Sunday, July 18, 2010

Chapter 5: The Plot Twists

At home, Jacob trotted into the kitchen and lapped loudly at his water bowl until his muzzle was dripping with wet. Sylvia turned on the TV, watched five minutes of fluff on the local news, and flicked it off.
“I’m going to bed,” she announced and headed into the bedroom to change. 
Jacob, still panting from his night’s travels, followed her, hopped onto Colin’s side of the bed, and sprawled across the sheets that had been clean.
Colin stood in the doorway leaning against the doorframe and watching Sylvia disrobe. She took a long flannel nightgown out of the dresser, pulled off her shirt and pants, then turned toward the bed and away from Colin to remove her bra. 
Colin, perhaps overly tired, expected her to turn around, showing her breasts to him, and smile.
She didn’t; instead, she pulled the thick nightgown over her head, and crawled into the bed next to their dog.  She settled into the pillows, into the comforter, and exhaled loudly as Jacob sidled up beside her prone body.
“Some night,” she said.
“So you’re . . .” Colin paused. He didn’t want to say the wrong thing as he tended to.  He didn’t want to project an image of himself to Sylvia that was either too entitled or too needy.  He just wanted her to realize his disappointment. It wasn’t working. He could tell. “Bunnies . . .?” he stammered.
“I know. Thank goodness Jacob didn’t find one. I’m not sure I could manage cleaning such a mess tonight.”
“No,” Colin said, “as in fuck like.”
“Oh yes. I’d forgotten.”
“It’s just . . .”
“I’m sorry, Colin. I’m exhausted.  And this little beasty,” she said as she scratched behind Jacob’s flopping ears, “gave me a raging headache.”
“I understand,” Colin said, even though he wasn’t sure he did.  Still, Colin thought, the conversation was over. There was nothing more to be said, nothing that could be done. 
And within five minutes, both Jacob and Sylvia had fallen into faraway lands of snores.
He could, he supposed, take care of his frustrations himself. 
He could turn to his own fantasias and continue the writing that had begun with what he’d assumed was great promise but may have been, in retrospect, delusion. He could figure out an appropriate price for the battered clarinet he’d kept from much more awkward days as a member in his junior high school’s marching band and then post an ad on Craigslist. Or, he could look for a job.
He decided to write.  He reread the first chapter he’d written and found himself fighting the impulse to dismiss all he’d managed to write as thinly veiled autobiography. Worse, he realized that the inclusion of a selkie, even if only for a paragraph or two, in all likelihood, limited his audience.  How many people could possibly know what the hell a selkie was? And of those who did not, how many would bother looking it up?  Worse, he realized that the pacing was all wrong. Nothing, aside from psychological development of his protagonist had yet happened. This, alas, was turning into a character-driven story. It was turning literary, and Colin had no idea, other than beginning Andrea’s novel, what to do next.    
But there was something about Andrea that he liked, almost adored.  He was curious to see what she would do next, whether or not her sudden entrance into a world where she made her own stories, rather than replaying and reliving those that were handed to her, could sustain itself. He wanted to know whether her nascent efforts would flail into failure as his so often did—as his were doing now.
Maybe, Colin reasoned with himself, tonight was just not the night.  Too much had happened. His mind, like the stomach of a child who’d ridden one too many roller coasters after one too many ice cream floats, felt uncertain if stability could ever exist again. He gave up on the idea of writing, opened another browser window, puttered around MySpace, and then checked his email. 
Nestled between Viagra spam, a “job offer” that probably came from a Nigerian cybercafé, a brief, pleading note from his ever-worried father that was signed with a verse from Revelations, and a reminder from his friend Rick that Colin had promised to feed Rick’s cat while he was on vacation in Tokyo was the first comment on Commercial Novel. Colin took a deep breath, as if to steady himself before opening the message that he couldn’t quite bear to read. He replied to Rick’s email instead:
Rick, he wrote.
It’s on my calendar, man, but don’t forget about the 5 bucks you promised for making sure your cat don’t die.

