Category Archives: Characters
When summer ended, Momma wanted me to start attending school again. I was already a year behind, after being pulled out in the middle of the night and moving down to Louisiana. My mother woke me up, and we rode a train until dawn, climbing off in Baton Rouge, Louisiana. I think something haunted my mother, something she needed to escape from. A monster. She felt paralyzed, that ole Boo Hag plopped on her chest.
She always told me stories, ways to keep away spirits, but now she practiced her storied rituals with a fatal frankness. I prayed she hadn’t gone crazy, though she chanted and sprinkled salt. In the swamp, she built a shabby Praise House where she stomped her feet, shrieked, and danced with abandon in a form of some esoteric worship.
Squirrel walked with me three miles to the school bus stop on a dirt road every day. Weeks into the semester, we trudged home from the stop, too exhausted for adventure, following a dirt path cut though the swamp. “You ain’t looking for monsters, are you?”
The herpetologist glided over the dark water, propelling with a long cane pole. He rode in a narrow boat, like a canoe, its bow curved like on pilgrim’s shoe. He wore the same patchwork rags that looked like dregs of dead moss.
“We ain’t looking for anything,” said Squirrel.
“Hm. Well, maybe you could help me search for something. The red-back lizard, endemic to this habitat. You can climb trees, yes?”
Squirrel nodded, glancing at me for approval. “We could help, long as we get home before dark.”
We climbed into the snake man’s boat, and he poled away from the shore, the bow pushing back tall reeds and bluish saw-grass. Studying the branches for snatches of scarlet.
“There, you see it?”
A gray-green lizard hung on the underside of a knotted-trunk cypress, the reptile’s back narrowing into a crimson arrow near its head. The herpetologist took it gently and lowered it into a mesh trap, crammed with leaves, twigs, and clods of soil.
The afternoon passed quickly as Squirrel and I took turns catching lizards. The scientist entertained us with stories. “The Boo Hag, huh? That makes you Gullah?”
“Momma is,” I told him.
“Hm, well, every heard of the Plat Eye? Displeased souls forced to wander their graves, tricking hitchhikers, sometimes to their deaths.”
“Uh huh, I heard. Some giant, floating eye.”
He nodded sagely, turning his direction to the swamp. “It lurks in the wild, shifting shapes, deluding. Like all truly dangerous things, it is an illusion, unable to cause physical harm. An illusion: it becomes something to draw you in. Surely, nobody walks toward a giant eye, but as a treasure? A beautiful woman? Perhaps one might follow after.”
We shuddered at that fate, that we may be insinuate our own demise, be the hangman and the executed.
As the day ended, we stood again on the man’s quaint island. He opened the door and gestured inside. An excruciating stench filled the room, a mix of body sweat and formaldehyde. “Either you want a beer?” he asked, crouching next to a dismal ice box.
“Momma would be mad.”
“Of course.” He attempted a feeble smile. “I forget at times. Being alone makes you forget how to interact in pleasant society, being out here in this swamp.”
I pushed back the curtains and studied the caramel sky. “We should get going.”
He nodded, the watched us. “Yes, okay. I’ll take you.”
Beer in hand, he hopped back into his boat. After a minute, Squirrel asked, “Is this the way home?”
“I don’t know your way home.”
“Just take us where you found us,” I said. I did not want this man to know where we lived. An uneasiness crystallized in my chest, spreading through my stiffening veins.
But then we were back, safe on shore, waving warily as he poled out of sight. “He’s harmless,” Squirrel said, as we sprinted down the path home.
My Superman watch blinked in digital numbers 2am when a man began pounding against our door, then running again and again against it to force his entry.
“Remy! Belinda! If you in there–”
How foolish to assume we could seek asylum forever in a swamp, where each step threatened sinkholes and snakebites.
When I woke, I feared the snake man had come, and I knew he was no scientist, probably instead some hobo swamp-grifter. Something more sinister.
My mother screamed from the adjacent room. Her rituals had not worked to keep away the monster, the man at our door, my father.
Crack. The door gave in. I sprung up, peering through the pink-bathed room, his shadow filling the doorway. “Remy, get up.” He snatched me off the floor, gripping my hair, pressing me to his side, and his stench screamed whiskey and sweat. Once outside, he shoved me against the ground. “Think you can run away?” He slammed his fist into my gut, and I receded into a ball, coughing and unable to breathe.
