Cat Box Blues (Story Excerpt No. 8)

After last night’s storm, my campus shortcut is mud. From the edge of the community garden, I toe a muck mound next to a carrot patch, another one by the lettuce. Nope, no can do—not in holey canvas Chucks. And now I’m officially running  late despite best efforts.

I backtrack swiftly, jog along alleys, jump puddles with cartoonish animation so remote from my mood as to be criminal. Here’s another should-be crime: although summer classes are done, I was out of bed by eight AM to make Mr. Crosthwaite’s ridiculous office hours. Excuse me: office hour. All I want is blankets and darkness and silence; all I get is unwitting exertion beneath the Kansas summer sun.

On that topic, I’ll add air conditioning to my list of wants. It’s only nine-thirty and already oppressive heat bathes me in sweat. The morning sky is ablaze, brilliant blue. I shrink from the firmament, my gaze cast groundward as I slog up Fourteenth Street. I wipe my damp forehead with a likewise-damp forearm and sigh. Then, chagrin: I recognize this gesture as a copy of my mother’s hot-flash tell. Well, that’s just perfect.

(I’d say, “Mom, are you okay?” and Mom would bark that bitter post-divorce laugh-like sound and say, “My superpower is to completely ignore the egregious shit that life throws my way.” And then I’d say, “Oh.” And then I’d say, “Um, are you sure you’re okay?” And she would fan herself and say simply, “Yes, dear.”)

Ignore it! I tell myself. It’s a little warm, what’s the big deal? But the sun throbs deifically overhead. I slow my climb, sweating. A rivulet runs down my spine beneath the cotton Clash T-shirt. The big deal is, I realize, there’s no escape. Rivulets run down my cheeks.

As I crest the hill onto campus, Dyche Hall rises into view, and I head southbound along Jayhawk Boulevard. The school grounds are quiet. Humidity rises from untrodden green lawns. Moisture from the pavement evaporates unevenly, and Rorschach blots on pale concrete provoke interpretation. There’s a bird, there’s a car, there’s beautiful Sean’s bedhead-hair. There’s Janet flipping me off good-naturedly. And look, there’s my geek ex Eddie in his Mariners cap and Werner Heisenberg hoodie with a bag of Cheetohs and a sardonic grin.

No escape.

Winded, I park my Chucks on Janet’s imagined face. My fingers scrabble around in my backpack, bounce off the phone in there, and I squeeze my eyes shut: nope, nope, restraint. I extract the Pall Mall box instead, tap its end. Out slides the remaining cigarette, bent but thankfully unbroken. I touch the lighter in my jeans pocket—then think twice, withdraw. Man, it’s getting bad. The past three cigarettes were each, in succession, supposed to be my last. Such a liar-to-myself. Well, then again—each of those cigarettes was my last, at least for a while. Up until the point I smoked another one.

The truth changes.

 I slide this one behind my ear and shove the empty box into the backpack’s depths. I peer inside the bag, shake things up, rattle past the class journal and water bottle: there it is. I grab my phone and punch at its smooth face with my fingers, stare at the notification.

Yep. Still there. And yet I still can’t quite believe it.

Voicemail. From Eddie.

A message from Eddie, as yet unplayed, after months of the stonewall-silent-treatment-cold-shoulder. It’s Schrödinger’s cat in my inbox, neither heard nor unheard, dead nor alive. Now, of all times. Now, after all this. Why? What does he want? Did Eddie psychically tap into my weekend’s despair—subconsciously prompted, he calls to ask forgiveness? To say he wants me back? Unplayed, unheard—that cat is still in the box, and still in the bag.

Zip up the backpack. Keep walking. Wipe sweat from brow. What’s crazy is, I don’t even care what Eddie has to say. It took me six weeks in Kansas to finally get over him, to finally want something—someone—else. And as of Saturday night, the future I had finally come to want is forfeit.

My superpower is the provocation of brutal irony.

