RANDOM NVDT – Writerly Concerns #16 – The Potty Mouth Episode

Here it is. The blankety-blank post on potty mouth. I’ve written several versions of this post, and they all cycled back to dialogue and character credibility.

I get hammered occasionally by beta readers and casual readers alike for having a 13-year-old coming out of anesthesia and asking her gramma if “thah muherfuher” is gone. She is angry at the doctors, for good reason. Her gran was a Rosie the Riveter and her big brother is a super jock. They swear in front of her all the time. Her mother and father try (like mine did) not to swear, at least in front of the kids. When mine stopped trying I was surprised that my mother had a better grasp of profanity without reaching for it than most stevedores or wisecracking pimps or East Coast gangsters. My father could say son of a bitch with a wider variety of inflections than Sherwin Williams has color swatches.

I recently read a 1978 Elmore Leonard. “The Switch”. Wherein a 14-year-old male wannabe tennis star says “bullshit,” among other things, to his confused mother who is trying to stick to the straight and narrow country club life and wants to swear back at him but can’t find it in herself to do it. I love her character, though. Waking up in the Stepford thing and not liking it, not knowing what to do.

Here it is, 2019, I was writing about the 70s. I was there. And people go “Oh my!”  about a purported “good girl” swearing. Huh? I’m sure there are lots of people  who have led sheltered lives or have a dense moral code of some kind or find an air of superiority that allows them to be easily offended by how “the other half” talk, but I have a news flash – No pimp or drug dealer or angry salesman or most any member of any gender in any number of vocations says “Oh, drat. I am certain Jesus will punish you in His own way for (insert dastardly deed here). I only regret I have but one (wallet, bank drawer or other cheek/valuable) to offer you.”

In good conscience I can say there might be characters somewhere who would say that. But having been around for (a very long time) I would say that person is few and far between. I read somewhere that the magic of Elmore Leonard’s realistic dialogue is all in knowing how and when to use “motherfucker”. I have had multi Grammy winning artists (artists, not pop stars) say to me in conversation “…but that motherfucker? That’s the shit.” Would they say that on stage in front of the President, on national television? Probably not. In conversation, shooting hoops with the Prez. More than likely.

Know this – I am not a fan of gratuitous profanity. Even an angry character can get over the top if you write too much “fuck you, you fuckin’ piece of fuckin’ shit motherfucker.” Even for Tony Soprano. Or when it just doesn’t work. I watched Gone Baby Gone a couple of months ago. Casey Affleck and Michelle Monaghan are completely unconvincing when they try to get ghetto with the bad guys or even between themselves. You can tell “motherfucker” and all of its nuances are lost on Affleck when he tries to deliver it. In cases like that, not everybody needs to swear. If it doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. If it’s too much or out of place/character punt it.

I recently posted something written after a character had been through an angry scene. That attitude spilled over into what I had written that came after the anger episode and I hadn’t shifted gears for the character. I posted it, read it and immediately hit edit. He was mad earlier, okay. He got over it, no need for him to sit on the beach with someone who hadn’t pissed him off going all fuck this and fuck that and here a fuck, there a fuck everywhere a fuck fuck. Right? Scene and characters require tone, and language imparts both character and tone. Stylistically, as a person who attempts to write, I don’t want to tell you who who my characters are, I want them to tell you. Sometimes they have to cuss, but not always.

Lets go back to the 13-year-old girl and “muherfuher”. She’s coming out of anesthesia. She’s uninhibited, angry, confused and heartbroken by doctors that she believes have ruined a certain part of her life. She has an ex Rosie the Riveter grandmother she adores and a 6’ 4” super jock older brother. Her ears aren’t virginal and that’s how she feels at the moment. There are other times when in her persona of class role model she starts to use “shit”, catches it on the way out and corrects herself. In one role she is the epitome of good girl. Off the clock as herself she just wants someone she can talk to, be with, be herself around. Show that person with some depth, with her closeted anger, without altering her vocabulary and it becomes my word as a writer against hers as a character. I don’t belong in there and she becomes what I say she is, not who she says she is. I stand by her usage because in that instance “muherfuher” works. She does not sit down to eat take out barbeque with her parents, as delivered by her should-be boyfriend, and say “One’a y’all motherfuckers wanna get yore thumb outta yore ass an pass the fuckin’ Tabasco?” Time and place. Knowing when and how to use motherfucker. Motherfuckers.

One of my top two favorite authors, Barbara Park, received criticism for her 5-year-old character’s grammar. One critical example – “Let your children read these `Junnie (sic) B.’ peices (sic) of work and then spend months unlearning the poor grammar it teaches.” Also – “Words fall short to describe this genre of writing — not only is the language abysmal, but as a parent of young, impressionable children, I find it rather detrimental to their psyche and behaviour (sic). For our children’s sake, do not endorse these books; rather boycott them entirely.”

Wow. Harsh. Junie B. Jones didn’t swear. She yelled sometimes, was impulsive, called things dumb and forgot her manners. And spoke her mind like who she was. Her character talked just like my 4-and-6-year-old grandkids. Park’s (paraphrased) response to her criticism was she wrote kid dialogue for kids, appropriate for the character. She wasn’t trying to teach grammar and the people who missed that argument weren’t worth the time. Mark Twain said the same thing a hundred or so years earlier. Steinbeck, Hemingway, Hammett and Leonard all say the same thing. Before she died Park had over 60 million books in print. And her Junie B. books, to me, are a graduate course in flash fiction. How to boil a story down to all it needs, and how a character can tell you who she is. Readers like it, screw the squares.

Now, a flash course in character from a master –

I was at a Santa Barbara writers’ conference a couple of weekends ago, and I listened to the students, reading. And they all use adverbs, ‘She sat up abruptly.’ And I tried to explain that those words belong to the author, the writer, and when you hear that word there’s just that little moment where you’re pulled out of the seat. Especially by that sound, that soft L-Y sound. Lee. So often it doesn’t fit with what’s goin’ on, y’know. I mean, if a person sits up in bed, they sit up in bed. You don’t have to tell how they sit up in bed. Especially with what’s goin’ on. In this instance, she sat up in bed ‘cause she hears a pickup truck rumbling by outside very slowly and she knows who it is. So you know how she sat up in bed. And in her mind she’s saying, ‘It’s that fuckin’ pickup truck’. She knows it is. And then there’s another, say, half a page or so of inside the character’s head and the phone rings. She gets out of bed and feels her way over and almost knocks a lamp down. And she passes this stack of self-help books, on the desk, and picks up the phone. And I suggested to the young woman who wrote this, ‘Save the fuckin’ pickup, drop the fuckin’ adverb, and put it with the self-help books and it’ll say a lot more about your character.’ See, it’s little things like that. The contrast works better. – Excerpt from Anthony May’s 1991 interview with Elmore Leonard. The whole thing is available here

The Graphic is not just sloganeering, it’s a mantra. As such it becomes the mascot graphic for Writerly Concerns. We would all do well in our writing efforts to “Emulate” the Drumulator.

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Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #15

Two’s Company, Three’s – Hey Buddy, No, You – A Challenge!

