Category Archives: Characters

“Happily Ferris After”

Happily Ferris Afterreview_alterego

 

Panera Bread gives no days off,

no fake sick days of water-tower fame,

no Michigan Avenue Beatles musical

where the world joins in for the sake of spontaneity.

Turkey and Swiss smell less romantic

than sprinting home with five minutes to spare,

or saving our friends from abject misery.

Just coughing up nostalgia,

I recall the vibration of

a leather steering wheel.

Should have driven somewhere new,

when we still had time, still had mileage.

Swimming Pool Reflections

His older sister’s friend lays on her back, stretched against the white plastic slats of a poolside chair in the glaring light of the sun. July afternoons have cooked her tan, her long legs shiny and satin-soft, even her feet perfect and brown and pretty. She wears her hair down, un-wet because she never dipped her head beneath the pool’s lukewarm water. Instead, she allows the water to cling to her in tantalizing droplets.

The boy swims around the pool, bobbing his head up from the surface of the pool and back down again. He wears goggles that mask his entire face, even his nose because he has not yet learned to properly hold his breath. When he pops up from the water, he peeks at his sister’s friend through the fogged glass of the goggles, then returns to his aquatic exploration. He wears blue swim shorts with cartoon sharks, which he thinks make him look childish. For the past thirty minutes, he has wanted to climb out of the pool and jump from the diving board to impress his older sister’s friend. But each time she stands and stretches cat-like, her bikini bottoms caught in her crack and revealing the tanned buns he has seen only in videos he watches at 2 am while his parents sleep.

Meanwhile, the girl looks up from a book she is reading for school. She holds it aloft in front of her face, mumbling the words with chapped lips and adjusting her bikini bottoms which unfortunately ride up her ass every time she moves. She contemplates buying a new pair she saw yesterday while shopping online. From behind her amber-tinted glasses, she can see the bloated old man in the pool staring at her. He does not seem to harbor any shame in viewing her body, his eyes glazing over her legs and her breasts. She does not think her breasts look as good in her bikini top as her friend’s, whose little brother looks like a frog dipping in and out of the water. For a moment, she wants the old man to watch her, but she does not.

She reads a book she must read before school starts back, and though she secretly adores the story, she does not tell her friends because they absolutely hate reading.

The man floating on an inflatable ring is a poet, 67-years-old, and gay. With his shirt off, he believes he looks like a Goodyear blimp. He can already feel the sunrays blistering his skin, caressing it with singes that will broil the white into a sickly red. Across the pool from where he floats, he watches two teenage girls—they must be only seventeen. Whenever they look back at their books—they are reading the same novel—he peeks at the girl on the left and shudders. She reminds him of his dead sister. The man wants to cry but he thinks it might be inappropriate. Somewhere behind him, a thirteen-year-old boy bursts through the water, spins around quickly, then descends back underwater. His sister had been driving home drunk one night from a party—this was when the poet had been attending college in another state. He did not hear about her accident until three days later when their foster parents called.

The boy wonders what it might feel like to drown. To test himself, he swims to the bottom of the pool and sits cross-legged on the floor, pinching his thumb and forefingers together like a Buddhist monk—or rather, what he conceptualizes as a Buddhist monk. He attempts to hold his breath for as long as possible, but he cannot. He cannot think about anything other than his friend’s sister if you don’t count the chicken fingers he ate for lunch—they came with honey mustard dipping sauce. He uncrosses his legs and pumps his legs hard, kicking off of the bottom and rocketing to the surface. His splash licks at the old man’s feet, who brushes the droplets of water off his toes, and the boy gasps for breath, then goes under again.

A Conversation in the Cougar Mall: A Vignette

[Based on true events that happened today. A conversation.]

                He nodded at me. “Sure, used to be a cop. Dad was a cop. All my friends were too.” His legs were skinny, the muscles shrunk from disuse. He wore a beard hastily shaved, and I couldn’t guess his age, though he was older than most professors. For the past hour, we had been talking about his involvement in the War on Drugs as a police officer.

                “What was that like? I mean, what did you feel about what you did?”

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                “It was great, don’t get me wrong. Worked Interstate 95 right out of Camden, Georgia. What you have to understand is, the drug trade runs through there. My daddy—he was a sheriff. One time he stopped a car and got three million dollars for the department.”

                “Wait, why?”

                “Because it was drug money. Bought cars, uniforms, everything. For Camden officers, the War on Drugs is the best thing that ever happened. It gave us purpose, not to mention funding we’d never had before. Don’t look at me this way. It’s cocaine—we dealt mostly with cocaine.”

                I never caught his name, but we had been speaking for an hour about his life; he sat in a motorized wheelchair eating just the chicken from a Chick-fil-a sandwich. “Cocaine?” I asked, shifting my books from my lap. “I didn’t realize rural Georgia had a coke problem.”

                “Sure, they don’t. The local cops—they just bust people for marijuana, but me—cocaine.” I wanted to ask him if he had been injured in the line of duty, but that would be rude. “See, you understand, cocaine comes out of Miami. You can get Coke there with 90% purity, maybe a kilo for $25,000. So you drive up through Georgia on the way to New York, where coke is maybe 30% pure. So you cut that coke into three piles, mix it with meth, Adderall, sugar, what have you—you can imagine these drug runners made a shit ton of money.”

