Story Excerpt No. 5

If you know my kind, you’ll recognize the art of the creep. Front-facing chair at an innocuous angle. Trappings of homework on the little table in front of me, arranged slightly askew: pen, pencil, journal, assignment sheet, coffee cup. Me, seated in a relaxed-looking slouch position. It appears to the naïve onlooker that, whenever I gaze  in Sean’s approximate direction, I’m merely concentrating on my assignment. No, I’m not watching for his shy but warming smile. No, I’m not waiting for his dark forelock to swish in front of his eyes for a second before he pushes it behind his ear. No, I’m not yearning for a glance at that awesome goldfish tattoo, by which Eddie would be so cynically amused.

I’m contemplating. Oh, now I’m writing something down, see? Mulling it over. Jotting another note.

I’m none too proud of myself at the moment. I walked into Café Amor Fati with an armful of Mr. Crosthwaite’s homework, real work that needs to be done. But it’s impossible for me to concentrate with Sean working the counter. Mine is the self-defeatism of a true professional. I can make wrong choices in my sleep.

Amor fati: what an irony.

I sip coffee, Sean pleasantly positioned within my peripheral vision’s scope, as the entry bell jingles over the door.  A beautiful woman steps into the coffee shop, and I feel a twist in my gut, a flash of warmth across my face. I mean, beautiful. The epitome of self-confident feminine femaleness, my polar opposite, all pleasance and charm and sensuous simplicity with an air of tacit complexity and oh God I can hear his friendly, “What can I get started for you?” and my heart wrenches with ire and I feel like I might cry or be sick or scream and she orders a latte.

I flip my hood up to block my view, stretch it along the sides of my face like a curtain. “How’s your day going?” Sean asks her, and she says something witty and bewitching. “So far, so good,” as I grip my pencil, and then, “How about yours?” as I break the fresh, pointy lead on the paper. I glare at the rough-edged stump, a mere remnant of good intent. “Pretty good, sun’s still out,” he says. “Stormy weather’s rolling in soon.” I set the sorry pencil down, take up the proud pen. Stare down at my assignment sheet through the fabric tunnel of my own ridiculousness:

You have achieved Step One toward the dissolution of writer’s block. You have begun to psychoanalyze your muse.

I smirk, tapping the pen, recalling Crosthwaite’s class lecture. “’The geese do not wish to leave their reflection behind; the water has no mind to retain their image,’” he’d recited, strolling along the rows between desks. “You and your muse are not dependent upon one another for existence or significance. Nonetheless, the connection between you manifests in the art you create—which, once loosed upon the world, holds its own manner of self-sovereignty.” He’d stopped at my desk-side, freaking me out a little. Looked down at my backpack on the floor, considering the Filth band patch sewn on the side.

“‘Live the chaos,'” he read aloud. Classmates around me shuffled, someone laughed quietly. My face heated up. “Live the chaos, yes,” he said. “Let’s take that advice.” Smartass. Was he making fun of me?

“It’s just the name of an album,” I sullenly tried to tell him. But by then, Mr. C was already wandering through the desk rows again.

Per your prior assignment, you’ve now documented your primary sources of inspiration and personal influences. This five-item list itself becomes a resource for further discussion.

I suck down more coffee through my hood-tunnel. Turn to the first page of my journal, take a look, cringe a little. In class, Mr. Crosthwaite had demanded to know: “What makes an impression upon you? What compels you to action? What, by your very nature, must you love? What must you hate?” At home later, self-soothed by two cheap beers and one bad joint, I’d composed my list:

  • Babysitting (hate)
  • Airplanes/flying (hate)
  • Punk rock records (love)
  • Looking around in people’s houses when they don’t know (love)
  • Tales of heart-rending misfortune (love)

On Monday, we’ll relate your list of inspiration sources to the discourse of complexity. Be prepared for class by considering the following questions.

Monday. Tomorrow. Mr. Crosthwaite’s going to pick on me, I just know it. Stupid Filth patch.

Question 1: What do you consider to be the simplest item on your list? What potential complexity could arise from this simplicity?