Editors, even good ones, and most of the advice and how-to books and exercises go out of their way to tell us “avoid scenes with multiple people.” Consensus is two is plenty to get the job done, or inside the head (borrrrrring) of one. Decorate the set with non-interactive bodies. Screenplay time!

Pretty good advice, I guess. I’ve taken it a few times. I’ve heard it from editors from my first to such internet faves as Dan Alatorre and Beth at The Editors Blog (who really is good). They also both go out of their way to have us disenfranchise readers from characters (they certainly do touch a lot, why are we seeing this through ‘the character’ and not direct action, but that’s a whole other story).

Why? Because a group scene mishandled is awful. Or amateurish, or silly or just plain bogus. Like the maddening, poorly acted and timed, cued dialog in a Hallmark movie. Where everyone speaks at the polite moment, round robin style. I call that the circle jerk. Alatorre opens “The Navigators” that way. Like walking into a room full of mannequins or those Disney animatronic things, all speaking and walking and moving in turn, on cue with directorial action tags. Like readers are too stupid to follow it. Not unlike the formulaic cozy where Miss Marple assembles the suspects and goes around the room or prods whatever thick policemen is going around the room. Wait your turn. Stand in line, cue aaaaaaaaaaand speak!

Anybody have kids? Coached little league any gender, any sport? Ever read “The Cat with the Pot on Her Head”?

Been in a bar, a restaurant, a network group, a tradeshow booth? Please. No group is as well behaved as Christie (well, maybe the English) or Alatorre or any number of others would have us believe. In Alatorre’s case it takes the first two pages at least to get past convo that doesn’t matter much trying to show camaraderie and latent sexism and get nowhere. Which is why reading group scenes is worse than writing them most of the time, particularly ones that read like screenplays with directorial sidebar notes.

In the music biz of the late 70s and early 80s we used to point out when we heard the punch-ins roll by, and how the true artform of the producer was to put enough Vaseline on the seams to render the punches and dubs less obvious. Seriously. Still going on, particularly in clip art electronica. The world of assembled guitar solos is no different than the current world of assembled multi-person scenes. There’s the first four bars, back up, count in, here’s two more…Okay Bob, your turn, then Marjorie…

Why? Are there no mentors? Are there no painters out there beyond the solo man vs nature/self/society Jungian quest for identity, nothing but screen writers for well-mannered hair dyed botoxed 80s child stars being cued to speak in turn?

The answer is yes, there are. But we need to hunt them down.

This topic wasn’t even on my mind, but the last six weeks of 2018 I went to the woodshed. With some classics. Just to see why they’re classics, you know? One of them was Dashiell Hammett’s “The Thin Man”. Most of the novel transpires in groups of people. The magic is that Hammett puts you at a crowded table in a speakeasy or in a posh living room or a tenement apartment with at least four people, often more. All interrupting each other, taking swings, having opinions, crying, freaking out, throwing skillets, pulling guns. And you are there. Because Hammett, unlike almost anyone else save Hemingway, cuts through all the bullshit and puts you in the scene with all you need to be there and no more.

How did he do it? He spends no time in anyone’s head, stays completely out of the way and lets the scene happen. He puts people in a situation and allows them to behave as they would. A screaming, crying, lying drama queen doesn’t go off when everyone has had their say, or when it’s convenient for the writer, they go off, like people do when their buttons get pushed, inconveniently. We need to understand people and their behaviors and let them be who they are or they become weak, well behaved stereotypes. Which is why (Dan and Beth and editors et al) we should experience emotions like a simple touch or a ferocious slap as they are, we don’t wait for a convenient time or a dedicated direct disengaged authorial action tag to relay that info. A while back I wrote about Jim kicks Bill. That’s all you need, particularly in a crowd. Say it, do it, get off it.

Another example. On TV and in movies bad guys talk their way into getting shot with a lot of Clint Eastwood stand-off and word play. Read some Elmore Leonard. Set a scene, “Hey, you!” (if that) Blam blam blam. Next. Stephen King can ramp up the tension early on until when, horrifyingly and in one line, someone inexplicably (sort of) sticks their hand in a garbage disposal and flips the switch. Next.

Less is always more. Less author, more scene. More BAM.

Crowd scenes are the same way. Keep it moving to keep it real.

If you had perfect children and grew up in a perfect home with well-mannered siblings and are having trouble with this interruption thing, spend a couple minutes (that’s all you’ll need) watching the 4 boxed-in talking heads on CNN or a Presidential press conference. Or sit behind a group of six or more at a theater or church of your choice. Hammett didn’t have cell phones for props but I’m sure he could have worked in drunken thumb tapping in a darkened theater from the disheveled gum smacking party girl.

If we think our readers (or us writers) can’t handle a busy scene and we write the busy out of it, (as is the current trend) or bail altogether, it becomes numb. And dumb. Start with two, then three, then up to seven individual personalities and you’ll be with Hammett in the Pigiron speakeasy, 1934. And you will probably never see it done better. Steinbeck and Faulkner rock 4 or more pretty well themselves. Maybe it was that Roaring Twenties thing when people got together instead of tapping glass to communicate.

If you’re having trouble, as I have read recently, getting three people in a car to a motel, study a classic. Then write. All I’m asking is see how it’s done well before joining the circle jerk, stumble about with call and response or bail club.

Thinking about writing I am always reminded of the old adage about good barbeque. Bear down on the meat, ease up on the potato salad. We shouldn’t write to prove that we can by doing that ‘look, here I am, writing meaningless action tags and weak dialogue’ thing, we should keep it real. Real people misbehave. They speak out of turn, and don’t always say the perfect thing to cue who’s next. I’m sure that’s not PC, but it’s true. And it reads better. Better than the perfectly slotted, stiff nonsense of a book looking to be a Hallmark movie. Well, the contents written on the side of a shampoo bottle read better than a lot of that stuff.

Which brings me to – stay tuned – next time we address my favorite topic of (self) defense, potty mouth words.

 

Goldmine

This time of year it’s easy to get cynical, get materialistic or so busy we don’t feel, put a happy face on sadness, miss people and places we loved. Miss the innocence and wonder of Santa Claus and flying reindeer and the baby Jesus. Miss the Norman Rockwell Snowman, snowball fights, being a teenager with a blush and a warm hand to hold not shopping in the mall. (Tough to hold the Amazon driver’s hand…) We might not get what we want or deserve, but if we make a friend, we might just get what we need.

Venice Beach, CA / Wednesday December 19, 1979

The girl with hair like black silk followed an oblivious Jackson all the way from their composition juries at USC and sat down to his left on the little sandy, grassy patch he’d picked on the line between where South Beach and Venice blurred.

“That’s a shitty guitar.”

He picked up a gum wrapper, absently flicked it toward the steel barrel to his right. “I’m a shitty guitar player. Works out.”

“Most shitty guitar players redeem themselves with their singing.” She tried to put on a smile she hadn’t felt like lately, missed it.

“I’m a shittier singer. I’m going to try to fix that in the spring. Next year sometime, anyway.”

“Oh yeah?” A laugh managed its way into her voice. “Remedial Singing with Summerford? She’s older than oil and her breath will peel paint. Good luck.”