Colin’s stomach churned as he pressed send. Then, before he could talk himself out of it, he opened the comment message:

hey. this is a pretty cool idea so far its all wrong tho. these people are useless and should just get jobs or something.  i know its hard and your hurtin tho so im donatin like 50 cents but sh*t man you gotta make us feel. like what if that michael guy got shot and was like couldn’t really work or something? then that andrea would have a real reason to lay in bed all day and then id believe it and then id pullin for the girl like rocky. yeah that’s my suggestion michael should get shot.

Colin couldn’t believe it. He reread the message twice. It was, he knew, an awful suggestion that violated what little plot development had already been established. He could see such a twist leading to nothing less than sentimentality of the worst kind—the sort you see in a rejected after-school-special script. It would be virtually impossible, Colin thought, to build any legitimate emotional resonance after Michael—whose character was little more than a skeletal sketch—came up lame.
Colin fought the temptation to punch his computer screen. He could feel tiny hairs on the back of his neck raise like a razorback’s. He snorted and shoved himself away from his desk. He paced the room, brushing his fingers through his hair, mumbling to himself about art, integrity, politics, and the manufactured whims of the masses. He told himself that he was better than this, that all he needed was a little more time. He felt like kicking the television. He felt like punching a hole in his desk. He felt like shattering each and every one of his possessions—all the pointless knickknacks he’d bought before the unfathomable became fathomable. He pictured himself descending into the garage, taking the tin of gasoline meant for mowing his lawn, and splashing the caustic liquid up and down the flowerbeds edged against the house. He pictured the house and everything it held crackling, buckling as support beams popped, sparked and the glowing flames writhed upwards into the rafters and onto the roof. That, he told himself, would be a world he could believe in, a world where violence was beautiful, a world where match led inexorably to flame. The mortgage would ignite as well, leaving him with little, other than his wife, his dog, his car to care for.
But Sylvia was sleeping. And he didn’t want to wake her.
He would do it. He had to. It was a promise, like his vows to Sylvia, like their adoption of Jacob, like their damned mortgage, that he had made. He would do everything that he could to keep the commenter happy, but he would do it on his terms, because—he realized slowly—there was little else in his life that he could still do on his own terms.
Colin sat back down and began to write.   
That night, the selkie swam through Andrea’s dreams, and Andrea’s dreams became those of the selkie. She saw through her eyes, felt currents of chill depth caress, pull, and push her small body down, down into depths illuminated from below by scaled bioluminescent bodies, bubbling fissures of steam and heat.
It was a fitful night’s sleep. Andrea woke certain that she was alone.          

