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Excerpt from new story-in-progress, "Knick Knock"

Friday 10/18/19

I have a short story called "Mint State 87" that Salmagundi published. It's in Cheer Pack: Stories. That's the collection that houses the stories from Glimmer Train (which folded because there's no short fiction market, given that almost all of it is awful), Harper's, the VQR (where I am now banned by their editor Paul Reyes who would rather publish this, because this is a "star" of publishing; honestly, have you ever read anything more pointless?), Commentary (which dropped fiction because, again, almost all of it is awful/there's no market as a result).


There is also a story in there that Harper's accepted, then the editor was fired, and that The Atlantic accepted before Ann Hulbert--their literary editor, who has cost me much in this life--unaccepted it. Same woman who made sure that a Beatles feature I wrote on Revolver in 2016 did not run because she said--this is funny--I added nothing new about the record (and is part of the reason I did not get a six figure job I was led to believe I was getting, and instead literally more than 100 other people were given instead, including people who have published next to nothing in their entire careers). Can you even imagine that? Me adding nothing new in anything, let alone a Beatles piece? More on her later. That story ("The Last Field"), accepted by Harper's and The Atlantic, is one I cannot give away for free to any literary magazine that is not even stocked in the few remaining bookstores, with a circulation of 500, because of the blackballing. It's almost comical, no? We'll show you, Colin, we have this power over you. Okay.


(My bad: The Kenyon Review accepted it for free for their website. Their website features, for the most part, people just starting out. They said they wouldn't pay me. I said, no, I can't give you this story for your website for free. They also knew its recent history. David Lynn, their editor, then banned me for life. Hell, they could have stuck it in the print magazine for fifty bucks, which meant that I lost almost four grand, but just some small measure of respect, of not treating me--with my all-timer of a story--like I was some unpublished, twenty-four-year-old with a piece of MFA detritus, fresh from my workshop. That I did not get on my knees and thank them means you are done, cooked, banned, forever badmouthed in their circles. That is what you're dealing with with these people.)


And it's on account of the blackballing that the great story collection containing works from the likes of those places--not that venue really means anything in publishing, because hardly anything happens because something is good; it's almost always about other things--cannot be put out right now. It's like my greatest hits book. Well, it was. A number of the stories I've written going back to last June--"Dunedin," "Fitty," "Pillow Drift," "Funny Lines TK," "Nacho Cheese," "Floor It A.C.," "Post-Fletcher," "Staycation"--will comprise another greatest hits book. What I mean by that is that these are like your big, hook-y, singles. "Hey Jude," "She Loves You," "I Feel Fine," "I Want to Hold Your Hand." Not that they're better than the others. But the others might be more like album cuts. It's not a perfect analogy. "Mint State 87" is a Christmas story, involving two reoccurring characters in my fiction, Padraig and Lorcan. They are Irish criminals--though not horrible people--and close friends. It's a Lorcan story. Padraig is off-stage.


This week I began another Christmas short story. I have no idea when anyone will ever see it, because, of course, of this situation I am in. I only know, right now, that it is special. When you compose a story, you want to hit a tone, you want that tonal groove, you want to nail it, then you're riding in the highest-energy portion of that wave. Big Bill Broonzy, the bluesman, called this hitting the right lick. You know when you hit it. I hit it early. In the first sentence. With "Fitty"--and this is happening more and more now, in the past several months--I hit the tone/lick before I had written a single word. When I say I'm getting better all the time, that's along the lines of what I mean. I don't mean that the final result, the final work of art is better.


I started out thinking--before I wrote a word--I'd write this kind of crazily scary Christmas story. But as I began and it started to become that, it became more. A lot more. I want it to be the Christmas ghost story, but also beyond a Christmas story. I've seen no tone like this. When you are not a system person and they're not looking to hook you up--and I'll never be a system person and they'll include me only when they have no choice, because I'm simply that big--they'll pop in anything you do. You can urinate on the page and they will put it in. Otherwise, if you are not a system person and you somehow make it through, chances are you did so with a retread of a bad story that resembles other bad stories. Do something new, and you have basically no chance.


Nothing unnerves, disturbs, panics these people as much as inventive writing (especially if it's done by a white male who is an expert on many things and is self-made and who also produces/invents more in a random week than they do in their lives). They have all of these rules and hallmarks they go in looking for. This story already destroys preconceived notions of form, expands ideas of possibilities. I was doing it, and I'm like, huh, okay, this is going to a different place, you want to see where that goes, or do you want to cut it, and do it dry? By do it dry, I mean cut the tops and bottoms and edges off, take out tonal elements, go straight up directional. De-tapestry. Or do we give in to the tesselation, but keep it tight, tesselate, but on the beat, so to speak? Trust the genius, see where it takes us? What I saw developing was my unique horror story--which now had other horror elements--but also a kind of treatise, plus a work of unlikely friendship, humor, philosophy, post-modernism, throwback, uncanny mulling/observational exploration, memoir-y, antiquarian work with a preternatural felicity in terms of pop culture--that's a cool blend--and also what one might think of as scholarly knowledge, but with that knowledge deployed in a conversational, accessible way so that no reader thinks they're being left out or talked down to. With edge. And a great story--by which I mean concept and plot--too. You have a castle, but it's not a castle story. Not like that. There will be a bird blind, and this will be, to understate matters, a unique bird blind.