Mr. Crosthwaite told us in class that the mere observation of a quantum-level phenomenon changes that phenomenon. Might that be true too of me and my-level phenomena? If I had just stayed in bed, would none of it have happened? If I hadn’t lingered in the kitchen Saturday night—if I hadn’t been standing there in the dark, illuminated by an open fridge—if I hadn’t loaded up on post-party-drunkard orange-juice-in-a-coffee-cup and coming-down-potato-chips and too-hyped-up-to-sleep-Cinnamon-Toast-Crunch-no-milk—if I hadn’t been just standing there, observing….

Maybe Janet and Sean would not have sneaked out of her room giggling like children, messy-haired and ruddy-cheeked. Janet wearing Sean’s T-shirt, its edges down to her upper thighs. Sean wearing only wrinkled shorts and a beautiful goldfish tattoo. Maybe they wouldn’t have entered the dark kitchen, whispering about sandwich fixings and switching on the light, and maybe I wouldn’t have been standing there holding a single potato chip aloft, ready for a bite, frozen in surprise and then in shock and then in dread.

We three stared at each other for a long minute. Janet crossed her arms over her chest. “Hey. I didn’t know you were up.”

“Sean?” I said, setting the potato chip down on the counter. I didn’t predict it at the time, but that chip would sit lonely, uneaten, for the rest of the weekend. So close had it come to fulfilling its destiny—yet its sole purpose d’etre remained wanting. Eventually Viv would get home and clean the kitchen and throw it in the compost with an angry mutter.

“Hi there,” Sean said. Seriously. Just as friendly and nonchalant as he’d been at the coffee shop, at the July Fourth fireworks, at the party. Just a nice, friendly guy. “It’s Wil, right? You live here too?”

Did he just say It’s Wil, right? like he only vaguely remembers?

Janet said, “Did you have fun at the party?” and smiled. Like she knew. Like she’d planned this. Egregious.

Or maybe it was just a nice, friendly smile.

I turned in, but I couldn’t sleep. Later I heard Janet and Sean talking and laughing through the wall. Then their voices fell quiet—and what remained was the occasional, subtle sound of movement and soft sighs. I rolled over to silently weep, and that’s when I saw the message on my phone from Eddie. Brutal irony! I was so surprised, I laughed right through the tears.

Not a laugh: a bitter laugh-like sound.

I stayed in bed until Sunday afternoon, numb and nauseous. I could neither sleep nor face the day. A cat in its cozy Schrödinger box—hanging out perpetually at the quantum level—strategically unobserved and thereby foregoing reality’s vicious collapse.

Dammit, I want to smoke the thing behind my ear so desperately. I should have thrown it away, like I planned. So will I throw it away—like I planned? Will I purposefully savor the predictable but inevitable growing sense of yearning, push through the anguish of withdrawal bravely, prove to myself my own inner strength and power of restraint—like I planned?

The lower east entrance of Wescoe Hall, all concrete and angles, is a sheltering little nook under the broad overhang of the main entrance stairs. Beyond the glass door is an empty hallway, ostensibly leading to Mr. C’s office. But before I pull the door open, my gaze recalibrates to catch my reflection in its surface. Hair in a frizz-haloed ponytail, eyes puffy and red. Better take a moment and gather as much dignity together as possible before facing Crosthwaite again.

“You’re my first student to simply not finish the final writing assignment,” Mr. C told me. “May I ask, why?” It was Thursday, the last day of class, after everyone else had dropped their journal off at his desk. Meanwhile, I had approached empty-handed and said with a shrug, “Sorry, but thanks anyway.”

I’d figured he would just ignore me. Since he didn’t, I was taken off guard. “I got distracted,” I explained, nonchalant. Oh man, I was so happy that day. Was it really less than a week ago? Way back when, Sean seemed imminently part of my most promising future. “You can fail me. It’s fine.”