Friday, July 16, 2010

Chapter 4: Silences

Colin turned back to the yard and gave it a final once over. He heard the front door slam shut and imagined Sylvia standing in the middle of cul-de-sac turning left, right, left, scanning each horizon for the smallest burst of movement, the slightest hint of Jacob galloping after some ineffable scent. He could hear her calling the dog’s name—the summer light dimmed—“Jacob! Jacob!” with the simple lilting melody of a child’s song. He peaked under and behind the peony bushes, the holly, the yew, searching out the random holes that Jacob had dug in search of moles. The sun and its last rays of amber and orange slipped behind the gas station behind Mrs. Burleigh’s yard. Then, at the fence line, Colin saw the hole at the edge of a blooming pink peony. It slipped beneath their fence and into the adjoining yard.
Colin hopped the fence and surveyed their neighbor’s yard. A rusting swing set—a relic of the Burleigh’s long-departed children—caught one last glint of the summer sun. It was getting harder and harder to see. The song of Jacob’s name grew fainter and fainter as Sylvia picked a direction and followed it. Colin scanned the yard, checked around the above-ground pool and the raised flowerbeds sprouting the green stalks of carrots and the twisting vines of tomatoes. There was no movement, other than his own.
Out of the corner of his eye, Colin saw the slightest twitch of movement near a woodpile. He rushed over to the drying firewood and peered into the gaps. Tiny white teeth bared in threat. A bright pink tail. A possum. Jacob was long gone.
 He scanned the far edge of the property. In the corner between two raised flowerbeds, he found a kink in the chain-link fence he’d never noticed. He looked over the fence into the next yard. A bird alighted in the middle of the lawn.
Colin was exasperated. Night had made his eyes, without the aid of streetlamps, almost useless. He went to the fence near the backdoor and looked up. There were no lights on. Mrs. Burleigh was out, perhaps making a No Trump bid at her weekly Bridge tournament at the Senior Center or strolling through the aisles of a local discount department store. Colin wondered, momentarily, whether or not she owned a gun, and tried to think of a suitable explanation for his trespassing if someone passing through the neighborhood called the police. Colin emerged into the sudden light of the streetlamp-lit cul-de-sac where he saw Sylvia turning in place as if she had no idea what her next move ought to be.  
“Any luck?” Colin asked.
“No. Where have you been? It’s dark.”
“I followed a hole into Mrs. Burleigh’s yard. I think Jacob may have taken that route this time.”
“Was he in her yard?”
“No, there’s a kink in the fence. He went through her yard, but we do have a direction now.”
“He could be halfway across town by now.”
“Well, what do you want to do?”
“If we have to keep looking for him, it might be a really long night. I need some coffee.”
“Do you want me to make some?”
“No. Grab the car keys. We can drive up to the gas station and grab some of those fake cappuccinos. Then we can drive around the neighborhood and hopefully spot him.”
“I think the odds are against that working,” Colin said. “You said yourself he could be in Peoria by now.”
“I need some coffee. Period. What were you doing when he got away, anyhow?”
“Fine. Let’s give it a shot.”
Colin dashed inside and grabbed the keys to the late model subcompact they’d financed when both of them had jobs, before the unthinkable became, not just possible, but fact. They had bought the car new, at the height of $3.00-a-gallon gas prices, when the demand for smaller cars had shoppers looking to downgrade from SUVs, before the collapse of the auto industry was propped up by government incentives and subsidies. Worse, Colin had irrationally decided, after some slight pressure from Sylvia that they both “deserved” their first brand new car, so he ignored the low-mileage, used lots.
Now, the subcompact with its hefty monthly payments, was worth several thousand dollars less than they owed, but Colin couldn't help but think of it as his baby, as a symbol of what almost was, of how their lives might have been if they’d worked in different industries, lived in a different city, or been more pragmatic in their decision of undergraduate majors. Colin slid into the driver side seat, twisted up the air conditioning dial to full, and tried—as he did every time he entered the car—to assure himself that they wouldn’t repossess his car if he could somehow manage to keep the payments at a month behind, and then tried to juggle through the bills that could wait this month before realizing that this could be the month where his machinations finally amounted to nothing.
“Come on, what are you waiting for?” Sylvia asked.
Colin started the car and drove as if on autopilot to the nearest gas station, trying the entire time to focus on driving, on watching for a dash of movement in a neighbor’s yard, while Sylvia, peered out the window, humming a 60s-era pop song to calm herself.