“That sucks, about Summerford.” He looked up, threw her a surprise smile he wasn’t sure he had, either. “Hey, you’re Honey Muffin from the Dick Baits. I’ve seen your gig. You run a cello stuffed with diapers through a wah pedal and a phase shifter, play it like a big, fretless hollow body guitar into a cranked Marshall half-stack. Most badass. That girl drummer you have stomps.” He paused a beat, lost some enthusiasm. “You, uh, might need to fire the bass player.”

“I don’t need you, of all people, to critique –”

“I said the bass player sucked the night I saw you, that’s all. Like she started yesterday. Unless that’s the way you write that shit, then it’s your fault.”

“We had a gig and she’s never played bass before. She’s another cellist. We’re all string players, the guitars are just like, ‘Oh, right, frets’. Frets are for sissies, but it makes it easy to cross over. And easy? I checked out your comp piece. What was that? Music for ‘I saw a beautiful cloud?’ It was so simple I thought they’d expel you for pretending to be a student.”

“Simple is harder than it looks.”

“That’s what he said. It was beautiful. And simple. I’d almost go elegant, but since we’re critiquing, the trumpet part would sound better on cello. More air. If you go that way, make me your first call.”

“Ring. I have to record it after the first and I’m not married to the trumpet. If you can bring that girl who played classical guitar on your jury piece, I’ll try to find some more money. You get high?”

“Thanks for calling. Yes I’ll play your puffy cloud music, yes I’ll bring Yaz and before I say yes to the last part, what have you got?”

“I’m no junkie, it’s just some NorCal weed. I’ve been mostly straight for a couple of weeks working on this damn final. The cat who gave it to me claimed it’ll melt my face like the old ‘stages of a stoner’ poster.”

“I’m a NorCal girl, I can deal.”

“Gotta tell me your real name first. Just so I’m not another Muffin groupie.”

“I followed you, lonely one. Besides, we rant on men too much. Our groupies want us to spank them for being naughty.” She rolled a little to one side and pulled a Bic lighter out of her back jeans pocket. “Malika. Heinz. Make a ketchup or a mutt joke and I’ll crack you. I’m a Ninja.”

He lit the thin joint rolled in a Stars and Stripes paper, handed it off. “Jackson. That’s all there is. Whoa, shit,” he coughed, coughed again.

She coughed, looked around. “One name Jackson. I heard. Is it a gimmick or is there a story?”

“Story. Want it?”

“If there’s a short version.”

“Done. Parental brain fart, last name on first name line. Nurse came back with it, mom said they’d get a first name when they got to know me, never got back on it. According to legend the only thing she said to anybody in the hospital after that was ‘get me the hell out of here’. The nurse put my last name on the right line when they checked her out and here I am. Jackson Jackson.”

“Damn. Your mom had other stuff on her mind, huh?”

“Always.. She doesn’t like being told what to do, or when to do it. She’s a hard core womens worlder in suburban camo. High heels, pearls, and an opinion on everything she thinks she needs to share with everybody.”

“I know her. How’s your dad cope?”

“He sells paper, has a garage full of Kotex and tampon and paper towel samples, spends his days listening to grocery store buyers talk smack about women and their periods and how messed up it is they have to buy all that junk from him, comes home and listens to my mom talk smack about jerks with penises who talk smack about women and their periods. He says living with my mom beats the hell out of normal and keeping up with her keeps him from watching mind pudding on TV. Except for Porter Waggoner on Saturday at dinner.”

“That has to be about the behive blonde with the boobs, Dolly whosit. Mom let’s that slide?”

“She likes it that Dolly’s getting over on Nashville with her assetts. Dad gets a pass for handing out free emergency lady gear to her freinds.”

“They’re harder to follow than your puffy cloud music. My mom is Vietnamese. Don’t say something stupid like ‘I’d never have guessed’. She’s the same way. A heart of gold as big as the sky, but on her terms. Her main thing is making sure everybody eats because we might forget. I have relatives on her side that go on for like centuries. Some of them, I have no idea who they are or how they’re related and they’re so old I don’t think anybody else knows, either. But they all come for Christmas and mom feeds them. The house smells like fish and cabbage and old people who smoke for a month. Vietnamese women run their world, so if she has forty old people no one has ever seen before in her kitchen you can’t ask her like ‘Mom, you know, why, and who are all these people?’”

“I know that ‘don’t ask questions’ mom. I used to have to iron the tablecloth, just in case. That was my mom’s wear clean underwear rule for housekeeping. What’s your dad do?”

“Dad is a white ex-surfer dude, who for real surfed all over, even Hawaii, and played surf guitar. Until he saw what happened to old surfers wasn’t the dream he wanted and became an aeronautical engineer. Mom wanted me to be a pianist, dad wanted a country singer. Cello was my compromise. Neither of them understood it and whatever I told them was little Melika’s ‘isn’t she smart’ gospel. That’s how my first wah-wah pedal came to be in my Christmas stocking when I was twelve.”

“You told them you had to have it? Like it was a mandatory orchestral accessory?”

“Fact, Jack.” She pursed her lips, shook her head, stared at the dead joint between her fingers. “So now you know I’ve been stroking big, hollow wood between my legs since I was five.” She stuck the joint in the sand beside her. “Tell me your heartbreak story before I start to like you, or I have to leave. I know you have one, it’s written all over your music, so give it up. I need to ride on someone else’s shit ticket.”

“There’s a song somewhere in Shit Ticket.” He leaned into his knees and told her about Deanna, the almost year of silence, mostly his own fault being out of it, and her unexpected letter. The phone call looking for help she wouldn’t explain. Her poetic memories, the “beautiful lies.” He rolled sideways and pulled Deanna’s folded letter out of his back pocket. “My comp piece was about us. So I kept it for luck on the jury performance.”

Malika opened the folded letter, read it slowly. “Ouch, dude. You lived together. That gets intimate. Morning breath and showers where somebody just pooped. Cheap Aunt Flo panties in the laundry basket, soapy whiskers in the sink, tampon tubes in the wastebasket and dental floss on the floor. If I was by myself it would make me cry, hearing your piece and reading this.” She folded the letter, handed it back. They sat for a while, feeling the breeze off the ocean, the people-traffic noises not so loud on a weekday so close to Christmas.

“So what’s really happening, Ms. Heinz. You didn’t follow me because I’m cute.”

“I followed you because, word up, you’re the biggest musical anomaly in the system right now. You show up from the dust bowl, nobody gets what you’re up to. Out of nowhere Doc Hartmount dropped that air freshener music of yours in a no-money, no-body chick flick and I thought you might be interesting. Someone else who knows how, but has other ideas. And you shaved. That really helped. The homeless druid look was tired.”

“Come on. Rasputin the grunting piano string scraper was all the rage in Malibu for the fall art with wine and moldy cheese season. Made me some money. Mostly it kept me occupied instead of dreading the day that letter showed up.”

They sat for a while in a world of their own, watched the sun kick grays and golds and pinks over the Pacific’s vanishing point.