                “Sure, sure. And you think that’s okay? I mean, I don’t condone anyone taking cocaine, but what about the War on Drugs. Don’t you think the money is misspent?”

                “Federally? Sure. But in my department, it was the one thing still funding us. Pull over three cars a year—they may have a couple million each in them. Used to work with my father, and with one bust, he could afford patrol cars for the entire force. I’d say it’s worth it. I mean, I agree with you about marijauna. That should be legal, even though I’d never try it.”

                “Even in your condition.”

                “Well, you could get addicted.”

                “Addicted to marijuana?”

                “Sure. You see, now that’s it’s legal in some states, the THC levels are higher. So kids start smoking sooner, they develop physical addictions. You’ve heard about this?”

                “Yeah, actually. They keep making more and more potent weed, until it has become dangerous.” I nodded, then looked at his legs. “So, what happened?” I gestured broadly at the chair.

                He shrugged. “Car accident. Gotta tell you, only about three weeks after the accident, the seat belt was recalled. What do you expect? Korean company.”

                “Uh-huh. Well, that’s shitty. I’m sorry.”

                “Well, we went to court, reached a settlement. They gave me millions of dollars but—I mean, what the hell is that? Just throw money at me, but that doesn’t mean I’m not paralyzed from the waist down. Doesn’t change the fact I’m in a chair. Mind getting my smokes?”

                Rifling through the bag on the side, I found a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. I handed him the cigarettes and helped him light it, then sat back down. “That’s rough. Corporations—well, you know.”

                “I mean, the same thing is with marijuana. Even when I was a cop, I didn’t think having it illegal was wrong, but hell—now? Now that it’s becoming legal, it’s becoming dangerous. Not that I care that people smoke it—long as they don’t drive.”

                “Of course. Just like drinking.”

                He nodded, and before rolling away to class, he added, “You want to get them going south.”

                “The cocaine dealers?”

                “Sure. You get ‘em going south, you get millions of dollars, but going north, who cares? You bust them and all you can confiscate is piles of cocaine. What’s the use in that?”

Notes on a Long Island: The Spot

{Stories are 80% true, according to Long Island local Matthew Harberg, my roommate and King of the Sea. Having interviewed him on various subjects from the Long Island area, I have transcribed a series of stories exploring the culture and atmosphere of the island, though I have never visited there and know nothing about it. This particular story deals with a surf-shop owner from Long Island with a list of eccentricities.}

On the news, Snake watched the news anchor dead-pan as she explained how the police tackled a drunk millionaire earlier than day. “Local millionaire Ronald Artt is bringing charges against the Long Island Police Department for police brutality after they chased him into the street and brought him forcibly to the ground. Moments before, Mr. Artt had been standing in downtown Manhatten, wearing a suit and pink dress gloves, shooting a water gun wildly into the air.” She shuffled her papers and looked to her co-anchor, who took over with a stifled hesitation.

“Yes, well, reportedly Mr. Artt claims that the gun was obviously a toy one, that the officers were quick to jump on him because—”

Clicking the Tv off, Snake lowered his head and looked across the counter at Carston. “What do you want?” He was seventy-years old, but often visited clubs with middle-aged Guido’s. He tagged along with them, telling ridiculous stories and pumping his fist half-heartedly to techno-rap.

Carston looked to Danny, glowering from behind his orange-tinted shades. “Man, just the—you know, whatever you sell.”

Snake shrugged. “Surfing board wax? A wetsuit?” The two boys stood in a shack just off the beach, a piece of beach the man behind the counter claimed to own. Though condos and houses crowded against the strand, the beach belonged officially to Snake—dread-haired geriatric owner of The Spot. Though he ran the joint ostensibly as a local surf shop, The Spot made the majority of its revenue in the local drug trade. Surfer dudes shopped there for small items, buying ounces under the counter—rumor had lead the boys through the glass doors plastered with advertisements for local club events months-past (Day Glo, Pirate Theme Night, $2 Jell-o Shots), across the sand-strewn tile, and to the front desk.

He sat like a regal Buddha on the steep wooden stool, his pointy elbows propped on the un-sanded counter. “Boys, are you paying any attention?”

“Sure, but we heard you sold—um, more than just surfing supplies?”

“Oh, oh!” He waved his arms, sliding off his stool and wheezing, guffawing. “I’m being a bit loopy, huh? I know the days come and go like they do, don’t you know?”

“Sure, we know. So, how much?”

“For the emu? He ain’t for sale?”

“Emu?”

“It’s the last one I got, go look at him, if you want.” He hastily unlocked the door behind him, waving his arms for the boys to follow. As they trailed quietly after him, however, he did not lead them into a secret vault where he kept his stash of drugs; rather, he lead them into the backyard, fenced in with cheap vinyl fencing units—and in the center of the sand-and-grass lot was an emu tied to a wooden post.

“What the hell is that?”

“That’s the last one, wouldn’t you know?” Snaked shrugged, his dreads rolling off his shoulders, and he bore his red-cracked eyes into Carston’s. “So, what about it?”

“Uh, I didn’t come here to buy—an emu? What about the—you know, the stuff? The chronic?”

download              “I ain’t gonna sell this emu, anyhow,” said Snake, his face cracking like a broken public fountain. “He’s the last I got. The first one, he died. A sad occasion. We put together a funeral for him, a whole affair with all my closest friends—his two emu buddies too. Then not a week later, one of the others escapes. This one’s named Sunshine. Probably just mourning Birdie’s death. God, we all loved Birdie, but Sunshine, he couldn’t take it. He just broke out. I don’t know how.”