You can't say to gatekeepers at magazines and journals, "be on the lookout for material like this." It's innovative, it connects. That would be what I always look for, but that's not what these people look for. They're looking for old things that never had any real value that they recognize, that have no value for readers, less than ever before because people have so many more options now, and no one on the outside is going to waste their time or disposable income on the effluvia of a broken system that has rendered itself so far of of people's radar as to not even exist for them. Publishing has black-holed itself. It might as well exist in a black hole.


I'm not saying that innovative, connective, entertaining, sustaining new work is out there in any real quantities. But what happens is that no one even tries to write it, tries to develop their abilities to write it. They just imitate the bad forms. That's what the dying system teaches. Rewards (it also rewards cronyism, going to the right school, trading on gender, racebaiting, etc.). Such as being in the Idaho Review, to receive no money, and be read by absolutely nobody, is a reward. (And they're only going to stick in another terrible Joyce Carol Oates story anyway, so you have to wait in line until Mitch Wieland is done hooking up the likes of her so he can brag about that on Facebook when she flies out to Idaho to talk to creative writing grad students in an attempt to get more people to pay an obscene amount of money to learn how to think and write like this in their MFA program, so maybe you, too, can someday be like Joyce Carol Oates! Never mind that they've all killed off reading in the process, and all that exists now is their clannish, incestuous mini-mini-mini world where they trade favors with each other and pretend to read each other's work, but they don't read it either.) But that's all there is, until--and if--somebody changes all of this. ALL OF IT. That's what I'm trying to do.


Here's the excerpt.


My neighbor is cheerful and she loves me, yet when I describe her this way, I fear that I am guilty of misrepresentation, because I love her, too. My obfuscation is not deliberate. Citing someone’s affection for us reveals what we believe their feelings to be, while we hold ours back, suggesting, if only for a moment, that this love is one-sided, that we have power in the relationship because we care less and are thus not as vulnerable.


That is why I am upfront. I love my neighbor, who is cheerful and also loves me, though her outward attitude masks issues with which she has to contend. She will sleep for eighteen hours at a time, anxiety can render her insensate, a block of baked clay; fear will cause her to shake within herself, stay inside the home. Sometimes I feel like my role in our relationship is to get her too come out, be that for a walk, a hot chocolate, a trip to the movies, or out of her own head.


She is a teenager and I am fifty, though I can pass for thirty, which I attribute to my Portuguese blood, and that I am in ceaseless motion. I walk everywhere, I climb thousands of stairs a day, because I fight to cling to life on account that I don’t feel the life I really want has ever started. She lives with her parents, naturally; I live alone, perhaps unnaturally. When I say that her life is just starting out, I mean that, and it is tempting to shift into a corollary where I add that my life is over, it has run aground, that I have known only loss, that my dreams for a happiness I envision and hope for are larger than those of any child’s, the grandest, most imaginative dreamers of us all, and that is not very practical for a person halfway to 100.


Which is to say, they cannot and will not occur. I feel I should say that, the above construction leads me into it. But I do not wish to, and I am not certain I must. Yet.


I think I could live another forty plus years, though most days I do want to die, and I wonder if I am acting cowardly because I have not gone ahead and done so, leapt into a different world that might be a better fit for me.


I don’t believe we just die, and you’re in the earth, or scattered as ash, or in heaven or hell. What happens is probably something no one has surmised, never come close to postulating, stumbling over, having had vaguely fire in a synapse of their brain. But there is likely an element of a journey, of successive planes. A painting comprises foreground, middle ground, background. Perhaps the skin sack-made-up-mainly-of-water-on-two-legs portion of your involvement in the schema of existence is the foreground installment. Corners await. Background will keep. There is the top layer of color, but there are also the layers of the palimpsest. You don’t cease, so much as become redistributed. One day you’re impasto, another time the wood of the frame, further on you are gessoed.


That is probably also wrong. I do grim math. I calculate the time I might have left, if anything should change for me, and I pit that block of time, as a mathematical unit, against lives that ended tragically or prematurely. Musicians who died at twenty-seven, for instance. Lots of artists and writers died around forty. And I think about how much enjoyment John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix had in their lives, and I could still have more time left than either of them had in the whole of their respective journeys; I could have all of Hendrix’s plus half of Lennon’s. So I don’t kill myself that day, maybe.


Caitrin is my neighbor. I am Derek. This is a Christmas story I am going to tell, because I promised I would make something special for her this year, by which I meant I would try to reach beyond the ordinary—a couple vinyl albums from the record shop—because I have let her down.


