Monthly Archives: September 2014

The Bed

Barbara stares down at her wrists. The cuts are not deep, just beyond scratches, and the blood coagulates, hardening into a flaky streak within minutes.

“Damn,” she whispers, and bites her tongue. The sting is tolerable but the speckled dirt–millimeters from the cut–needs to be washed away or else she risks infection. She heads inside, breaking the momentum of her chore with the flower bed. She’d cut the dying heads off some roses, trimmed messy brush away from the orange tree. With a couple of hours left of daylight, there is much to be done, but it’s within reach. And not. Time enough to highlight those stems that were thriving, still at their peak of aliveness, not yet sliding down into drooping retirement, as Barbara once precipitately did. It’s an arduous task, staying on top of this acre-sized garden, but at least she’s not alone. Thank God she’s not alone, she muses as she runs her hands under cold water. Across the grass, Jim, her husband of forty eight years, bends over upturned soil, holding his spade like a cane. As he pauses he grimaces, revealing his fatigue, but masking the satisfaction borne of this back-damaging work. The moist soil is deep black and chunky. Inconvenienced worms slither unseen upon the surface, destined to be sliced by Jim’s next plunging dig.

Barbara gazes out towards him and maneuvers her lips into a thin smile. Affection. Gratitude. But above all–relief. It’s a good job she got out of bed today; a good thing the lethargy she’d felt for days, and the hollow sensation in her stomach, had finally subsided. There’s a point in these cycles that stirs horror in her: a protracted moment in which she thinks there’s no turning back. Her body, which has hardly let her down once in sixty eight years, seems poised to rebel in protest, claim time off for good behavior and call it a day. Jim says it’s all in her head, these neuroses, which doesn’t help matters. The insight, logically unassailable, doesn’t alter the feeling, the unprovable reality. Time is running out. Luck is running out. Life, stretching ahead for a couple of decades, if the luck of previous generations is anything to go by, offers years of pleasantly relaxing pastimes, opportunities for leisure and travel, twice per year visits with doting grandchildren; weekend conversations with successful, happy, if bewildered adult offspring.

Enough with the benzodiazepines, gripes an impatient son, Barbara’s eldest. Go for walks with your neighbor, says his younger sister, somewhat more cheerfully. Don’t worry about Dad, she offers in sorrowful contrast, hoping to soothe her mother. Stick to the garden, Barbara thinks, referring to the hobby that’s ahead of her and not the botany career that passed her by, the reasons long–well, not forgotten–just not talked about. Not anymore. There’s no point, others imply, changing the subject whenever she reminisces. Barbara knows it’s the manic bitterness that turns people off: the way the subject of teaching gets hijacked by a decades-old conflict with a head of department, the one that compelled her early resignation, her unwitting retirement. It would be too difficult fighting her way back, she routinely argues whenever the subject of a career revival arises. Time passed quickly, gathering speed as bodies, if not minds slowed down.

Jim steps back from the dirt patch upon which he’s been risking his lower back for the last hour. He sees Barbara at the window smiling at him and returns a tired, forced laugh. It’s no good, he’s saying with his slumping, seventy one year old body. He can’t last the day either. He passes over their refinished wooden deck, crosses over the threshold to their sunlit kitchen, and closes with some effort the double-glazed sliding door.

“Finished,” says Jim in an exhausted voice. Barbara, half-listening, thinks it’s a question.

“I don’t know,” she replies, frowning to accentuate her uncertainty.

Jim chuckles, mildly frustrated. He looks across at his daydreaming wife, now staring out the kitchen window, her wounded hand hanging limply under running water. She avoids the hard look of her husband’s still handsome face.

“You alright?” Jim asks half-heartedly.

Barbara dithers, her mouth downturned. “I don’t know,” she repeats, slightly turning, wanting to regard the immaculate home and garden that surrounds her. It’s not clean enough, she decides–not good enough. “Think I need to lie down.”

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Letter to a good reader

 
 
 
   
   
   
 
 
Dear David, thanks so much for once again providing such thoughtful, intelligent feedback about my writing. You may be one of few to suggest preferring CFTH to The Situation, as others tend to think the earlier novel too long, slow, or weighed down by backstory. Regardless, while I glean that the subject matter (in particular of ‘Nightmare’) or style may not be to your taste, it’s clear that your objective, critical eye enables you to see qualities in the narrative.  
 
It’s interesting, your comment about the present tense. This is the first book I’ve written this way, on the suggestion of another writer whose prose I appreciate for its immediacy. As The Situation would rely far less on backstory or flashbacks, and much more upon present action, I thought the approach worthwhile. Sorry it didn’t take for you.  I agree with your observation about the movement of the plot, and will likely continue to experiment with tense, or point of view. Without the burden of explaining context (at least, not to the same degree), the writing moved quickly this time and I think that’s reflected in the flow of the story. However, my self-critique is that my overall story is a little too complicated for its own good. While some exposition was necessary in The Situation, it also rendered the plot cumbersome. In retrospect, I think the story as a whole may have benefitted from being simpler, and thus more accessible to the average reader.
 