After they’d fueled up on coffee, they drove around the neighborhood, circling their own block and several adjoining blocks for half an hour in relative silence. Only the sound of the air conditioning and Sylvia’s humming—interrupted occasionally by exclamations of “Jacob!”—filled the car’s enclosed cabin. Colin let his mind wander with the pulse of streetlamp light on the windshield: What if we never find him? That will save us a few dollars. I’m not sure if Sylvia could deal with losing our dog right now. I’m not sure if I could deal with losing our dog right now. Perhaps it would be for the best. He’d nuzzle up to a family with an acre of land on the edge of the city, offering the sadness of his eyes as evidence of his perpetual need of love. He’d hunt rabbits. He’d be taken to better vets.
Colin pushed the more horrible what ifs away from his thought and refused to entertain less comforting possibilities.
“Jacob!” Sylvia screamed before returning to her humming.
The car crawled forward over all-too familiar streets. Oaks rustled. Lights flicked off in the houses they passed. Colin spotted a deer stalking the edge of a lot that had been for sale for 6 months.
He pointed. “That’s probably what Jacob’s after.”
“That deer. Didn’t you see it?”
“No.” They sank back into a semi-silence that was growing increasingly uncomfortable for Colin. The longer they rolled forward along the neighborhood’s empty streets, the more it felt like a rebuke. I hadn’t been paying enough attention, he thought. I should have made sure the fence line was more secure. I should have walked Jacob more. I should have trained Jacob more, so that he would come, immediately, when called. I should have been able to find a fucking job.
Colin wanted, desperately, to break the silence, but had no idea what to say. He wanted not to think about now. He wanted, deep within his body, to think about the novel. He wanted to fall into the rhythm of making, to clamber, somehow, away from this rhythm of endless search.
Sylvia yawned and continued her humming.
“Maybe,” Colin said, “we should call it a night. Jacob will probably find someone to give him food and water for the night. Or maybe he’ll find a dumpster with a cache of chicken bones. Remember, he was a stray. He should be ok.”

“Stop the car!”
Colin slammed the breaks. They both jolted forward.
“What? What is it?” He asked.
Sylvia pointed out the window. “Jacob.”
There he was, head down, tail up, sniffing violently around a batch of gardenias at a corner house.
Colin flicked on the hazards, hopped out of the car, and jaunted uphill into the yard. “Jacob! Heel!”
Jacob continued sniffing vigorously. Colin heard the other car door slam. Sylvia was right behind him. He could use her.
“Jacob! Heel!” The dog stopped and sniffed more vigorously at a particular spot in the flowerbed. His paws arched up and he began digging. Trails of near black soil shot onto the otherwise immaculate lawn of this neighbor they’d never met.
Colin charged at Jacob. “No! You sit!”
The dog juked one direction and then the next, darting past Colin in the direction of Sylvia.
Sylvia cooed at him. “Hey, buddy. You hungry? Want a treat? Some water?”
Panting, he stopped, looked at her and ambled over near her legs. She leaned down and picked him up gently.
“Someone had a big adventure, tonight,” Sylvia said.
“We should crate him when we get home.”
“He won’t understand, and I really don’t care anymore. Let’s just go home and have that drink.”
“And then what?”
“Oh, hell, I don’t care. We can talk about your novel or fuck like bunnies. Let’s just get Jacob home.”

