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Grueling

Monday 1/27/20

Absolutely grueling today. A guy sees my piece on Joy Division that I completed over the weekend. I think it was the weekend. I write so much at this point even I cannot tell. Writes me this very sweet note, saying how brilliant I am, wow, he has never seen anyone write like this. Wants me on his pod to talk about Joy Division and "Ceremony." I'll do that. But what would this guy say if he knew Pitchfork just turned down this piece, no explanation (eh, why bother, right?) that has redefined what amazing writing is to this guy? No reason. First time this mag ever actually said anything. To me. Music guy. Perfect for them. Perfect subject matter, approach, better written. It is that gap that is the problem--the gap between the people in this industry, and the person out in the world who says, "Holy fuck I have never seen writing--art--like this." If you tried to explain what happens here to the latter, they'd never think that's how it goes. Because they would think that, by and large, the best wins out, but it is the opposite in this hellspace. It is complete insanity. And because I need money, I pitched them a Sunday Album review, and it is complete insanity that I have not written one yet, if you are familiar with what those are. I've pitched like twenty of them over the years.


This is fun. I wrote this awesome baseball op-ed. Editor tells me it is awesome. But they won't be able to use it. After assigning it. Because they got an op-ed on baseball from an ex-commissioner of baseball. So he wins out. They are not going to pay me, either. Now, this is about the best person I deal with, so there's not a lot I can do. Really should be paying me, but won't. And you know what I had to do? Well, first I sent them another idea to try and recoup the loss of money, because, what the fuck, if they want it, I'll just take six minutes (and you have no idea how draining having to do this all of the time is; it's not like "oh, it only took six minutes; it feels like it takes lifetimes off of your life doing this constantly) and crank out another excellent thing, and then I had to re-write something else for them, and hopefully nothing goes wrong with the piece I have now done twice after getting shafted through no fault of my own in the first place.


While I'm doing this, I have to take a 3100 word film essay that's going to pay me $500, and make it what ended up being 1000 words longer. Because I can't lose that money. They are putting the issue together and have been since last Sunday, so I am late, I can't chance it any longer. I'm not going into the venues here. These places are important to me and I need that money and more of it going forward.


I take the 4500 word Joy Division essay and I send it to someone else who owes me $1600. Guess how many words' worth of writing that was? About 30,000. No, that's not a typo. They received a 7700 word piece from me on moving over the weekend, which I am not counting towards the 30,000, because I don't know if they will want it. (Five different people at Longreads are ignoring me. Why? I'm not good enough? Come on. That ain't it.) They are going to run the essay on climbing the Monument, but i have to change stuff. And they'll run an essay on Joan Harrison, after I make ten pretty big additions. They have three other things of mine waiting to run.


I sent out some things, including "Fitty" to a place that had accepted a story of mine called "The Last Field" in June 2017. It was one of the two three top venues for fiction--in other words, not a literary journal, but a high circulation magazine (so think fucking fancy)--that along with the other fancy place for fiction wanted "Field," though both place reneged for different reasons. Pretty disturbing thing to happen to the same story, right? (A fucking story accepted by two places that between them at the time published 15 short stories a year, coming in cold, not from a system person, not from some agent they hook up, which is still all of this time later sitting here in my fucking possession.) One place said they dropped fiction. And now they are going to publish, they announced days ago, more fiction than ever. Maybe make the earlier thing right? Maybe publish the story you had accepted now that you can? Or say, "hey, look, dude, that was awful before, seems like you have 100 new stories, let's see if we can't come together on one, send us the five you feel strongest about, happy to jump on the phone with you." No. This same place made it very clear I would be hired for a full-time post, and then what happened...well, I have seen some stuff in my career, but that one, in terms of being beyond the pale, is up there, and I don't want to have to do a six-part series on here blowing everything up and saying how that went down and naming the names and posting the emails embarrassing people, among other things. I am trying to play ball. Trying every last which way. Fucking "Fitty," though. It does not get better than "Fitty." It would do something, man, it would go over massive.


I start sitting at the desk at 6 this morning. I did not stand up again until four this afternoon, when Emma knocked on my door. I must have looked like a zombie. I think I smell like piss. My two shirts I am wearing I learned were inside-out. I took the op-ed that was so great which I had done for the place with the nine million circulation or whatever it is, and I tried to sell it to two other places, but I am sure I will not get the courtesy of a reply from one, and at most a token blow-off from the other, though I have written a lot for each famous venue, and even these very sections. One owes me money ($150) going back two years.