You’ve offered a theory about the ending so let me explain my intentions there: on the one hand, the reference to Weed’s eye color seemed a catchy way to end a story that places eyes at the center of a theme about non verbal communication and empathy.  Less pointedly, I was vaguely aware of juxtaposing the ordinariness of his eye color (though not the ordinariness of Weed himself) with the extraordinary purpose his (and others) eyes may have in the future: windows to the soul, and all that.  Eyes feature prominently in both novels, with lines like “eyes have much to answer for” (from CFTH) signifying a devaluation of anatomy, but also hinting at unrealized meaning, something that breathes life into cliche. Until the climax of Situation, eyes are referenced mostly as a source of aesthetic appreciation–a decoy cliche–with only subtextual premonitions of the paradigm-shifting social function I introduce through the character of Jules Grotius. I accept that my ending may be anticlimactic for some, though I defy anyone to tell me it’s predictable. It occurs to me that ‘anti-climax’ may be an unwitting compliment: an admission from readers that I’d bucked expectations, delivered something original. Actually, my biggest concern is not so much the reader’s expectations, but rather his or her misunderstanding–perhaps the assignment of pretense to my lofty purpose. Only those who know me as a psychotherapist might have seen it coming, and only those primed for psychological fiction (really, I’ve consistently described it as such) might immediately recognize a theme that posits horror (or trauma) as that which ultimately informs social engagement rather than isolation. For this reason, I think my strange, dark and sometimes grisly novels carry positive messages that redeem flawed characters living in desensitized, less-than-conscious times.

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Nightmare

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** There’s a nightmare in The Situation. Happens about a third of the way through, so you don’t have to worry, you light sleepers, you precious happy-ending seekers. It’ll be over soon. But try telling Bryan “Weed” Tecco that. Try telling Chris Leavitt that his troubles are past him, or that life after childhood is a good idea. Try telling the traumatized that it’ll be over soon. So what can you do? Well, not that he’d planned it this way, but Weed is poised for a lesson in humility, which I haughtily imply is not a bad thing. But I proceed gently, even tenderly in this matter, placing him an infant’s clothing–a diaper–which, among other things, recalls for him the dead-in-the-water invention idea of Chris’ from CFTH. If only Weed’s dilettante friend could see him now, trapped on a gurney, kidnapped by a lunatic intent upon sexual intrusion. He might be horrified to know that a diaper, his one fruitful symbol of regression, the one idea in his head that wasn’t linked to dark secrets from the past, could be used for a sinister purpose, as the idea he’d dreamt of was all about salutary anticipation: detecting what is there when the senses–sight and smell–are not available

**Sample:

Bryan “Weed” Tecco thinks he’s going crazy. For the last several hours, or thereabouts, he’s been tied up on a bed in a basement of…somewhere. There’s been no sign of Dan Pritchard since he passed out in the car. Weed is almost naked but for a heavy pair of underwear. Despite this, his body is just about covered: over his chest, across his ankles, over his head and hands is a network of straps fixed to plastic rods, pinned to what might be a bed—possibly a gurney. It’s an elaborate system that allows some flexibility, and just about keeps him warm. Weed can move. Meaning, he can wriggle and shake. He can’t speak due to what feels like a boxer’s mouth guard that is fixed into place by another strap, but he can utter muffled noises. He can thrash about and give the elastic restraints, and himself, a good workout. When he gets exhausted he can fall asleep and pass the time, because the bed is actually quite comfortable, except he’s cold. When he awakens, he can start again, hoping that sooner or later his efforts will pay off, and that the restraints will break. When they don’t seem to—when the sheepskin-like straps remain untroubled by his thrashing about—he can slump back and rest again for a spell. He can cry.

            Weed hasn’t cried in years: not since he was preteen. Back then he cried a lot; got it out of his system, he later joked. Now they’re back, the tears. They’re streaming down his face, running over his lips and into his mouth, which now hangs open in a suspended, distraught howl. Weed can move but he can’t get out. He is trapped, yet teased with the ability to stretch. If he could free his hands from a pair of taped-on gloves, he might rip at the material that’s holding him down. If he could somehow bump the guard away from his mouth, or move his head such that he could look up and down his own body, he might assess the problem and find a way out. He’d bite, claw, and tear at these straps until his fingernails tore away; until his teeth broke. He reminds himself of the lagoon, of the pain of nearly drowning. In some ways this is worse, he thinks, and there is no special breed of seaweed around for him to reach out to.

