Category Archives: Fiction
When Cassandra exited the bathroom stall, she stood for a solid minute puzzled at the absence of mirrors. Someone had come into the high school bathroom, the unit located in the Andre Hall, and removed each and every mirror from its place. Silver fasteners remained, framing unpainted yellow squares above the dirty sinks. In place of each mirror read the message: YOU ARE BEAUTIFUL.
Well, that’s awfully nice, Cassandra thought. She did not feel very beautiful: she had woken late, tied her hair in a bun, and forgotten to put on make-up. Though she appreciated the message, she regretted that she could not fix her eye shadow which always gooped in the early afternoon. An impulse overtook her to remove her compact from her purse, just to check, but she did not. I am beautiful, she thought, of course I am. Imbued with confidence, she strode out of the bathroom, her head held high.
Screams erupted from each of the passerby’s who saw her. Unfortunately, she had not noticed the massive spider crawling across her face and biting her cheek with poisonous results.
“Every morning I jump out of bed and step on a landmine. The landmine is me. After the explosion, I spend the rest of the day putting the pieces together. ” -Ray Bradbury, Zen in the Art of Writing
Sucker punch my heart break
burst open my cocoon too soon,
rainstorm my rib cage,
and wrinkle my veins.
Rearrange the furniture in my head.
You must be a landmine, blasting apart
in order to put yourself back together.
General Bates let us sleep in a tent with Jaime, though we used our own blankets. The summer air clung so fiercely to our skin, though, I could not keep covered. Instead, I lay shirtless against the ground, studying the seams along the interior of our shelter.
“You’re angry, aren’t you?”
“Maybe. Just disappointed. I just– what are we going to do?”
Ethan shuffled. “We can give them the seeds, the medicine. Some of it. We don’t need it, and then we can go back to our island. We can just–“
“Why didn’t you tell me?”
“About what?” He breathed heavy beside me, and in my side-vision, his chest rose and fell rapidly.
“About needing to register. What were you running away from?”
“I– if I were living like that, where they accounted for everything you did? You don’t know how nice you have it out there in the marsh. You’ve never lived in a city, not like they’re like now. We’re all rats, scrambling on top of each other for some sunlight. And men patrol the streets and beat you if you say anything to them. That’s what passes as police.”
“That’s why you left?”
“I left because I had heard about something else, something simple. I thought maybe if I stole that boat, rowed out to sea, I’d find something better. And I did.”
I resettled against the ground, soothed by the crescendos and decrescendos of Jaime’s snoring. “There have never been simpler times. Never civilized either. It’s always been difficult: existence. Whether you’re stuffed in a polluted city, mired in poverty, or stuck out on an island, rooting through the ground for a vegetable to eat, something to kill and clean. No life is simple, and it never has been that way.”
When morning came, I tracked down General Bates and showed him half of our supplies. If Jaime might return us to our island, I told him, he could have our supplies. Some of the stronger medicines and the seeds too. Hemp seeds and corn, though I kept the majority of the rice seeds– I could plant rise in the marsh, harvest every year. I kept a lot of the allergy medicine as well and a pocketful of pain-killers. The general took the rest gleefully, shuffling from the tent to wake up Jaime.
Jaime waddled crankily from his tent. “You want me back on the road again?”
“Sure, sure. Take these two back where you found them. Or wherever they might want to go.”
“Do you have a boat?” I asked. “We could also really use a boat.”
The general shook his head. “We need all of our boats. Now, get out of here before I take the rest of the stuff you hid from me.”
Once loaded back into Jaime’s truck, we sped down the road, crisscrossing through empty highways and abandoned interstates. He allowed me this time to sit in the cab, leaning against the window, my forehead pressed flat.
“Still torn up, thinking you was going to be a rich man?”
I ground my teeth, watching the pine trees as they vanished behind us, the truck picking up speed. “Rich? No, maybe not. Maybe so. Not so sure I ever believed that plan could have worked– I should realize the world has changed. It also changes, even when you’re not a part of it, and it keeps churning on. All that time away, you don’t realize what happens, what happens to everybody else, the whole world. Places disappear, and people do too. Entire societies collapse, and new ones rise. Back when I was a boy, we never thought we’d live like this, constantly at war. Sometimes, it’s not just land that gets submerged, but the past and your perception of the present. If you think you know what’s going on, pretty soon the water’s up to your neck, and you don’t know anything anymore.”
He nodded along politely.
As the hours passed, I scanned the trees for our boat, a way to get us home. I prayed to encounter none of the soldiers Jaime described, a barricade along the highway. Looking back through the window, I could see Ethan wiggling his head in the wind– only the second time he’d ridden in an automobile, so he told me. And then I kept watching the road, dreaming of my island and my home and my marsh and that little boat, about paddling back out to Charleston and exploring the city lost. I didn’t belong in the land of the living, but instead at the bottom of the sea, in that city of ghosts.