The Christmas stories I have known often operate with a rubric of a put-upon uncle, who visits his brother’s family but once a year—for he is a great traveler—ascending to home and hearth and honoring the entreaties of a gaggle of crawling nieces and nephews to regale all with an account of the spectral. He tells them a mysterious tale from his wanderings, sans earthly explanation. There was a four-poster bed at a hotel in London, for instance, whose sheets, possessed of elfin agency, pinioned his body to the pine columns while he was forced to watch nightmarish scenes play out upon the overhanging tester panel that had now become a nickelodeon from hell. Nobody sleeps that night, but Claus presumably completes his work. In the morrow, the uncle travels on.


“Don’t make me Christmas rape you,” Caitrin warned me, when she did agree to come out to the café for a hot chocolate.


This is how she talks when she loves you. It is what my father would have called her way. I had just disappointed her. For over a decade now, I have spent Christmas alone. The first year was when my marriage ended. That is again a misleading statement, because it did not end, so much as exist in the morning, then cease to exist at night, when my wife disappeared. I did not even hear the car start.


I do not have lines around my eyes, but that was when I first started looking for them in mirrors. The bow hunter searches for his quarry in forests, but most of us do our hunting in glass. I expected them to be there right away after that, but again, the Portuguese blood, perhaps, or that I gave up drinking. I tried to compose myself by composing my thoughts, on paper, that first Christmas alone, but something had burst in my lungs, and as I wrote—I don’t recall what I wrote; maybe I simply drew three-dimensional cubes—I spit up blood into a Boston Ballet coffee cup, which made me think of marbits, menses, and manèges all at once.


The idea that I would die if I spoke aloud to anyone in my life—friend or family member—took hold immediately. It was something I knew without questioning. Not in my gut, as people say; it’s as if portions of our brains can be sealed over by a form of certainty, an unquestionable, instantly-arrived epoxy, which is painted there, pastes in the cracks. When you have a cut you can use super glue to close the wound if you react quickly enough. This can be a cut that is sufficiently deep that it would otherwise require stitches. My brain had a cut like that, and that certainty I felt on that first Christmas alone was the super glue. It shut my mouth as well.

There were provisions of practicality. I could, for example, go to a holiday party the night before. I wouldn’t enjoy myself, I’d listen to men who normally didn’t get much opportunity to hold court—given their responsibilities at home with their kids, under the weather eye of their wives, the true roost-runners—have a few pops and belts, then it was go-time for that long-stored lecture on how Rogue One is the best Star Wars film and Tom Brady was not that different from me and you.


They’d have a hand on my shoulder by that point, like I was their kid and a shaving lesson was about to follow. I’d ride home late—but always before midnight—thinking how most people in this life are just waiting for their chance to talk. Again I have hit a prospective corollary where I might flow into a connective statement that that’s how I was with my wife, waiting for my chance to talk. Let me address that this way. There are amazing songwriters who nonetheless go for the rhyme when it presents itself, rather than the sense. They sell out to the rhyme. I wonder if they think, “eh, I’ll make it up on the sense end somewhere else.” I listened. It wasn’t that.


Caitrin is a child, and to a child we may convey that which we feel—we may not be able to help it sometimes—and not that which we know. The latter involves tangles of words, a brambling of the totality of our thoughts and emotions, all of the latent meaning behind the assorted symbols of our soul’s coat of arms. You do not weary a child with all of that, though you do row, solitary-style, in your own private wherry, along your river, and you hope that adults standing on the bank, on their patch of dry land, their outcrop, have some conception of the measurements of your craft. I guess that’s what we call being less lonely. Maybe that’s why Handel made such a big deal about dry land in Messiah.


I will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land.


“You are coming upstairs for Christmas with us, man.”


When Caitrin is serious, she will add the “man” part. I told her that I could not. That for a long time I had spent Christmas alone, and until my life was what I wished it to be—in other words, maybe never—I would have to continue with this tradition, but I could see her on Christmas Eve, or on Boxing Day, which she had never heard of, so I told her what that meant. One of the provisions of what I will call my Christmas certainty was that I could talk to people I didn’t know. I could buy a slice of pizza and I didn’t have to act out my order in sign language. I could get an extra slice and give it to a homeless guy outside, wish him a Merry Christmas, though I felt like an ass when I said that in the circumstances, but it might be the only time I spoke all day. I could talk to myself. Anything else and I would die.


“Don’t make me Christmas rape you, D,” she finished by way of repetition. Call it her threat of affection. “I will drag your Portuguese ass upstairs and cram candy canes into you. I love you, man.”


There is a castle, north of where we live, and while that may sound fatuous—it’s not like we live in an old King’s Quest computer game—it is true. The castle dates to the early twentieth century, when it was built by an inventor who had some obscene amount of patents—I believe it was over 200—and was like a more practical iteration of Tesla, with a jonesing for Medieval lore. He did something with spark plugs and back-up generators.


Thus, a castle in New England. It was to this castle that I had decided to go on Christmas, because if Caitrin knocked on my door, I did not want to pretend I was not there, and while I suspected all I had to do was say a word to someone who cared about me to cease to be, I didn’t want to give that to her as a memory, let alone a Christmas memory. Plus, I was still holding on to my math, the pitting of my potential remaining time units against those already used up by Lennon and Hendrix.


This was not an easy castle to get to, given certain realities—an absence of a car—of my circumstances.