Random NVDT – Writerly Concerns #12

Precision

I like the sound of that word. What it represents. Not all words are like that. How does precision, a very direct and precise word apply to something like writing that can appear from the outside to be playing Legos with words? Choices. We have thousands of word choices. Every character, every scene, every dialogue. Nuance words. BAM words. Words that economize, words that billow out and take up space. Words that define, words that obfuscate, words that lead. Making the choices, that’s the hardest part. Because I can throw down draft as it runs through my head and get close. But then? The work starts.

First, I’ll abuse myself. In THG 3.7 a good deal of word time was spent on describing the flat. I had a reason, a couple of choices, made one that will still work once pared down. The reasoning was “see it through the character.” She lives there, not me. I got busted for that by an editor once. Here it is –

Deanna issued a sleepy snuffle sob, rolled out of a fetal position on her bed, hit the floor on all fours. She dropped her forehead into the shades-of-pink shag carpet in her bedroom, felt a small, cool, bony hand between her shoulder blades.

“Gramma Cora? How long have you –”

The editorial comment was “Why do we have to feel this through Deanna? Why not direct action?”

Consider this. A big shot editor bought into my characters early on, not far from here, and instead of reading the first 20 pages and sending me a quote she read it all. This is a touchy-feely scene. I intentionally put the experience through the character. Now, a professional someone, who bought into it for the very reason of investment in the character wants to hit the equation button and suggest destroying intimacy with the character. Huh? Based on what? A Rule? Something more precise? Precision is how we sculpt our characters and our work, not a formula.

The Hard-Boiled school cuts to the chase. That is not an imperative, even inside the genre, because they can hit the detail switch when needed. Even then, the good ones do it so well you are sold on a character, a situation, a scene – with great economy and precision language. In THG 3.10 I tried that, just for grins, by describing a musical instrument without using any musical vernacular. And three characters with indirect descriptions or third-party information/observation.

On occasion a short string of precise language evokes exactly what you need. Watch a master do that very thing –

They came down to the marina dock in John Tuckerman’s big blue Chrysler Imperial. John Tuckerman was a sort of unofficial assistant to Hub Lawless. He didn’t seem to hold any particular office in any of Hub’s many corporations and partnerships. But he always seemed to be around, laughing, making jokes, making sure of air reservations, hotel reservations, dockage space, hanger space, and so on. They brought two young women aboard. Half the ages of Hub and Tuckerman. Tight pants and airline carry-ons. Perfume and giggles. *

We know what’s going on. We know about both men and their guests and a setup for some future action. From some very precise language. Lawless from Tuckerman’s job description (indirect). Not Jill and Jane and who they are. Perfume and giggles (direct). Later you could split them up that way, if you needed to talk to them. ‘Lieutenant Rogers took the tall, walking perfume counter and I sat down with her partner, a short redheaded professional giggler.’ Regardless. All you need is all you need when you need it.

Song lyrics can do that. Everybody’s heard this one – “A singer in a smoky room. The smell of wine and cheap perfume.”** BAM. There. Whether you’ve been there or seen it a thousand times on TV, you’re there. Precise and economical. Dylan got a Nobel Prize. Often picturesque, not always economical or precise, always a storyteller. “Tangled Up in Blue” is as easily a condition as it is a song title.

Precision language makes short work of what might be considered mundane or difficult tasks. Elmore Leonard (and Steinbeck) suggest not spending too much time describing characters. Particularly main characters. They should belong to the reader. But precision language for bit players, the nemesis, the sideshow, makes loading them into the work much easier because you don’t have to spend time getting to know them and making them work. Or even, as I have witnessed in a number of works, not bothering to give them names. Because, in a group scene, names will kill you. And overload your dialogue tags quota. If, in a scene with four or six or more people, you impose on the reader to remember six or seven names you dug up on a random name generator or researched the meaning of, it’s all gone. The reader walks, all your hard work naming someone who will get shot or eaten or carried off by a Phoenix anyway is wasted. If there are characters the reader has spent time with, use those names, and the interlopers get descriptions. Precision. It’s easier to visualize for the author AND the reader without remembering a name. I did that here, just to see. The scene is action that gets a main character off the mud and back in the game without “all hell broke loose and Mick got away.” Because what the hell kind of cop-out is that, and why read something that doesn’t take you for a ride? Boots and Boxers, Plaid Pants and Red Converses don’t need names at the point of BAM. Bottom line – Authors and readers don’t need a meet and greet on everybody involved.

I suggested in a comment elsewhere that a quick introduction scene was the perfect place to drop character nuggets without overkill. Short, tall, hairy, mercenary. Think harder, direct descriptive words as well. Mousey, fraudulent, a new favorite “shit speck,” deliberate, pensive, fawning, a rednosed walking Kleenex ad, a lip balm addict with an effected limp… uh-oh, muse attack – a contrived, prissy, arrogant and morally bankrupt man full of nothing but a theatrical impression of himself and the faintest whisper of soul. BAM. I liked that one.

Homework. Go find a character you spent too much time, or not enough time on, and give them no more than three, short and precise language lines. No adverb-ly fluff. Direct and precise. Nail them down and move on. While I go fix Deanna meets her flat.

 

*  Excerpted from The Empty Copper Sea © 1978 by John D. MacDonald Publishing Inc.

**  “Don’t Stop Believin’” Perry-Cain-Schon © 1981 Weed High Nightmare Music

THG 3- Ch 10 – Minor Epiphanies

Albuquerque, New Mexico / Thursday February 15, 1979

The Taco Bell sat up on a hillside not far from the University of New Mexico. Jackson gauged the steepness of the hill  and landed on indecision. Six weeks ago he would have popped the clutch, hit the hill hard and hoped all of his wheels came off the ground Smokey and the Bandit style when he cleared the top, landed, drifted and stopped before he hit the retaining wall. All he could see now was his car on its top, sliding back down the hill. He wasn’t alone. The lot was empty except for two Jeeps. The Taco Bell was in overflow, the street so jammed he had to park a block away.

He picked up his order, tried to shake off five weeks in the desert where he’d babbled to the wind before he’d moved up to horses and a big, solemn Navajo. Last night in the Motel 6 was the first time he’d seen televison in six weeks, understood why he hadn’t missed it. He stared at his enchirito, knew something needed to gel besides enchilada sauce and cheese. Quick. The hundred bucks Tony had given him wasn’t going to last long. He took a deep breath, let it go in a low, slow whoosh. He’d managed to re-acclimate to reality but his social skills were in tatters and there was no place else for him to sit. He could pace around rubbing shoulders and kicking feet saying “sorry…” while the plastic cover on his enchirito got steamier or drop into the one vacant chair in front of him, beside her. Long, straight brown hair. A lot of thin abalone, silver and turquoise bracelets and a big leather purse. And an enchirito. He dropped.

“No place else. Sorry.”

“You’re fine.” She said without looking up, checked, just to be sure. He smelled like soap, had on goofy moccasins and put out a spacey vibe, didn’t really look at her. She offered him a friendly on the cool side smile. “As long as you watch your elbows, Geronimo.”

“I do a better Tonto. Less pressure, you know?” He thumbed the lid off the enchirito and slid it under the bottom. “‘Yes, Kemosabe. Me go get horses, put out campfire’. No hero stuff required.”

She laughed. “Careful. This is Tonto Central. You must not be from —” She stopped, watched him dip his spork slowly into the enchirito, turn it in measured half-circles, each lower than the turn before until it was loaded to perfection, last turn in the cheesy sauce picking up an olive slice. She continued to watch, transfixed, as the spork traveled in slow motion to his mouth, none of it getting on the beard he needed to shape or get rid of.

“Religious experience?”

“Had one of those.” His eyes and enigmatic smile were momentarily a thousand miles away, the spork suspended in mid air. “Been living in a hogan, doing some work for a Navajo guy. Coffee, fry bread and tamales. Eggs and beans once in a while. This is manna.”