The truck woke me, its trembling motor roaring in my sleep. Again, the underwater dreams, those lucid moments beneath the surface of consciousness, drowning in the ceaseless churn of a storm. Then I could make out above the hollow crash of waves a burping, mechanical clatter that unglued me from sleep and sent me bolting upright, staring into white-bright headlights.
“What the hell’s goin’ on here? Why you sleeping by the road?” A man stared back at us, his lips puckered at a peculiar angle and his eyebrow cocked. His skin was black as the soil, his clothes tattered. He stood beside a shuddering, rusted truck.
I clawed my throat for words, but none came. Ethan spoke: “Is that a truck? You driving a truck?”
The man reached into his cab, turning off the motor and flipping off his headlights, leaving us into the dim illumination of early morning. “It’s my truck. Personal business. None of your concern. Who y’all fighting for? Soldiers?”
Clearing my throat, I stood up, pushing the blankets off of me and limping toward him. He was a massive man, though old, wearing a broad plaid shirt and jeans caked with mud. “We’re– we’re headed to Atlanta.”
“Alright, so what? You’re gonna walk there? Where are y’all from?”
“We live not so far away. On an island.”
He nodded. “How long?”
I looked to Ethan. “I’ve been there, well, about eight years now.”
“Then you don’t know– it’s illegal to live out here now. Radiation zone, they’re calling it.”
“I– I haven’t seen any radiation.”
“You can’t see radiation.”
“But I never felt it or nothing. I mean, there are fish. Birds and snakes.”
The man snorted. “Best not tell them that, they’ll come root you out of your island. It’s been illegal for more than three years ago.”
Slowly, the gears of mathematics churned in my brain: how long had Ethan lived with me?
“You never told me that,” I said, turning to him.
He shrugged. “What do you think I was running away from? They wanted to register everyone, otherwise you’re not considered a citizen, don’t got no rights.”
I thought about this for a moment. “You said there was some sort of soldiers?”
“Couple, running around these parts.” He shrugged. “The Continental Army, sweeping through pretty often.”
“Another rebellion going on?”
He nodded. “I’m running guns to an encampment fifty miles up the coast. Stole some canisters of gas, so we have a few trucks making trips through roads where the army left alone.”
“We need a ride, if you can spare it.”
He gestured to the bed of his truck, where a pile of black guns lay. “You can ride back there. Got any way to repay me?” I rifled through the bag and tossed him a bottle of Oxycodone. He checked the label, then watched me, startled. “This stuff real?”
“Pretty real. Can we get a ride?” He nodded to his truck, and we gathered our blankets, stuffing them into a bag and hopping aboard.
Five hours we bounced against his back windshield, metal guns sliding across the bed beneath us. Guns made me nervous, though the smugglers carried guns for protection; men would kill each other with these weapons, to claim sovereignty over land that was being slowly covered by the ocean. Their military encampment looked like a small village of pop-up campers and trailers shipwrecked on concrete blocks. The man driving us, his name Jaime, stepped out of the truck and approached a tent big enough for a circus show. A moment later, a stocky man with iron-gray buzzed hair stepped out, wearing shredded Army greens and old combat boots.
“You the stragglers he found on the road?”
“We’re on the way to Atlanta,” I explained.
“You don’t want to be traveling the roads. There’s a war going on.”
“But there’s always a war going on. Isn’t there someone to buy what we have to sell?”
“Sell? With what? What do you want? Food? Guns?”
“I don’t know,” I said, feeling incredibly naked in front of the men filing out of the tank. “Money.”
“What’s the use of money? Jaime says you live in a swamp.”
“‘Spose that’s true.”
“You live in a swamp, and you don’t know what’s happening.”
“It doesn’t matter, damn it. I just– I just–“
Another man spoke up. “He said you gave him medicine. What do you have?”
“I– I don’t have anything. Nothing I can give away for free, I mean.”
The Army guy grinned, knuckling the toe of his boot into the dirt. “You can’t just come into a rebel camp, say you got medicine, and not share it. Why would you want to go to Atlanta? That’s dangerous.”
“I have things to sell– more medicine. We’ve been living on an island, but we wanted– we thought–“
“No one to sell it to.” He paused. “I’m Bates, by the way. General Bates, if it please you. Commanding officer of this outfit for the Free States.”
I began to grow frustrated. I didn’t care about their petty rebellions and lurches for power, their killing and bombing and gassing. Once I sold the seeds and medicine, I could buy a new boat, return to my island. Get as far away from this disaster as possible.
“Alright, General Bates. Just point us in the right direction; we’ll be on our way.” I began to back away from the truck, eyeing Ethan, clutching the duffel bag tight to my chest. “Which way to Atlanta?”
“Told you, you don’t want to go near Atlanta, less you want to die. Whole place is devastated. That’s why we moved out to the coast, the Continental’s have closed in on us. And Atlanta– that was blown apart a year ago. Nothing left but radiation and a black hole in the ground.”