Mr. Crosthwaite adjusted his glasses, as if he didn’t trust their clarification of the very sight of me. “Interesting transitive use of the verb ‘fail,'” he said. Then after a moment, he added, “Drop off your class journal during my Monday office hours, between nine and ten.”

“I didn’t do the assignment,” I insisted.

“Bring in what you have.”

“I probably won’t have time.”

“And if I don’t see you Monday—”

“I get it. I know. I’ll fail!”

“—I was simply going to say, I hope you’ll keep writing. You have a gift.”

I was on a giddy Sean-high that day. And in that moment, Mr. Crosthwaite’s words seemed like mere superficial icing on a crazy-delicious Sean-crush-cake. I probably smirked and rolled my eyes. I can imagine myself doing those things. Maybe I just smiled and walked away. I hope so.

Because today, Croshtwaite’s words echo in my heart’s empty chambers. Today they’re etched in my bones.

In the shade of Wescoe Hall’s upper level overhang, I rest against the wall, cool down. I smooth my hair back into the elastic band, and accidentally knock the cigarette from my ear. I pounce after it as it rolls to the base of a cement-enclosed trashcan.

As I pick up the cigarette, I notice a curious pool of rainwater in the can’s dented metal cap. Such a spacious dent—as if a boulder had fallen on it, or someone smashed it with a bat. I peer down into that shallow pool, glimpse a subtle shift along its surface. The movement below is a reflection of movement above: a V of birds crosses overhead, dark silhouettes against the rippling blue brilliance. I look up from the trash toward the real birds in the real sky, just as they dip and disperse, swoop and glide—from perfect order to seeming chaos, yet just as beautiful.

The geese have no mind to leave their reflection in water. Water has no mind to reflect their image.

Gently I lay my bent cigarette down in the dent pool. I watch it absorb the rainwater. I observe it transform—from cruel temptation to benign soggy refuse.

Ready?, I ask the girl in the door glass, self-fanning. Are you sure you’re okay?

I’m just in time. I push past my reflection and move on down the hall.

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Cats in oil on canvas.
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Over the Moon but Earthbound

I’m simply over the moon. A screenplay I wrote Protection made the finals at Cinequest Film & VR Festival, and won third place in the Destiny City Film Festival short script competition. Although it’s just a short, Protection represents months of gradual progress, indispensable advice from other writers, and the sticking-place destination of some serious courage-screwing on my part.

Harsh reality, please do not kill my lunar buzz quite yet.

But oh, man. There’s still such a long way to go.

At some future festival, I hope to take pride in an actual film based on a story I’ve written. After all, the dream is to see words come to life on the screen. But that’s more than I can produce alone, and I can only control my part toward its fulfillment.

What lies beyond writing-related goals—measurable, executable, and in my control—is that dream. And although its hope alone may fuel the often arduous work of writing, its ultimate manifestation is out of my hands.

So following this moonstruck sojourn, I’ll gravitate back to Earth—and back to work.

5th Annual Destiny City Film Festival poster by Carla Bartow

Respite from Brevity

On the eve of National Novel Writing Month, two old saws combat one another in the folk-wisdom of mind. Is it insanity to expect a different result from repeating the same behavior? If at first you don’t succeed, should you try again—and again?

Halloween spirit rises to its pitch, and I face the horrifying, exhilarating prospect of another NaNoWriMo: write a 50,000-word novel in one month. Reckless, I preregister on the website and revel in the combined sense of dread and euphoria. I consider the word-count stats of previous failures, and shrug off bitterness, square my shoulders against regret. I declare a freethinker’s intent to shoot for a lower word-count of my own choosing. We’re all winners here, right? But I can’t help but wince at the sting of truth. NaNoWriMo makes a regular loser of me.

Is this persistence or neurosis? Idiocy or grit?

50,000 words in thirty days. Overwhelming. Unfathomable.

Exciting.