Friday, July 9, 2010

Chapter 3: Crisis, of the First Part

“I don’t understand it.” Colin poured his first cup of coffee into his favorite dancing monkey mug and popped it into the microwave. “It just isn’t working.”
Sylvia, who had been up for three hours before him, sat at the kitchen table sipping her coffee slowly and looked up. Her eyes were red.
“We have to talk,” she said.
“I’ve put too much time into this novel, and for what?”
“Colin . . .”
“You’re right. I haven’t put that much time into it. The thing is, I expected more of response. I’m selling something you can’t get from anywhere else. I’m selling people their dreams, or at least a reasonable facsimile, thereof. Maybe people . . .”
“Colin . . .” she interrupted.
The microwave beeped. Colin sat down across from Sylvia, took a too-hot sip from his coffee, and continued, “. . . maybe people don’t need those sorts of dreams anymore. Maybe they’re really happy having their own stories handed to them, and it’s just something I don’t understand. Maybe what people really want is to putter around in whatever six-cylinder sedan Madison Avenue says will boost your libido and the libido of those around you. Maybe people are actually happy having their lives handed to them and letting their sofa’s ratio of cushion-to-ass determine how well they sleep at night. Maybe I don’t really know what people want or how to give someone a moment that will have half as much meaning to them as a BLT. Maybe, I just don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. Maybe . . .”
“Colin, slow down.”
Colin took another sip of his coffee. It was cool enough. “Maybe the message is just muddled. I just need the project to resonate with one person and for that one person to make a donation. No one wants to be the first in anything. Sure, we’re all like, look at that, first man on the moon, but maybe Armstrong actually got the short straw. Maybe NASA figured if anyone’s expendable, it’s that guy.  But hell, so far, I’ve only gotten like 25 hits, and half of those were me editing the damned thing. All I have to do is convince people—people who might not otherwise stick around long enough to read an entire novel, that this is different, somehow worth reading, that the novel will morph and change to their dreams, that this string of sentences and fragments is something worth paying attention to, that, at the very least, it can take them away from themselves.
“Maybe they aren’t listening.” She glared at him.
“I’m glad you understand.”
“I’m not sure I do, but you’re not listening. We need to talk.”
“Sorry. It’s just . . .”
“Sorry. I know, I know. What did you want to talk about?”
“My unemployment ended.”
Although Colin had known this moment could come any day, he was still unprepared for the news. He’d somehow managed to work up enough self-delusion to carry him through the first blow of his own unemployment ending a month earlier. He still had managed to believe—somehow—that Sylvia’s unemployment would last at least through the 4th of July holiday and that the Democrats would break the Republican filibuster—either by making some paltry concession on immigration, by changing the Senatorial rules to eliminate the need for a supermajority, or by simply shaming their Republican colleagues into a momentary retreat. Yet, here the news was, tightening around his neck like a boa constrictor. He struggled, momentarily, for breath. He sought out any of the words that had, a few moments before, poured from his mouth in an unceasing stream. He could find none.
Jacob, their beagle, having woken from his second mid-afternoon nap, trotted into the kitchen and stretched a long stretch, then sat directly in front of Colin, staring intently up at him. “The dog needs out. Let’s talk outside.”
They followed Jacob outside and watched as he began to sniff the perimeter of the yard frantically and trotted along the fence line as if he might still track down whatever woodland creature had left behind its scent. Colin kept watching him while Sylvia gazed down at the sun-wilted ménage of spiderwort, calla lilies, dandelions, and hosta that passed for a flowerbed.
“We really do need to do something about those flowers,” she said.
“Do you think someone would buy them?”
“Not helping.”
“Well, we have to do something. How are we on money?”
 “Let’s just say you can put off that vacation to Afghanistan. I have to check, but we’re not making next month’s mortgage without a minor miracle.”
Jacob had found a place to go in the middle of the yard and was looking up at Colin with eyes that almost seemed guilty. Colin turned away, tried to focus his attention on Sylvia, like he thought she deserved.
“Or a job.”
“Right, a minor miracle.”
“Seriously, Sylvia, we should sell something else.
“Your soul?”
“Too late.”
“You got a raw deal then.”
“Didn’t we all? Let’s just sell everything. Be done with possessions. Move to a commune in West Virginia.”
“West Virginia?”
“I like to be different.”
“I kind of like it here, Colin. I’d kind of like to keep our house.”
Colin sighed. “I know. . .”
“Let’s go inside,” Sylvia suggested, “we can have a drink and . . .”
“Look at porn?”
“No, you perv. We can relax and then start making lists with a slightly calmer mind. We can brainstorm ideas for what to sell.”
“We can also try to come up with other ways to make money.”
“Like your novel idea?”
“Yeah. Fine. Let’s have that drink and talk and list.” Colin turned toward the yard and screamed, “Jacob! Jacob!”
He didn’t hear anything other than Sylvia opening the back door and heading inside. He whistled. “Jacob! Jacob!” Nothing.
He walked out into the yard, peered behind the overgrown peony bushes and under the untrimmed holly shrubs and yew. Jacob was nowhere to be found.
Colin opened the door and screamed, “Sylvia! I can’t find Jacob!” 