My grip on the bag loosened as his words sunk in– the war. Because of the war, there would be no one to shell out millions for seeds. We wouldn’t sell a thing, and everything we’d hoped for had been destroyed by a nuclear bomb twelve months before we began searching.
Corn. Rice. Apple. Hemp. Soybeans.
The seeds from some of America’s greatest agricultural movements, sitting on the shelf next to my bed. When I awoke from hallucinatory nightmares, in which I tumbled endlessly beneath the sea’s surface, I fumbled with the bottles, but didn’t screw open the cap tops. Instead, I shook the seeds inside and prayed these would be my salvation. But if the smugglers had crashed their ship near Charleston, then there would be no one to buy the seeds.
When the storm died three days later, we assessed the damage: half the containers we’d set out to catch water had been tipped over or blown into the marsh. Ethan waded into the muck to collect empty tin cans and plastic pitchers that were now full of mud. We poured the containers into ten-gallon jugs we had collected months ago, from where we could draw water for cooking, drinking, and on occasion, bathing.
In the aftermath of rain, mosquitoes clung to my legs until I walked pocked with red all over, sores itching with needling wrath. The heat swamped my lungs, and even as I breathed, I felt as if gulping mouthfuls of salty water. Still the dreams haunted me, even while awake, of drowning, of drowning in that city of ghosts.
We lugged the battered dinghy from the shore and cleaned its hull before paddling with haste back into the Charleston bay. “Down here, this is where you found the ship?” I could see already its bulking black shadow as I zipped up my wetsuit; Ethan would not go diving again, if he couldn’t keep tied to the boat. “Keep watch of that winch. We don’t want a repeat of the other day.”
When I dove, I sank quickly toward the shipping vessel. Nearing the end of the month, the smugglers docked in the marsh and leapt onto our isles. We haggled near the shore over copper wires, glass Coke bottles, unopened cans of green beans, steel plumbing pipes, and other valuables. We didn’t want money, only supplies: tools, fresh food, fresh water, and medicine. This was what I dove after: medicine. They kept bottles of pills in a cabinet inside the captain’s cabin.
Their ship’s three masts rested against the concrete wall, the middle and highest splintered into shards that now floated around me, spears of wood threatening impalement. Fifty feet long, the boat laid on its side, probably smashed against the jutting portion of the wall when the terrible storm came. I hovered above the wreckage, trying to remember the layout of rooms, of compartments. A few foam safety rings rested suspended above the ships’ deck, still bound to iron rungs in the wood. Snaking through the grappling ropes, I found the lower deck, where a door lead to the main cabin.
Once I reached for the door, I tugged and found it locked– or at least sealed closed by the immense underwater pressure. Crash. I elbowed the window, slivers of glass rising peacefully past my face like throwing knives sailing at me in slow-motion. A great surge pulled me against the window, my body smashing the window frame apart as I tumbled into the cabin, sea water crashing in after me. I fumbled with my oxygen mask, breathing deeply as water filled the cabin to the top, and then I drifted confused among the wreckage.
The medicine cabinet. I tore it open, and orange pill bottles spilled out. Aspirin and stronger opiate painkillers. Suppositories in a massive mason jar. Sleep-aids. Ritalin and other forms of speed. Allergy medicine. Locked in a metal box, I found sealed capsules of even more powerful medicines– surgical opiates and anti-psychotics. A few unmarked vials and a clean, sealed syringe.
When I reached the surface, lugging my cloth bag of medicines, I tossed them aboard the boat. “Don’t open any. We can sell these.”
“You sure we can’t use them?”
“Use them? What, you have allergies? Or do you just want to pass out from drugs? Look, help me up.” He hefted me from the water, and I collapsed on the floor, shaking off water and breathing heavily. “If we can find someone to buy these– and the seeds? We’ll be set for life. We can buy our own boat, a huge cruise ship if we want. Or we can hike out into the mountains, purchase a mansion on a hill. We won’t have to live on a forsaken island in a swamp.”
Ethan nodded slowly. “But– but– right, maybe you’re right.” He smiled, but grimaced at the same time. “Sure, we’ll be rich. But if the smugglers were at the bottom of the sea, who do we take these things to? Who would buy them?”
“Who would buy seeds?” I considered this. “The farmers in the cities might. They plant engineered crops, things invented in laboratories, but how long as it been since– since someone saw real seeds? Actual seeds?”
Ethan shrugged. “We have to travel to the city, then. Atlanta? It’s close enough.” I nodded frantically, and then we embraced. I gathered the medicines and puts them in a cooler we strapped to the back of our boat. We would be rich, I knew it: we would survive.
After two hours, Ethan collapsed against the side of the boat, dropping his oar over his lap. “I can’t– just keep going. Where are we? Do you know?”