“I just lost my honey.” She sounded concerned, let it hang, as if she’d crossed an invisble intimacy line. But he’d shown her his, and he hadn’t recoiled. “After almost three years. But he’d never move in. He was a real cowboy from Wyoming and said my place was ‘too fragile’ for him. Old high school bedroom NorCal hippie chick stuff from Pier One. And that’s too fragile? His place was in a frat house, so that wasn’t a happening move for me.” She spaced for a minute before she pulled what was left of a crushed pack of Kool Super Lights from her other back pocket and lit one.

“He was about your height, only beefier. Hands like sandpaper, and like born to be in the army. The way he walked, you know,” she rolled up from her butt to her knees and mocked a stiff, elbows out shoulder-swinging military walk. “He was my bassist before Zuki. His dad let him get his music degree because everyone needs a hobby, right? Now he has to earn this deforestation business degree at some bullshit Ag college back home in Bumfuck. You know what he said when he left? After almost three years he says, ‘Well, Leeka, I’m gone. You were a hell of a little number.’ His senior juries were five days ago, and when he was done he walked straight out of the hall to his loaded pick up and drove off.  ‘Hot little number’?” She turned towards Jackson, leaned back on her right hand, her eyes glowing. “I mean what hot number? Two, five, twenty-seven? Six thousand? The asshole.” She reached for the guitar. “Give me that piece of shit. I wrote him a get fucked song.”

Jackson traded the guitar for her Kool. She got through a rough verse before she started to snuffle and he saw a metaphor in trading for her ‘Kool,’ left it alone. He pulled a couple of long strands of black hair that had stuck to her cheek with tear glue back behind her ear, took the guitar back.

“You think too much.”

“It’s a girl thing.”

He snort laughed. “That’s some no shit truth right there.” He took the first line of her song and a couple of her ideas. “I hope you miss me, when you kiss her, when she moans your name. I hope you miss me when you love her ‘cause she’ll never be the same. I hope you miss me when she leaves you for calling her my name. Anything down that line, but keep it organized.” He offered her the guitar back. “That’s your hook, ‘I hope you miss me…’ You could work ‘it’s a shame’ or ‘lame’ in there somewhere. That’s what you were trying to say the whole verse. Tell your ‘how you fucked me’ story in the verse, dump your ‘godammit I hate your guts’ in the chorus. That’s a Fifties heart breaker if you’ll back off the two million chord changes. That killer tune of yours about Gozzadini I heard at Transit is the same. ‘Dress like a man’ is the chorus, not the whole story. When I heard you guys play that live it was like four minutes of a great chorus, but where’s the song.”

She wiped her eyes with the back of her wrists, snuffled again and gave him a sideways look. “At least you dress it up and don’t just come right out and say it sucks. I don’t have another verse. Let’s talk, and I’ll play guitar.”

They sat on the grass for three hours, until the December sun started to set, and wrote four songs together. She had an accident with the ice cream cone they split, dropped the top ball right in her lap. Jackson dared her to let him eat it. After a lot of laughter “Pussy Flavored Ice Cream” became song number five.

She smiled, finally, stared out at the ocean. “When you take the voice class you might be the guy to get even with Summerford for all of us. The dude with the voice to match her breath.” She stretched out her legs, leaned back into her hands “I know where we can eat real food, space cowboy, for free. But you have to let me borrow this little acoustic to finish thinking about what we did today.”

When he looked again she was staring at the sand, a million miles away. Already finishing the songs, or eating something worth eating. He stood, reached out sideways with his left hand and pulled her up.

“Deal. It might do that little guitar some good to hang out with someone who can play it.”

She shook her legs out, brushed the sand off her butt. “Ground rules, Jackson. I’m not ready, or even looking, for some guy to jump me. But I want to do this again, the songs and all, as often as we can. I still can’t believe you know who Gozzadini was.”

“Women’s history 101. Right now I’d be worse at bone jumping than I am at singing, so your love canal is safe with me.”

“There’s another one. Damn, you’re a freaking goldmine.” She dug a pen out of her purse, wrote “love canal” on her palm. “I have a bigger idea for our girl band than Honey Muffin and the Dick Baits. Skanque, with a Q, U, E. Like the biggest girl band gimmick ever. I want to shred these songs you and I wrote, and I want us to fix a couple of the others. I can hear them. All I’ve been needing is simple-minded pop with depth. You have the simple mind, I have the depth. What do you think? Classical cellist forsakes cut-throat symphonic career for fame and fortune as a cooch rocker?” She let off on the full speed ahead, thought for a few seconds, elbowed him on the arm. “Nobody can know I wrote men are just stupid and fuck us up man hate songs with a simple minded man. How would it look?”

“I know exactly how it would look. I used to prep a would-be feminist for speeches. I stayed home and did the dirty work, she got to travel and party and get awards.”

“That’s the job I want, the travel and party and awards part. You stay home, keep the kitchen clean and come up with more ideas. What do you really think about Skanque?”

“I like it better because The Dick Baits isn’t really you or what you’re about. The Skanque thing is a gimmick itself, so you might want to lean on your guitar and only stick that cello between your legs as an extra gimmick, no matter how badass I think it is.”

“Yeah? well, right now I think I like a gimmicky cello better than that phony lumberjack who offered me his undying love for this hell of a hot little number until daddy waved the checkbook.” She stared at the sandy grass between her feet and he saw her start to tear up again.

“Goddammit.” She kicked at the patch of grass, looked past the palm trees and the kids playing with a Frisbee that lit up like a flying saucer. “It was the half -Vietnamese part, I know it was. His dad is a hardcore ‘nuke the gooks’ vet so I was never going home with him. I didn’t want to see it is all. Sorry, I keep girling down on you. It just hurts, you know?” She looked down, toed the sand again. “Did you pick up that roach? ‘Cause where I’m taking you, honest to God, has the best seafood quiche in California and way awesome deserts. They only speak Vietnamese, so I’ll talk and won’t order you anything slimy or gross. They’ll call my mother up north about us being there and bring me the phone and she’ll want to know when we’re getting married. I’ll tell her you’re my pimp and you drive a nice car and we went to a wedding chapel in Nevada and not to worry, I’m still on the pill. Smile and nod at everybody.”

“She’ll know those are all lies. Us getting married, and my primer gray pimp-mobile that one side of is sitting on chunks of railroad ties.”

“No, she won’t. And since I know you’re not going anywhere else she’ll a set a place for you at Christmas dinner ‘cause you’re family. Hope you like fish. We’ll pick it up fresh in a cooler off the pier, from another relative in San Francisco.” She took his guitar, walked him to her yellow ‘75 Dart Swinger decked out with plastic flowers and decals of flowers and all kinds of beads hanging from the mirror. And a “Real Musicians Play Cello” bumper sticker. “I’m about to find out where you live, Jackson, so be sure that’s where we really go. A week from today, Christmas Eve, I’ll pick you up in the same place I drop you. You can drive and I’ll sing and we’ll write songs all the way up the Five.”

MERRY CHRISTMAS!

Writerly Concerns – That Show/Tell Thing Again

It was asked here by Anonymole (and all over everywhere) when to show and when to tell. I can’t answer that, directly, but I have a few ideas. First, and this is critical to making the show/tell judgment call, here is an excerpt from Charles Ardai’s Afterword for James M. Cain’s The Cocktail Waitress. (The book discovered, edited and published by Ardai.) This is lifted out of context but hits the nail on the head.