Monday, July 5, 2010

Chapter 2: Nesting

It was a night very much like this one. Andrea Parker could not get comfortable in her bed. She tossed and turned on the well-worn guest-room mattress, trying to angle her side into one of the few remaining spots that wasn’t compromised by distended springs. Every thirty minutes or so, she could hear Michael, her long-term boyfriend, banging about in the kitchen in search of another snack to, as he said on countless defensive occasions, stave off the emptiness of not staving off emptiness with pornography or a new video game. Andrea turned over again, clutching her pillow and tried, as she had in childhood, telling herself her own bedtime story, letting the images blaze across her closed eyelids until the faint glow of the nightlight became cragged rock, pebbled shores, a constant clapping of foamed surf, a bank of fog, a fisherman with netting dangling at his side as he plodded toward an unmoving shape, supine at the edge of the sea.
It was a woman, naked and wet with the salty sea. Her auburn hair was matted, clumped. Her pale skin, a field of goose bumps. It was a story Andrea had told herself a thousand times from the cusp of sleep. The fisherman would find her, cover her with his nets, hold her into warmth, and carry her from the violent shore to the edge of a field overlooking the sea and over the threshold of his small stone cottage. He would let her sleep through storm, curled in netting and wool beside the soft crackle of the cottage’s hearth. She would remember nothing when she woke save the taste of leek and salmon from the stew he would spoon feed her. She would struggle for words, until a late night when his name whistled through her lips like birdsong. Piecemeal swaths of Gaelic would cover her like netting until she mastered the word ngrá and let it drape over her, covering what was missing, hiding the loss of something, something like skin.  
Soon, her belly would grow. Soon, there would be children. Soon, they would move further inland, buying one or two sheep from the parents of the children their children played with. Soon, there would be stews and pies that she would prepare, sweating over a larger hearth. All would be love, until the night, that single night, the night that always came, when she would wake to sound of her eldest daughter sifting through her father’s trunk, and she—mother, wife—would nearly know what was missing. That morning, her daughter would show her a ragged net and a pelt of fur she’d found at the very bottom of the trunk, locked within another box. She would take it from her daughter and lift that softest of pelts to her face. She would hold that pelt to her cheek, feeling—though water was nowhere near—the damp of sea, the scent of salt, the sound of a tide cresting with a summer storm. She would hold the skin to her body. She would slip the skin over her body. She would remember. She would leave.
Michael came into the bedroom, cursing quietly as if he couldn’t stop the cascade of expletives but didn’t, exactly, want to wake Andrea.
“What’s wrong?”
“I thought you were asleep.”
“I was . . .” She hesitated. In the five years since she’d moved in with Michael, she’d never been able to articulate her sometime ritual of imagining, “. . .well, I was dreaming, let’s say.”
He still didn’t understand. “The same. Now, tell me.”
“Don’t worry. I have some leads.”
“Better than last time?” Andrea turned over and twisted on the lamp.  She sat up, staring at him. She could tell he hadn’t showered all weekend.
Michael sank to a seated position on the edge of the bed, looked into her eyes for a handful of seconds and looked away. He stared into the half-open closet and took a deep breath.
“Why do these conversations always seem to be about me?”
Andrea felt the question like punch in the solar plexus. Five years, she thought, even after five years he thinks the questions have nothing to do with me, that they aren’t about us. She continued staring, felt her eyes harden like crystals.
“Well, what do you want to talk about? Halo?”
“That’s not fair, Andrea.”
She knew it wasn’t the right thing to say, but she could already feel her eye beginning to twitch involuntarily. She could already feel the fermenting brew of bilious anger and abyss-bringing sadness welling up within her, so she said it anyway. “Life isn’t fair, Michael. How else do you explain me being with you?”
“I can’t explain that anymore than I can explain why you stopped writing.”
Michael stood up from the bed and walked toward the doorway. “I’ll be on the couch if you need me.”