I glanced left and right, peering through the thick trees surrounding the marsh. “I don’t know. I’m just trying to find– some land or something.”
Once we realized we had almost destroyed Earth, the federal government passed stringent laws to drastically lower carbon emissions. Personal vehicles were outlawed, though no one could afford the gasoline to run them. Most of the country’s population traveled via magnetized railways, zipping east and west across the continent, but no rails reached south along the east coast, unless you traveled deep into Georgia. Near Atlanta.
“We just have to– have to find a highway. It’s say on this map– here–” I unfolded the map and tried to flatten it against the boat’s dashboard, and the breeze ruffled it from beneath. “Come, here. There’s a– if we can find this highway seventeen, we can–” A gust of wind bloomed beneath the map and levitated it above our heads, then the map crumpled into a ball and splashed into the swamp. “Well, what are we supposed to do now?”
We floated aimlessly for another hour, before pulling the boat ashore. Our feet sank up to our ankles in rich, black soil, but I kicked it against a tree trunk as he laid the boat to rest. We hiked through the muck, pushing vines from our path, when we stumbled across the black asphalt. “We start here, try to find someone with a mode of transportation. Use the seeds to pay people, or the medicine.” We carried our bounty in a duffel bag with our clothes. Night fell, and I laid out thin blankets I’d taken from our house. Then we fell asleep underneath the stars, the sky’s muggy breath pressing against our cold necks.
I clawed through the water, sinking only ten feet beneath the surface before crawling back up from air. Gasp. A wave sprayed my face with stinging flecks of water. “Ethan!” No sign of a head bobbing above the surface, only a black expanse constantly displaced. “Ethan, where are you?” But he couldn’t hear me, even if he swam twenty feet away, because the wind howled, the waves crashed against each other like war chariots, and my mouth filled again and again with salty water. “Ethan!”
Turning my head, thrashing through the water, I searched for anything. A sign. Where was the boat? I spotted it rising on the crest of a wave that had pushed it three hundred feet in the opposite direction. I furiously swam for the boat, wind-milling my arms, pushing through the black though the tide sucked me away from underneath. Another wave washed over my head, and I spun, clutching for something, anything. Climbing for air, reaching for the thin, drizzling light. But I couldn’t find the surface, I felt so disoriented, like someone had hung by upside down by my toes and beat me like a piñata.
A hand clasped around mine.
The city rose up to swallow me, and through the ruins under the sea, I could imagine the city as it once had been. There, that strip had been an old market, where tourists bustled past each other to buy straw-woven baskets. A great grass square I passed on my days off, before a saw sliced off my hand. Young people, still delusional with visions of grandeur, rested without anxiety beneath the warm sun, rocking in hammocks, or sunbathing on beach towels.
There– there had been some sort of old prison there, a dark creepy place they said was haunted. Always stories about haunting, though in a way the city had become just another ghost story.
Floating high above, I could see everything. The whole history splayed out, the myths of a thousand ghosts floating in an underwater dream. The green glare of the past pulsated to the surface, the houses rebuilding themselves, then crumbling. In my dream, I could see the birth and death of a city, and it seemed now, like the life of any person, nothing significant.
He slapped my face with the back of his hand, then pressed his clammy hands to my throat. Still, I spewed water as I lay on my side, the sea escaping from my strained lungs. “You’re alive. I thought you might be dead.”
I opened my eyes, staring at the side of our boat, as Ethan leaned over me, checking my vitals like I had taught him. “Where were you? You– the rope.”
“I’m right here now. I’m fine. I’m fine. You cranked the winch too fast, and the rope caught on a rusty nail down there, snapped the rope clean in two. Took me long enough to find the boat. Then there you were floating face-down in the ocean, I thought you were dead. You were dead, nearly.”
“But I’m not. Where are we?”
“We’ll need to paddle back to the island.” Ethan stood, shaking the salt water from his pants legs. The boat had flooded, and as Ethan rowed us in the right direction, I found a bucket to toss the water from our interior, though the rain made it impossible to keep dry. The rain died down by the time we reached our island, bumping against the marshy silt and hopping onto the shallow green platform surrounding our house.
“I need to show you something,” Ethan said, covering his eyes with one hand as he scanned the waves. “No one’s around. The smugglers– I don’t think they’re coming back.”
“What do you mean? How would you know?”
“I saw them. I mean, I saw their ship. They must have tried sailing into Charleston, but they crashed against the wall. Their whole vessel lies at the base of that wall.” He reached into his cloth bag and dumped a pile of gold jewelry on the table, chain necklaces and sparkling engagement rings. Then a rusted can of what must have been petroleum.
“Holy– you took it all?”
“Not all of it. There was a lot. They lost everything down there, at the bottom of the sea. But I found something even more important.” He reached into his pocket and removed orange medicine capsules, the kind they used to give out at pharmacies before people learned to print their medication for cheap at home. “That’s no Advil in there. Those are seeds.”