“What’s wrong with me?” I ask myself as I set the clock’s alarm back a precious half-hour, prepping for tomorrow’s first early writing session. “I don’t have time for this,” I mutter, the old annual mantra, as I squirrel away little blank notebooks along the path of my daily routine. “What’s the point,” I groan as I block off a lunch break on my calendar with a single note: WRITE.

What numinous allure compels such masochism? What drives any sane person to even consider engaging NaNoWriMo each November? In anticipation of my imminent self-humbling, I’ve tried to capture its appeal in a few words here (and this is the last time I’ll idealize brevity in my creative life until December):

NaNoWriMo lends validation to perform poor-quality writing in the name of unleashed creativity. In fact, it insists upon it, via the sheer weight of its word-count goal. There’s no time for revising, no time for second-guessing. Essentially, NaNoWriMo propels a month-long brainstorm—from which insight and innovation occasionally, happily emerge.

It sanctifies procrastination in the name of single-minded focus. During these hallowed weeks, other writing and creative projects take the mental backburner. Although childcare and professional responsibilities remain understandably at the fore, inessential housework does not. In November, pizza and sandwiches regularly find their way to the dinner table. Dust bunnies find a home underneath it.

It provides a means of mental-plane solidarity among writers, creators, and daydreamers. Beyond social media hashtags and swag, the event stands alone as a genuine feat of connectedness and positive creative energy.

Finally, NaNoWriMo sets up the basis for a deep sense of personal accomplishment. Even if all 50,000 words don’t make it to the page, that gratification will be there nonetheless. That compound effect of thirty-days’ effort awaits, along with a great sense of pride… and just maybe a rough first draft (or at least a few good ideas).

These are the rewards that lead me back to National Novel Writing Month—to try and try again, as crazy as it may be. And as for the question, What’s the point? Consider a new, improved annual mantra, with gratitude to artist Francis Bacon: “Since everything’s so meaningless, we might as well be extraordinary.”

Best wishes to all 2017 participants.

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And/Both

I’m thrilled to announce that my (er, humorous?) short essay on balancing parenthood and creative endeavor appears in the Fall 2017 issue of And/Both magazine.

And/Both is a new art and literature publication based out of my former home state of Kansas, making this a double honor.

The debut issue comes out in November, and pre-orders are available now at http://andbothmagazine.bigcartel.com.

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For more information, visit http://www.andbothmag.com or http://www.facebook.com/andbothmag.

 

Story Excerpt No. 7

A new sign graces Massachusetts Street’s eastern storefront row, between the pet store and the bagel shop—a simple plaque above the door of Rose Red Vintage. Until this morning, taped-up butcher paper had obscured an inside view through the front windows. The paper is now gone, the shop interior exposed. Inside, fixtures jut from the floor in varying states of assembly, nude mannequins recline in stiff repose, and boxes overflow with incipient retail stock.

With focused intent, Vivian flits from place to place in the room—roots through a toolbox on the counter, attaches hooks to a rack, kneels near a paint pan in the corner, dabs a brush over an imperfection in the wall. It’s as if she’s moving in one smooth workflow, choreographed and precise. And despite the event of her manual labor, she’s dressed in casual 1950s vintage style, wearing tan Capris and a sleeveless burberry blouse.

Vivian is a phenomenon.

Outside the heavy wooden door, I drag from the last of my cigarette. The notion dawns on me: At this very instant, I’m witnessing the execution of a long-pursued dream. It’s of sociological interest. A rarity. I toss the butt down and grind it out with my toe, then shove at the door. It’s locked, so I knock and wave.

Viv throws the bolt and welcomes me with a smile. “Hi, Wil. Come on in.”

“The place looks great.” I plop my backpack down on the front counter. “So your booth at the antique mall—?”

“Closed for business, as of yesteday.” Vivian wipes her hands on her vintage pants, entertaining no precious second thoughts. She gestures at the scattered boxes and racks around us. “Everything’s here now. I really appreciate your help—let me buy you breakfast. I’m thinking bagels from next door.”