“You seriously think God gave Moses enchiritos?”

His second perfectly loaded spork blew into his tray. She immediately reached out with a handful of paper napkins and wiped it down, caught the question in his eyebrows.

“Habit. Student teaching. Primary. They stuck me in kindergarten. None of them can eat without it ending in disaster.” She reached out for round two of the cleanup. “You’re not the usual muttering vision quest vagabond type we get around here. You flunk out, lose your compass and your razor at the same time?”

“I flunked advanced girlfriend. She went to England, I took a drive.” He rubbed the beard he’d forgotten about. “I was supposed to be in school a month ago.” He lifted the reloaded spork around her stewardship of his mess.

“Took a drive?”

“Looking for Los Angeles. I turned right at Albuquerque and got lost for a month, my survival cash got hijacked. Now I need to hang for awhile. Find a job, make some traveling money.”

“Where’re you staying?”

“I just got back a couple of days ago. I can keep doing the cheap motel till I get a job or run out of money. Then I’ll —”

She dropped a roll of papers on the table, slipped the green rubber band off and flattened them into a short stack of Xeroxed ads.

ROOMMATE WANTED
Private Patio Home – Near Campus
Rent Only – Bills Paid
Personal Hygiene a MUST
UNM Preferred

He tapped the address at the bottom like it meant something. “Nice idea, but I’m more U of nowhere headed for USC.”

“Yeah. But you’re clean and not too weird and we eat the same. People call me crazy but I accept things like you landing next to me as minor epiphanies.”

The spork stalled mid flight. “I get that.”

“Good. One other girl and a guy and no weirdness ‘cause nobody’s screwing anybody. There’s two guys, actually, but one of them owns the house and he’s never there.” She turned his way, her elbow on the table. “He works construction. Sometimes.” She made the universal for crazy finger rotating by her head move. “He wants to write acid head mysteries. Like Castaneda meets Miss Marple? We pay for his house, he eats ‘shrooms and disappears for a couple of weeks. There are mountains of notebooks in the garage.”

The spork stalled again, his head turned so he could see her. “You read any of it?”

“I tried. It reads like what I think happened to you when you turned right in Quirky the first time and missed USC.”

“Maybe it’s contagious. I’d feel better if it was.”

“Don’t get high on that feeling. It’s more like stupid. The best time to say ‘no’ isn’t the next time.” She stood. “If you’re following me I…We can go to the house and I don’t have to hang these posters.”

“Sure you don’t want to audition more weirdos?”

“Seen one, seen ‘em all, right?” She held out her hand. “Carmel. Or Mel. Or Lita. Don’t ever call me Karma. Education and Philosophy.”

“You have a handful, I have one.” He took her offered hand, light squeeze. “Jackson. Front or back, either way. Story if you want it.”

“Later.” She smiled, shook her hair and picked up a key ring that had at least fifteen keys and a long, fringe-y leather thing with turquoise and silver beads hanging from it. “Lucky for me today was one and done. Génene, the other girl? She has a test tomorrow. What do you know about transportation economics?”

“Nothing.”

“You’ll be an expert by this time tomorrow.”

“Yeah?”

“Yeah. Look at me. I student teach five-year-olds. Last week I learned all about container metrics and Inland Marine insurance and more other kinds of useless information than I thought existed. I can’t believe people get into doing shit like that for a living. What about you?”

“I’m a musician.”

“Yeah?” She raised an eyebrow, shrugged her purse up. “I really can’t believe people try to do that shit for a living.”

***

Jackson moved in, shook hands with the house and got parked on the sofa bed in the living room. The construction worker slash acid casualty mystery writer was on the way out, heard musician and hung around for Jackson to teach him the signature intro to “Light My Fire” on an old Lowrey home organ with pearlized plastic switches and a built in duck farts and click clacks drum machine. The process and patience netted Jackson a Lawrence Welk “Here’s a nice-a waltz” sweeping theater organ rendition of “Foxy Lady” and a sizable stack of unworn clothes, close to his size. Gifts, he learned, from several of Mystical Agatha Christie’s unpopular former girlfriends who all wanted him out of overalls. And to try shirts with sleeves. The girlfriends nor their plans had taken. Their style choices of wheat and chocolate brown doubleknit “jeans” and shiny nylon pimp shirts weren’t a hit with Jackson, either, but to avoid a “karmic shift from refused treasure offerings” he waited a couple of days after Mystical Agatha disappeared before he threw them in an unsupervised Goodwill donation bin.

Jackson found his feet going from desert to town and quickly discovered that That Girl reruns and daytime TV would send his mind straight back to mush. He moved to paging through Mystical Agatha’s notebooks packed with the adventures of a sexually androgynous witch who got high, fought mythical demons and the forces of evil across rivers of time and reincarnation karma debts looking for clues to murders in the here and now. Unfortunately every time it got interesting the pages would fill up with crooked arrows and crazy hieroglyphics and sentences full of words that were letters strung together. And some of it, when it made sense, was way too big a stretch. Because Jackson had been there, and Mystic Agatha’s acid casualty flying lizards and witchy sword fights were nothing compared to the cosmic debris field Jackson had stepped off into. It wasn’t tidy. Or simple. Or anything as child’s play as good and evil sword fighting across eons.

By day eight, in a town full of real Mexican food, but a long-standing hatred for legitimate restaurant gigs, he drove back to the Taco Bell on the hill and got a simple job. Where he deliberately manufactured screw up orders that he carefully wrapped, set aside and diverted to his car on their way to the dumpster and fed them to his roommates when he got home.

***

The house was truly collegiate communal, internally platonic, and laid back smooth. When Jackson wasn’t at work he polished the skills that lapsed during Deanna’s fadeout. Hair dryer holder, study helper, essay proof reader. All things that helped bring him back from the edge.

Most nights they’d sit in the living room on or around Jackson’s iron-bar-in-the-middle bed-couch, pass a long, thin leprechaun pipe while they studied and talked everything from psychology, ancient literature, economics, history, political science and lip service revolution with a soundtrack of mostly late Seventies ballad-slop rock. Weekends Carmel would grill chicken, hand it off and he’d make huge versions of Mom Jean’s chicken salad with the big green peppers that were everywhere and in everything. And on occasion he got to hang out, talk, maybe burn one with and be nice to what his otherwise intelligent female roommates thought passed for a decent guy to sleep with. Their equational process for arriving at those guys he would never understand.

Writerly Concerns #11

Your (used literally) Reality is Showing

Ruminations of Truth and Fiction

There are thousands of quotes about fiction. Here’s a few. Not in depth, just for the sake of this rumination.

From E.M. Forster’s Howards End – Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere.  Taken out of context it still works. The point in the discussion this comes from is that life is unmanageable. That morality and preparedness are useless. A point that makes fiction, as explained to me by an editor one time as “the place where we can cut the shaggy dog elliptical dialogue and other messes of reality.” Where we can introduce enough humanity and emotion to make a direct point, have direct impact, take direct action. Unlike the standing in a canoe feeling real life often offers.

Truth is Stranger than Fiction – I will send you here for the story on that quote. Again, the consensus is that Fiction is bound by rules and imagination and is thereby constrained. Truth is not bound by anything.

David Foster Wallace’s take, that I will have to paraphrase because I can’t find it right now, is Fiction and Truth are not so dissimilar. I’m not sure if that was was a reference to the “realism” school of fiction writing, or the fact that if you look around the world is full of stream of consciousness weirdness. And if you look at it that way, Truth and Fiction are the same thing. One person’s unthinkable Truths are someone else’s Fictions. Further on that –

Consider Thoreau’s Walden – The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. A friend said to me recently, “We all live the same lives in different houses.” The Grand Illusion. Maybe the details change. But to me, like Fiction, Truth is limited by perception. We cannot conceive of an unknown Truth, therefore acknowledge it, if it is beyond our comprehension. Something so bizarre could happen, something we never saw coming, to make Truth all the more strange. But until it happens we are back to square one. Morality and all the other tactile preparedness routines, all the ways we can arm ourselves against unmanageable Truth are futile because all we understand of Truth is what we know. And it’s the unknown that blindsides us. And in Truth? We are never bitten on the ass by anything unheard of, merely mosquitos (metaphorically) that slipped in the back door when we let the dog out to pee.