I picked up the capsule and studied it warily, reading a sticker label that had been hastily written on: Corn.
By the looks of this blog Word Salad, I either died or was captured by Russian spies, but I am still alive and kicking, only with considerably less free time than I would like to have. Generally, the little I do have I contribute to professional projects rather than penning funny, sad, and weird columns for this blog. My output, however, has been tremendous, and I want to share with you some answers to the question posed in the title.
I have been churning out thousands of words a week, no doubt. One class I have enrolled in this semester requires at least one, sometimes 3, papers each week, as well as a book a week. Even for such a prodigious reader and writer as me, this class has taken a toll on me. It has also, however, taught me a lot and made me think about elements of politics I have never before considered. The semester is winding down (or rather accelerating toward the brick wall Dead End named Finals), and I am looking forward to a summer of fun, excitement, and scholarly activities (SIKE!, says the nineties teenager).
Two writing projects currently are still in the works. After months of sending query letters, I have received interesting critical feedback on my novel The Heathens and Liars of Lickskillet County. Firstly, not many people feel comfortable reading about the Ku Klux Klan, even a comical modern version of it, and after extensive research, I have decided that I too find it distasteful. I expected to find a group of confused southerners emphasizing southern heritage, but mostly the organization is still quite racist (no surprise there). This couple with other problems have spurred me to begin working on other projects while seriously editing the book.
I ain’t no stranger to editing– most of a book’s life is spent in the dreaded editing stage, in my experience. Certainly, I won’t give up on the story, because it’s a story I find compelling: teenagers discovering themselves while encountering the pitfalls of adulthood in a small southern town. It’s a juiced-up, funny-as-hell, exaggerated version of my own experience and the experience of many of my friends. I spent nearly three or four months away from the manuscript and have now returned to engage in editing, and I’ll share some of my favorite passages:
“I had electric veins and ionic eyeballs. Like my heart was hooked up to a car battery, except the energy kept flowing the wrong way.”
” Some of the cities we lived in were actually less like modest hamlets and more true-to-the-core, redneck Nowhere’s. Towns where orthodontists went bankrupt on account of there being only so many teeth per capita.
The sorts of towns where no one had ever heard of smart phones or the Democratic Party or anal sex.”
“Boredom: our natural state, our default. For our entire teen lives in Lickskillet, boredom was true evil, our archenemies, the Darth Vader to our Luke Skywalker. We the free rebels fighting for sacred liberty from this, our mortal enemy we called “boredom.”
We tried everything to absolve ourselves from this carnal sin. Most drank heavily, even idiotically. Which was the best way to drink, with the high possibility of death. Most of the boys drank beer, challenging each other to gulp down more until all had passed out. Girls preferred liquor, mixed or straight. And then everyone, roaring drunk, would smash boredom against the walls. Would take off our boredom’s clothes or pass out on boredom’s lawn.”
Another project I have been vigorously working on (in the months Lickskillet lay dormant in my mind) is The Choke Artist, a story about bare-knuckle fighting, illegal immigration, obese hand models, Alabama lesbians, drug kingpins, murder, Walt Whitman, and time travel. Perhaps when I feel more comfortable with Lickskillet, I’ll post more information about this fascinating, bizarre work.
Essays, novels, and late-night scribbling have accounted for much of my weekly word count, but I have also re-delved into poetry. Last Wednesday, I came away from a school poetry slam, snagging first place. I won an incredibly awesome pen (made with wood from Ireland and GOLD), and it’s probably the best writing utensil I have ever owned in my life. Perhaps I’ll post a picture up next week with a video of me performing the winning poems?
Now you know “Where the Hell” I went and what I’ve been doing. Check in again soon for further shenanigans.
My mother’s agent crossed her legs and smoothed her skirt, placing the manuscript delicately on the coffee table. “Georgina, it’s not even finished.” Mum nodded, folding her hands over her knee. “And– the murder scene at the end, it rings disturbingly similar to the finale in Black Tears, you know where the killer tries to drown Detective Knaus in a swimming pool. In this, you have the main character drowning in a Jacuzzi, and maybe there’s a fine distinction, but– look Georgina.”
Mum burped out a quick apology which faltered once it left her lips. “Angelina, please, look, I can tidy up the script. I’ll change the scene even. She’ll drown in the sea or a bathtub or a dunk tank at the carnival. I just can’t stop writing Catherine Knaus novels, Angie.”