            He doesn’t know what time it is, but knows it’s daytime from a shard of light that beams down through a window in the opposite top corner of the room. That is Dan’s only act of kindness, or mistake: the likely decision to not cover up the gap. By the level of brightness, Weed guesses that it’s morning. The sunlight has a vaguely fresh feeling. Also, Weed feels the way he often does on a weekend morning: it’s a pleasant fatigue enabling a lazy sleep-in followed by a dawdling saunter through the day. He feels like a blind man trying to navigate his way through the world from memory and random impressions. The room seems tidy enough: there are no cobwebs that he can see; not a lot of dust. It seems like he’s underground, but thankfully, there are no scratchy sounds of rats or any other kind of rodent. There are no creepy inanimate sounds to speak of, and no flies buzzing about his face, tormenting him. Fleetingly, he thinks he could really get into an investigatory mood if this were an exercise. It could be like some kind of deprivation game reminiscent of the kind of things talked about in military boot camps, or by martial arts fanatics. Through the clues around him he could construct meanings and strategize: what time of what day is it? What kind of place is he in? What’s the likelihood of being rescued?    

            He figures one thing out through a force of nature. The need to urinate comes on quickly, which in turn alerts his brain to re-evaluate what he’s wearing. As his sensation builds he goes through a body check: he fidgets to see what kind of resistance there is in the underwear. He shakes himself to see what degree of give there is in the crotch. His dick feels strangely comfortable; held, even. He can feel it but can’t move it, because it’s cushioned within some kind of cotton bedding. It’s unsettling no matter how good it feels. Meanwhile, the stream is imminent, yet there’s no way he can get free. A panic rises. He doesn’t remember this feeling; his body and brain aren’t on the same page. How can they be? They don’t know what to do, and he can’t fathom how any living being can get relief without…

            “Jesuf…” he manages through the guard. A diaper. I’m sitting in a fucking diaper, he realizes—then he lets go.

            This is not an exercise, Weed thinks as his body relaxes. It may be an experiment, but not one of his choosing. Is it a game? He wonders. Dan Pritchard seemed interested in games, in the games Weed plays, and expertly tests. Dan had tried to engage Weed in a talk about games, but Weed wasn’t interested. Weed blew him off. Maybe something happened to Dan in those moments; something the older man kept to himself but then acted upon. Then again, he’d likely planned this all along, as soon as he’d seen Weed by the side of road, plodding along; a weary, vulnerable transient. As Weed tilts his head slightly to his right, he can just about make out a staircase leading upwards. Its top three or four steps are obscured by a cylindrical tank that looks like the property’s heating system. It seems small—only a few feet wide and tall—suggesting a home, not a commercial piece of real estate. These clues tell a story about what kind of place this is. The meaning is simple and obvious, yet under the circumstances, primitively moving for Weed: this isn’t an abandoned room. People either live or work here. They take those stairs, frequent this fairly clean-looking environment. Maybe they hang out down here and play sometimes. Somebody looks after this space. Somebody cares, and that means Weed won’t be alone forever.

            And, of course, he has a song stuck in his head. It’s not a song he likes. Songs that get “stuck” never seem to be ones that people actually like. If that were the case then for Weed it would be something by Led Zeppelin, Metallica, or Korn—something that would keep him fired up, and more. Modern Wagnerian sounds: they sanctify the lives of the wretched, stirring Weed’s soul. He’d settle for less. Even a little house music wouldn’t be amiss. But no, it’s nothing like that. Instead, the song is a childish ditty, practically a nursery rhyme. It’s something that Weed sort of remembers his Dad singing with one of his friends at a New Year’s party when he was a kid. The worst part is that Weed isn’t even getting the words right, which nags at his perfectionism. The first part, the most famous bit, is correct—Roll out the barrel—but the second bit—Roll out the barrel of fun—doesn’t sound right. And it’s on a loop. Eventually, the song turns to something else, but even though Weed loves Lou Reed and the Velvet Underground, “I’m Waiting For The Man” isn’t making him feel any better.

            At the same time, Weed is trying to will Dan Pritchard into an appearance. If he concentrates hard enough, long enough, he can also wear down the resistance of that resilient sheepskin material, and eventually make the straps loosen just enough so that he might free himself. They feel childlike, these regressions and wishes. That’s okay, Weed figures. Meaning, it makes sense. It’s human. Fantasies are what he has for the moment, and who knows how long this moment will last? So, for as long as this takes, for as long as he is helpless, he’ll let himself feel like a child, and act like a child until someone lets him be an adult again. It shouldn’t be that hard, being a child. After all, though he doesn’t remember it, Bryan “Weed” Tecco was once a helpless child.

 ** photo by Helnwein

 

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September 1, 2014 · 6:35 am