“I’m sorry, sit. I—um, I didn’t know?”

Beside the emu stood a large white van—Snake had always wanted a VW van from the seventies where he could take local ladies, but he settled for something infinitely creepier—a windowless van spray-painted with comical signage. Peace emblems, color-faded flowers, and the paint-stenciled image of Bob Marley.

“Used to love animals, take care of them? Had a whole menagerie—wouldn’t you know? Alligators, dogs, snakes as big as your arms, as long as a car, and even tamed squirrels. But they came and took them? Wouldn’t you know the police are always sticking their nose into business ain’t their business.” He snuffled, then wrapped his arms around the emu, which shuffled awkwardly and pecked his shoulder in violent defense. “But then this emu escapes and it—well, it falls right into the bay. Runs out in front of cars, across town, down to the pier, trots down its length, and jumps headlong into the sea. Damn emu’s dead. It swam around a while, until the fire department came and scooped it out the water.”

“It—it died?” Carston began to back up, grabbing Danny’s shoulder. “I think we came to the wrong place.”

“The damn emu died,” Snake said, wiping his tears. “I love Sunshine—he was like a brother to me. Loved him more than anything I ever loved.” His raspy voice died down. “All the fault of the fire department—if they had been more careful, that’s what killed him. They didn’t take their time getting him out of the bay—they killed him.”

Danny shrugged. “Guess that sucks. Well.”

“Of course the police couldn’t side with me, considering they didn’t realize I had any emus in the first place, but a man’s got to do something with his life’s work.”

“Sorry.” Carston looked at his feet, clearing his throat. “Guess we really just wanted surfing wax after all.”

Once Snake sold them an overpriced bottle of wax and given them half-off coupons for entrance to the Karaoke Party at Senor Frogs (which had occurred the weekend before), Snake returned to the back yard, rubbed his emu’s neck softly, and called his lawyer seventeen times. His lawyer never picked up the phone, not to hear Snake complain again about the emu incident—he had already been on the television. Returning inside, Snake turned the mounted Tv back on, hoping he had not missed his televised interview.

Hannibal: A Season in Review and Contemplation

Hannibal - Season 1NBC’s crime drama Hannibal breaks the mold of crime shows like NCIS and Criminal Minds, building throughout the first season a far more consistent plot than such shows generally do. This makes Hannibal not only a show that dwells on crime (and its dark psychology) but also a drama about the participants: what are the effects of constantly looking at horrific scenes and imagining the lives of serial killers?

For Will Graham, the result turns out to be tragic. He slowly loses his senses, hallucinating and imagining vile, trippy experiences, to the point Will causes his superiors and friends to question whether he, like the men he catches, is a psychopath. Will has a form of empathy that allows him to “feel” and “understand” serial killers, due to his condition (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/05/31/hannibal-will_n_3366085.html). During the first few episodes of the season, this helps him assume the role of the serial killer and ultimately catch them, before he goes crazy.

At first, I did not particularly like this feature of his personality, not because the idea was not good but because of its execution. I understand his empathy aiding him to understand psychopaths, but show pushes the boundaries of believability. By viewing a simple murder scene, he not only knows how the killer killed his victims, but why. Often, the why is so very complex that it is implausible he could so rapidly construct a motive (i.e. the angel people).

As the show progresses, however, the show-runners and Hugh Dancy do a better job of showing how the illness

will_graham_by_the_foolish_princess-d66ma0b

is affecting him negatively. Not only does it destroy his relationship with his coworkers and possible lover, but it also corrupts his sanity. He becomes conflicted because though he wants to continue to help people (he adopts a fatherly role for Abigail, the daughter of the Minnesota Shreik), he also realizes he might be traumatized by the gory sights he sees.

The level of gore and violence in Hannibal is at times over-the-top, like when the FBI find a tower of putrefying bodies stacked and strapped atop each other at the beach. Or when girls are found impaled on elk antlers. Or… any other death in the entire series. The writers are seriously, but impressively demented for creating some of this material, and the “disgusting way to die with psychologically unique killer” a week schtick, while intriguing, may be difficult to keep up. By season’s end, the show-runner’s give up, giving instead screen time for the characters to ultimately come to terms with their fates.

Whose fate I find most interesting is that of Hannibal (which I’ll discuss later on below). Mad Mikkelson portrays Hannibal in an amusing, cool way, a departure from Anthony Hopkin’s unhinged menace. While I have always loved Silence of the Lambs, Mikkelson convinced me Hannibal Lector could be far more menacing when not slurping at Clarice Starling or carving off men’s faces—he could be just as menacing having dinner with Laurence Fishbourne or making sexy eyes at his therapist (Gillian Anderson).

images (16)                He often waxes poetically about psychologically and coldly manipulates the other players in this drama. He strikes a compelling relationship with Will, which he claims is a friendship, but each step he takes to “aid” Will ultimately leads to Graham’s demise. In fact, Hannibal takes  a curious pleasure in manipulation, and when confronted about his actions (several murders and cover-ups), he simply states he was “curious to see what would happen.” But Mikkelson’s Lector, unlike Hopkin’s, is someone capable of receiving sympathy.