“Sure. Thanks.”

“While I’m gone…” Viv grabs a hammer from a toolbox on the counter and hands it to me. “Can you tighten up that shelving unit? Pound on the upper corners?”

She leaves me to it. I heft the hammer, guage its weight, wonder at its long and robust history in service to mankind. If I had a hammer, I’d hammer in the morning… I could imagine my mother singing the rest, implementing a hippy moment at the offered opportunity. I perform the requested work awkwardly—to be expected of someone who just never hammers, you know? Yet nonetheless finds themselves hammering away one morning indeed—and in open view of the busiest street in town. After I’m finished, I entertain a mixed sense of relief, uncertainty, and overblown self-satisfaction.

Unsure of what to do next, I wander along the periphery of the shop interior, exploring the nascent layout. I hum the “I’d hammer out a warning” part, quietly. A basket of shoes sits in one corner. A clothes rack runs along the north wall, already burdened with hanging bundles of coats under plastic wrap; an exquisite green-velvet cloak hangs unwrapped at the end. Near the changing room, an antique trunk overflows with gloves and scarves. Next to that stands a full-length mirror with a claw-foot base.

I take a walk, take it all in, and take a seat on a stool near the counter. I spin on the stool, slowly. Then faster. Rose Red Vintage becomes a blur of colors and shapes. A dream fulfilled… Dizzy, I stop spinning and crook my feet in the brace of the stool legs. I stretch out my arms and gaze down their familiar length where they stick out from the sleeves of the battered Black Flag T-shirt. I kick out my feet, observe the plain blue jeans, the second-hand Vans. Imagine what it must feel like! I catch a glimpse of my reflection in the mirror: stool-splayed ridiculousness. “I look crazy,” I whisper, and tuck my legs back in, fold my arms over my chest. The reflection’s new narrative: a dignified figure seated coolly above the floor-scattered disarray of someone else’s dream.

Ah, yes. That’s better.

If I had a hammer, I fear it’d be wasted on me. I mean, look at this place: Vivian is on the brink. She forged the path. Fulfillment. Validation. A wish come true. If I had a hammer, I don’t even know what I’d do with it. Since school let out, what more have I aspired toward than a free beer at Janet’s bar? A word of encouragement in Mr. Crosthwaite’s writing class? A simple, friendly glance from beautiful Sean—the ultimate redemption?

Allured by the green velvet cloak at the end of the rack, I slide down from the stool, sidle toward it. My bare arms glide along the cloak’s silk lining as I fasten a large onyx bead into the loop at my throat. Beautiful green fabric embraces me. I step in front of the mirror, Vans and claw feet parallel to one another. Vintage-cloaked-me looks like a kid playing superhero with a blanket cape. I shake my head, amused by the sight—and then I nearly jump out of my skin when a white rat skitters past in the mirror’s reflection, crossing the floor behind me.

“Oh-my-gosh!” I cry, whirling around, the cloak’s fabric billowing dramatically. The rat stops at the center of the room and pops its head up. It sniffs the air, its pink eyes on me. I take a deep breath. “Oh, boy,” I sigh. Viv is going to freak out.

Think fast, I think slowly. I could throw the cloak at it, like a net… I unhook the bead from the loop and remove the cloak with no sudden movements. The rat huddles down, whiskers twitching, but it stays put. Yet even as I take a tentative step toward it, I realize—I have no idea how old this cloak is, how valuable. Vivian might freak out about a rat in her new shop, but she’ll definitely kill me if I catch a rat in prize vintage velvet, regardless of any good intentions.

Carefully, I hang the cloak on the rack. The rat watches me with a sidelong gaze. I scan the room. My own gaze lingers on the hammer in the toolbox. A pertinent thought barely dawns before I shudder, dismiss, move on. Next, the shoe basket catches my eye. Perfect… But can I turn overturn it, empty it out, without scaring the rat away? I take a ginger step toward the basket. The rat hops forward uncertainly. I stop. It stops.

