. Or when they bring the gun up to your face and politely ask for all the money in the drawer, I would give it to them, really. Does anyone have to be told these things? Well, me for one. At least when I was nineteen.

The look of the place was something like laughing at a joke that isn’t funny. You laugh to make the jokester feel stupid, to make him know how funny it wasn’t, you laugh with hostility and pain. The look of the place is to shut you up and to put you down, to chase you out and make sure you don’t come back. It’s the way the place has of killing you without the bother of actual death. The way that children kill each other every day with the little hurts they do, and the way that grownups around the water cooler at the office or at the picnic in the park or on the phone late at night or in the privacy of your thoughts. The look of the place is the door that closes behind you. It’s the person you used to know.

When I should have died, I didn’t really know what was happening. I guess I was too surprised. I felt the knife at my throat. I felt the gun at my head. I felt the shock of the moment, but only for a moment. After that I froze. I remember walking away in a daze, every time. I remember shaking for a long time afterwards. I remember a sense of disbelief, that such a thing could have happened, to me of all people, and there of all places. Then I forget, and for a long time go on, from one thing to another, one day to the next, in the chain of events, in the cause and effect, until something changes, and suddenly I see the look of the place, and it takes me right back.

I saw it today, in the face of a friend. It was all about saying goodbye.

Dreams and the Self

Well, that’s a pretentious title for a blog entry that will come nowhere near living up to it, but it encompasses the two sub-subjects I felt like scribbling about.

I’ve had essentially two professional lives, both lasting a couple of decades more or less. The first was as a bookseller, the second as a computer programmer, but when I dream I am almost always a bookseller. Although it’s been more than twenty years since I stood behind a cash register, yet there I am, night after night, as a stream of customers approach and ask me the usual bookstore questions – where is this, what is that, what do I want, who am I and who the hell do you think you are?

Why am I always a clerk and never an engineer in my dreams? Does it really have any significance? Does it tell me who I truly am, who the hell I think I am, or are my dreams merely stuck at a certain age, in a certain locale, like a prisoner in time held captive by some mysterious bond of dark energy or matter?

Then, my fiction writing career has also been in two parts – the first in my twenties and the second in my fifties, spanned between by a long bout of debilitating illness which prevented me from doing any such thing. In the first “bout” of writing, I was mainly concerned with a hyper-realism of poverty and depression, displaying itself in such novels and stories as Cashier World and Phantom of the Mall (* both titles since completely rewritten and re-purposed). The second bout has been considerable more light-hearted, since having been through a sort of hell of both body and mind I’ve had no desire to look back or go anywhere near that kind of pit again.

In my twenties I wrote maybe 30 novels of varying lengths, and in my fifties another 40 or so (mostly shorter ones), and yet, in my dreams, as far as I remember, until last night, I was never a writer.

In last night’s dream I was writing (and re-writing) a story about two immigrants. They were not immigrants to a particular country, or from a particular country, but just from Country A into Country B. They were (in the final revision, if not originally) a brother and a sister. The sister had immigrated successfully. It had not been easy, but she had documentation, she had legal status. She was okay. The brother, though, had no paperwork and was detained, held in captivity by the government and intended for deportation. But where to? Since he had no documentation, the government did not know where to send him to. The sister knew where he was from, but she was unable to prove who he was, or even that he was her brother, that they were family. What proof could there be, outside of some sort of genetic testing which, in the dream, did not exist.

I have been taking the year off from writing, since my last book was so satisfying to me that I felt I could never write something that good again. I recently realized that quality has never been the point. It matters, sure, in some respects, if the thing is good or not, but what has always mattered more is just the act of writing, the fun of it, the process, the giving it a go.

I don’t know if I will write this one, the one I dreamed about, or some variation of it. Aspects do intrigue me. Dreams and the Self. How do you prove who you are. How do you prove your family. How do you resolve an essential unsolvable situation.

The problem for the sister is – maybe she could go back to Country A and find the documentation to prove her brother is who they say he is, but should she risk it? It was not easy getting into Country B in the first place – there was no end of bureaucracy and corruption and danger – so might she not end up in exactly the same situation as her brother, or worse? And what if she cannot get her hands on such papers? What is she willing to risk? What is he willing to let her?

My heart would not let her try, but it would also ache for her not trying. I would need some other angle in order to go through with it. Is there anyone else? Is there any other way? I don’t know. In the dream, there was not, and it left me right at that point.

Probably the dream is only telling me that soon it will be time to start writing again, that the only way to resolve such a roadblock is to start somewhere and then keep going, which is the only way I know how to write.

 

Today’s Reality is Tomorrow’s Fiction

Science fiction has it backwards, and always has. It’s never been a forward-thinking genre despite it’s reputations and aspirations. It has merely extrapolated from the known, and just like the saying – wherever you go, there you are – so too technology and innovation always end up implementing new ways to do the same old things. Whatever can be said will be used against someone in a court of law somewhere, some time. Whatever information can be collected, will come in handy to those in power. Social media is basically breadcrumbs leading the authorities to your doorstep – ask any one who showed up at to an Arab Spring gathering in Tahrir Square, or in Turkey just this morning. Wouldn’t it be nice if people changed, but they don’t much, do they? How are we enjoying the latest recurrence of race-baiting fascism coming about just as the ‘greatest generation’ that won that last great European war are dying off?

How long do you think it’s going to take for some variation of Pokemon Go to find its way into the hands of “thought police” who will be able to “augment reality” by adding yellow stars on phone screens to AI-identified members of any designated subgroup, or before vigilantes can go around easily identifying registered sex offenders (for one example) because that data is collected and the problem with data is who has access to it. On the one hand you might think positive thoughts like ‘hey someday “they” will be able to identify and interpret the cluster-fuck of signs and signals surrounding some pigheaded moron who is about to go on a murderous rampage’, but when that day comes “they” will certainly find a way to use the algorithm to instead frame whomever the fuck they want to.

So if you want to write some science fiction, just take some new technological fad and add it to the wretched disgrace of recent human history and your job is pretty much all done.

The writer’s fortune

The Rivendale Review

man writing - gustave caillebot - 1885So, you’ve written a story. It might be a short story or a long story, or even a very long novel length story, and you’re thinking it’s the best of you, that others have only to read it in order to see the world differently, to be transformed, dazzled, blown away by this original idea, by this new talent, the talent that you are. It will be the vindication of everything you’ve ever worked for, it will be a poke in the eye for those who told you you were wasting your time, that you would never be published. But you’re also thinking it’s unfortunate, that after sending it out to magazine editors , agents, and publishers for years and years and years, it looks like the naysayers were right: you can’t get your story published anywhere.

Still on the upside, no one’s actually said you can’t write, that you…

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