Why all of this? Truth or Fiction, the Lie that Tells a Truth, the Truth that Tells a Lie? Lying in the face of truth? There’s a big one. It could be a live talking heads news show or a Fifties J.D. MacDonald novel or staggeringly deep Noir-ish psychodrama about losers and lives of lies and deceit or it could be in the kitchen. Well, the why of all of this is that I agree with Wallace. Because I have seen enough and heard enough and lived enough “Fiction” venues playing out as someone’s Truth in the last couple of years to last me the rest of my lifetime.

On top of that the question has been asked “What happened to Happy Endings?” (No, not a Travolta massage). I don’t know.

Even worse, as a proponent of bringing back the Happy Ending I discover they are, indeed, fantasy beyond my grasp to compose. I can’t get there from here. Once I got the characters dirty I didn’t/don’t have an answer for them. Forgiveness? Understanding? Even ignorance. Once the sheen is gone, it’s gone, and I haven’t found the magic bottle of As Seen on TV Happy Ending renewal, complete with microfiber polish cloth, that will help.

The answer, for the record, and this might sound facetious to what happened to the Happy Ending is that a lot of people literate enough to write, even awkwardly, are too old or smarter than I am and have known better all along.

Baggage is baggage. Truth, once it invades Fiction, becomes the incomprehensible, the hurdle no one can jump, the leap of faith no one can take, the suspension of belief or disbelief no one can quite buy into. Because Truth sucks. Escaping it is impossible. That’s what it has over Fiction. If you let your Fiction get away from you with dirty Truths, or your truths with dirty Fiction that MacDonald can’t set straight with at least one or maybe two well placed problem-solving murders, then we’re back to the Seventies where the bad guys win every once in a while. Or more often than not.

Truth, or Fiction? Keep them separate. Once cross contaminated a lot of work gets sent rolling down the drain. Along with a lot of belief systems we are unarmed against and ill prepared to manage. Don’t let dirty Truth ruin your Fiction.

Writerly Concerns #10 – Content Forward

Style, Substance, and The Wisdom of Nacogdoches

I returned from a week off to discover discussions of style. On the heels of several discussions about marketing and design and what amounts to curb appeal. As well as a debate with myself about the futility of why bother furthering this adventure because of my opinions (and choices) in regard to those subjects are often unpopular. But writing, or any creative adventure, (I’m a synthesist for God’s sake) is not about being popular, or conventional, it’s about discovery. You wouldn’t know that by all the discussions of mechanics.

I also discovered the internet is not the medium for writing anything of significance, either to an audience or ones self. He said, petulantly. Or, He said, nose thrust up theatrically in the universal pose of snobbery. Or the style choice of “point made, no attribution.” Or delete past “thrust up.” Choices. Everywhere. How we say what we say and what we don’t.

I read a lot of authors. Rarely entire books. Like listening to a song for the production values, not the song. I read some earlier P.D. James, before she became a franchise. Only two chapters for “style”. I learned two things. I had to read several pages of dialogue before I found any tags. Yay! I learned how to (my opinion) overwrite staging a scene. Something she was famous for, creating atmosphere. Down to how many dirty Kleenex were on the overly described flaws in the kitchen table. She would fail miserably doing that on a short attention span blog post.

I read J.D. Macdonald. I noticed he repeated a word, often in the same sentence, often in the same paragraph. Today Grammarly or an editor would say “You used (word X) three lines ago, third time on this page. Don’t you own a Thesaurus?” He evoked the same sense of place as James, in far fewer words. Less detail, no Kleenex, but as a reader you were right there. Do we need descriptions of filth or clutter? I don’t know. Fast food bags and a week’s worth of dishes in the sink does it for me. I do know he nailed Latin dance music of the 50s without a single bit of musical or musician vernacular, as well as the two people dancing to it, the night, the room, all of it in about as many words as I’m using here. BAM. Otherwise, his characters and their perceptions of each other vs who they were to themselves and their relationships was almost overwritten. No points off though, he was using all of them to beat the various forms personal condemnation might take while backstorying a murder. The murder of consequence only as a vehicle for all the character study.

I read David Foster Wallace. Okay, that’s literature. This piece was like Vonnegut,  skating with one foot on either side of the absurd as if it were perfectly real. But that’s life, really. There are times that Wallace is excruciatingly detailed and hilarious at the same time. Like British comedy. Push the timing limit envelope as far as it will go. He is also invisibly poignant to the point of pulling your heart out. He has the angst of MacDonald lost in society, the atmosphere of James, internal and external. As an added benefit, you never see his education except when he flogs the entire academic/pop culture/publishing industries and tells a ridiculous story embedded in black comedy social commentary. If you find the opportunity to read “Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way”, do it. (It is not a discussion of the painting from 1861 by the same name.)

Did I mention I was out of town? Spent a day and a half in Mendocino, California. If you watched tv in the Eighties it was really Cabot Cove, Maine. Hometown to Jessica Fletcher of Murder She Wrote. In P.D. James’ Devices and Desires her forward is a location disclaimer. Between two points in the real world she created a false, detailed location for her story. Wallace as well has us in a place so real yet unreal. MacDonald sets a fictitious house on a real lake. His characters occupy pretend places in real places. I think we should all do that, save for historical (yawn) novels. Build a sense of place out of a place. Nobody needs a Hollywood or Bermuda travelogue. As deep as P.D. James, as deceptive as Murder She Wrote, as un-real real as Wallace or MacDonald (or pick a big leaguer).

Got off topic there – What they all have in common (save Wallace) isn’t geographic misdirection, or the depth or lack of “atmosphere,” but the parade through character flaws of possible suspects. I discovered further down the road the following day that Raymond Burr’s winery had been sold. Perry Mason was another one of those parades.

It’s all style. Same formula. Flesh it out or pull it in. Deep content or cardboard.

Wallace alone writes stream of consciousness without “arc” or “formula.” Here they are, three strangers, not very sympathetic going through a hell of a boring day. On the surface. The good guys and the bad guys and the fairy godmothers aren’t wearing black or white hats or long tulle skirts and waving wands. They’re ad executives and rent a car counter agents and wife stealers and all kinds of people who can wreck your mind and your life if you let them, just like all the characters in all the other books. Only without being wrapped around a murder or an event. They just are. Like us. (Absurd) or touching Stories of People. Steinbeck does that on occasion as well.

I have seen Hemingway and Steinbeck and London bandied around as style models. All very different. A good deal of a Hemingway isn’t on the page. Steinbeck once said that Of Mice and Men was a way bigger story than a hack like him could write. (!) Clue – All the authors you remember force you into being with their characters. You go OMG, or WTF. Even if you don’t particularly like them, or they aren’t all that sympathetic, maybe they’re even jerks. But we follow them because –

There are no tricks. Since ancient times the Canons of Rhetoric will give you a work. Add Aristotle’s three major styles to work the scenes and draw your audience in. Work your characters and readers emotions up and down with language appropriate to what you want them to feel. No magic, no equations, no “style” copy. Say what needs to be said to put you and the reader and your characters in your scene, and delete everything else.

I think of style in terms of music. Music happens in the spaces between the notes. The story is told in the rhythm and pacing of those spaces. What’s not there is the reader’s, or listeners. And that’s why they’ve opted in. Not for our wonderous prose or flashy hemi-demi-semi quavers, but what we offer their imaginations with a story or piece of music.