I step, it hops.

“All right. Look,” I say, forced to resort to pleading reason. “You can’t stay here, you need to go back to the pet store. There’s no food here, no water.”

The rat moves in a circle, sniffing the floor.

I step, it hops.

“Okay. Listen.” I try again. “Some kid’s gonna adopt you, any day now.” The rat casts its gaze at me skeptically. “Maybe a freshman,” I add. “Maybe you’ll live in the dorms? Party every weekend!”

Apparently it’s not a selling point. The rat lopes off quickly, headed straight toward the changing room. “Wait!” I hiss, and pace after it. With a scrabble of claws on the concrete floor, the rat squeezes its plump white body under the door, a seeming-impossible feat.

“Dammit.” I whirl around and run back to the corner to grab the shoe basket. In an unceremonious wake of dainty antique lady-shoes, I return to the changing room with the empty basket in my grip.

I pause, one hand on the doorknob. I quell a prophetic vision of a hundred rats waiting inside the little room, a nightmarish furry mass of beady eyes and claws and teeth. Bracing myself with faith in reality —though that, shaky at best—I twist the knob and pull the door open.

The rat is gone.

I’m amazed. I kneel down to inspect the back wall. Along the edge where the wall meets the floor is a crack in the concrete, no more than an inch wide. I try to peek inside the crack, but it’s not really a hole. There’s just more crumbled concrete and dirt.

I sit down on the floor. “I know you’re in there,” I say. I lean against the back wall, gazing out at the main floor through the doorway: a new remote perspective from this stark box of a changing room. “And I can’t imagine what you’ve been through, the choices you’ve had to make,” I continue. “To escape. To be out on your own like this. I’m sure it was scary. Is scary.”

The bolt on the main door makes a chunking sound.

“But wonderful, too,” I add. “You’re free.”

The heavy door swings open. Vivian enters, keys jingling and bagel bags rustling in hand.

I lean down toward the crack in the floor . “But rats are bad for business,” I whisper confidentially. Like a mob boss. Drug lord. Bad cop on the take. “And you and me? We’re not done here.”

“Wil?” calls Viv from the front counter. “What’s with all the shoes…”

I jump up, dust off my rump, and mentally craft the cover-up tale via rapid fire of desperate neurons. “It’s about time,” I call back, and I head out to meet her. “I’m starving over here.”

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Wall sticker found in Seattle’s “ghost alley”: rat ouroboros woodcut by artist Zardulu

Groundwork

I have no innate sense of direction. When tasked with an important appointment in unfamiliar territory, I like to make a preliminary visit to my destination—and ideally, I like to walk around. Often such a scenario is simply not feasible. Time, distance, and convenience limit such a luxury. But when it is possible and I take the opportunity, much of my new-situation anxiety falls away. Walking provides a means to get a feel for a place at ground level. Walking is slow: it provides the details. Walking is meditative: it allows the mind to make connections to what the senses perceive.

I’ve recently realized an equivalent tendency in the realm of my writing. I began a new story several months ago in the form of feature-length screenplay. As I struggled and struggled—with the outline, the direction, the theme, the beats—as I set it aside repeatedly in exchange for shorter, swiftly-completed writing gratifications—I wondered. Maybe I’m just not up to the task? Maybe the idea is bad? Maybe both.

However, I was loath to give up on it entirely. I sorely miss working on a long storyline. I spent recent years—years—wrestling with a sprawling, epic novel, the end of which I simply could not reach. Although at times immensely frustrating, it was also the most fun I’ve ever had writing. I loved working on it despite the complexity.

But ultimately the novel became an exercise in futility: I was so deep in the weeds, so low to the ground, that I couldn’t keep the story moving in any one direction. I wanted to reach a worthwhile destination, but I was lost.