“It’s the inherent contradiction in any work of fiction, the one we all conveniently ignore each time we sit down to enjoy a novel: Can we believe what this narrator is telling us? Well, no, of course not – it’s all lies, it’s all made up, that’s what fiction is. But within the fiction, you say, if we imagine ourselves inhabitants of the characters’ world instead of our own, can we believe what we’re being told then…?”

Credibility. With any audience, we need to judge when they will keep their suspension of disbelief going and hang with us, and when they will pull up and say, “Whoa, now. Really?” Here are a few thoughts about show vs. tell.

Ease up on the Minutia – An editor once told me that we don’t need to take every step of every day with the characters. We need to see them in their environment and show them in conversation and interaction with other characters when it matters. Telling is often scene setting, or setting up an important conversation or event. Janie brushed her teeth, threw on her clothes, picked up a drive-through coffee and made it to X in twenty minutes. We don’t need to stand there with her while the toothbrush timer runs down, button her blouse or select shoes (unless we’re showing some character) we need to get her and her hurried state of mind to the next show by getting the basics told.

Ass-U-Me – We might understand something physical or conceptual and ass-u-me the readers do as well. If a doohickey has a name, and only the fifteen people you work with know what it is, either tell what it is (if it’s mandatory to the story), show the doohickey by character interaction, (M in Bond) or drop it. The way Hans Solo used sci-fi slang to sell the speed of his ship in the original Star Wars always drove me nuts. But he glossed over it, the people at the table bought it, so we let it go and ass-u-me whatever the hell he said, it meant fast and he was some kind of hot dog space jockey to pull it off. Great generic transplantable bar scene, though, in spite of the gratuitous techno-babble.

Weather, battles, travel and digressions – If the weather matters, or turns into an antagonist/protagonist, get into it if you must. Otherwise, conditions if they matter told. Think of the intros to Dragnet. Do we really need to know it was a hot and muggy/wet and cold day in Los Angeles when it never really mattered to the ensuing story?
Battles and fight scenes are an either/or. Jim kicked Bob’s ass. Told. Extended blow by blow of Jim kicking Bob’s ass. Shown. Make the call. Do we need to see it, or is it enough to know it happened?
If a journey matters, show it. If not, tell it. Think Huck Finn on the River. “Me and this black dude named Jim, we got up to all sorts of stuff. The End.” No way. How about the Bible? Woops, Jesus is 12. Man, that went by fast. And now he’s 30 something! But those are the story markers. Why waste time on The Messiah helping Joe build furniture and go to Messiah school? TV and all genres of fiction (okay, leave Eco out) do this all the time. Example – “Springtime was cold and muddy in Colorado, which made Texas look pretty good. By early summer a gambler in Galveston had taken his horse and saddle, newspapering didn’t appeal to him, so he thought he’d try doctoring for a spell.” Now we could watch “him” lose the horse and saddle in the poker game, that would be fun, or it needs to come out in a backstory/catch up convo with a bartender or a “saloon girl nurse” so we get the character’s side of it, not ours, but we don’t need to ride across Texas with him if it’s just a ride and campfire trip. And the audience has been primed to accept those things. Ever see or read about a cowboy getting off his horse for a potty break?
Digressions, into characters’ minds or daydreams or god forbid lengthy postmodernism authors and their mindset and philosophy and opinions and preaching ad nauseum. Or endless architecture, seasonal weather, travelogue and set decorating ramblings. Moby Dick and whaling how-to. That is all us  telling and we often need an outside opinion to point it out and defend it or let it go. In Cain’s book mentioned above his digressions into weather and architecture got cut as they did nothing for the story and weren’t in sync with his style. But – in another genre, another style? Judgment call.

Bottom line for show/tell is what happens to characters that we can dispense with and what do we need to show. Test – can you sell it without selling the story short.

Some authors can’t. Every gadget, every garden, the smell of leather and horse and…I prefer people to things, and if properly done we don’t need owners’ manuals for things in stories. Look how easily we accepted Warp Speed or salt shakers as stun guns or scanning wands in Star Trek. There are those who would invent a language for aliens. Roddenberry did not. Nor did he explain his dystopia. It was Bonanza in space. Dress the set, get to the people. Tell, show. This a classic chapter/scene set up since forever. Where are we, and…Action.

Which brings me to: why don’t a lot of (burgeoning) writers like dialog? Ask yourself that. Don’t like people? Aren’t comfortable talking? Can’t hear them in your head? Don’t know how the conversation should go? While you’re at it, ask yourself this: do you buy the leap you’re asking your readers to take by being so uninvolved with your characters? (telling). I faced this in Affable. I wanted Jackson out of the dump he’d landed in for several reasons. How? One line, two? Whatever, is it believable? “Oh my, Jackson is suddenly wearing a tux vest and ponytail playing in a piano bar off the strip and is also the houseboy for the I Felta Thi sorority of upscale hookers. Because they liked him.”

What? Why? How? In a movie it could have been some quick cut soft focus double exposure layers, girls at the dive, Jackson playing, laughing, girls hustling the talent guy, girls at the gas station, BAM. I didn’t have that luxury, nor did I buy it at two or four lines. A chance to reinforce Vegas without a travelogue, put up some strong, independent female characters (important for tone), lots of visual language, some foreshadowing. I could have gone over the top with damp carpet smells, told more scene setting, more sideline character development, bumped my word count, but why? Or simply told the whole thing. Divergence should have a purpose. Credibility and putting Jackson in a position for what’s next. For what’s next to be credible we needed to see it. I needed to see it. I couldn’t have told Savannah as vehicle and persona or Jackson’s improved caste half as well as showing it.

In the next chapter of THG3 I gloss over something that an erotic writer would have been all over for a couple of pages. So what’s important varies by genre. Regardless, credibility and stylistic consistency are the show vs. tell litmus tests. I got that straight from the editor’s mouth.

THG 3 – CH 1 – Done Deal

I’m going to put these on auto pilot M-W-F (except today). The Hot Girl 3, draft mode.

Deanna Collings’ Apartment / Saturday afternoon, October 28th, 1978

Deanna crossed her fingers and opened the envelope carefully by sawing the top from under the flap with one of Jackson’s dull, white plastic handled Pier One steak knives she’d “borrowed” for the sole purpose of letter opener.

Ms Deanna C. Collings. Please be advised that your application to Newnham College, Cambridge, has been conditionally accepted…

She yelped and fell back into the bean bag chair in her apartment, stunned. It wasn’t a dream she couldn’t see, blinded and buried by her academic marathon. It was real. Really for fucking real. She folded the envelope, jumped up, wiped her sweaty palms on her thighs and smoothed her skirt. She had to get her shit together. In a few hours she needed to be at an early Halloween party with a circle of “couples” friends she’d grown through classes and academic societies, not the arts department weirdos Jackson hung around with. The crazy people he would be with tomorrow night playing the piano with a stupid egg beater for his old neighbor Audrey the dancing naked in a long wispy scarf whore’s dance recital that Deanna would noisily boycott. Whore bitch. Who did she think she was, wrapped in nothing but a huge scarf, rolling around on the floor in Jackson’s apartment. To loud booty rock! She didn’t care if they’d been neighbors since they were four. “Odd” was fucking nutso, no matter what anybody said and Jax went right down art nutso lemming road right behind her.