My point – I think maybe we should be more concerned with how we sculpt our content than tricks and equations and curb appeal. There I am with those damn opinions. I will leave you with a true story from the music biz, names and all, as a parable.

Willie Nelson cut an album called Nacogdoches. In, of all places, Nacogdoches. At a studio in that same town owned by a friend and client of mine, Dana Woods. There’s a much longer story about that studio for some other time. Onward. Willie went to East Texas to cut a handful of standards with some old guys he’d known forever. Songs like “Stardust” and “How High the Moon”. Classics. Dana invited me for rough mixes night. The small control room is reasonably crowded, lights flash, the Mac screen scrolls. Willie is off to the side leaning elbows down on a rack cabinet, listening. First tune rolls by. Everyone nods, maybe a low-key muso only insider comment floats by. Dana’s intern ostentatiously effused, “Wow. That was a great cut.” Tunes and scene repeat, as do intern’s enthusiastic variations on “That was a great track.” After about five or six “Man, that was a great track” opines, Willie looks up, still in his rack lean, drawls in that unmistakeable nasally twang –

“Y’know, it’s hard to cut a bad standard.”

Mescaline Blue – 2 -Baby, You are Mine

What the hell, it’s Friday. I went to the museum with small grandkids, stared at Monets and a late Van Gogh (Paris) and noticed even in their minor work that at least they were brave. So here’s some run-on two people standing around talking ’bout nothin’ ‘cept insecurity, replete with era-accurate cultural sexism backstory and background noise. 

Jade saw the flashing light that these guys used for a studio doorbell, sighed, clipped the tape measure to her tool belt. She’d let herself in at six-fifteen with the key and alarm code Jackson had given her, walked and measured the space a dozen times, made and thrown away as many sketches, and had a lock on what needed to happen. And here was that fricking man shit she always had to get past just to get her job done. Why did they all need to talk about how they knew everything when most of the time they didn’t know shit? She turned the deadbolt and let him in.

Jackson was holding two coffees from the Exxon station and looked reasonably relaxed for a guy who had driven through L.A. at seven-thirty in the morning.

She mumbled “Thank you,” couldn’t look at him, felt her ears start to burn. Dammit. She squatted, set the coffee on the floor and measured a point on the floor from the far wall she’d measured a dozen times, stayed there staring at the tape measure and stood up. She repeated the process several times around the room.

Jackson noted the precise marks where the dust had been cleared, the half wall he’d built had a big X on it, made with the masking tape that was gone from where he’d laid out the small kitchen. All the response he could get from his questions were mono syllables and “Mmm.” He put the tip of his Converse on her tape measure.

“I didn’t hire you to agree with me, or ignore me pretending to measure what’s already measured. I’m just some guy. You have opinions, let it go.”

She stood up, made a note in the small steno pad with “AIR BISCUIT STUDIO” written on it in marker, flipped back to the first few pages.

“There’s no flooring, sir. How do I address that? Guess? A furniture grade ‘removable’ table top for a pool table that will weigh a frickin’ ton? That maybe you can play ping pong on because I have Jade’s secret miracle coating to finish it with? A kitchen laid out in the middle of the room where there’s no plumbing? I’m not selling Feng Shuai, but common sense is a good idea.” She squinted, pointed her pencil at the top of the far wall. “You have those nice, high transom windows that could use a cleaning, and nothing. No trim, not even mentioned. The only thing you’ve written down are pipe dreams, and almost everything you’ve done so far that I don’t need to do again is the big bathroom that’s probably been here since Eisenhower drove a Jeep. You actually ate in here?” She pushed the rickety card table with a boot. “This is all men, right?”

“No, but females stayed on the other side of that insulated door unless they needed the genderless powder room that had walls until I took them out. If they wanted to eat we moved the card table into the control room. There was a long, hollow wall right here, all the way to the front door. Before I took it out —”

“It hid all of this dusty air and those beautiful east windows. You also spec’ed ‘A chill and reception guest seating kind of area’ isolated from the rest of the place by a forty-eight-inch-high half-wall. ‘With maybe plants or a planter.’ Why not a fricking aquarium that gurgles and makes everyone need to go pee like my dentist’s office or every Chinese place in town? All you’re missing is giant Legos or Lincoln logs and Tigger on the wall and it’s every pediatrician’s waiting room in California. Is that what you’re after? Little boys waiting for their turn at whatever the real toys are back there?” Uh-oh.

“No…No. Open. I wanted it to all feel open, and multi-use. I read that somewhere, about open, multi-use rooms and —”

“Stop reading or read something besides suburban housewife throw-pillow decorating magazines. For a client with a nice space who says ‘open’ a lot you have sectioned off all your ‘open’ into several smaller one-shot rooms. No walls and chaos isn’t ‘open.’” She made finger quotes every time she said “open.”

“What you’re trying to tell me is whatever I built already is bunk and that you have a better idea for the kitchen and the pool table and all the rest of it?”

“Yes sir. We can re-use most of your ‘bunk’. At least you kept it to standard lengths and didn’t anchor them or hang sheetrock.”

“I built them like gobos, or room dividers. I was waiting on an electrician to tell me what —”

“Wait a little longer and let me talk to someone who knows the codes. Where are we, Silverlake? East Hollywood? Do you even know?” She bit her lip after that one. Her mouth had gotten her fired before, particularly when she had the plan in her head already, got wound up and in some man’s shit when she’d rather be working than talking.

He snorted, shook his head. “Silverlake, commercial. We’re code correct, except the Fire Marshall inspections bust us for the tape boxes on top of the control room if they get too close to the ceiling. And call me Jackson. Or something besides Client or Sir or Mister anything. You’ll meet a girl on the phone this week who says ‘Yo, boss’ when she talks to me, but she might as well say ‘Hey, fuckhead’ because I’m nobody’s boss.” He waited two beats, went right to it. “I know you’re uncomfortable. About this gig or last Wednesday or something. We have to work together, so tell me what will make that go away.”

She fumbled for a second. He was supposed to be a dick and start all that ‘so what smart ideas do you have, shorty’ crapola, but…

“Sir, I served six years as a lead field mechanic in the Army, and I got attitude. Too much of it. The men wouldn’t do what I needed them to do and I was a bitch because I wouldn’t fuck them. I knew in the field that, they, we…we just couldn’t do sex and do our jobs. Some of them got it, but…Just because you drink a beer with someone doesn’t mean you’re in love or heat, or it’s an invitation to visit the vacation they thought they were going to find between my legs. It’s taken me a long time to get past that and an asshole ex and single momming an eight year old. And when I finally wanted to, with you, I drank too much and…”

She reeled out a couple of feet from the tape measure. “Hold this. Down there, in the middle of the X.” She walked off across two thirds of the empty the space, nodded her head as if agreeing with herself, tugged the tape out of his fingers and took a deep breath while she waited for the clatter to stop.

“I haven’t…Sex…In four years. I wanted to, I told you that, sir, and that was embarrassing enough. And then I woke up in your apartment after we didn’t. Embarrassment number two. I don’t go out to intentionally pick up piano players who listen to me and are a lot younger in the daylight, sir. Honest, I don’t. So embarassment number three. And here we are. You spent time on me and we didn’t do anything and just like the Army that’ll somehow be all my fault and you’re going to question everything I do. And I can’t handle all that attitude now that I’m out from under it, okay? I’m damn good at what I do, but when that shit starts up I want to say ‘fuck you all,’ sir, and stick my middle finger in everyone of your noses like you did to that actress, and I really have to watch it or I’ll starve. Eventually some people listen to me but most people run on about shit that doesn’t matter or won’t work and I say fuck it and do what they want because it’s work and I need the money.” She took another deep, needed breath, let it go but kept her tension.

“That’s all good to know, I think, but you haven’t told me how I can help.”