In school last year, I used that novel’s story as the subject of a screenwriting project. I was forced to rise above the details and simplify both my narrative and my thinking. I had to focus on basic plot points, singular character motivations, and essential themes. From the bird’s-eye vantage point of a screenplay beat sheet, the story’s destination came into view at last. The finished product isn’t perfect, but for now, I’m satisfied: that story exists. It has officially been told. I can make clean break and step away.

And I need to step away. The necessary work to finish a major writing project is more laborious sweat than creative spark. Right now, I don’t want sweaty labor to be the bulk of my creative life. I’m yearning for that early-stage spark. I want to regain that sense of story-passion. That sense of fun.

With this new story idea proving troublesome, I considered the wisdom of giving up. It seemed like a dead end. Yet still it lingered in the back of my mind….

And so it lingers today. Scenes appear in my imagination unbidden. Characters show up in insomniac hours to make conversation, and to make their pleas. Exhausted, I acquiesce. Fine, I’m listening.

Maybe they’re right.

Perhaps this new story does hold potential, considering my subconscious is so insistent (or is it my sanity fraying at last?). Maybe it is my next chance to reclaim that endurance-enabling creative passion. But to find out—to get there—I must feel the story, sink into it. I need to set aside the outline for a while, put away the beat sheet, stop overthinking the possible themes.

I need to walk through it at ground level.

I must slow down, go deep and detailed, get lost inside the minds of the characters, immerse myself awhile in the new imagined world. Direction and destination aren’t important during this preliminary amble. The goal is to sense-perceive the story in its incipiency.

Several days ago, I fired up Scrivener for the first time in a long while. I saved a novel template. I started writing prose: a purple, long-winded, overly-detailed account of my opening scene, complete with the character’s thoughts and feelings—what he saw, smelled, heard, tasted.

It was fun.

Each successive morning since then, I’ve awakened early and excited to return to that world, to squeeze in a tiny bit of writing time before morning’s workaday busyness sets in. If this excitement keeps up, and with the help of a parallel script-in-progress, I think I can navigate to the narrative’s end (eventually, anyway—as the crazy-working-mom schedule allows). Thanks to an awesome screenwriting instructor and gracious feedback from my writer’s group, I know much more about storytelling now than I did a few years ago. I hopefully have the skills now to alternate groundwork for a bird’s-eye view of the plot when it’s necessary to gain perspective.

But for me, it’s groundwork that fuels initial passion for a story. In the past, the energy generated by groundwork was what sustained me through the long trip of telling a tale—and it ultimately propelled my writing to its completion.

I hope that will be true of this story too.

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House Show (Story Excerpt No. 6)

 

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In a room full of strangers, I’m alone. The surface of a red plastic cup flexes under pressure from my fingers, and beer inside sloshes subtly. I gauge my surroundings: student-ghetto kitchen, my back to the sink, sundry Goodwill pots and pans in the dry rack. I look around at the people in my vicinity, briefly tune in on peripheral coversations. I consider interrupting someone, introducing myself, maybe asking for directions to the restroom—something. But upon my chest presses the invisible, awkwardly-splayed hand of social anxiety. Nah, says the hand’s master, you’d better just stay put.

A pod of savvy conversationalists migrates toward the living room, and as they pass, I hear murmurs of “They’re about to start.” Excitement subsumes anxiety. Curiosity pushes the invisible hand aside. I move through the kitchen as if through a rite of passage, my sneakers sticking to the floor in spots. I grasp my beer cup like a talisman, red for luck.

Under the threshold’s arch, I stand at the edge of a crowd smooshed into a room-shaped mass. Generally everyone faces the fireplace wall, where a band has finished setting up within the tiny space allotted. Among layers of human shapes between me and the cold fireplace, I discern musicians strapped with guitars.

I weave through the crowd, navigating among erratically-gesticulating bodies, protecting my beer cup. I take root in front of the bass cabinet. Okay, it’s not ideal in terms of bleeding ears. But just behind the cabinet stands a set of sliding patio doors: my emergency escape route, beloved by the panic-prone in a room at max capacity.