Then it is late in the day, and I need to come up with an idea to talk on Downtown tomorrow, which doesn't pay me. So I come up with that. It doesn't really do anything for me, except--and this is why I do it--add to the vast horde of full-on radio art and entertainment I have already created. This mega-fucking giant body of work. For when I am not in this position. So that there is even more work for people to turn to, to drink and eat up, to study. Now (or, rather, then) and forever. I don't even stop to eat, but I vomit in a coffee cup on the desk. You know what I did first today, before the sun came up? I completed a short story I started I don't even know when it was. Saturday? Which I also wrote all night while I was sleeping, because I have had to train my fucking brain to write while I am asleep. Because I have written like three short stories since then, while doing all of this. And I did it first thing in the morning because I don't have a choice but to do the other stuff, because I need that fucking money. So if I do the story first--which the industry is not going to let come out right now, because of what I can do and how often I do it and how this system works--that means I am forced to do the other stuff. So it all ends up getting done. And that's how in one day you create a short story for the ages, a great op-ed, a great film piece, you put yourself in a position to move a great music piece, you agree to make another podcast appearance talking about post-punk this time, and you agree to talk on the radio about The Empire Strikes Back, Hank Mobley, and The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. Among other things. Because that's fucking normal. Anyone can do all of that. Nothing to see here. You put up two blogs, you start two others you will put up later. This is every day here. The short story is called "The Warm Boy." Here is an excerpt. Fucking pretty good, right? I am going to shower and vomit again.


***

The second boy comes to me with a hornet sting, and I am terrified, even though I know that Santos the custodial agent has yet to dispose of the hive outside.


Calling him Santos makes him sound Mexican like one is profiling, but it is the name he prefers to go by, and one must admit that the mustachios curling off the sides of his face render his Christian name of John anticlimactic. “Custodial agent” is his official title. Mine I sometimes imagine as medical intermediary, but the term nurse has not changed much through history. It has encouraging intactness.


Noah, the second boy, has a bee sting in the arm. He is allergic, and I administer the EpiPen. He sits with me so I can monitor that his throat does not close, which is also why he cannot eat his lunch, as I will now not eat mine. I wait for him to say something about the first boy with a sting, my son’s friend Evan.


“Is there something we can do for Evan?” my son Bradley has asked at dinner, asked of both me and my husband, Jacob, but mostly of me. I am associated with care. Keeping one from becoming careworn. A confusing word. Jacob is the bringer of the final word, one might say, in that Bradley will venture to the den where my my husband is to be found at night, post-dinner, pre-Bradley’s bedtime, with a ghost story or mystery, because he likes to read an hour a day.


My counsel trends to the physical. I use my body, how I will look at our son, touch. Jacob’s words translate my gestures into language, serve as confirmation, after Bradley has first come to me, albeit in a less direct manner. I would be lying if I said that this was not a time when being first mattered to me. I think I am more effective this way. A nurse’s parenting mode.

When Evan’s mother was dying of breast cancer, I told Bradley what to expect. The rapidity. He asked how fast was fast. I sat in front of him touching each of his elbows at once, brought my hands up to his biceps like he was cold. Told him to be a good friend. “You don’t have to say that,” he said. Not hurt. Reminding me of the person he was. Which I understood. I heard him that night in the den with Jacob. “How is he?” I asked later in bed. “He is scared,” my husband said.


“And?”


“I said that a friend can know fear but a friend must not be stopped by it.”


“Good,” I said, which is what I meant when I took my son’s arms.


Evan was the first boy to come to me with a hornet sting. It was warm for May. Mornings smelled of dripping flowers, like they were made of beeswax. He had on shorts too small for him. The sides of his white underwear stuck out over his hips. The kids said it looked like two deer ears. His father had coached a lot of teams in town over the years. Coached Bradley and Evan when they played baseball, soccer, hockey. One of those coaches who didn’t yell. Knew the games, knew kids better. How they processed failure, could rise with small successes. The groundout to the second baseman after striking out half a dozen times rather than the home run over the centerfield wall. He remarried right away. Ex-nanny two-thirds his age.

“Evan has a new mom,” Bradley said one day, setting his book bag down on the kitchen table where it was not supposed to go.