And that was thing, really, with Jackson. He could be so…Over the line with artsy stuff sometimes. Otherwise, Deanna was proud of the two of them as a couple. When they were out together, where she wanted them to be. He was comfortable with people, everyone liked him. He was cute, funny, different, smart. And knew exactly the right things to say to open up a conversation. He even taught her brother how to stay just on the right side of the flirty and potty mouth lines around “straights.” “Boyfriend theater,” he called it. “Like playing a tux gig.” Jax was really the guy he was without her. The guy she didn’t understand. All he wanted to talk about was how she couldn’t talk to him about anything that mattered except her starring role in ‘D.C. Collings, the New Voice of Feminism’ in Collegiate Debate presentations.

They didn’t get it. Him, Amanda, none of them. That stand and talk shit wasn’t cutting it anymore. She was tired of saying what they wanted her to say. She was by God going to Cambridge, going to get smarter, going get her own fucking voice and they could eat it.

She fidgeted by her breakfast nook table in the apartment directly over Jackson’s. She was out of place, never stayed here, only down there, and now…She fell into a palms down lean on the table. Jackson. Shit.

Jackson had tried to talk to her about USC and “cool” California, even Boston, and how that was what he really wanted to do. Instead of getting a degree that would send him to the unemployed lounge lizard waiting line for a band director’s gig in Podunk. Had tried to tell her he didn’t have to do the weekend pick up gigs she bitched about, and she didn’t need to kill herself studying. She’d said he just did it to hang out with his whore bartender friends and the whore blondie folksinger who was really a dentist and not really a whore…He’d said what did it matter, she studied twenty seven hours a day and what was he supposed to do, hold her books for her? Hold her head up?

She could do without that guy. But the other one? Mister funny conversation about nothing? Mister kiss her out of her shoes? And the only one ever who knew how to fix her presentations when they got away from her because he could hear things in her, find things in her, that she couldn’t. That Jackson was okay. She shouldn’t argue with him like the world would end when he was right. But goddammit, she was miserable and he couldn’t see it she and wasn’t going to roll over without making him miserable, too.

She rolled up, took a deep breath, put the letter in her big leather purse. Deanna and Jackson. In front of her friends, in public? They were an attractive, smart, fun couple that should make it out of college together. A couple that she was about to make no more. At least for a while. She flipped the purse flap over, covering the letter, physically sealing it in her private world. No matter how much Cambridge meant to her, it suddenly hurt more than she could ever have imagined to have to cut him off. She’d never been able to imagine him not being, well, Jax. And there. Tears she didn’t expect burned her eyes. She wiped them on the back of her hand, She had two months to steel herself. Wished she could go tomorrow. No. Now.

***

Amanda Morisé’s office / Wednesday afternoon, November 1st, 1978

Amanda stood behind her giant, clear desk, stretched across an equally giant unrolled blueprint, red marker in hand. She didn’t bother to look up when Jackson eased through her office door unannounced.

“Jailbait. There is some viable reason for you to be in my office during business hours without Deanna?”

“Yeah. Back in summer you asked what was going on with Deanna? She’s done, Amanda. It’s over. The last one was the last one, if you’re picking that up.”

“You are speaking in riddles and I’m busy. Be clear, dear. Or be gone.”

“She got an important letter of some kind on Saturday. I saw it in her mailbox, couldn’t see who it was from. By the time we went to a Halloween party Saturday night she was gone. All the way back to the cheerleader plastic smile gone. Where’s the D.C. Collings flunky release you told me about when all this started? I need to sign —”

Amanda held up her finger, punched the phone with butt end of the marker. “Amber? Got a sec? Yes, my office. Bring Mr. Jackson’s Collings Project file, please.” She studied him across the expanse of the clear Oz desk while they waited for Amber Free, Morisé’s legal and HR department. Amber floated in through the side door of Amanda’s office, replete with a ubiquitous Morisé manila folder that Amanda received without comment and turned to Jackson.

“Close, but no cigar, my shaggy young friend. Now, once more, all of it, for all of us. In English.” She had now would be good eyes working over her reading glasses.

“Okay, Saturday. She got a letter. Whatever was in it must have been what she’s been waiting for since the ‘big secret’ letters started a year ago. I think she wants to go to grad school someplace impressive and doesn’t want me to follow her.”

“Why would Deanna keep something as simple as graduate school a secret?”

“It’s just how she is. She needs to keep people and parts of her life at arm’s length, can’t find a way to tell anyone why.”

“Presume, for the moment, that you’re correct. Deanna will graduate a year early, go on to more prestigious aventures académiques —”
“Jesus, Amanda. You and Alix and the damn French.”

“Alix is French. For me French was a facet of my overpriced education and I have an aversion —”

“To wasting money. I’ve heard that one.”

She pushed a crystal vase to the edge of the blueprint, straightened from her palms on the blueprint posture. “As I was saying, before I was interrupted, presume Deanna does run off to graduate school. You will continue on your current academic path or…”

“We’re juniors. I’m a junior, anyway, and the loads she’s been carrying could have her out by summer. I figure she’ll hook it to wherever before the ink is dry on her diploma. While she’s graduating out during spring semester I’ll kick down and work part time, save the good shit for a music program somewhere I can live with when she’s gone. But we’re all done as D.C. Collings, and that’s a natural fact.”

“You’re basing that assumption on her academic overoad, a bad time at a party and a mysterious envelope?” She gave him the dead man stare for a few beats. “Convince me?”

“You know how her last presentation went a couple of weeks ago. She didn’t make it past the first round, didn’t call and boo-hoo, didn’t bitch about the judges. She sat in a hotel room for three days without telling anyone she’d cratered so she could eat high-rent room service breakfast, call for cabs and go sightseeing and do dinner with Ivy League McDreamys on your dime.”

“So she did.” Amanda pulled a form from the folder, gave it a cursory look. “And that, on top of the letter and her other behaviors over the last year is why you now want out of the D.C. Collings project?”

“I don’t want ‘out’, Amanda. What I’m saying, and you’re not hearing, is that I know y’all’s D.C. Collings show is history. And so is my Tonto flunky gig, and so am I. I can feel it folding. So I should sign whatever waiver of rights deal you set up now. If there’s a fuck up on the flip side of this thing I’m not the pile of legal horseshit that everyone else in the parade has to step in trying to get on down the road to next.”
“Jailbait, your poor mother.” She turned the form his direction with her fingertips. “You can be so considerate, and so disgusting at the same time.”

“It’s a gift. Pen?”

Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #6

“-LY” Words and Arn

“-ly” words. Adverbs. Descriptive tags. I avoid them like the plague. I stress over not using them. Yet, as the re-blog from the other day shows (blatantly), I am a sucker for them when they paint the proper picture.

I have been editing. For me that involves checking context, this follows that, clear dialogue attributions. And whacking things I wrote two (or three) times (often back to back in different ways) getting to what comes next. (Are you listening, George F?) But – most of my editing involves adding more than subtracting. To me? People tell stories, so I have dialogue. And I set the scene (admittedly on a word budget). “What else?” is a pervasive question when I’m doing that sort of editing. Because I’m unsure. Too little is too much for me most of the time.