My mother sprinted toward him, slapping his head feebly. Turning, he smirked, then struck her powerfully. She fell, screaming. “You bastard! You bastard!” He kicked her hard in the face, blood bursting from her nostrils, her screams faltering into whimpers.
Squirrel scurried out the door, ducking under my father’s arm and lingering by me. I tried to stand, but the world shifted dramatically, disrupting my balance. My father raging, his face contorting. “Remy, I was only ever there to protect you.”
Then I saw the figure emerge, floating from the swamp as if from its soul– a man with burning blue eyes. My father stared in awe, and we stared also as black smoke enveloped the man until he became a human raincloud. Then a massive eye appeared, floating without a body over my father who promptly fell, shielding his face with his arm. Mumbling and screaming.
Its cerulean iris glittered sinisterly, the pupil expanding until the eye loomed larger than the monster. The Plat Eye collapsed into a sphere of dark smoke and dissipated into the swamp.
We crossed the sink pit again but found no crumbling shack– only an abandoned mud island and a void of silence. The herpetologist had gone, though I swear I sometimes still glimpsed his silhouette passing through trees, poling his boat through the swamp. But not real, only as pervasive as a myth.
The authorities dragged nets through the swamp but found no body, and they chided my mother condescendingly for her “visions.” The other swamp-dwellers gave testimony that she had already begun acting crazy long ago. As for me, I said nothing; I pretended to remember nothing, transforming the memory into a story.
Just a tale about a mysterious swamp monster– not the kind I was supposed to fear.
Even after we moved to Louisiana, settling with family friends who lived at the edge of town immersed in a swamp, my mother still sprinkled salt across the threshold of our home. She feared monsters, spoke of them in a hushed voice wrapped in nightmare, wearing fear like an ashen pall. She walked around the house with pronounced agitation, reciting myths of my childhood.
My mother’s friend’s son– his name was Squirrel, because he had become especially apt at climbing trees. He grappled nimbly from cypress branches at the edge of the swamp, and I watched him climb from a safe place on the shore. He hovered over the algae-crusted swamp water that bubbled and churned like some primordial ooze. “You know how old the swamp is?”
The swamp resembled the verdant marshes of South Carolina, where I grew up, a place of moss and snakes and answers. But the swamp echoed an even more ancient wisdom, a prehistoric sense of fatal knowledge. “I don’t know. Didn’t know a place could have an age.”
Squirrel laughed. “Nope, it’s eternal. Momma says it’s forever-years-old.” He grinned smugly back at me, clambering down the trunk and plonking next to me in the mud. He was nine, two years younger than I, but he thought he knew everything in the world, or at least more than me. “Remy, you think your momma’s crazy?”
“Hell no, she ain’t crazy. What makes you sat that?”
“All the salt, she’s always sprinkling salt and putting out straw and mumbling to herself.”
“She’s just superstitious. That’s how people are where I’m from.”
Squirrel lolled back his head, splashing his toes in the black shallows. “You’re not like that. What’s she so superstitious about?”
“Well, some things you just can’t understand, cause you ain’t grew up with the stories.”
“Swamp’s full of stories, though, just none you heard. We got the white alligator and the Gumbo Man and voodoo witches and all sorts of creatures. I don’t know what sort of stories there is in South Carolina.”
I nodded. “But you don’t believe none of that, do you? About magic and monsters?” He shook his head meekly. “You know why my Momma’s always sprinkling salt every night? And puts straw in the window?” Again, he shook his head, and I leaned against him, lowering my voice to a deadly whisper. “You ain’t never heard of no Boo Hag?”
“No, not really. We don’t got those down here.”
“Like hell you don’t, They love quiet, wild places, just like the middle of this swamp, where they live in shacks. They cast spells over people, their spirits lifting out of their bodies and attacking, pressing down on their chests while they sleep. You could wake and not be able to move, paralyzed while the slip-skin hag sits on you, making it so you can’t breathe. You want to scream, but you’re breathless, cause you’re getting the life sucked right out of you.”
He trembled at every word. “I don’t like this story, Remy.”
“Don’t worry. I know what they look like, always lugging around a ghost-light. And there’s magic you can use to get rid of them. Momma knows it all, and that’s what she’s doing. You sprinkled salt at the door to keep the Boo Hag away. The straw keeps it busy, cause it wants to count everything. It gets too busy to attack.”
“Why would it wanna count straw?”