“Yes, well, you can’t write them. Not anymore. You killed Knaus off in the final book, and didn’t I tell you not to? You could still be writing her character now. But no, you wanted to go for shock value. End of the series, hero has to end. And now where are you? Writing a bland replica of the same character with a different name. Georgie, I can’t even use this– it’s, it’s… it’s fine, but your comeback must be strong, soaring, magnificent. Not– this.” She tapped the manuscript and smiled with bared teeth. “Honestly? Rhonda Flame? That doesn’t belong in a Georgina Snyder novel; if you were writing erotica, though…”
I crept another step down, peering through the banister at where they sat below me. My father entered the room, brandishing a slightly taller stack of paper than my mother. “Angie, you want some tea? Nice to see you again after–“
“No tea, thanks. Your wife and I were just discussing–“
“You know who else finished a manuscript, Angie?”
Angie the editor shifted her glasses and waited a beat. “Am I supposed to guess?” Another moment of that silence adults share when social constructs fall apart. “You?”
“Me, yes me. As you’re my wife’s agent, I was hoping you’d take a look.”
“We’ve talked about this,” mum said, pushing my father’s manuscript back toward him, away from her own on the coffee table as if one might infect another. I imagined all the sheets of paper spilling onto the floor, and when you rearranged the pieces, you got a literary journey of discovery and scandal intermixed with grungy noir gore.
“It’s a tale of a broken middle-aged man, in an existential clash with himself. He’s a writer, though he has not written anything for years– oh, the crisis, it’s sort of a metaphor for writer’s block, you see. He begins looking to make his life more interesting, takes up gambling, then begins an affair…”
“Mr. Snyder, I appreciate–“
“Better not be a fucking autobiography,” my mum muttered, finishing her wine in a grand, gulping swig.
“Mr. Snyder,” Angelina continued, “I think your writing is superb, but the idea of the book is hardly marketable. There’s nothing distinct that sets it apart, you understand?”
“Bet his wife catches him shagging one of his students on his office, and all she wanted to do was surprise him on his birthday.”
“He’s not a professor, Georgina. He’s a writer.”
“Listen, both of you. I really need to be leaving.” Angelina smiled again, her teeth on vicious display, taking steps toward the door. “Georgie, we signed a contract. At least finish something, change the hot tub scene, and– my boss wants to see it by next month.”
“Next month. The fourteenth then?”
“The first would be better, Georgie. They’re awfully particular about those contracts, and I mean, maybe after Catherine Knaus died, that was a sign. That your, well at least your career in crime novels–“
“My career?” My mother stood up, though clumsily, knocking her empty wine glass onto the floor as she crossed to Angelina. “Angie, Christmas is coming up, and we can’t even–” she lowered her voice “avoid presents. We’re going to have to pick and choose. Honestly, if Michael keeps breaking windows– January 1st will be too early. Can’t it wait until at least the second or third? You’ll be too hung-over– I mean, knackered– to read it.”
“The contract, though, states that our agency will represent you for the entire Catherine Knaus series, and after that ended, we gave you two years.”
“I can have it in a month. Two weeks from now, no problem. All I need is– some space, some coffee, a little inspiration.”
“Good. I’m glad we’re all in high spirits then. Send it to me in an e-mail, Georgie. Talk to you soon.”
“But you were going to read my manuscript,” my father shouted as Angelina slipped out the door, then half-sprinted down the walk through our garden. “Well, bugger that slag with a buttered broom handle. Georgina?”
“Don’t talk to me, Richard.”
I leaned in close, trying to read their nuances, their motions, their faces. “What the hell are you doing?”
Nearly tumbled down the steps when I leapt up, my heart rocketing into my throat. “Aggie, just headed downstairs for a cup of tea.”
“Have you been in my room?”
“No, of course not. Why? Is something– um, missing?”
She cocked an eyebrow, licked her lips, then replied. “No, nothing’s missing. Just my notebooks fell over, and I know you’re a nosy little brat who likes to snoop around in other people’s things.”
“Maybe it was Michael, looking for inspiration for his Great American Novel.”
“Fucking idiot. I’m pretty sure only Americans are allowed to write those.” I nodded empathetically, then slipped away before she realized the horror on my face. The ring, she knew it was missing.
While reaching my arm down the air vent, the screws rolling against my knees, I wondered how I would formulate this scene in the final draft of my memoir. Would I write the scene dramatic, my breathing heavy, my fingers scrambled to find the lost ring, my eyes shifting constantly to the clock that hinted at my impending doom? Maybe not so suspenseful. Maybe more comedic.
Halfway through, my hand would get stuck and I would hear my sister begin her ascent up the stairs. At the moment, she shopped for Christmas presents with my parents while Michael sat upstairs doing whatever Michael usually did, probably writing another rip-off Stephen King novel.
As I thought about a comedy of errors, a series of mishaps in the story like a 3 Stooges cartoon but more literary, I feared my hand might actually get stuck. As if how I fictionalized the event might preemptively affect the actual event. Like a blooper, but from real life.
People in the audience at a play— they laugh politely at the gaffs but laugh the hardest when you lynch your lines, when you forget a word, when your wig tumbles off, powder clouding the air. Laughing at something that’s supposed to be funny, that only makes you a conformist. It’s the fuck-ups that really make people cackle.