Not rocket science. Concentrate. I lay my journal down flat in front of me, open to the page where I’ve jotted my list. Question 1, Question 1. Question 1 was actually two questions in one, dammit…

Relax. Think. I write the word Simple at the top of the next blank journal page. The simplest item on my list had to be punk rock records. Unlike the other items, which were saturated with context-sensitivity and emotional baggage, a Blatz or Op Ivy record simply was what it was—a specific and proper noun with no grey areas. It was pure. It had weight, mass, location. Its identity was not dependent upon opinion or circumstance. Satisfied, I scribble on the next page of my journal for a moment, then close my eyes to think.

What complexity could arise from something so simple? What could contaminate such purity? Scratches? Warping? The fact that you gave away all your duplicate LPs to your ungrateful ex?

The beautiful woman with the latte has passed my table and sits at a booth behind me. I push my hood back, eager for a tranquilizing glimpse of Sean. He’s still at the counter. Now he’s taking money from some high school kids and smiling that same warm expression that turns my center to liquid. What a genuinely kind smile he has. It is in itself a simple thing, unburdened by ulterior motives or self interest. Eddie’s smile was always more like a sneer. Eddie’s smile shone brightest when he was one-upping someone with a sarcastic jab.

I could enjoy many years to come basking in the warm, simple smile of Sean St. John.

Once more, I contemplate potential complexity of punk vinyl. I guess there could arise issues of authenticity—you might accidentally pick up a bootleg. Or rarity—finding a first pressing or limited edition is cause for celebration. I jot these down. What about the fact that I won’t even walk into a record store if I have no money to spend? Collecting records can be something of an addiction. Complexity arises from issues of temptation, of self-discipline. I write, Coping with desires. I stare at it, uncomfortable with the wording, and scratch at it for a second. Coping with material desires, it says now. I scribble it out and write, Coping with obsession.

Question 2: What do you consider to be the most complex entry on your list? What potential simplicity could arise from something so complex?

Suddenly I’m attacked at the lower buttock by an insistent buzzing vibration. I jump up with a “Whoa!” and rattle the little table, splashing coffee over Mr. C’s assignment sheet, the tabletop, the floor. I manage to brace the little table before anything falls, but I don’t dare check to see if I’ve gained Sean’s attention. I turn away, toward the back corner of the room. I grapple in my back pocket for the stupid cell phone, which has been on vibrate since I’d missed Mom’s last call.

“Honey, how’s everything going?” Mom asks. “I heard you had dinner with Aunt Mir last night—that’s great.”

“Yup,” I say. News sure gets around fast.

“She said you’re looking happy and healthy. Sounds like this Kansas visit is doing some good. Helping you get past this whole Eddie thing.”

It bugs me, hearing my mother say that name just now. I chew on a response, then swallow it. Turn my head slightly, stealthily: Sean’s profile is visible at the espresso machine. I look back down at my homework, eager to change the topic. “So did you go on that date with Frank yet?”

“Francis. As a matter of fact, we went out last night for the first time.”

“How’d it go?” I write the word Complex on the next page of my journal.

“It went well. We had tapas on Capitol Hill, caught a jazz band downtown. A couple of drinks….”

“Wow, that’s quite a first date.” I flip back a couple of pages to my inspiration list.

“I was pleasantly surprised. He’s funny and friendly. And handsome too.” I metabolize this last comment with a shudder, turn to my assignment page to write, Other people’s houses. “How about you, honey?”

How about me? Tread carefully. It’s a mom-ism, emotion-laden and context-sensitive. “Oh, I’m just fine.” I look across the room again at Sean. Feeling bold, I actually watch as he wipes down the countertops. The goldfish tattoo moves subtly along the muscles of his arms as they adjust and stretch; the forelock of dark hair hides his eyes for an instant, and he brushes it back with his palm. A perverse train of thought pops into my head right then—Just go for it, for once! Be one of those liberated one-night-stander women! Break the Eddie hex! You’ll leave for Seattle in three weeks, and you’ll never see him again. Be crazy, go wild… Live the chaos! I shake it off.