At some point, he know Lector will betray Will, which makes their relationship nefarious. In the books, Will confronts Lector and ends up with his face cut to shreds. This creates a palpable tension for the entire season. When next will Lector kill and when will Will Graham, a man capable of understanding serial killers, finally realize his friend and psychologist is the serial killer he’s been looking for. [SPOILER] Furthermore, Lector sets up Will to take the ultimate fall for his murders in a genius, long-term plan that convinces Will, at first, he might be guilty, until Will then realizes the truth about Lector. “I see you,” he says in the finale when they return to the murder scene of Abigail Hobbes. [END SPOILER].

But Hannibal wants Will to become the Chesapeake Ripper (Hannibal’s media moniker) because he wants to be understood. The show is entirely about the need to be understood. Garret Jacob Hobbes, the first murderer, longs to share his passion for skinning and eating girls with his impressionable daughter. Another killer, a doctor, uses living human bodies as fertilizer because he felt a better connection to his victims as mushrooms.

Will Graham possesses the ability to empathize with and understand these people, and in the end that’s what Lector wants to—to be understood. Unlike Hopkin’s Lector, who would eat a census taker with chianti and fava beans, Mikkelson’s Hannibal Lector begs to be explicated, to be sympathized with, to be explained. He may not understand his own psychopathic tendencies, and he may not even understand why he manipulates the only man he might care about into a terrible position and madness.

[SPOILERS ABOUT THE FINALE]

 

Of course, in the end, this presumption is flipped. Perhaps Lector only took the case because he recognized Graham’s unstable condition, understood the opportunity to exploit it. By becoming his psychiatrist, he could manipulate Will into taking the fall for all of his murders and then make Will believe so deeply he was mad, that perhaps Will would adopt the shrine of Chesapeake Ripper. Instead, Will outsmarts Hannibal and sees through his plan.

By then, though, Hannibal has already convinced Graham’s friends and colleagues of his guilt, even Jack Crawford who before did not question Graham’s loyalty. The ending sets up an interesting dynamic for next season. Will Graham in prison while Hannibal Lector remains free. Though Will understands Lector now as a monster, he is powerless to stop his further killings. Also, the feud has become personal after Lector’s betrayal. Next season will likely see Will attempting to prove his innocence and Hannibal’s guilt while Hannibal continues to cover his tracks. By season’s end, however, let’s hope the two end up on each others’ side of the prison bars.

[END OF SPOILERS. READ ON!]

Overall, the series is dark and somber, taking itself incredibly serious with an armada of symbols and overwrought motifs (that elk). It’s twisted, gory, and horrific, much like the human mind, and as far as drama goes, it is better and more subtle than many other shows on television. I hope the show-runners can continue the intense tension into following seasons, because above all, Hannibal is different.

(Side-notes)

1.) Didn’t all of the food look absolutely delicious? It makes one ALMOST want to become a cannibal. Almost. If you’d like the non-human recipes for the food cooked on the show, you can find them here: http://janicepoonart.blogspot.com/

2.) The elk motif did not actually make me annoyed. I thought it was a useful way of showing Graham’s madness and darkness, which we in the end see was a direct result of Hannibal Lector. Lector IS the dark and mad part of Will’s brain, and he does not go insane until Lector begins toying with his fragile state of mind.

3.) Seriously, the cinematography.

4.) My favorite non-main character was Abigail Hobbes, played with a mix of startled innocence and haughty malice by Kacey Rohl.

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5.) When Will Graham first started hallucinating, I rolled my eyes, but the direction they took this plot thread by season end made all the sweating and time loss and strange dreams worth it.

6.) Laurence Fishbourne was alright. Mostly annoying, to be honest, but he was alright.

Submerged: Part One

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Through the greenish glass of the goggles, the houses no longer looked like houses, only rotten skeletons. Some without four walls, some with punctured roofs, others wholly decimated with only a few stark wooden beams standing to show what once had been there. I swam past a street sign and rubbed a layer of algae from its surface. Crumpled at its edges and indecipherable, its blocked lettering had peeled away years ago. To my left I found a property where a house once stood, though now I hovered above only a smooth white platform. Years of sea current had polished it smooth, the only standing structure a stone staircase crumbling with age. Underneath, a hole where the door to a cellar might once have been.

Swimming toward it, I placed my hands at the edges of the door and pulled myself down. The concrete gaped like a stone-teethed scar where I entered. Adjusting my headlight to shine brighter, I proceeded into the cellar. Cans of preserved food bobbed against the ceiling, which I pulled into a cloth bag I wore attached to my waist. Rusted tools floated like flotsam around me. Behind a busted washing machine was a circuitry board– Jackpot. I retreated from the cellar and looked to the sparkling surface.

I tugged at the rope, and it grew taut until I rose through the water like an angel ascending. Above, Ethan cranked the winch furiously– my invention, since we could not afford enough gasoline to run our machinery. The city shrunk below me until it was only a ruined maze of uneven streets, deteriorating buildings, and abandoned cars.

It had been twenty years since the sea finally broke the levies, the wall fell, and the city drowned. In the distance, I could make the jagged outline of the wall we had built fifty years ago. Just out of college, pissed at my fortune, I signed up with other gullible young men for a grueling construction job. As the sea rose, the beach eroded, and islands flooded, the Charleston city council voted to build the wall, back when they still believed they could be safe.

I burst through the surface.

“How are you on oxygen?”