I withdrew my hand and wiped the black, grainy smudge from my fingertips. When first contemplating the lost ring, I considered telling my parents, but then Agatha would know I lost the ring. Also, we had moved beyond tattle-tale-ing on each other because it meant the snitch too would face punishment. We knew so much about each other, we could never blame each other directly, only indirectly, like two hostile nations pointing nukes at the others’ capitals, knowing once we set off the explosives, we insured our mutual destruction.
Dropping the vent back over the hole, I began to tighten the screw when I heard omeone creeping down the hallway. I faced the door, my hands shaking, and then I dropped and crawled underneath Agatha’s bed. I imagined that in the fictional version of the moment, I might feel like a character in a horror movie, breathing slowly as the serial killer stalks around the bed. The door opened, and dirty sneakers trod across the room before halting next to Agatha’s book case.
After some strain, the person sat down on her bed, and I could hear pages flapping. The sneakers smelled like dirt and mashed potatoes, a hairy ankle sticking out. “What are you doing?”
As I clambered from under the bed, Michael fumbled with Agatha’s notebook to return it to its hiding place. “Shit, Neil. You scared me.”
“You’re reading Agatha’s journals? Trying to steal ideas?”
“I’m just– what are you doing in her room?”
“I’m just– I– uh– so she keeps the notebooks behind the other books on the book shelf.”
Michael nodded. “She’s smart. Turns ‘em sideways so they lie flat against the back of the book case, and they don’t stick out. But I found them this time. Have you read this stuff?”
“I think she’s pretty good, actually. Might be the best writer in the family. I mean, at least she’s honest.”
“Honest? She’s hormonal. Dad’s the best writer.”
Michael screwed up his face. “He only writes reviews. Anyways, dad’s not all that smart.”
He only said that, I suspected, because dad refused to read his newest project. Dad had tried to read previous novels by Michael, but then Michael never finished them, and my father grew frustrated with this until he refused to not comment on any more of Michael’s unfinished manuscripts.
Being brutally criticized, my brother could probably withstand that but what broke his heart and his resolve was being ignored. As if his work had grown so insignificantly droll, my father could not devote time to criticize its quality.
The front door opened, and Michael and I retreated from Agatha’s lair to stand in Michael’s room. On the desk stood a stack of clean notebooks, a row of mechanical pencils filled with graphite sticks. “You’re planning to write a lot?”
“I have been writing a lot.”
“And what is it this time? Like, a story about dragons or is this another Philip K. Dick rip-off.”
Shrugging, Michael moved the notebooks into his drawer. “I’m working on my magnum opus. My bestseller.”
“You can’t just decide it’s a bestseller before it’s even started.”
“But it’s all about the dramatic inner lives of a group of writers, on whom the nation recognizes.”
“You mean mom? What are you writing?”
Michael took a deep breath and sat down on the chair. “Oh, well, a memoir.”
The door opened, and Agatha dropped her shopping bags in the hallway before storming in. “What were you two doing in my room?”
“But we weren’t–“
“My notebooks were on the bed, you little snoops. You don’t have to be so damned jealous that I can write poetry and you can’t. Michael, stop being so desperate.”
I cut in, “He was probably just collecting research for his memoir.”
“What a joke. Michael, please go throw yourself out of a library window.”
Michael’s face grew red. “Shut up, Agatha. You’re not even good anyway. The only reason anyone likes you is because you starting seeing that Greg guy.”
“Greg? Michael, you’re–“
“Oh, you know, just the guy you talk on the phone with every night, that boy you write poems about. He’s four years older than you, and I mean, it’s not a coincidence you’re featured in his magazine.”
“You’re a nosy little creep.”
I looked between them. “You’re dating someone?”
Mum walked in. “Dating who?”
“Greg,” said Michael. “He must be an American, and he wrote that article about Agatha, and now she thinks she’s hot shit. But she’s not. Once I publish my memoir, everyone will know.”
“You can’t publish a memoir,” said mum. “You’re not even an adult yet. You don’t know anything about life.”
Shaking my head, I looked to Agatha. “Did he give you the ring?”
“Right? Agatha, what’s going on?”
“How do you– you lost the fucking ring, didn’t you? Mum, he lost my damned engagement ring.”
Mum turned dead white, pressing her hand against the door and gasping dramatically like they do in the movies. “Engaged? Who are you engaged to?”
“Greg, probably,” said Michael, retreating to his bed.
“I didn’t to lose it. I just held that card, and then– it fell out.”
“You’re getting married and you haven’t told us. You’re not even an adult yet, Agatha.”
Michael smirked at this. “Yeah, Agatha, you’re not even–“
She lunged for me, toppling me to the floor as she clawed at my face. “You little snarky bastard. You lost the ring. I was going to give it back to him but now you lost it. And he’ll hate me. Even more than when I told him no.”