“I should go. I’m in a café now and I’m probably bugging people.” I cross out the line I’ve just written in my journal, and replace it with a new scrawl: Tales of heart-rending misfortune.

“I love you.” She says it, I say it back. It’s our thing.

I stare at the page again, the words there. Consider the infinite complexity of the lovelorn, the unlucky, the wayward, the lost: timing is everything, for better or worse. The root of so much we take for granted can be traced to sheer coincidence, woven into a mad tapestry of complexity as robust as the universe and all of time itself. And love? Love above all! At essence, it emerges from complete chaos, no matter the medium: a blind date—high school sweethearts—work partners—tandem seats on a bus—it’s all random, chance. Amor fati, indeed.

Love is just an accident, an outlier, a by-product.

Its dissolution, therefore, must be as natural, all-pervasive, and law-bound as entropy itself. The simplicity that arises from the tales of heart-rending misfortune? I write it down: Predictable but inevitable.

“I’ll take that, if you’re done with it,” a voice says at my shoulder.

I whirl around. And I mean, whirl. Like a ballerina on her toes. Or maybe a tornado ripping through a quiet Kansas wheat field.

“You’re about empty.” Sean St. John is standing right. Next. To me. Pointing at my coffee cup. He glances at the splatter of coffee on the floor. “Oh, did it spill? I can get you a refill.”

He turns to walk away, and I say “No!”

No is such a heavy word. It can be so emotional. Contextual.

“Well, I don’t want to take it if you’re not ready.” He smiles. Is he making fun of me?

Tense beat. He’s not. He seriously is not….

“You can take it,” I breathe. “I’m ready.”

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Story Excerpt No. 4

I park on the street and shut down the Mitsubishi rental. With the unlit cigarette at my fingertips, I wait. Procrastinate.

The neighborhood is quiet. 4:30, hot and humid but breezy. Damp spots on the concrete from a recent rain. Cicadas’ song is a buzz-saw crescendo all around, a gradual progression into a wild insect wheeze, followed by abrupt cessation. And then—reply in kind, passing from yard to yard and increasingly farther away.

This sequential buzz from one grassy lot to the next seems placid, but vaguely unwelcoming. No. Foreboding. Wait, no…. Conspiratorial.

No. This is the very sound of indifference to humanity’s plight. Cicadas in the brush have nothing to do with us. Their buzzing repartee among discrete lawns represents an entire society in a two-block radius proceeding happily without heed to humanity.

Somehow this thought is both eerie and comforting at once. I savor it, turn it over in my mind. I tap the unburnt cigarette on the Mitsubishi’s console next to me, as if to disengage the last length of imaginary ash, then slide the cigarette behind my ear.

For want of further excuse, it’s time to gather my bags and head up to the house. Vivian won’t be home until later, but her housemate Janet is supposedly here to let me in. Sheesh. I feel shy—what am I, five years old?

“Knock really loud,” Vivian told me over the phone earlier, “just in case she fell asleep in front of the TV. If she doesn’t get up, knock on the bay window with a key. If that doesn’t work, go around to the north side and bang on her bedroom window.”

Great. I breathe a sheepish prayer that this elaborate troubleshooting won’t be necessary, and commence knocking on the door. I wait. Knock again, louder. Nothing. I’m about to begrudgingly key-tap the window when I hear footsteps drum the floor from within. Locks clunk, the door swings open, and suddenly I’m facing a tall, athletic-looking girl in an oversized KU T-shirt. Tousled blond hair, couch-cushion pattern impressed upon her cheek.

“You’re Wil?” she says, blinking groggily. “Hope you weren’t waiting long.” She pushes on the screen door and grabs the handle of my rolling suitcase.

“No worries,” I say. I step into the house after her.

We enter the main room, which is set up for general college-kid entertainment. Stereo system in one corner. Cinderblock-and-plank bookshelves against a wall, full of textbooks, paperbacks, and magazines. Sofa and patchy La-Z-Boy co-dominate the middle of the room, facing an antenna-topped TV set; onscreen is an ancient Mork and Mindy. The bay window overlooks the street, letting in a meager amount of light.