This morning I read the first chapter of an older Robert Parker’s Spencer. From his office window Spencer watched a client get in her chauffeur driven Bentley through a gray, misty day. It “gleamed wetly” as it pulled away. There has to be a better way to describe that than turning wet into an ly word. Gleamed wetly. Really? That, and “said” forty times on a page where attribution was clear. And I idolized this guy. I have also noticed that there are a lot of expression tags. She said, disconsolately. She said, spritely. Once it starts up that stuff is like a rash you can’t rid of. But it is like sheetrock mud. It fills in the cracks. And nobody has to work for your story as it stops requiring any imaginative support on the reader’s part. To me it also puts you slightly out of the scene because instead of being in the middle of it, you are being directed. Subliminal, but still…

I caught myself writing  – “he found a strange comfort in the discordant sounds of a Long Beach Friday night as they mingled in distant, mellow cacophony before they found his open window.” That is some flowery shit for me. Do I have to write it? I don’t know. But it needed something besides “he fell in the bed with his window open.” And if you’d read up to that point you’d know that he has an infamous dive bar in the parking lot twenty feet behind and fifteen feet below his second-floor window, just off Ocean Blvd in Long Beach. I could fluff it up with drunks and dealers and low-riders with glasspacks and the ocean, but there has to be a cut-off point for the travelogue writing. And the easiest way is to avoid it altogether. You tell me.

I ass-u-me in dialogue that a lot of emotion is clear in the exchanges if the attribution is clear. I would write this –

Amanda Morisé’s office, Wednesday afternoon, November 1st, 1978

Amanda was standing, stretched across her big, clear desk doing something with a marker to an unrolled blue print, didn’t bother to look up.

“Jailbait, there is some viable reason for you to be in my office during business hours without Deanna?”

“Yeah. She’s done, Amanda. It’s over. All of this is over, I can feel it. The last one was the last one, if you’re picking that up.”

“You are speaking in riddles and I’m busy. Be clear, dear. Or be gone.”

Nowhere in there do I see the need for “she said, slightly annoyed.” Because she isn’t slightly annoyed, she’s curious. “She said, curiously.” Isn’t that redundant? Said, a ? and curiously? Which is one of my pet peeves in the “said” culture. It was a f*cking question, not a statement. I see it all the time “Are you okay?” she said. She asked, dammit. Okay?

Nor do I see the need for “jailbait” to clap his thighs in frustration or opt in on his demeanor. He will probably drop into her guest chair in a moment and we’ll get there. Nowhere do I see the need for tags.  Isn’t the resignation in his word choices and the disruptive but not entirely unwelcome appearance of this person obvious? Even if you didn’t have two books worth of backstory on their relationship? I can see some stilted dialogue from someone requiring the appearance of an “ly” if it was needed to set the tone. But you tell me. Is it? If it is, I can do that. But…

Yes, there are times and scenes and moods that you want to set with words, that we need to set with words. The thing about editing is that it makes me wonder if there aren’t hundreds of thousands of my words that are total rubbish because I’m allergic to tags. But not altogether if they help –

It was rainy and cold the first Friday of December. The drive had been dry in his car, but the non-working heater had left it cold. Jackson stood under the heater by the hostess stand for a minute, his jacket dripping.

“May I help you, sir? Are you expecting someone?” The hostess was a girl about his age wearing real lipstick, not lip gloss, and had her snotty on.

“She’s here someplace. So tall,” he held out his hand at about five-four. “Long, blondish brown hair?” He wanted to describe her figure, just to piss snotty off, checked it. “Can I go look?” He didn’t wait for an answer. After a summer of snotty lipstick girls he’d figured out that they all thought they ran the place when they were really no more than attractive speed bumps between the door and a table.

There. Attitude for everyone involved, no work for anyone.

Out of that quagmire of self-pity and curiosity into  – Dialect

Rule of thumb is “don’t.” I say as needed. I am the world’s worst for gonna and wanna and contractions. I am from the south. I’ve read a lot of stilted Indie (and mainstream) dialogue that would have benefitted from a little casualizing. People’s voices change, their delivery and inflection changes, with emotion. Aw, man. I don’t wanna go to the…Or. Look. I am not going to the…Either one of those, finished could have found their own LY tag. But contextually I don’t think they need me to direct you to how they’re feeling. That wasn’t this discussion. Apologies.

JD MacDonald slipped into some vernacular in a book and it was drawn his way and I had to go back and read it three times to get it. He didn’t go full on phonetics, he wrote new words wrapped in backwards apostrophes. Jeez. Elmore Leonard says not to load up your pages with apostrophes. I disagree with both of them. Write it so whoever is reading it gets the gist without struggling for it. I have a character from coastal Louisiana headed for New Or- lee-uns, as people from elsewhere might say. In narrative I would say he’s headed for New Orleans. If in dialogue, I’d have him say – “Headed for Nawlins, Junior. You comin’?” Because no redneck gets in his truck and says – “I am going to New Orleans, Junior. Would you like to come along with me?” No more than an ex-cop and an ex-boxer would say, under heavy gunfire ripping through their cabin, “Well, what shall we do?” I read that one. Honest to God. Here’s a funny story about dialect and I’ll get off my soapbox.

I did a handful of clinics with Larry Londin. He was the drummer for Motown during the Supremes era. There are other stories of his and Lamont Dozier’s that are priceless, but I’ll put on the limiter. When Larry was done with Motown he moved to Nashville as a session drummer. On his first session he set up, rehearsed some, they ran down the tune. When it was over, through the headphone talkback came “Hey you, new drummer boy. Don’t use no arn.” Larry thought WTF? Arn? He nodded, they ran the tune down again. Halfway through the tape stops. “Don’t use no arn this time,” the engineer said, edgily (!). Larry is still trying to figure out what arn is and they get the count-in. Not even to the first chorus and the tape stops. The engineer slams his chair back, stomps out into the studio. “Godammit, I said don’t use no arn,” and he proceeds to take Larry’s cymbals off their stands.

Iron. (Cymbals are copper based alloys). Euphemistically, and in a very narrow subcultural vernacular, they were a drummer’s “iron.”

When it gets to be a reach I’d have that redneck in a truck say “Gawldarn it, Junior, we got us flat tire.” Because “flat tar” would be a double take a lot of places. Particularly if the damn thing got hot and caught far. I say vernacular and dialect and even subcultural slang, in small doses, and apostrophes wherever you want, are okay. If they are true to your character’s voices. But watch your Arn.

Don’t Talk To The Whores

Remember Jackson from Fried Hog Poop? Here is my concept of narrative, getting him into his situation. Without pages of dense text.

Jackson rolled into the east side of Vegas on Easter Sunday, pulled the “Peeno Player Wanted” sign out of the window of a run down, rust and turquoise shit-hole motel called the Sea Wind. He took it in, offered it to the swarthy, bearded guy in the sweat stained white shirt who ignored Jackson and the sign he offered.

“Peeno player is me.”

“Yeah?” He gave Jackson’s hair a frown. “When this was?”