“Running low, but I have enough for another trip down. No need to switch the tank. I found an open cellar down there, and there may be something we can use.”

Ethan leaned against the battered dinghy, skimming the water with his hands. “Seeds?”

“No.” We needed seeds like we needed oxygen. If we found seeds, we could travel somewhere fertile, live off the land. Or sell them and buy a defunct cruise ship we’d populate with exotic women. But what might be under the house could be better, at least financially. “There might be copper.”

“Copper pipes?”

“Pipes? No, well, wires.”

“That’s nothing. It’s not worth it.”

Clambering aboard the boat, I strapped a heavy sledgehammer to my hip and heaved a portable concrete saw onto the boat’s ledge. “It’s worth it.” I nodded. “Are we all clear up here?”

“I haven’t seen any boats, no. Good you remembered this place. I didn’t expect much to be here. How’s it look down there?”

“Different than last time, to be sure.”

“How?”

“Don’t know. Different, I suppose. No people for one, and the whole city’s fallen apart. Some fish still lingering down there, which is surprising. Figured the water would be too polluted.” After the oil fields of the world dried up, frantic energy corporations bored holes into the ocean floor. Species died out, the sea filled with goopy black oil, and we slowly came to realize we were fucked, truly fucked, and had been for longer than we had known. We still believed oil meant life or death. Then we began running out of water.

The North American continent solidified into a single nation, but what territory you lived in, that changed all the time. Local, secessionist movements sprang up every five years, and some asshole would come around, asking you to fight in their ragtag army. Then the continental nation would regain control, and this happened too often for people like me to keep caring. It no longer mattered where you lived, as long as you figured out how to live.

“You sure you can do this?” Ethan eyed the concrete saw, then peered through the ocean surface at the ghost city.

“Sure. I’m fine. As long as no government boats don’t come up here and fuck us, we’ll be fine, kid.”

“I can go down there, you know. You should trust me.”

“You don’t have enough practice. Maybe when we’ve practiced more.”

“But– but we can’t practice if you continue to not let me dive. You’re what, seventy?”

“Yes, but you’re only fifteen. Maybe next time. Now, start cranking that winch backwards.” I slipped off the edge of the boat, and I sank fast, the saw and sledgehammer weighing me down. Down into the submerged city.

The rope unraveled behind me as I guided my descent toward the vanished house. Through the hole, into the dark cellar. I chose a place a few feet away from the washing machine and place the saw against the concrete floor, revving its electric engine. Whirring, screaming, spitting bubbles at my face. If I had not been underwater, the saw might have thrown sparks into the air as the blade sliced smoothly through the floor. I cut a block shape, then swung the hammer against the square repeatedly until cement chunks and grainy particles choked the water.

Read On To Part 2

Memoir: Insert Grandiose Subtitle Here (Part I)

A few days ago, my brother threw a vintage typewriter from the second floor window of the public library. The window a circular feat of glass-engineering, stained green and bubbled-out like a submarine porthole. The typewriter an indulgent gift from our parents, a rusted antique that had been meant as a decoration. My brother, however, could not be convinced not to loudly pound on the stuck keys.

When finally he could not deal with the defunct device any longer, he flung it through the window. Among falling shards of glass, the typewriter plummeted, its black metal pieces flying apart upon impact. The night the police escorted him home and dumped the remains of the relic on our front lawn, he collected the pieces and buried them in the back yard.

When he had dug a hole at least three feet deep next to where Skippy had been buried (he had collided with an ice cream truck), I shuffled out beside him and dumped the typewriter into the abyss. We kicked and shoveled dirt onto its black veneer, patted down the earth, and then as if my brother had buried his writerly ambitions, he retreated to his room.

My older brother, he was only seventeen, but prone to outbursts of incredible self-doubt during which he would rant about failure, about never being published, and that no one would ever accept his gift of genius and storytelling craftsmanship. I secretly harbored the notion he wrote like a mutant conglomerate of Stephanie Meyer and R.L. Stine, but I never voice this opinion. My parents naturally nursed his ambitions, deluding him with the promise of literary DNA.

Despite his dramatic funeral metaphor, I suspected he would be pitching his newest novel to me by the end of the week.

*

                The Snyders– my family– were a strange folk who loved most of all to read and write. My dad– Carl Snyder or Papa Snyder– he was a literary critic and scholar at the local university, and he published books on books, on the theory of writing books, but he had never written a book himself. Despite this, we and the literary community treated him as a book expert. He looked regal as a gentrified sailor, his head a plume of white, his beard a snow-capped fringe he neatly trimmed every morning with a tiny electric razor.

When I was young, I often watched him trim his beard and wondered why he was so old, why his hair was white and my mother’s was brown. Brown naturally, before she starting having to dye it. When I turned seven, I learned my father was much older than my mother, that my older sister Agatha had a different mother than I. That no one ever talked about that openly or ever discussed the details of the couple’s demise deeply disturbed me. It occurred more than once that perhaps my sister had been adopted or dropped on the doorstep by grumpy aliens.

This concerned me at first, since my mother often commented that she loved Agatha’s name (a tribute to Agatha Christie, a great female mystery writer). My mother adored female writers with grit because she wrote a bestselling crime series.

The fact that my mother had published and my father had not– this did not escape the attention of my brother, who had begun the process of cataloging our lives in a journal. A black leather journal he kept hidden in the top of his closet next to his stash of booze and marijuana– like I wasn’t going to look in such an obvious place.