“It just do. That’s how the story goes.”
“That just a story?”
I nodded. “Ain’t nothing to be afraid about.”
Summer arrived in a muggy haste and passed like a racehorse, a blur of colors and sweat and fierce competition. Squirrel and I competed at everything, whether it be zipping across the cool mud flats behind our house or climbing tall mangroves in the swamp or spinning exaggerated yarns of fantastic sights and experiences. Stories about monsters fascinated us, whether they be grotesque ghouls or wicked witches, becoming more fearsome and imaginative with each telling.
Squirrel lounged against the indent of a gray-mottled willow, sharpening a stick with a dull pocket knife. “If I see any swamp critters, I’ll just stab ‘em in the eye,” he said, gleeful as a savage.
“Wouldn’t be able to reach, you’re too short.” I snorted, and he poked me in the leg with the blunt end of his weapon. Howling, I clutched my thigh and yelled, “A fatal wound!”
Afternoon melted into a cool evening, the sun balancing indefinitely on the horizon. “Why you wanna go home? Two house before it even gets dark.”
I shrugged. “I’m hungry.”
“But we can’t just go home yet. I got something to show you.” He paused for effect. “I found the Boo Hag’s shack.”
“Ain’t no such thing.” I sighed; why had I told him that story?
“But you said–”
“I didn’t say nothing. I told you them ain’t real. And I’m hungry, let’s go home.”
“But I found a shack, and there was someone– something– living there.”
“We seen the whole swamp, and I never saw no shack.”
“Sure there is, on an island past the sink pit. You never been, but I can take you.”
We scurried over calcified tree roots jutting from the inky water, hopping from fractured stumps to moss shores, then trampolining into tree branches. I clutched the sturdy overhangs like monkey bars, though I struggled to cling to the branches Squirrel rocketed from. “Just here, climb up.” With a tremendous leap, Squirrel leapt from a high branch and grappled an above branch, hanging precarious over the sink pit. Then an acrobatic tumble to the opposite shore.
I crouched, folding my body like an accordion, then sprang; my arm stretched far, my fingers brushing the branch. Falling– I was falling. “Ahhhhh!”
I splashed into the sink pit, flailing my limbs, my legs vanishing beneath the earth with a watery slurp. “Help,” Squirrel spasmed with anxiety, pacing the sure and wiggling his fingers as if he were casting a curse. Then after a few moments of uncertainty, he unsheathed his pointed stick, gripping one end and shoving the other end toward me. I grasped, clawing against the muck that rose to swallow my torso, and Squirrel dug his heels into the mud, wrenching me back to the surface. Plop, I came up and stumbled next to him, wiping slick mud from my pants.
“Be quiet,” he warned. “The shack’s just past those trees. Don’t want her to hear you.” I peeked past the veil of foliage, where a decrepit shack sat on a flat rock outcropping. “She lives there.”
Pleated floral curtains hung thick with cobwebs against cracked windows, and crooked planks stacked against a hobbled frame constituted the building’s simple architecture. We ducked behind a spare bush as the flimsy door swung open.
A figure draped in gray rags shuffled out the shack, heaving a cloth sack bulging. Holding the bag aloft, the figure reached inside. Something inside the sack was moving, squirming like a hostage. The man clutched its bottom, turning it upright and dumped coils of striped ropes onto the soil. No, not ropes– snakes.
They collided against the ground, a clump of writhing colored cords, unraveling and dispersing into the grass. When I jockeyed to gain a better view, I turned and saw Squirrel had fled with his arms flapping.
Plunk– into the sinkhole.
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.”
“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.”
“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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
Tired of getting lost for months in literary tomes that never cease to end? Maybe you want to spend one winter day drinking hot cider and reading, but what could you read in just one day? Here are some suggestions.
Fight Club by Chuck Palahniuk
The most well-known of Palahniuk’s work was made into a successful film, directed by David Fincher, starring Brad Pitt and Edward Norton. But before people started quoting the rules of Project Mayhem, there was this novel, Palahniuk’s debut. While I would suggest many (though not all) of his stories as prime reading material, I would say: Start with Fight Club.
Chuck Palahniuk’s outrageous and startling debut novel that exploded American literature and spawned a movement. Every weekend, in the basements and parking lots of bars across the country, young men with white-collar jobs and failed lives take off their shoes and shirts and fight each other barehanded just as long as they have to. Then they go back to those jobs with blackened eyes and loosened teeth and the sense that they can handle anything. Fight club is the invention of Tyler Durden, projectionist, waiter, and dark, anarchic genius, and it’s only the beginning of his plans for violent revenge on an empty consumer-culture world.