“You told him no? Agatha, what?” Mum looked even more horrified, clutching her blouse.
Everything that was happening, I could not help but imagine how awesome it could play out in my memoir. How Agatha had turned violent over her passionate secrets, how my mother felt so scandalized.
Mum called up my dad, and with Agatha, they drifted to the kitchen to discuss Agatha’s engagement ring. I sat upstairs, relieved they had forgotten to ground me for snooping in her room, and Michael began writing in his notebook.
“I don’t know why you’re trying. I think I’ve already got the memoir market for this family cornered.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’m working on one too, I meant. No offense.”
Michael shrugged. “They’re probably different anyways.”
I chewed on my cheek and walked from the room. “We’re just different people. How different could they be?”
In my room, I began to write, but I found it hard to concentrate once dad started yelling. Something about how Agatha didn’t deserve to be off in California if she were just hooking up with indie magazine editors. Somehow, I could not write the truth, so I wrote something else: a story about a boy in a family of writers.
The father, a children’s book illustrator. The mother, a redundant poet. His older brother, a budding literary novelist. And a little sister, who had decided she wanted to be a doctor instead.
Every story we tell is a memoir disguised as fiction. The characters we write, they’re just derivatives of ourselves, expressions of who we want to be and who we don’t want to be. We’re obscuring the truth in fiction.
We live anecdotal lives. Everything we can do becomes just another story to tell our parents or friends or spouses when we get home from school or work or Pilates. As humans, we love stories. In the case of lying about who you are, come full-loaded with anecdotes. Stories make you believable—that’s why Hitler promoted the publication of anti-Semitist children’s books.
This is just my version of a children’s book, starring me. Everyone wants to write a memoir, to cash in on their stories, so why can’t I?
The truth, when it’s unwrapped, when it’s raw, burns our skin with embarrassment. We recognize too much of ourselves in the truth, things we could not say out loud printed onto a page. We’re so afraid of sharing our secrets, we make ourselves into a breathing sarcophagus. We write our confessions on bathroom walls, trying to find salvation in anonymity. And we only end up alone.
The day after Christmas, Angie visited to pick up the manuscript for the first adventure of Rhonda Flame, the protagonist of a true-crime-inspired erotica series. Angie agreed to read dad’s manuscript too, maybe out of starch politeness.
Agatha found the ring by fishing down the air vent with a campfire skewer. We celebrated by sealing the ring in an envelope and mailing it back to California, back to Greg, who I felt slightly sorry for. Then again, if we were an American magazine editor, he probably deserved better than Agatha. If he had made that mistake, she’d be even more of a crazy, psycho bitch. Not that her foulness bothered me– it made good fodder for a memoir, that memoir I still needed to start writing.
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.
In the past few months, I have culled “buzzwords” from the national conversation, if the discourse can be influenced by media, “buzzwords” I have contemplated. When writing blogs, sometimes we search for “hot topics” to talk about, to share about, but lately I have abstained from throwing in my two cents for gun control, marriage equality, or the construction of an American Death Star. My silence should not suggest I have no opinions on the matter (Build the Death Star immediately) but that I feel the arguments I could make have been made sufficiently by other people and also that posting op-ed articles on “Word Salad” might not be the best way to convey a message.
Sure, a couple hundred people read this blog a day, but it might take a mighty fine piece of persuasive writing to haul anyone from one side of any controversial canyon to another. Instead, I have focused the past three months on what I do best: writing fiction. Most notably, I have been working on a novel that is now finished. I am currently querying.
Because novels take so long to write and apparently much longer to publish, I felt it might be strange to not include on “Word Salad” samples of my fiction. Maybe you’ll like it so much, you’ll buy the novel when it comes out. Maybe? Probably.
Therefore, from now on, though I may still write plenty of op-ed articles about politics or Twinkies, I will try to post a short story (or at least part of a short story) on the blog. These stories may have several parts, but if there is nowhere to publish some of the weirder, more experimental tripe I write, I might as well post it on the internet for the world to see.
As I draw closer to publication, I might post sample chapters for “Lickskillet,” but until then, here’s a rough preview of short pieces I am currently working on and will likely post in the coming weeks.
- A yuppie journalist breaks down in the midst of a Hillbilly Hell as he seeks to uncover the true purpose of a newly-minted dam. Mutant catfish and missing teeth abound.
- Nikola Tesla manages, before he dies, to perfect his most secretive project: a time machine. When he takes a ride to the future, however, he lands in the kitchen of three aimless stoners who don’t know who he is.
- His father a literary scholar, his mother a bestselling crime novelist, and his sister a “Confession Poet,” the youngest Snyder child has a lot to live up to, but also much to worry about as his older brother attempts to write a memoir of their defunct family life.
There will hopefully be more stories than these, but these are the ones I have come up with so far. Check back in before the end of the week, and perhaps I will have the first story (or part of the story) posted.