“I tried it once. Liked it. It’s my destiny.”

“Funny guy. You know songs people like? Last guy want to be Elvis. All time with the rollin rockin and everybody is babb-ee babb-ee babb-ee.”

“I thought being Elvis was mandatory in Las Vegas.”

“Maybe, babb-ee.” He squinted a little tighter at Jackson. “Me? I don’t like so much.”

“This is your lucky day because I don’t sing or do sing along.”

“Is good day for you, too, funny hairy guy because I think I’m liking you more, now. You have better clothes?”

“Like yours?”

Swarthy man raised one eyebrow like he’d practiced it a thousand times. “Peeno player only. Everywhere in Vegas?” He swept a thick, hairy arm in a wide arc, leaned over the counter into Jackson’s face, “I can find asshole who wants to be comedian.”

Swarthy showed Jackson some gold dental work, snatched the sign away from him and stuffed it in a wire basket full of paper. “I show you the place.” He flipped up the hinged counter, grabbed Jackson’s shoulder and turned him around. “First. Don’t talk to the whores. They waste your time to stay inside better air conditioner when should be working. You want to fuck one you pay the same for a room as anybody. If you cheapskate on me don’t fuck in your car where customer can see or they all start to do it. Shit happens that way I go broke in big hurry.” He pointed out the piano in a dim corner of a bar lit with red bulbs. “No blowjobs from under piano. Last guy banged hooker’s head on bottom, cost twelve stitches to me and too much talk to cops. Play what you want. Until customers ache their bellies to me and I fire you.” He turned, put a hairy finger almost on Jackson’s nose. “Don’t never play along with jukebox like Elvis guy.” He put on a pained face and silent scream and with both hands over his ears he tilted his head side to side. “Same shit different ways gives me headache,” he held his hands open wide around his head, “this fucking big.”

“When do I start?”

“When you put on long pants. And socks. You can wear bow tie, no shirt, I don’t care. But long pants. And socks.” Swarthy held out a foot clad in a black sock, encased in a Mexican Bazaar tire tread sandal that Jackson figured for a Sea Wind fashion statement.

“Right. Bow tie, long pants. Socks.”

“Good boy! Maybe you get hair cut sometime.” He lumbered back toward the office where two hookers stood in front of the door arguing over a room key that kept changing hands and left Jackson in the doorway between mildewed cool and the desert. From the Regent to the Sea Wind. But it wasn’t Taco Bell, and he wasn’t dead.

***

The Sea Wind sat right on the east edge of Vegas and the desert, so close the far north end of the parking lot faded into sand. It was a “plus tips” gig, and there weren’t many, and most of those were so he’d stop so someone could play the jukebox. The door was always open because the air conditioner was half-dead, flush the urinal in the men’s room and the plumbing groaned the soundtrack for The Exorcist and finished with a metal pipes thumping a Latin beat on sheetrock. The housekeepers called it the Hot Wind, Jackson called it the Breaking Wind. The lobby smelled a little like vomit, the tiny casino smelled a lot like cat pee, and he learned there was a stabbing every weekend. Usually on Saturday night. Usually in the doorway to the lobby. Usually about somebody not paying somebody else for something they shouldn’t have been doing in the first place. They wanted to charge him more to stay in a room than he was making, so for a week he slept in his car at the end of the lot where the sand started.

He drove around on his second Sunday in Vegas, looking for gas. He pulled into an ancient cinder block Mobil station because of the giant, metal sign featuring a Nineteen Forties cheesecake pin-up girl holding an oil can. He made friends with a guy named Michael who said he ran the ancient rust and cinder block station for his “lost inside his own mind Grampa.” They talked, drank a couple of almost frozen Nehi strawberry sodas from a cooler, moved on to beer.

Michael heard Jackson out, told him he could park his car inside and sleep in the service bay. Jackson took cold showers in the men’s room with the garden hose and hosed it down when he was done. Every now and then at the Sea Wind he could get into a room before housekeeping and take a hot shower, even though he was a little leery of what might be living in the plumbing. He shaved in the ladies room at the Mobil because it had a real mirror instead of the piece of bent chrome in the men’s room that made him look like one of those pictures of a kid, or a dog, that was all nose. Michael’s hospitality was Spartan but manageable. He was a little older than Jackson and had his own heartbreak story. And after about a week he was the first person to ever cast doubt on Jackson’s manhood.

Michael popped the kitchen match to life with his thumbnail. “She just got tired of you, man. She didn’t want to hurt you, you know.” He lit the joint, hit it solid but not too deep. “Didn’t want to call you pencil dick or nothin’. You were probably just a crummy piece of ass, girl had to roam.”

Jackson hadn’t even considered that. Didn’t want to, either. “Man, I’ve known girls who knew how to fuck. Crazy ass sex girls that ran me through the Kama Sutra and a couple of other books full of ideas. I never had any complaints before.”

“You ever ask her?”

“No.”

“Should have. Me, too, on that should have. We were engaged. She was a first-year third grade teacher, right here in Vegas. I came home and found a note on a Friday night sayin’ she’d run off with a textbook salesman from Baton Rouge.”

“If it’ll make you feel any better my dad used to say ‘There’s hell, and then there’s Houston. If the devil thinks you’re a miserable son of a bitch, there’s Louisiana.’”

“Never been anywhere but the desert myself. I hope she hates it. I used to hope he beat her, and if she came back? No more Mr. Nice Guy. But I couldn’t, you know, beat her or nothin’. Now I just hope she’s happy. Not too happy. Like his dick falls off and he can’t screw unhappy.”

“She tell you why she left, call you a pencil dick?”

“No. The note was the last of it.”

“‘Later, fool’ is a cold shot. You find a new girlfriend yet?”

“Nah. Hard to find one, even to have time to clean up and go lookin’. They got all the pussy, hold all the cards, man. Maybe Cinderella will pull in here one day, need a tank of unleaded and a self-service grease monkey.” He frowned, killed the joint between his thumb and middle finger. “Snowball’s chance in Vegas of that shit.”

***

 

Jackson couldn’t stop thinking about what Michael had said. Maybe he was useless, that way. Maybe if he’d tried some things on Deanna. Maybe some of what that girl welder and her Kama Sutra book and waterbed thought was fun, or some of Monica the waitress’s gymnastic sexual circus madness, Deanna might still be around. She made lots of noise all the time, though. The apartment neighbors would complain or beat on the wall, particularly on Sunday afternoons. Maybe it was just this Michael guy’s weed fucking with him. It didn’t work. He pulled the quilt out of his trunk, pulled out the bolt that held his passenger seat up, dropped it and passed out.

He dreamed of all the things he should have done with Deanna that she had someone else doing now. All of them laughing about him, how inept he was, what kind of pussy whipped idiot he’d been. She’d grabbed both sides of his face and pulled his head up. “Now,” she’d whispered through a kiss, before she pushed his face away to look at him. “Before I give you all of me, promise me you’ll love me forever. Please?” What a load of it.

At three in the morning he gave up on sleep, raised the service bay door and ran tepid water from the hose over his head. For lack of anything better to do he rotated his tires by hand under a sliver of moon that dared the puddles in the drive to last till morning.