“Sir, what I’m trying to say is you can’t make me do lame work on the cheap or argue with me about everything because we didn’t have sex. Please. This job, I can see it. I have a chance to do it right in here, on budget, and I have to. Or I can’t stick.”

“I can work with that.” He dumped his cold coffee down the rusty sink, tossed the cup in the galvanized can. “About that non-sex thing? We both made it home, I got my car. I was a dick for working a piano bar like I was sixteen. Every now and then I get tired of my skin and do something stupid, so I’m right there in the middle of that embarrassed business with you. You and I are okay. ” He watched her work her face and take that on.

“As far as this room is concerned, Jade? It’s yours. I threw out some ideas, you threw them back. You know a lot more about this than I do. Air and function is what I, what we all need out of this space. No, now….look at me.” He caught both of her nervous hands on the way to her cutoff’s pockets. They seemed tiny, but still hard as granite. “You’ll meet a French woman this week who says ‘The story completed, my love?’ So finish it.”

“My face is burning, sir, I know it is. The last thing is I didn’t bring your coffee cup back. On purpose. That blue is, I don’t know. Strange and beautiful. Like you said, a blue only mescaline knows. I drink my coffee, set it down and stare at it. I started to lie and say I broke it, that’s how much I like it. That’s what needs to go away, being embarrassed about everything with you. Because I have been so wrong since climbing all over you in Bellacardi’s to ditching you without a car, to thinking of ways to steal your coffee cup. And…”

“And?”

“I need you to mean that, sir, about this room being mine and us being okay. Let me do a good job we can both be proud of and I can take pictures and use you and this project for a reference. I’ll be okay with us and the sex we didn’t have and the embarrassments if we can work that way. Maybe I could buy the coffee cup from you, sir, or you could tell me where to get one.”

“First, and get a hold on this, I’m not a sir. I can get you a whole damn box of those mescaline blue cups and the girl who designed them will be gassed that you like them. Straight up, Jade, last verse. Between you and me? You’re really cute almost naked for a little bitty girl with a killer, squirrelly tan. The white hands and feet? My mom would have named you Socks or Boots if you were a stray that turned up. That’s all there is of our short, sorta funny, didn’t make it to sex story. You and I are cool. And hopefully friends.”

“And as long as I’m in budget, this is my project?”

“Yes ma’am, all yours. C’mon, Boots, stop worrying. Do I need to sign something, get you a check?”

“Both would be good. Neither are required on consultation day. Boots? Oh, don’t. That’s not funny…You mean it, ‘straight up’? We didn’t, I’m weird and kept your Mescaline blue coffee cup, and that’s all okay and there’s no ‘who’s the boss’ weirdness?”

“There it is.”

“Contract and a check and I’m okay? My mouth sometimes…I brought a contract in.” She fished a folded sheet out of her tool belt, handed it to him. “And the check would be good, if it’s alright. Not that I don’t trust you yet, but I could really use it. And as a safety, in case you’re jacking me around because of my tan lines and I’m being happy-carpenter-girl-with-a-job blind and don’t want to see it.” She took a couple of deep breaths. “Shooo-eee.” She dropped her shoulders, shook out both of her hands and finally smiled.

He reached into the fridge in the old bathroom, pulled out the last two cold Cokes, handed her one. “Coffee kind of died on us. Caffeine is caffeine. So we have a deal, Boots?”

“Yes sir. Deal!” She frowned, tapped the old, rusty, spray painted, duct taped fridge. “This has to go, sir. This is a new, unisex restroom with real light and a lady grade vanity setup, not a room where men hang out, eat greasy take out, drink beer and pee.”

“Will there be a room for that?”

“No. I did your kitchen open, half size, with an island. On the other side of the restroom wall that goes where I’m standing.”

“Pool table?”

“Front side of the kitchen, plenty of elbow room. Are you any good, sir? At pool?”

“I can tell by the look in your eye that I need to be careful how I answer that.” He signed the contract, wrote her a check for half the budget, set them both by the rusty, dinged up sink in the old eat and pee and shower room.

“Sir? Where are you going?”

“It’s your room. ‘Ma’am’.” He bowed, deep. “I’m getting the hell out of your way.”

She waited for the door to close, hugged herself and spun all the way around on the ball of her right foot. When her work boot landed she looked up at the high east windows. “Ma’am! Yes Ma’am! Contract. Sold. Check. Boom. Boots? Crap-ola. But…” She turned a slow three-sixty with her arms out. “A ‘kick ass small recording studio front end’? Oh my God, baby. You are mine.”

Random NVDT – Writer(ly) Concerns #9 – “Pinkly”

“The rain was washing the blood pinkly away.” *

Oh. My. God. Really?

I was going to pop the first THG III chapter. Then I was going to say no, wait up, here’s a backstory chapter so it’s not like instant melodrama. Then I was going to finish the Mescaline Blue short, but it got such resounding reviews I bailed. Besides, the last bit sits at 2.35k and needs to be 1.4k. I can’t seem to cut and paste and shuffle and get the story told so screw it, he said, virtually yet still resolutely  tossing it underhandedly at the Rubbermaid trash bucket that sat dustily and blackly in it’s shadowly corner where it bounced, ricochetly off the swinging top, to roll languidly across the floor disrupting the cat sleepily napping. Napping sleepily Nappily sleeping?

Good. God. I really was going to do all those things until I was thrown mightily to the floor, incapacitated by the headline sentence, to lie numbly, stupidly still.

I have a theory. A lot of authors, particularly the franchise-able ones, have research assistants and staff and as they get on down the road the Franklin W. Dixon / Carolyn Keene effect kicks in. In fact the Spenser series originated by Robert B Parker is in Taco Bell land now with someone I suppose apprenticed/interned/researched with/for Parker when Parker was among the living. I noticed the same thing in the last few Tony Hillerman’s (that sucked, personal opinion) and the last few Elmore Leonard’s that were re-runs. Well, a deep study will show all those formula western/cop/detective things to be recharacterized re-runs, but that’s what we do, invent characters to plug into a story.

I think successful authors know how low the candle is getting, and hand off more and more of their duties. Because there is no excuse, outside of medication or getting confused about which series he was writing that Parker, the man who picked up the torch and finished a Raymond Chandler book, to write, on the coldest day in hell, the word “pinkly.” Or “wetly” for that matter. Or for someone who prided himself on his literary background use the word “languid” and the LY variation of it repeatedly. To describe dust motes, dog walkers, lawn sprinklers and the approach of a woman. And that’s the first half.

“Pinkly” is also one of those things wrong with the major publishing houses. Like tires and mac and cheese, it’s branding, not content. First off, no one caught it. No one at a giant publishing house raised an eyebrow at “pinkly.” I promise you if I played “pinkly” in a scrabble game I’d get hammered.

The last several Ace Atkins as Robert Parker outings are laughable for their lack of editing and proof reading. I wouldn’t let some of that junk out as a docx file to anybody. I know they must be selling on the label, based on the reviews of people waiting for the real Spenser to come back. Somebody better summon Edgar Cayce, quick.

Stupid, boring chattery content? I’ll own that, and have a hard drive full of it. Sloppy and lazy execution of same? No way. Even if it’s chit chat pablum, it needs to be well constructed chit chat pablum.

What has any of that got to do with anything? I’m pretty sure, and concerned, that the events and (mis)adventures of Jackson in Hollywood and Deanna in Cambridge in THG III are rough and drafty and will be received as such. And maybe I’m hedging a little about vomiting draft quality work. However, after reading the lazy slop that has been published by award winning authors and their award winning franchisees, after “pinkly”? Get the mop and bucket.