Overall, the place would be pretty depressing—dingy eggshell walls, knobby taupe carpet, flesh-and-grey-blotch laminate on the kitchen floor—if it weren’t for certain distinct signs of life. Colorful throw rugs distract from the otherwise sullen palette. Band and art posters are Blu Tacked here and there. A bright green TV tray upholds half a sandwich on a red plate.

The Mork and Mindy laugh track glamorizes our passage across the room. I follow Janet’s barefoot shuffle down the main hall, passing doors on either side. She gestures to each and names them: “That’s my bedroom, that’s Sakura’s, that’s the bathroom, that’s Viv’s.” She pushes open the last door on the left. “This is yours.”

I step inside, let my backpack slide sleepily down my arm to the floor. Take a few more steps, and pivot in a full circle to take it all in. Twin bed in one corner, nightstand next to it. Closet with a sliding door, half open: some clothes are hanging inside, but they’re shoved back to make room for mine. An Elliot Smith poster graces one wall, Billie Holiday the other. Antique knickknacks are perched everywhere, ironic vintage décor balanced precariously between cutesy and kitschy.

“Actually,” Janet says, “this is Kate’s room. But yours for the summer.”

I love it. I absolutely love it. Nothing in here reminds me of home, nothing in here reminds me of the recent past. Nothing reminds me of myself.

“It’s cool,” I say. Coolly.

Janet gives me a sidelong glance, implying a skeptical, “You think so, huh?” But she says, “Glad you like it.” I think I’m picking up on deadpan. A good sign.

Janet lugs my suitcase up onto the bed. Next to the headboard, she twirls the wand at the window blinds. Sunlight brightens the room. “Viv and Sakura-san get home around five or so. Don’t mean to be rude, but I’m leaving. Gotta work tonight.”

“Oh. What do you do?” In the fleeting beat prior to her response, I try and guess, mind racing. She tutors athletes up on campus. Nah. She’s a manager at an outdoor-sports-stuff store. Hmm, no. She leads city bicycle tours. Yes, maybe that.

“I’m a bartender. At a complete shithole, I might add.”

I assimilate this new information, surprised. “Sounds like more fun than retail.” I smile.  I know a bartender! Hell, yeah. Cheap drinks and the initiation of an instant social life, all in my near future. Already a plan formulates in my mind: I’ll just hang out at Janet’s bar every night, all summer long. Perfect.

Janet gives me the sidelong glance again, and adds a raised eyebrow. “Picture, if you will, your worst retail customer. Obnoxious, entitled, self-righteous as hell.” She pauses, her gaze trained on me. “You picturing it?”

“Yeah…”

“Now picture that same customer, drunk off their ass. That’s bartending.”

I nod, properly schooled. “Got it.”

“Great. And one more thing, there, Wil. No smoking.” Her gaze flicks to my ear, to the perched cigarette.

“Oh, that.” I scrabble for the cig, slip it into my backpack unceremoniously. “I quit. Recently. I don’t smoke. Actually.” The words come out with the measured precision of a well-recited poem.

“‘Course you don’t.” Janet shrugs, smiles. Mild sarcasm. Okay, she’s messing with me—not bad, but a little bit. What now? Consequences loom large, imminent. I can react further, get serious, insist on my veracity. I can laugh, play it off, be cool. Or maybe I’ll just switch the topic. “Well, I’ll leave you to it,” she says. Heads back down the hall, slips into the bathroom.

On my own in Kate’s room now, nearly without exception. It’s just Elliot and Billie and me—me, identifying at the moment as a personification of my own social awkwardness.  It’s all fine, I think, mollifying myself distractedly, unzipping the suitcase on the bed. I unpack my clothes. Shorts, jeans, band T-shirts. Subhumans, Crass, Black Flag. Nothing precious, but I hang them anyway, since Kate went through the trouble of making room in the closet. I have a little more work to do, but soon Bartender Janet and I will be great friends. I decide this. Commit to it.