“How’s he doing?”


“He didn’t like her before.”


“Does he like her more now?”


“He only talks about school stuff.”


I have Evan stand in front of me. The stinger is up high on his thigh. I cannot get to it, so I tell him to take off his shorts. “Keep the bottoms on?” he asks. I say yes. The underwear looks like it has not been washed, but it’s hard to tell with that kind of underwear when it is not new. He removes his shorts over his sneakers, leaving them on. I motion for him to put his foot on a stool so I can get a better angle, but the stinger is in deep. My hand goes to the back of his leg, I say this will prick a little, push him to me as I dig into the skin, part of him against my shoulder, it is taking a while. “Mrs. Pilarski,” he says, a gasp, as the stinger comes free. The front of his underwear is translucent, my sleeve wet through.


He looks like he is going to cry and I want to hug him, but I know I should leave. I didn’t bandage the small wound. I told him to take his time, exited the room, washed my hands in the bathroom down the hall where a few girls were talking about how they could get beer that weekend. Normally I’d say, “Disperse, girls,” but this time one of them asked me if I was okay, and I just said “yes, thank you.” They leave and I shake, grip the edges of the sink. Then I disperse, feeling like I am more than one of me.


Twice I have known touch to betray. To override intention. When I touch, I believe I have control to communicate where my heart stands with you. When one is stung by a hornet, or touch betrays, the body reacts similarly. It releases the fight-or-flight hormone. Inessential functions are shut down in the moment when we feel under siege. The body makes a determination that we will need others more. It is an agent of mothering, of nursing. But it comes from the body, the flesh. Not the heart of feeling.


When I was Bradley’s age, my friend Barbara dropped me off at the lake with a kid named Will Ligi. I couldn’t drive yet. Barbara was my older friend, a senior when I was a freshman. She excelled at making things happen. Finding weed, knowing when a band everyone liked was coming to town, setting people up. She was going to help me lose my virginity. We talked about it a lot. Will was my year, too, but he was already the best pitcher on the varsity team. He threw what was called a heavy ball. It was fast, but not faster than everyone else’s, it just felt that way, deadened bats, like it had smears of cement under the seams.


He was quiet, like me. Good student like me. Better. The lake was more of a pond, we just called it the lake, no one was a stickler for geological accuracy. You went down this one path, to the cove part, which only a kid –a kid of a certain age, not kids who were ten-years-old fishing for blue gills—would be at. Adults didn’t seem to know it existed. Under the sand you could find condoms and bottle caps, old roaches with teeth marks. Sand has a way of preserving DNA and the biodegradable that is odd to me. She dropped us off. It was near the end of the school year, May. The flowers had that wet smell. We were both very scared, Will and I. Barbara said she would be back in a couple hours. She was one of those people who were able to wink just from their voice alone, without using their eyes. You were pretty out there in the woods. Remote. Rural town. This being the rural-est part. All before cell phones. I had on my smallest bathing suit. My mom had never seen it. She would have lost her shit. I’d gotten it at the mall with Barbara. We sat on the beach, we talked, and it was obvious we weren’t going to do anything. Not that day. Probably soon. Not on a beach in the sun. Not with everything in the open. Holes you could look into. That was all the stuff of later. First times are not the times of seeing; they are the times of feeling, maybe being pleasantly surprised, hopefully feeling safe.


We had an argument when Will said something about how Barbara interfered a lot, which was true, but I didn’t have a big sister and at the time I liked to pretend that that’s what Barbara was for me. These outtings have shapes. Arcs. You have a little spat that does not mean much, or anything, because it will be resolved soon and it is easier to get closer in that moment of resolution than it otherwise is just sitting on a blanket shooting the shit.


And he went off to swim, kind of brusquely, not really inviting me, so I thought, fine, be that way, I am not even going to watch you swim, which sounded so childish in my head even then, but I lay back, closed my eyes, felt the sun. I had my feet flat against the towel, and I opened my legs to tease him, show him what he was missing, if he should peek back from the water, even though we were not going to do anything like that today. I heard him swimming, the small splashes, and he sounded like a strong swimmer. When the splashes stopped, I assumed he was treading water, or standing in the shallows, staring at me, and I spread my legs a little more. But I was irritated when he didn’t come back when I wanted him to, so I sat up. I didn’t see anyone. There was no one in the water.