*School Days © 2005 by Robert B Parker

Mescaline Blue

In WC#8 I said “just write it.” You see a character, have an encounter, tune in and let it go. In year 3 of THG III the studio Jackson works out of needs a remodel. That’s the short version. It could have been handled with a paragraph or two of narrative, or the story delivered, as it currently stands in the draft, embedded in 400 words of dialogue that contains other elements. But – I needed a character (I thought), let the tape in my head roll and got a 4k full-blown interaction with two characters. Don’t worry, this is the 1.4k part 1. I won’t use it for the book, but what I said about Writer’s Block. It’s a myth. I met this character when she did my car inspection a few years ago, know nothing about her, but I listened and there she was. I think this is how short story collections are born.

Jackson’s Apartment / Long Bach California, July, 1981

Jackson sat on the edge of the bed in his apartment’s spare bedroom, gave the well rendered lioness’s head an appreciative eye. It lived in a deep Coppertone-colored jungle, surrounded by a ring of flowers he was pretty sure were coloring book versions of petunias or something, not foliage native to sub-Saharan Africa. The tips of the long grass that weaved through it all and poked out around the top half of the picture created a nice, crown-like effect, but they looked out of place as well. Like Palm Sunday palm frond handouts Catholic junior high school girls could fold into religious origami.

A thin, pale line ran straight across the lioness’s nose and the width of the small, tan, muscular back it lived on. It all reminded him of a sidewalk pastel chalk art project, as if he had run his little finger across her back and smudged the color off down to the cement. Which is how he decided to wake her up. He dragged the tip of his middle finger lightly from the where the pale line and Coppertone met the new bottom sheet on the new bed in Dash’s old bedroom, across her back and the lioness’s nose to the middle of her rib cage on the opposite side.

She pulled the top sheet straight up her back from her waist, bumped his hand out of its Etch-a-Sketch trance. “Unh-uh, Rafe. Fuck off. Show your latest your morning wood ’cause we are so divorced.” She smacked the pillow with a fist, pulled the other one over her head. “Get the kid ready yourself if you’re so frisky.”

“My name’s not Rafe, I don’t think we were ever married and I’m fresh out of kids.” He’d been awake for a while, was already dressed in a t-shirt and jeans. “Coffee?”

He stood, heard the covers being tossed behind him and some low, exclamatory profanity. He turned and glanced. She did have some squirrel-ly tan lines. White feet, white hands, white butt. Not a bikini white butt, but white from waist high to three or four inches past where everything came together. About a minute later, while he was pouring water in the top of the Mr. Coffee, she blew out of the bedroom in her red paisley bikini panties, clothes clutched to her chest.

“Phone?”

“Right in front of you,” he nodded to the small counter that divided his kitchen from living room. “One in both bedrooms if you need some space.”

She disappeared back into Dash’s old bedroom, he heard her bark at someone on the phone, the toilet between the bedrooms flushed, he never heard the door close or open. Jesus. Two minutes later she was standing at the small divider again, dressed in the red and yellow flowered dress that had gotten them into this situation.

“I hate to be a bitch, but I need to go. Now. We can beat the lock on the 405 or run up through…What?”

“You drove, didn’t trust me. We weren’t that far from here when you passed out at the gas station. I didn’t know where else to take you, didn’t want to troll your purse trying to find out.” He waited for her to wake up, but she was absorbing as fast as he laid it out. “Your pickup’s on the street out front. If you have to book we’re cool. I can get to my car.”

“You don’t mind? Crapola, I’m…I have a time window to beat. I bet you think I do this all the time, huh? Not at all…I told you that, didn’t I? That’s why I’m so scattered. I’m…I shouldn’t be here. Did I drink? Did I explain my tan?”

“A couple of drinks too many and a couple of times explaining a lot of things. Just saw the tan a minute ago. Interesting. Are you a trim carpenter for real?”

“Yeah. My hands.” She rubbed her fingers with her thumbs, screwed up her lips. “Rough. Sorry. I’m not the usual Wednesday piano player’s door prize at Bellacardi’s, am I?”

“I doubt it. Leave me a card, or your number?”

“Right. You’re going to call me. After no car, and no sex and…” Damn, he looked like he might be serious. “Okay.” She pulled an overstuffed red patent wallet out of her purse and sifted through a handful of cards, offered him one.
Jaeyden Hammett Carpentry – Serving the Greater Los Angeles Area. Two state license numbers and a phone number.

“You real busy?” He pulled one of his cards out of the second kitchen drawer he opened, set it on the divider. She picked it up, held it with her teeth and talked around it.

“This week, yeah. I have a remodel finishing up in West L.A. They say the bust is coming. Just my luck, right? Nothing next week yet. What am I saying? Nothing anywhere past Friday. I’m state licensed for trim and frame. Oh, and I’m bonded, too. A hundred grand. I think.”

She pulled one of her hands off shoe duty, took the card out of her mouth and dropped it in her purse. She was trying to talk, hang onto the counter with her elbow, stand on one leg and put on some kind of ankle wrap sandals that tied. The sandal wrap was an attempt to hide where her work boots cut off her tan. Women. He reached out, put a hand on the shoe between them.

“Next week’s job just landed, Jade. Solid. I’ll call.” He nodded at the shoe under his hand. “You might want to blow these off and drive barefoot.”

”Right. You need to get rid of me. Heard and understood. Someone is coming and I need to beat it. I feel so stupid…”

She stopped at the door to organize shoes and keys, fumble in her purse. A kicked around some, hard working, deeply tanned, tiny, no make up thirty-ish female carpenter with a mess of sun bleached hair and more of a mess tan lines under a pretty, probably rarely worn dress.

“No reason for stupid, and nobody’s coming. You had to take off the shoes to drive last night, carried them in when I woke you up.”

“I musta forgot that part.” She fidgeted with her dress, small shrugs, twists. “There was some story, right? One name Jackson? If you do call? Never mind, men don’t ever call me that way.” She dropped her shoes, threw her head back, gathered up a fistful of ponytail and popped a band around it. “They find out I was in the Army and I’m divorced with a kid and what I do for a living and think I’m a lez, so if you do call, I’ll know it’s you.” She picked up her nowhere-to-belong shoes, patted her purse. “And I have your card.”

She poked her head back in just before the door closed. “Thanks, you know…For being…And not getting…” She heard the Mr. Coffee gurgle. “Do you have a styrofoam cup, sir? Or a cup I can borrow?”

He reached up into the cabinet and pulled out a tall, translucent blue Morisé coffee cup, loaded it two thirds full for her.

She tied her shoes together and hung them around her neck combat-boot style while he brought the cup. She took it with both hands, held it up to the light. “Amazing glaze. What’s the little gold M for?”

“Mescaline. It’s the only place I know where you can find that color of blue.”

“That’s true, you know, about this blue. But I think you’re bullshitting me about the M, Sir. I’ve seen it somewhere.” She gave him a slightly more relaxed look, between gratitude and mild surprise. “Nice cup. Don’t worry, I’ll get it back to you.” She pulled the door as she backed out, stuck her head around again just before it closed. “Because you are going to call me.”

Random NDVT – Writerly Concerns #8

Writer’s Block – The Muse

I got five emails over the weekend about Writer’s Block. Three from “editor and writing coach” blogs (those people are full of shit, generally, and their examples and suggestions pathetic), one from someone ranting on me after 45 years saying I must have writer’s block because I mentioned they wouldn’t talk to me about anything of consequence, and one from a writer friend who should know better. Look here people. I did product specialist Artist Relations in the music business. I have stories. But I ain’t telling anybody’s stories out of school. I don’t care if you’re a priest or a rock star or an ex high school cheerleader. Because?

I don’t have to. Dig this. There is no Writer’s Block. It’s an urban myth. Like finding Jimi Hendrix’s guitar in a pawn shop for $50. Writer’s Block is the direct result of trying to control your output. News Flash. Unless you have a pre-ordained point and a target, you have to actively participate in the creative process, not force it. If you have ever had to create for $, in any medium, you know that you develop your craft to the point that you jam (extemporaneously create) until something gets you on the same wavelength as the art director or the editor, and gels.  Or you sit, adjust the fine tuning on the cosmic radio because the Muse never sleeps, and listen. And you get a gift. Too simple?