On the other hand, my acquaintanceship with Absentee Kate will never develop past the shared-closet stage. It’s strange to settle in amidst someone else’s personal stuff, and yet to have no idea what the person even looks like. Certainly, Kate’s vintage taste shows in much of her décor, just as Vivian had foretold over the phone. Beaded shawls and colorful scarves hang over the window in lieu of curtains. A beautiful swatch of patterned silk covers the surface of the nightstand. Alongside more modern trappings—CD player, digital clock—her myriad knickknacks grace every surface. Vases, perfume bottles, tinted glassware in animal shapes. I kneel down to look at the spines of her books. Crime novels, organic gardening books, Sylvia Plath, a couple of 50’s-era cookbooks.

So, my mystery hostess, I think, leafing through Plath with savvy. You’re girly, you’re fashionable, you like Elliot Smith, you read. We would bond over books, I guess. That’s about it….

Or is it?

I get nosy. Go through the drawers, poke deeper in to the closet behind the dresses. More clothes, more books. Storage boxes, big and small. I don’t dig through the boxes, though—better save some for later.

When I hear the front door open and then slam closed, I realize I’m alone in the house. I plop down onto the bed with my empty suitcase, and stretch the last of the travel-weary confinement from my limbs. Staring up at the popcorn ceiling, I’m amused by the thought that wherever I may roam, there will always be a popcorn ceiling in any place that I call home. It’s like looking up at the same moon as one’s lost love far away: I merely look to the popcorn cottage cheese above me, and I connect with my own geographic history.

I roll onto my elbow, face the window, and lift the blinds a few inches. Outside, the backyard is shaggy but green. Dandelions dot the lawn all the way to the alley beyond. Dumpsters, carports, sheds. The alley is busier than the street: kid walks a dog, dude with band equipment loads up a Jeep, a mom jogs with one of those athletic baby stroller things.

I roll onto my back, meet Elliot Smith’s melancholy poster-gaze from across the room. He’s taking inventory, sizing me up, yet he seems to withhold judgment at this point. “I’m not so bad,” I promise him. “You’ll get used to me.”

I’ll get used to this. The house, the yard, the alley, Kate’s room: all will be familiar soon. But for now, and for a limited time, everything around me is new. Sometimes, in places that have become deeply familiar to me, I try to see with the same perspective as that very first time. I attempt to relive that initial sense of new. My dorm room, Mom’s house, even my childhood home before the divorce—even back then, I would occasionally sink into a carte blanche reverie. Focus on the furniture and wallpaper, which was otherwise just an everyday backdrop. Really notice the books on the shelves, pictures on walls, decorations along the mantle and windowsills. I would ask myself, what does one’s sanctuary reflect about one’s identity? What aspects of one’s private space might make an impression upon a total stranger? And what sort of stranger might that person be, so impressed?

Furthermore. Is there grand significance behind such a semiotically-charged exchange? Perhaps something metaphysical, even? Or is any sense of numinous connection merely an illusion, just another representation of the great universal high indifference?

I squirm around, next looking up at Billie Holiday, who sings into an old-school Shure microphone on the wall over the bed. Billie barely notices me at all: she is in the zone, replete with euphoria in the expression of her art…. I’m envious. I know that feeling. I want to feel that. I jump from the bed, grab my backpack. Grapple for pens, pencil, my notebook. Words begin to rush through my head already, eager for escape onto paper.

As I pull my notebook free from the pack, the spare and unburnt cigarette catches the ride, trapped between pages. It falls to the floor at my feet.

I pick it up. Turn it over between my fingers. A strange compulsion overwhelms, to smoke it here. In the house. Alone. In secret.

In a dark spirit of villainy.

At the window, I raise the blinds. They collapse at the top with a zzzzzip. I lift the window sill as high as it will go, warm and humid air pushing through the screen like something alive and breathing.

I place the unlit cigarette to my lips. I think about Eddie, for the first time since I got here.