A gritty, but optimistic professional detective starred in my mother’s hit series. At first, the books had focused on the detective’s personal life, marrying her to a cute forensic scientist, then impregnating her with a new plot twist. Around the time I had been born, however, my mother found her voice and began writing the series in a darker direction. In the fifth sequel, the detective lost her child in a car accident caused by a sadistic criminal. By the end of the novel, her husband had even killed himself out of grief.

I’m not sure what happened in my mother’s life that forced her hand to execute such a thematic darkening, but the critics consumed the work like doves nip up Popcorn. Once she began writing the detective as more desperate, more outlandishly existential, the more popular her series became until she became a figurehead in the dark crime genre, the best-selling woman by far.

One evening, when my father was drunk, he taunted my mother that he might review her latest novel in The New Yorker, that the review would deflate her career and bring her to ruin. He had the power, he claimed, belching and nearly barfing. She replied calmly by calling his bluff, then Googling her own name and then my father’s. This I knew through their animated dialogue about the importance of “hits” or “reviews.”

When I turned thirteen, I began reading my mother’s series, but though I finished every one, all 28, I only continued out of respect for her. The drama dragged on for awfully long, creating repetitive sequels in which always crimes occurred so horrendous, I could not exactly imagine them on my own. Once presented, however, even the most grisly scene seemed trite, perhaps because violent insanity became the norm. At least I read her works; two years later, my father’s scholarly work remained dusty on my shelf.

After my sister moved out, she published a poem about my mother and father which compared them to angry flies debating whose shit tasted better. The poetry she published before going to a college in California, those verses were dark, very prose-like, and jammed with eccentric metaphors that just barely made sense. At college, she made the transition of talking deeply about her own life to talking deeply about other peoples’ lives.

Once poetry critics discovered her literary lineage, they began heralding her as the “Confession Poet of the Literary Life” which I thought was bullshit since she lied outrageously. Now she remained only a depressing scribe, having reconnected with my parents during those two years, like a poser Sylvia Path devotee writing sonnets in her own blood. What a totally morbid bitch, moping around and comparing everything to the fucking “abyss.”

Michael at least– my older brother– he had the decency to suck genuinely and not be praised for it. If even Michael could be published through his parental connections, I would certainly lose all optimism for the quality taste of the publishing world. Maybe at the age of thirty, he’d finally produce some picture book under a corny pen name.

Imagine the weirdest kid you knew, the one who makes up lies about who he is, throws typewriters out windows after they don’t work despite their initially futile condition, or cuts French fries with a knife and fork. If you know someone like that, you probably have met my brother.

And me? The youngest of the Snyder clan? I don’t really write, not really– I mean, I’m writing this, but I don’t write fiction. Or poetry like my sister. Or even criticism like my father. Like every kid without an interesting story and didn’t have the imagination to come up with one, I folded and decided to write a memoir.

*

                Father stumbled through the front door, a pile of boxes under his chin, straining against his veined hands. He dumped the stack at the bottom of the stairs, gasped once dramatically, and called, “Get your arses down here. Your sister’s home.”

My brother scrambled downstairs first, scratching his bum and yawning. I followed, rubbing my eyeballs, figuring it was a mental illness to get up before ten on a Saturday. Course then I remembered Agatha came home today, hauling home from college more clothes than I owned in total. We lugged her suitcases and boxes and hampers brimming with underwear to the laundry room and loaded them straight into the washer, while Agatha blabbed loudly through the wall how difficult her final exams had been. And we hadn’t even finished school yet, looking toward another grueling week of school before winter break began.

Agatha hovered in the hallway. “Michael, I heard you broke your new typewriter. You know, I might write a poem about you. A crushed, young artist struggles to find himself and in an effort of desperate expression,  breaks a fucking window with a fucking typewriter.”

“Stop that talk. Michael’s perfectly fine, isn’t that right?” My father did not wait for a reply. “And Agatha, don’t use language around Jackson. He’s impressionable.”

I wanted to speak up, but Agatha broke in. “He’s fifteen– I hope he knows what “fuck” means. Furthermore, I believe I use language any time I talk at all. Would you prefer if I spoke French?”

She could, she claimed, but not understanding or speaking French myself, I could not validate her fluency. Father blew her question off with a wave of his hand, then stormed into the den. “Damn it, Georgina, you can’t even say hello to Agatha when she comes home?”

“I know she doesn’t want to talk to me, Dad. She’s angry.”

“Yes, I am,” hissed mum’s voice through the wall. “That poem you wrote was very inappropriate, Agatha. The imagery, that was barbaric and untrue.”

“Damn it, the murder scene was a metaphor, Georgina. Anyways, I was just being ironic.”

Generally, I tried to avoid squabbles, but as research for my memoir, I decided to stick around, observe the events. Michael shook his head and tromped up stairs, his head down. Once he told me that he hated Agatha, that she taunted him and hated him because his mother was still alive and hers was dead.

Mum and Agatha were having a tiff again because she had recently published a poem in Harper’s about a metaphorical literary critic whose metaphorical wife died in a metaphorical car accident, and then he met a metaphorical new girlfriend. At the end of the poem, the plot unfolded to reveal the fiancé had designed the car crash as an elaborate scheme to marry a famous literary critic, she being a famous children’s novelist.