Andrea sat up in bed and reached for the book on Celtic myth she’d been reading before bed. She knew Michael was—in some ways—right. She did work more on shaping him than on shaping herself. And, she did have trouble articulating to him why now was not the time to attempt a resurrection of her fledging writing career. She needed quiet. She needed contemplation. She needed the right story to click into place the way, long ago, Michael had seemed to click seamlessly into place in the structure she’d made of her life. But what happened then? How had she arrived here in a one-bedroom apartment with a man she hardly knew, no job, and her body still feeling hot as if her skin had been singed from her body? How could she repair the crumbling structures of their lives? Sew hope back onto the edifice like a button on a pair of Michael’s raggedy slacks?
She needed a story that others could slip into, a story that would overflow its sentences, a story like love.
She tried opening the book again. It fell to the chapter on Selkies that she’d read more times than she cared to count. The spine was broken. She tried, again, to slip into the myth, reading through the commentary of middle-aged Brits who couldn’t see the real point of the narrative through their heavy breath-fogged monocles. She closed her eyes, let the story itself return. The netting. The heath’s warmth. The pelt.
She slammed the book shut. Not tonight, she thought.
She flicked on the TV. A corpulent man in pin stripes stood at a chalk board, sketching an outline of Socialism and its, apparently, vampiric dangers. She wondered if the man had ever struggled for more than fifteen minutes in his entire life, if he’d ever changed a tire himself, if he’d ever been laid off because someone who couldn’t remember his name thought that it would be the fastest way to save the company he’d given seven years a few thousand dollars, if he’d ever been on unemployment, if he’d ever watched his unemployment suddenly vanish over a holiday weekend. She doubted it.
Andrea wanted to sleep any trace of the day away. She wanted the fat man in pinstripes to disappear in a sudden flash of light as he did when she flicked off the TV. She wanted what she supposed most women had wanted from the first moment they had found the blessing and curse of speech: she wanted to feel safe. She scanned the bedroom, taking in the paintings her friend Liza had given her the day she left Ohio. Abstractions. Shores. Vistas of salt and sea.
She would show them. Somehow, she would show them.
She pulled herself, heavily, from bed and went to the computer. As if from habit, she checked her email, checked both social networking sites, and then opened a new word document. She would make something, she told herself, something so beautiful and so real that it would outlast the memory of the chubby man in pinstripes. It would silence Michael. It would give her back her skin.
She began to write:
There was a woman, naked and wet with the salty sea. Her auburn hair was matted, clumped.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Chapter 1: Schemes