Consequences loom, I think. I remind myself. There are consequences to everything.

In the little overgrown yard beyond, cicadas make a glorious racket.

On Bukowski and Motherhood

The famous first line from Charles Bukowski’s Roll the Dice: “If you’re going to try, go all the way.” He implies: let your creative fire consume you to the exclusion of all life’s dross.

I love it.

From a theoretical standpoint, I love it.

But I have questions.

I’m compelled to sit down over whiskey shots with Bukowski and clarify.  When you mention not eating for three or four days, surely you mean just during the day? Regarding the loss of relatives, what’s the selection process? And when you say “it could mean freezing on a park bench,” could that possibly mean for just a half-hour, waiting for my three-year-old to take one last slide ride (“Okay, now say ‘bye bye’ to the playground!”)—and then I can go inside and warm up?

As much as I adore the notion of the extreme creative life—as darkly intrigued as I am by its most tragic tales—I’ve come to realize something over the years. The angsty, 80s-era goth teen in me hates to admit it: my creative life has not been representative of Bukowski’s dice-rolling sentiment. It has not been extreme.

I’ve tried several serious creative pursuits over my lifetime, but none to the exclusion of all else. Music was a huge part of my life for many years. I rarely had to choose between music and jobs, school, friendships, or relationship. My husband and I spent a decade in the same band together before we married. Friendships were a consequence of musical pursuits—not collateral damage.

Writing is different than playing in a band. A solitary pursuit. “Isolation is the gift,” Bukowski says; he’s talking about writing. Sometimes it’s hard to discern another writer in your real-life midst, but when you do find one out there, it’s a super-cool common bond. Well, or maybe it’s just my one-sided perception. Regardless, I find it motivating, invigorating.  I dig thinkers. I dig those who sanctify time to craft words to articulate thoughts. And I wholly admire what I call the “comfortable alone”: those who can withstand silence, who are willing to forego interaction long enough to reflect and process and bring forth eloquence.

When I find another writer, I’m struck by a sense of camaraderie in mutual isolation.

Writing requires silence in a noisy world. It demands isolation and introspection in an era of social networking and immediate gratification. Pre-Facebook, pre-Twitter, Charles Bukowski implied it in Roll the Dice (although he gives voice to the extreme): to bolster and intensify that creative fire, one must understand there’s a tradeoff. For periods of isolation, sessions of silence, one must push back against status quo culture.

But may I suggest, perhaps over another whiskey round—one need not trade it all to “go all the way”?

When I was pregnant with my first child, I knew everything would change. Of course: we had just dismantled my home office and repurposed it for a baby’s room. Everyone told me things would change. I was told by seasoned parents that I would put everything on hold. Music, writing, painting, drawing. All that could wait, would have to wait. My child would come first now, in every aspect. And I’d be okay with that, I was told.

I would necessarily, happily trade it all away: my creativity, my ambition, my times of solitude—all for motherhood.

Quick. Before last call. Again may I suggest—one need not trade it all?

May I hope?

I am determined to find the middle ground. To honor one’s creative fire is something I plan to teach my own children. They’re small now, and they need a lot of attention, so my carving out alone time is sometimes impossible and often impractical. But I’m willing to work gradually. They’re growing up fast, and they pick up on a lot.

In order to teach it—this respect of one’s internal creative drive—I try to do it, when I can. I want them to understand it’s not only “okay” to take that time, it’s crucial. By integrating the concept of occasional, regular alone time in my family culture, I hope to provide my kids validation to seek and treasure their own aloneness, and what creativity may come of it.

But striking a balance is key. The active pursuit of writing is, strangely, much like a child: given attention, it wants ever more attention.  I negotiate with my own writing-addicted id/ego complex the same way I bargain with my kids. “Patience, you’ll get your turn.” “Be good for me, and you’ll get a treat.” “I’ll be back, and then we’ll do something fun together!” My creative fire is a toddler.

If he could read this, Bukowski would probably laugh at me. But who knows? Maybe he’d at least pay the tab.