Agatha swore the poem did not depict mum because naturally my mum had killed no one and wrote not children’s books, but crime fiction. But I pointed out that her occupation, that was probably a metaphor as well. The problem with poetry, I felt, was you could never tell what was real, what was not. If you tell me, your heart is a glacier or a volcano or a wooden coffin, I begin thinking you should seek medical attention.

That night, we had a dinner, and while Agatha talked about her grades with my parents (they were concerned why she missed every biology class but no sessions of Yoga), I snuck upstairs to loot my sister’s bags. Not in a creepy way, not really, but once she got settled in, she would hide her writing, her poetry. She only let people read published work, polished lines stark and bleak, but some of the verse in her doodle-filled notebooks were riotously funny.

Not that we usually shared writing, writers being entirely secretive creatures. Mum refused to show even Dad whatever novel she had been working on for the past few months.

I pushed open the door, tiptoeing across floorboards that threatened to shriek, thumbing through the spines of the notebooks laying on her bed. Opening the first, I leaned against her dresser and read the scribbled lines in the dark:

As I stare into the abyss, feeling my mind sink below the surface of the slithering sea

Agatha always mentioned the fucking abyss, as if she owned a luxury vacation home there.

I see myself staring back at me, a dark reflection

Closing the book, I sighed and muttered, “Well, that’s fucking boring.” I reached for her dresser, gingerly rearranging trinkets laid there. I pulled a crisp letter from the pile to read it and a sparkling ring toppled out– it must have been nestled inside the crease. The ring bounced and rolled into a pile of clothes on the floor. Abandoning the letter, I scrambled after the ring, my body drawing murderous screams from ancient floorboards. Agatha, Agatha would hear, would come running, I thought, as I tore through the dirty clothing to find the ring. Such a beautiful ring, not anything like Agatha might have worn. Shiny as a magpie’s ambitions, as expensive as an engagement ring.

Like an engagement ring. I paused.

Wrenching a warped bra from the pile of shirts, I watched the ring fly into the air. Like a swooshing basketball arcing as the seconds counted down. And I like a wide receiver racing to catch the ball as it plummeted to earth in meteorite-fashion. Plink, the ring fell onto the floor vent, rolled to the left, and fell into the darkness.

The abyss.

Nothing left to do but to flee the scene. I skirted out the door and managed to hop into my own bed as Agatha tromped up the stairs, screaming something back at mum like, “You haven’t written anything good in two years.”

My teeth chattering, I began to write longhand something about the abyss, about sisters, about how we lie to ourselves when we write, how we trick even our own memories of events we never understood.

Ballad of the Hot Dog Man

The Hot Dog Man stands down the street from the Hobo Chiropractor, practicing his legitimate business of selling students hot dogs. Each year, students from active political alliances ply the school for healthier options, for vegetarian entrees, for clean facilities, and for a balanced meal plan. Meanwhile, the hot dog man roosts in a plastic fold-up lounge chair, hawking hot dogs for $2.00 a piece. For $3.50, you can get a deal: a hotdog, a bag of chips, and a soda.

Each morning, he arrives on the corner, his hotdog  cart rattling behind his truck. Attached with a hitch, it bounces into each pothole, threatening to collapse. A picture of a hotdog displayed in bright colors on its side, the cart stands on a small raised area, the resident chiropractor crouched on the steps below. He pops open his yellow umbrella and sits in its shade. Students approach throughout the day, haggling for drinks or plastic-encased mystery meats.

I often wonder about hotdog man, whether he lives a solitary life. Does he love hotdogs or does he see this enterprise as purely business? When did he decide to open a hotdog stand near the College of Charleston, and what great racket has he tapped into now that he is selling his meat via transportable cart? Does he have a hotdog wife (Hot Dog Woman) with whom he has had little hotdog babies?

On Sunday afternoons, does he grill up delicious, fresh hotdogs and serve them to his Oscar-Meyer-obsessed relatives?

My theory is a darker one, on that can only be proved by shining a light into his childhood. In my venerable imagination, this hotdog paladin began his quest with The Hamburger Incident…

Five years old, Hot Dog Boy has grown up in Brooklyn his entire life. One day while drawing chalk dragons on the cracked sidewalk, a lunch cart rolls by. The children rush the cart for their lunches: pizza and hotdogs and hamburgers and fries. Behind this vender stands a great billboard exclaiming “Best Hamburgers East of 87th Street and West of 89th!”

This superimposed over the biggest burger he has seen in his life. A juicy patty dripping grease, the tomatoes still wet with condensation. The lettuce green and crisp. The bun steaming and slightly browned.

While Hot Dog Boy stares up at the sign, waiting to order his food, a terrible gust stirs down the street. The sign topples, the boy crushed underneath. Three hours and four hotdog venders later, they drag the boy from under the sign. Forever scarred.

Now he sells hotdogs in protest, settled into his chair under the yellow umbrella. Waiting patiently for the day to use his hotdog finesse to strike out the wicked reign of hamburgers. To one day rule the street-food world. First, hamburgers will fall, then falafels and rotten sushi, powdered crepes and single-sliced pizza, roasted nuts and gyros, kebabs and burritos, tacos and Panini. One day only the Hot Dog Man will remain.

Should You Give Birth to a Writer…

So you think your son or daughter or older brother is a writer? Is he or she exhibiting signs of seclusion, spending an inordinate amount of time reading literature, or making hieroglyphic and mysterious marks in a notepad of any kind? It is possible that a writer might have been born into your family, which can sound quite shocking at first.