No.

I was going to go into inspiration and the Muse ad nauseam with people and examples. Instead I say just write it up. What did you do this morning? Where did you go? Who did you see? I could write three fake trendy WP poetry blogs off the grand dog that got out, the hardware store geezers and pink (!) wood filler putty. Nothing about Van Halen, Rick Wakeman, or anybody I went to high school with. Trust me, there’s some quality material going to waste right there.

However, and I’m not L. Ron Hubbard looking for a religion to start, but next time someone says “Writer’s Block” to you, tell them it’s bullshit and I said so. Why? Go to a hardware store.

Hardware store
Not home center
Hardware store
I go there to feel young
Young-ger
Because of Plumbing Geezer in a
Wheelchair with
Oxygen tank
I see him against a green
screen
Scuba diving in that rig
Remember “Sea Hunt”?
Doubtful –
I say I need some three inch nipples
He snickers
Don’t we all
I chuckle
Out of social polite-ness
Locker rooms and sexism are
Everywhere
He tells me he was a Hippie
Honest to God Haight Ashbury Hippie
I say my recovery nurse after they rebuilt my
Asshole
Said she was there
Maybe I knew her he says
She said all the guys were horny, smelly leather clad
Assholes with corny
Lines trying to get
Laid
Same as always and she said
No
A lot.
You guys would tell her
You have
Hang Ups and she’d say
No
I’m not hung up, I just don’t want to make love with
Your
Stinky ass
Right now
Scuba plumber laughs out loud says
Yep
She knew me, anyway
Hands me a nipple says
These things travel in pairs
Woody Allen I say, hot and cold
Why plumbing parts sound like women parts
Hot
And cold
I fail to acknowledge that
Wisdom –
On the way to the register I
Think
In Oklahoma
We read about Haight Ashbury Hippies and
Pretended
About all that was
Different?
Geography and
Publicity
And
According to the remodeled asshole recovery nurse
Okies
Seriously
Might have bathed
More often

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.

Fried Hog Poop – No Charge For The Fold

Another “The Hot Girl -part 3” writing exercise casualty. Dialogue vs Narrative for backstory. Investment Alert – Long Read- almost 3k. Coffee or wine may be required.

Las Vegas – Mid-Summer 1979

Jackson unbuttoned the top button of his collarless shirt and tried to clear his head of the endless piano bar requests for “After the Love Has Gone” before he stepped out the back door of the hotel kitchen with a couple of waiters. One male, one female, the three of them on their daily post-lunch-rush burn one and chill in the heat retreat.

The girl, Missy, was close to his age. Everyone called the guy Five-Oh because he dyed his hair, combed two-thirds of it back in a duck’s butt to cover the tanned or spray painted bald spot, left the front hanging greasy like Jack Lord from Hawaii Five-O. He could have been thirty or sixty. His sun spotted hands looked ancient covered in wiry, salt and pepper hair and they shook, wide and slow like a lazy blues vibrato when he passed the flat joints he carried in his wallet. He was weird, too thin and jumpy, probably a speed freak, but he knew somebody who grew killer, lime green hydroponic weed and he was loose with it.

Missy was too thin herself, wouldn’t talk to anyone but her customers. After her shift she changed into the same long, hippie-print tapestry skirt and a slightly dingy white, cap sleeve t-shirt, hit the joint with them and headed out the alley and west on foot. After a week of everything he said to her running into a wall, Jackson followed her. It felt like she was going to walk them to where the west side of Vegas met the desert if he didn’t stop her.

He caught up at an intersection, pulled out the first conversation starter he could find. “Nice bracelet. Indian?”

“I knew you were back there, space man. I missed the ‘walk’ light on purpose and waited up so we could bale this and stack it in the barn. I don’t need a boyfriend or a new savior or a better job or a better way or better sex or Avon or Amway or the New York City Sunday paper or anything you’re selling. Leave me alone.”

“I asked about the bracelet.” It was thin leather covered) in beads and more of a cuff, almost like lightweight Indian biker wear, and laced on with orange yarn.

“Indian, yeah. I don’t know what kind. It was wide enough for what I needed, and the bead pattern was cool.” He thought she was going to bite a hole in her lip. “I lace it on and forget it. Thanks for caring. Gotta go.” She took off across the street without the walk light, dodged a couple of cars and kept on west. He watched for a minute, jogged in the heat all the way back to his car and drove west on Flamingo. He crossed under the interstate, saw her a quarter mile ahead. He rolled up in front of her, stopped and got out.

“This is stupid. Missy’s not your name, nobody’s really named Missy and nobody in Vegas nicked you with it.”

“I’m not from Vegas and it’s not your problem, is it?”

“I’m from bale it and put in the barn country myself. You don’t talk through your nose, and Missy is still bullshit.” He could see her frustration with him ramping up.

“Do you get away with this, wherever you’re from, talking to girls like we need to talk back and telling us it’s bullshit if we don’t? I told you —”

“You didn’t tell me anything, it’s hot as hell and you aren’t walking like you’re going anywhere. You can ride in the back with the tire iron like the last girl that got in my car, but get off your feet and outta the heat, tell me where you need to go.” They stared at each other for a few seconds. He drummed on the top of his car with his fingers while she fidgeted with the leather cuff. “Hey, I liked that one. Feet, heat.” She still wasn’t sold, but she let a quick, faint smile get out. He was gaining ground.

“What, now you’re some kind of prairie poet or something? I heard twang. Texas? Not tin can enough to be Okie.”

“Okie born and raised. But I’ve spent a lot of time getting it out of my nose and down into a drawl.”

“You’re not there yet.” She gave up another faint smile, crawled into the back seat. “Wow, baa-ad. The air conditioner in this thing works!”

He pulled away from the curb, had no choice but silence since his radio had been stolen, idled them out Flamingo in third.

“Nice hole you have in your dash.” She opened his back window a crack, lit a long, white filtered cigarette and blew “Kansas” out with the smoke.

“No Kansas without a tape player.”

“Me, you Okie clown. I’m from Kansas. Though where I lived? I could almost throw a rock and hit Oklahoma if I wanted.”

In the mirror he watched her make a face while she leaned, twisted, pulled a seatbelt buckle out from under her backside. “Now I’m living across town the other way in a runaway shelter, so you aren’t taking me ‘home’ anywhere around here, if that was your big ‘help Missy out’ idea.”

“Little old for that shelter, aren’t you? Twenty-two?”

She slapped the side of his headrest. “Good guess! Twenty-three. Twenty-four in August. They don’t check ID there, I don’t do hard drugs, and I wash my face with Noxzema to keep up my girlish looks. There’s girls in there not even fourteen look a lot worse than me. I hate the place, but it’s not coed, so it’s safe. Horny mixed up chicks I can handle. It’s horny, mixed up dudes I can do without.”

He checked her taking his temperature over that in the rear-view. “I’m starving. The no feed us rule at work sucks.”

“So does the food, space man. So really it’s like a benefit, you know? Them not feeding us.” She continued to watch him, his eyes keeping time between the road and her in the mirror. “They weigh that shit is why we don’t get to eat it. Every ticket gets a weight and they check it once a week to see who’s skimming. They even weigh those pans under the counter where they throw the fuckups away. The Mafia runs a way tighter ship than the Navy, that’s for sure.” She let the smoke and her mind drift a little, ashed her cig out the window. “I don’t eat much so it doesn’t matter to me. I walk all afternoon, drink a lot of water. My car’s broken, so I walk back to the shelter after dinner shift. They usually have some kind of chunks in macaroni. It’s slimy, but nice of them. And it keeps me from blowing away. But me and food. It’s just…” She watched the smoke curl, dropped the butt out the window, sighed and stared after it.