Either way, the angsty goth teen in me would dig it.

Fleeting Dolor and Halcyon Days

Weeks go by smoothly, orchestrated by normal routine. Plans pay off hitchlessly. Murphy’s Law, once respected as harsh reality, takes on the seeming of dark-humored mythology.

Times like these put me on my guard.

In times like these, in disbelief and half amazed, I admire the tenuously-balanced system of my existence—of society’s complex web, of the unlikely miracle of life itself, of universal physics and all its mind-blowing implications and unknowns—and murmur like Bernadette Peters in The Jerk as she peels away Steve Martin’s beauty mask: “This shit really works!”

Do you ever start to worry when you’ve been feeling comfortable, maybe even downright happy, for an extended period of time? Ever get superstitious about your own life? Maybe it’s just me. It’s at times like these when Act II’s hungry, predatory shadow circles the fat-rodent-riddled Act I meadow of my mind.

Something’s gotta give.

In conventional story structure, the catalyst lurks between  Act I and Act II, triggering the protagonist’s next move into conflict-laden times ahead. This catalyst is the inciting incident that breaks the main character’s sense of normalcy, for better or worse. In real life, the notion of this permeable boundary between all-is-well-Act I into the rising-stakes-Act II is prime fodder for anxiety.

Have you ever experienced an ominous sense of impending entropy? Ever felt like forces of chaos and disorder were leaning in just a liiiiittle too close?

Conflict shall arise in some form, as inevitable as death and taxes. And unlike a typical movie, with its singular A-plot and neatly-integrated subplots, real life sometimes bears multiple simultaneous conflicts of A-plot status. Competing calls to action. A potential legion of antagonists.

From Act I’s halcyon standpoint, the suspense is killer.

Where routine had once established itself without blemish, where carefully planned systems once operated smoothly—suddenly, the routine cannot hold. The system does not suffice. Neither is enough to keep chaos at bay. Cannot forego entropy. Cannot block the froth-mouthed Act II wolf from entering Act I’s placid, self-satisfied throne room.

As Steve Martin circa ’79 might advise, stay away from the cans.

When next my tidy little system shows its limits—when my halcyon days are upset by the next inciting incident of life’s complex narrative—I wonder: what sort of protagonist will I prove to be?

 

Story Excerpt No. 3

How do pilots and flight attendants cope with the daily horror? Watch the stewardess pour coffee at the front of the cabin. See that? Ever since we lurched into the air, she’s had this thin vertical line in the middle of her forehead. She knows something’s wrong. She heard a noise, smelled smoke, caught the pilot shooting up in the service nook,  something.

Panic leans heavily at the door of my consciousness, held at bay by the trembling benzodiazepine chair crooked below the knob. Dammit, gotta keep it together. Hours to go still. I hold my bottle of pills up to the tiny overhead light, assess with a critical eye. Off with the top. Delicately, I bite away half a lorazepam tab more. Drop the remainder down into the vial. Sit back into my semi-reclined seat, awaiting synthetic Zen.

Beyond the anxiety at the forefront of my mind, I’m feeling a little bad about ditching Overly Talkative Werther’s Candy Eating Lady, from whom I’d stealthily disengaged mid-aisle when I saw the empty seat next to Ken Follett Novel Reading Man. And speaking of KFNRM. He’s proving to be my kind of airplane buddy: he barely looked up when I sat down, and now he’s already asleep, tome on his lap. I glance past him, noting the view through the window—something I wouldn’t dare without drugs. But there’s nothing to see. Clouds obscure all, we’re completely engulfed.

I’m thankful. I hate catching sight of that tiny airplane shadow cast upon the earth. It makes me feel so helpless and insignificant. You know, more so than usual.