Either, you’re not sure if you’ve been gifted a genius or should you rush the little scribe off to the orphanage immediately.

After all, writers’ lives are spotted with calamity, and rather he/she be a supposed orphan than you soon die of cholera and he/she become a true orphan. That’s what happens to writers’ families right? They’re always being murdered or killed in storms or dying of some Victorian-era disease.

Don’t fear. There are simple steps you can take to usher the scribbler onto glory without being inflicted by biblical plagues or suffering sudden and coincidental depression. Remember, you’re dealing with a crazy person. As in, someone who hears voice in his/her head, someone who maps out entire separate lives “for the fun of it.”

Certainly, do not take this task lightly. Writers are given to madness, bouts of emotions only word-minced poems in middle school will fix, and terrible vices ranging from alcoholism to drug abuse to Wikipedia surfing. It ain’t no easy path to hear the incessant scribbling of pen to paper, like the hand is making a bad dash for life or limb. The pendulum swings ever closer down, slicing at the knuckles as the modern-day quill moves.

Simply, allow them their crazy.

Let them scream through the house, sobbing because a character died (in the most epic way, but still).

If the door is closed and fingers whizz at the speed of antelopes, do not interrupt with trivial stories or requests to clean the

dishes. The writer is a violent creature, prone to creative paroxysms of rage when wrenched from the writing process. They may attack when called upon, caught up in the carnal need to tell stories. Seriously, blood could be spilled.

And indulge them their rants, their vast explanations. Before writers can ever make a story make sense to an audience, we must make it make sense to ourselves. Ignore us if need be, but pretend to listen like an overpaid therapist. Allow the writer to think aloud all his craziness, he’ll eventually shut up and begin writing again.

He will ask for your advice. Probably best to lie to him and tell him you don’t know diddly squat about writing or books, though your opinion might be good or bad. Writers are brash, foreign people who won’t really take your advice or criticism seriously. And if you scrutinize a character, remember that for the writer, the character is a real person and– “how dare you? She has feelings!”

But most of all, let him fail and fail again, and let him climb the grueling ladder of learning to tell stories, from the mechanics to the finer methods of sustaining suspense in a story about stationary sea crabs. Every writer fails at writing, but those that give up there don’t become writers. They become people who wish they had become writers. So encourage them no matter what drivel they produce, because eventually they’ll churn out something decent and then later on something incredible. Only with time can a person understand life and death, the only two things a book can be about.

Seriously, don’t freak out. They’ll write weird stuff, but they’ll probably end up fine unless, you know, they don’t. But a lot of people don’t end up fine, and that’s most people, so maybe they’re doing better than we thought. If you have any inclination to help them, give them your favorite book and leave it at that. The universe, generally a fan in my opinion of human success, will do the rest.

Must You Experience Something To Write About It?

J.K. Rowling never attended a school for wizards and witches, or at least that is the common theory. Surely, if wizards did exist, might they be outraged that a simple Muggle speaks for their struggles, their experience? What is an experience, or rather “the experience” of any certain group? Maybe Rowling need not fear backlash from wand-wielding cloak-wearers, but what about writers who write outside of their experience?

Not every crime writer started out as a detective or cop or anything more than a college graduate. Beyond the need for clearly explaining the real world aspects of jobs writers may not have, they may approach a lifestyle they have never approached. Generally, when I pick up a book by Toni Morrison or Maya Angelou, I can expect their depictions of growing up black and female in America to be accurate. Of course, those experiences do not encompass everyone’s experience, but they make a good representative example.

But what about when I write about being a black female in America? Could my words be taken just as solidly as theirs? After all, it would merely be a representative experience, right? The problem arises that I don’t know what it’s like to be black or female, and although I could research “what it’s like” and read endless books, I may never really know. That’s okay: I’ll write about it anyways.

Because no one can put their feet in everyone’s shoes. We can do only what we can, right? If I only wrote about bookish middle-class white males from Aiken, South Carolina, I might as well write a memoir. All that Write What You Know tripe, it rings true to a certain extent, but it can seriously mangle creativity. And if you never attempt to replace your eyes with the eyes of another, you’ll never learn their perspective.

I thought about this dilemma while outlining a new story about gay homeless teens in New York. I’m not gay, and I’m not homeless. I’ve never even been to New York, but I still think I can write the story. Of course I’ll do research, just like I did research when Is tarted my newest novel about boxing. I did not know anything about boxing culture or rules or even dress, but I learned. You read and read and talk to people who know what it’s like to be whoever you’re writing. Often, I base my stories off of real-life events or ideas or groups, but I don’t pretend to be an expert in any of them.

Surely, Thomas Harris never ate a single human being before penning Silence of the Lambs.

When I began In Lickskillet, one of the characters seemed to be half-black, half-white. There was no reason for it, but that’s how he looked in my mind, and I didn’t shy away from addressing his perspective. Maybe I was wrong, and maybe I assumed many egregious things, but I tried.

There is no gay experience or black experience, only the stereotypical ideas about such experiences. Either there is only one experience (the human experience) that we can all understand, or there are infinite experiences (meaning none of us will ever fully understand one another). My job as a writer is to try to understand, even though I know I can’t.

What do you think? Should authors tackle difficult subjects they’ve never encountered firsthand or act more like journalists?

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