The band tunes and warms. Strings strum discordantly, drums snare-snap and thump. More people crowd in, streaming from the front porch and other areas of the house, and soon the living room is packed with bodies. The kitchen holds the overflow, and people have closed me in on all sides. My chest tightens. But I work to I keep calm, keep my gaze trained on the patio doors, beyond which the darkness of the summer night spreads quiet, open, and empty. Meanwhile, within these walls, the humid air is alive with mingled scents—sweat, smoke, incense, marijuana, beer. My head spins as I breathe it all in.

Well, it could be worse.… I sip beer and concentrate on the band. The two burly dudes and petite girl in the band are drenched in sweat and cramped among their own equipment. They glance around at each other, then out at the room. The guitarist nods with finality, stares down at his hands, rocks on his feet in rhythm. The girl lowers her head, and long hair covers her eyes as she positions her bass guitar expectantly. The drummer lifts his sticks and clicks in time—one, two, three, four—

The room transforms. A wall of sound from the speakers electrifies the hot, damp human flesh and hair around me. Pummeling percussion draws us all in, mainlining us with a common pulse, a cyclical life-force-electrical lift and shudder. People begin to move: heads thrown forward and back, arms crowd-risen and topped by thrusting fists and devil’s-horns. Torsos rock rhythmically in place—though unable to gain additional space in the crowd, they’re unwilling to be still. Cannot be still. Guitar chords emphasize the overwhelming beat with spine-thrilling harmonics. The bass guitar’s colossal sound shudders through my body, vibrations entering through my feet and shoulders. Each note grabs and shakes my insides: overpowering, inexorable, utterly possessing.

It’s all so loud, I can’t hear myself breathe. Can’t hear myself think. I sink into the music, seep into it, close my eyes, clasp the red cup to my heart. Mathy hardcore mixed with dissonant metal riffs—this is not a style I listen to, or even normally like. But the unfamiliarity of the music only facilitates its total conquest. The dual song-screams of the guitarists resonate with primordial urgency. All thoughts of past and future fade, clobbered back into the subconscious’ dark corners, defeated by the animal present—destroyed by the percussive and clamorous here-and-now, as insisted upon by every fiber in my being, and by all joy of matter in the room….

Songs melt into one another, vaguely punctuated by passages of wailing feedback and cries from the crowd. Or is it all one eternal song? Time passes. Time morphs. Time ceases to mean anything more than the rhythm surrounding me. That rhythm transforms—speeds up, slows down, counts odd syncopations, ceases for brief passages of silence that carry their own crucial beat. Feedback screams and sustains. Chords change, melodies manipulate, sounds invoke emotions like demons from the heart. Sweat pours from the faces and arms of the musicians in front of me, but their concentration is uninhibited. The energy with which they have charged the room cycles back upon them, an electric loop. Empowered, they continue to play with violence and emotion despite the heat and the crowd. Invigorated, the crowd continues to thrive and pulse and writhe in time.

Then, as suddenly as it had started, the noise screeches to a halt. Mid-song, a guitar string springs from its formerly taut and tortured position on the instrument. It wavers in the air desperately at the tuning end of the fretboard, as if struggling to free itself. The guitarist looks to his bandmates questioningly—should he change the string, or abort the mission? The drummer shakes his head and holds one stick up, sweat flying from his brow and running into his eyes. At this weary gesture, the other band members raise their hands in farewell, then yank the instrument cords from their amplifiers.

People around me shove and shout and scream for more. Vitalized, I yell too, hands raised. But it’s no use: the band is finished. The crowd continues to fester and swoon with the last vestiges of shared energy.

Anxiety dispelled, I gaze at the teeming horde around me now with newfound affection. I finish the rest of my beer, warm and flat. The red cup is empty and my thirst is slaked.