I peek to my right, stealthy. Not too sure about businessman-looking guy there. Carefully coiffed. Reading Forbes magazine in coach class, pfft. This is the breed of human who makes me feel like a perpetual child, even though we’re the same age. He’s got that swallowed-the-corporate-Kool-Aid aura, mixed with an insistent self-important vibe, know what I mean? Rhetorically fidgety. Like he’s gonna try to talk to me, just so he can namedrop the brand of car he drives or the suit he’s wearing or the company he works for, and I’m not even gonna know what the hell he’s talking about anyway, that’s how far removed I am from his whole thing, but I’m supposed to act all nice about it, and it’s just easier on my nerves to be polite anyway, and… yeah. I don’t like him.

He looks at me and smiles. “I think it’s intended for you,” he says.

Face hot, I think, Dammit! and I look down at my hands. “Pardon?” I manage to say, with no other clear course of action.

“Your little friend there.” Forbesy nods forward and I look up: from atop the seat in front of him, a plush pink pony stares down at me. I can see a little kid’s face through the crack between the seats, staring. As soon as we make eye contact, the kid squeezes her face into the crack and stage-whispers, “Do you like horses?”

“No, I don’t,” I say. In my peripheral vision, Forbes peers at me with a curious expression.

The fuzzy pony ducks back down, to my relief. Kids are so… what’s the word. Clinically psychotic. They blissfully exist on their own mental plane, divorced from reality, unaware of the trials and tragedies of humanity surrounding them. I mean, come on: I could be a traumatized crime victim back here. A plague sufferer. A conscienceless semi-mercenary on the lam—but never mind my problems. All she cares about is whether I’ll play horses with her. How I wish I could go about life in such an oblivious state, a Werther’s candy firmly placed within each cheek.

Forbesy goes back to his magazine, KFNRM snores softly to my left. Excellent: I’d hoped for an opportunity to write a few things down ahead of time, maybe prep some ideas for that class my cousin talked me into taking with her. I reach into the backpack at my feet and wrestle a worn, weary notebook from the front pocket. I bought it a couple weeks after the breakup, and it’s already nearly full. But I have a feeling none of the dark-hearted crap in here will be deemed appropriate for our class. “Three Steps Toward the Dissolution of Writer’s Block,” please. I know what to expect: a no-grade pud course geared toward soccer moms and retirees. We’re talking estrogen-oozy memoirs and sparkly-angel poems and journal entries and touchy-feely shit like that, just shy of full-on scrapbooking. Whatever. At least I’ll have a forum to refine my ex-Eddie source material, in whatever Dr. Phil-approved shape it must take. I put pencil lead to thin college rule. Proverbial nose to the grindstone.

“Are you drawing?” comes a familiar chipmunk voice.

I capably squelch a flare of anger with the help of big pharma. “No,” I say.

Pony fan’s face is squished against the seat crack once more. “Then what are you doing?”

“I’m writing. Aren’t you supposed to be taking care of your horse?”

“My horse is sleeping, silly!”

“Got it.” I focus on my notebook, moving my pencil with stage-drama-level I’m working now body language.

“I writed a letter to my grandma before.”

“Ah. That’s. That’s great.”

“Are you writing a letter?”

Here’s a social problem paving the path to cultural meltdown: lack of child supervision. Where are the parents? I assume this kid’s mom owns the hairdo above the seat in front of me, but that hair hasn’t budged a whit in reaction to this discourse. If she were my kid, you bet I’d be taking up the lecture opportunity, working hard to instill a sense of respect for people’s privacy and solitude. “I’m actually kind of writing a story,” I say. “But you wouldn’t like it. No horses involved. No pictures.”

“I can draw pictures. I’m pretty good.” The kid sticks her tongue through the crack—purely as a spontaneous tactile experiment, no semiotics attached as far as I could tell.

“Hey,” I say. “If I tell you something to draw, will you work on a picture for me?”

The kid bounces in her seat. “Okay!”

Jackpot. “Great. I want you to draw a picture of your house, like, really big on some paper. And then draw small pictures of your favorite toys inside the house. And your whole family. And your pets. And trees and stuff in the yard. Got it?”

“Okay!” The kid turns to the hairdo and asks for crayons.

If this kid will draw anything I ask her to, she’s gonna be nice and busy for the rest of the flight.

I can come up with some doozies.