It was a night very much like this one, Colin typed. He had a first line, a foundation rising up from his subconscious into the solidity of mortar, steel, concrete. From here, he could begin to shape, chisel, and scaffold skyward—if only he knew where to go next. Colin had no idea. He only knew that he needed money.  And he needed money yesterday. He sat in front of the unadorned screen, mesmerized by the blankness of the digitally replicated page. He drifted across the apparent emptiness that had come to define him since the economy collapsed for him and his wife: 
I could write about the weather. Thunder crash of stupidity. I could write about sex. Everyone loves penises—you can tell by the shape of their cars, their brooms, their monuments. But who would take me seriously? Teen boys? Politicians? I could write about politics, finally carving from the slabs of semi-consciousness a lasting memorial to the conservative socialist agenda of my latent Christian atheism. I could write about writing, and how one word follows the next like footsteps on the thinnest summer ice of a shrinking arctic ocean. Or, maybe I could just write about blowjobs.
The car alarm beeped. Colin adjusted himself nervously, as if his wife had caught him masturbating, then feeling a slight flush to his cheeks, Colin realized that he might be up to something considered far worse in the circles he travelled: he was plotting ways to sell out. He was attempting to shirk every last ounce of his creative dignity. He didn’t, this time, want to write anything “good” or anything “literary” or anything that might make the smallest of incremental changes in what he assumed everyone could see was a thoroughly insane world. All he wanted was to make enough concessions and to provide enough distraction to a few people that he could still afford to watch the World Cup on cable without sacrificing things like health insurance or an occasional bean burrito at a fast food restaurant. All he wanted from this project was filthy fucking lucre. He wanted to write the most commercial novel ever written, but to have the cash instantly.  There would be explosions, sex, sappy happy endings. There would be melodrama and puppies—puppies with sad, fat eyes, puppies that had been emotionally traumatized by years scavenging on the streets of Northern Kentucky, puppies who had to take antidepressants. He would pluck those fucking heartstrings of anonymous readers with a virtuoso touch. He would write anything they wanted.
Neither he nor his wife Sylvia had time enough to worry whether or not they were sacrificing their morals: it was either find a way to make money before the next mortgage payment was due or watch their comparatively miniscule dreams of continued home and dog ownership catch fire like a rumor of infidelity in the Senate chamber. They had to act fast. The long-awaited unemployment extension might never make its way out of that same Senate chamber, and they simply couldn’t afford to wait for hard work, craftsmanship, or time served to the trade. He, clearly, would have to write under a nome de plume. What other choice did he have? Find a job writing “educational materials” for big Pharma? Start a pornographic website? Respond to the myriad UK lottery emails he received with the hope that somehow he would find the only one that wasn’t written in a Nigerian Internet café? His options were slim. He would begin his novel, post it on the internet and ask people to pay as they wished. Surely, someone would feel sympathy for his family’s plight, take a modicum of enjoyment from the bristling prose, and pay a paltry fee of their own choosing just to keep reading.
Sylvia finally emerged outside onto the backyard patio cupping two lattes.
“I couldn’t take it.” She handed a coffee to Colin.
“You deserve a spanking, Ms. Andrews.”
“Maybe, Mr. Andrews, but one medium latte per week is better than the six large lattes I’d been doing.”
“When you put it like that…” Colin looked out toward the sunset. The violet-orange horizon glowed with something he mistook for possibility.
“Hey.” Sylvia took a sip of her latte and pulled one of Colin’s hands from its protective cradling of the flat-black laptop. “What are you doing?”
Colin shook his head. “Nothing.”
“Remember, no more lies.  No more half truths. Your rule.”
“I’m thinking about that novel idea.  Not sure what to write.”
“You should make it really meta.”
“What do you mean?”
“I don’t know . . . why not write a novel about a guy writing a novel?”
“About a guy writing a novel?”
“But who would want to read that?”
“Well, what books mattered most to you? What books deeply affected the way you think about the world?”
“That’s not what we’re going for here, sweetheart.”
“Well, what are we going for, sweetheart? More self-aggrandizing egoism from that under-recognized, underappreciated, and undersexed literary genius, Colin Pegram Andrews?”
“No. This is all about money. Filthy fucking lucre.”
“Ok . . . how about this, what books did you, personally, spend the most money on over the course of your lifetime?  And porn doesn’t count.”
“No. Half-assedly. Yes, honestly.”
“Choose your own adventures.”
Sylvia laughed. At first it was a slow laugh, but it bloomed like a peony bulb until it was oversized, enormous. It threatened to dwarf Colin, until she snorted.
“I’m sorry,” she said, “but seriously?”
“Yeah,” Colin steeled his reserve as if he’d swigged a highball of one of the world’s ten most expensive Scotches in one gulp, “what other book lets you imagine so freely?”
“Well could you do something like that?”
“Let the readers choose. Whoever pays the most on a given day can leave a comment with plot details or characters.”
“Or product placements?”
“Why not?” 
“The Great American Cybernovel.”
“Or at least an interesting experiment.”
“I love you.”
“Not tonight, sweetheart.”
Colin, for a moment, believed it might work. Generosity. Commercialism. Sex. Violence.  Americana in a digital age, but what would he call it?
“Commercial Novel.”
“Get out of my head, Sylvia.”
The luster of clouds dimmed. Summer mosquitoes swarmed. Colin and Sylvia took their dogs inside, and Colin, facing the blank page, buoyed by his wife’s faith, began to type the first line of a serialized behemoth that could be quite good, career suicide, or a minor lark. But at the very least it had the potential to save his house and provide antidepressants for his dog. Colin typed:
 It was a night very much like this one.