It’s an easy, fast-paced read that sucker-punches you every page.
The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo
The Alchemist reads like an epic legend, something you may have found written in stone. Though its themes of fate, religion, and destiny are very overt, what the book says is profound.
The Alchemist is the magical story of Santiago, an Andalusian shepherd boy who yearns to travel in search of a worldly treasure as extravagant as any ever found. From his home in Spain he journeys to the markets of Tangiers and across the Egyptian desert to a fateful encounter with the alchemist.
The story of the treasures Santiago finds along the way teaches us, as only a few stories have done, about the essential wisdom of listening to our hearts, learning to read the omens strewn along life’s path, and, above all, following our dreams.
Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky.
This book will break your heart. Open its pages and expect to spend all day and night reading until you’re finished.
offers a unique perspective. but there comes a time to see what it looks like from the dance floor.
since its publication, stephen chbosky’s haunting debut novel has received critical acclaim, provoked discussion and debate, grown into a cult phenomenon with over a million copies in print, and inspired a major motion picture.
the perks of being a wallflower is a story about what it’s like to travel that strange course through the uncharted territory of high school. the world of first dates, family dramas, and new friends. of sex, drugs, and the rocky horror picture show.
of those wild and poignant roller-coaster days known as growing up.
Beasts by Joyce Carol Oates
For if you want to stay up all night.
Oates’ stories, they slide underneath your skin, disturb you from the inside. Before you even realize it, the story has found its way to the dark and lurid parts of your brain. After reading Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been? I sought out a novel by Oates, and one of the novels was Beasts. At 7 pm, I began reading, and I did not stop until around 4 in the morning. The book’s subtle suspense drew me in all night, and thought this book is lesser known than the others, I highly suggest it.
A young woman tumbles into a nightmare of decadent desire and corrupted innocence in a superb novella of suspense from National Book Award–winner Joyce Carol Oates. Art and arson, the poetry of D. H. Lawrence and pulp pornography, hero-worship and sexual debasement, totems and taboos mix and mutate into a startling, suspenseful tale of how a sunny New England college campus descends into a lurid nightmare.
Know any other short, but powerful novels? Share them in the comment section below.
I read a poem today in which two boys played in the backyard, a deceptively simple poem. The more I pondered the two stanzas, the more concretely I realized how little the poem was about—childhood innocence, friendship, etc. Should poetry be so hushed, so calm, so unobtrusive?
Having grown used to brass, dramatic poetry, this caught me unawares. Why be so calm and cool and collected? Two boys running and throwing balls and pushing toy trucks around in the grass, all things I’ve rarely seen. Because childhood is rarely as innocent as we assume.
Why not write about two boys playing video games (we often played videogames), about how they shout at each other as each wins? Write about throwing the controllers at each others’ faces, knocking out teeth, bloodying their noses. Childhood is rarely flowers and sunshine and playtime before supper. It’s a constant war.
Children, in fact, are sufficient evidence that we as the human race descended from savages. They are cruel, selfish, and conniving.
And no one is as guilty as a child is. When a child steals, they spend the next few hours fretting over their sin, their black crime. When they lie, they burst with the need to say the truth. Adults do not share this tendency: we do not feel guilty about much past infidelity or murder.
I closed the book of poetry and put it away, thinking about times I might have played in the grass. Surely not as many times as I argued with friends over Pokémon cards or whether or not a certain Mario Kart race victory was considered fair. Do poems need to shout, to demand change, to radicalize, or can they fall light as clouds on your brain, invoking nothing serious, only the fabled innocence of children.
We arrived to eat breakfast, though it was nearly time for lunch. I ordered a black coffee and she a chocolate waffle. For a long time, I sat uninspired with a notebook in front of me, too tired to transcribe what I was seeing. Instead, I contemplated the synthetic webs, filled with plastic spiders, decorating the establishment for Halloween.
Behind me, two couples sat facing each other, enjoying a post-church lunch in sweater vests and Easter dresses.
One woman refilled her coffee cup and sat down, frowning toward the waitress.
“Want some sugar, honey?” asked her husband, pursing his lips and leaning forward.
“No thank you,” she said. “Maybe just some Splenda.”