“I live on this end of town,” Jackson said to the mirror. “Out where they’re building houses. Not many restaurants yet. Not much of anything yet but apartments, stick framed houses not getting finished. The economy is what I heard. I was going to fix something easy. You can bring the lug wrench in with you.”

“You’re not dangerous, I picked up on that. Okie weird, maybe. I’ll come in ‘cause it’s hot, but I’m just gonna watch.”

***

Jackson made quickie stir fried rice with two Uncle Ben’s boil-in-bags, a bag of frozen veg, a couple of scrambled eggs and pepper. He set two bowls on the counter, grabbed Tabasco and soy sauce from the fridge. He splashed a bowl with some of both, forked the rice, shrugged approval. “I gotta do some laundry this afternoon.” He pointed to the main bedroom with his fork. “There’s all kinds of robes in the front bedroom. Take the tire iron when you’re done with the rice, toss your clothes out. No charge for the fold.”

All she could do was snort with her mouth full because he’d let that go without seeing it as a fantastic jest. “I can’t get stuck out here looking at a dinner shift with no clothes and some crazy Okie weirdo who hates radio. It’s not ever going to happen.” She spooned some more of the rice, shot the bowl of it with a generous dose of soy sauce and took it to the big front bedroom, yelled for him from inside. He ambled in with his bowl, watched her through the open double door on the closet while she slowly fanned through several dozen silk robes on plush hangers. She held a simple, long pink one under her chin, took three steps sideways to the full length mirror and whistled soft and low.

“Wowzer…” She hit the light switch that handled the atmospheric indirects, not the overhead “work” lights. “Will you look at that…How the hell do you live here on the piano bar, space man?” She leaned forward, slowly turning her head to take it all in. “Just being in this bathroom has to be a sin. What’s with all the clothes?” She caught a glimpse of both of them in the wall to wall mirror, blushed. “And the perfume and all these lotions and make up?”

“Office supplies.”

“Yeah?” She hung the robe on a brass hook by the door, gave it a loving pat. “Too much. Too-oo much.” He followed her back to the kitchen where she went straight to the skillet and spooned the remainder of his simple chef Chinese into her bowl.

“I’m only eating because this is the first time any man has ever cooked for me. And I can’t let that one get by, you know? Truly. Never happened before.” She talked around a mouth full of rice and veg, gestured with her bowl. “This could be a bowl of fried hog poop, but knowing a man cooked it for me makes it great, whatever it is.” She swallowed the last of her rice and veg, balled up her paper napkin and dropped it in the bowl. “Seriously. Lay it out, space man. What’s up with the bathroom and the silk robes and everything?”

“This place belongs to seven non-affiliated, free lance hookers. They rented the place right after it was built because it was in the furthest out burbs, no one is looking for hookers out here, and they don’t do business or live in the apartment. They pull up, come inside and prep, walk out dressed up in expensive, real world clothes, climb back in their cars and hit their appointments. Town and Johns are east, desert and construction are west, they live wherever they live. I make sandwiches or omelets, do their laundry, keep the place clean, gas up their cars, glue heels back on shoes, fix stuff. C’mere.”  He set their bowls in the sink, tossed their napkins in a can under it and walked her back into the master bath in the front bedroom.

“See that?” Jackson pointed through the glass surround on a garden tub at a shiny brass shower head the size of a dinner plate. “I put that in for them last week. A hundred and twenty bucks, no shit. From Italy, I think. That paddle thing on the side goes all the way around. From standing in the rain to that little circle of holes in the middle that will beat your ass. It’s —”

She pushed him out of the room and locked the door. Less than a minute later her clothes flew out and the door locked again.

He waited until he heard the bathwater stop before starting the load of hooker office wear and Missy’s clothes. He sat on the couch and watched a video tape of a guy with a foreign accent explain beginner guitar and music theory. He couldn’t keep up with the guy on guitar, yet, but it was good for his brain to stay on top of even simple theory. And the only other tape, the sensual massage lesson, would have primed him to climb, uninvited, into the bathtub with his nameless guest.

***

“Massey, not Missy? Ferguson? Like the tractor?” He leaned his head on the back of the couch in mock shock. “Jesus. Alice Chalmers would at least have been more chick sounding.”

“Hey,” she kicked him on the shin with a bare foot, “there’s nothing wrong with Massey. I just stay away from all of that except for government forms because I have to tell it all, like now. I only told you ’cause nobody else has cooked for me or washed my clothes since mama died.” She pulled he robe tighter, eyed him for a moment with hopeful intensity. “Tell me you didn’t do it ‘cause you’re a panty sniffer, space man. I could use a friend.”

“I only sniff to check for clean or dirty.” He grinned, held up the red can. “More Coke?”

“No. I like to crunch the ice chunks that still have some taste of it. I’ve never, ever seen anybody beat up ice with a hammer before.”

“I don’t like cubes. Don’t know why, just never have. My mom indulged me, so it’s a habit now. When did your mom die?”

“When my dad ran over her with a combine ‘cause she was fucking Nueller down in the air conditioned garage of the Esso. I was twelve then? Yeah, twelve, and just a couple of days before it happened my brother’d pulled a shotgun on dad when he went off on mom, told him not to touch her again, ever. I didn’t blame her when it all came out. Dad’s about a pig and a fucking half. Fat, drunk mostly, showers when he remembers. Nueller was always shiny clean, smelled like Old Spice even on a hot day, always had a crease in his pants and was fucking every woman in three or four counties in two states who had a guy like dad for a husband.”

“Nice work if you can get it.”

She wrinkled her nose. “Not really. He’s dead now, too, Nueller is. The man who owned the Ford lot from over in Anthony waited for him to step out from behind the pumps and ran him down. He was going about twenty-five, nailed Nuellie with the dead center of a brand-new Ford. Backed up over him, ran over him some more. The paper said Nueller was smiling. The Ford lot man’s wife looked a lot like Marilyn Monroe, some kind of hot girl everybody said. I didn’t know her. Nueller probably thought it was her coming for him, not her husband. Happy to dead. Boom.” She covered her knees again with the slippery, oversized pink silk robe. She went thoughtful for a moment, set her glass of ice on the coffee table, looked at him and was surprised he was listening.

“I guess that’s the best way to go, you know, looking forward to something. Mama was miserable and said all the time she only stayed for me. I know she had to have heard that combine, had to know what was coming, and didn’t try to run or anything. Miserable to dead. Boom.” She pulled the sleeve of the robe down over her left wrist where the wide, beaded Indian bracelet lived when she wasn’t fresh out of the tub. “I think that’s why I’m still here. Some days I feel too miserable to die. If I get happy someday? Lightning will strike me, I know it.”

Jackson pulled the sleeve back, looked at all the small, white scars on her wrist. Nothing deadly, just knicks. Manifested frustration. He got up, set his Coke can on the counter. She turned, chin in the crook of her arm, watched him unload the clothes from a dryer in a closet by the kitchen.

“The Indian bracelet you like? I only got it because it stops me. I know it’s crazy, but sometimes I’ll even pinch myself with a roach clip if I’m bummed. I’m right-handed and if I tried any of that with my left hand I’m so retarded I’d cut my arm off. I really sort of need my right one or I couldn’t do anything and then I’d be more miserable and not dead.”

“Cutting your arm off might be a good start on dead.” He dumped the basket of dryer friendly panties, teddies, slips, nothing but lace and hooks bras, a couple of nylon halter top with hot pants onesies along with Massey’s clothes on the big, square coffee table and started sorting. He was almost done, folded her panties, dropped them on top of her skirt and t-shirt.

“How’d you know?”

He held up a small piece of v-shaped lace draped over his finger and her tired at the seams tiger-striped bikinis, raised his eyebrows. He also held up what had once been a bra and was now a lot of stringy elastic and shapeless nylon and cotton. “Your bra is shot. You oughta toss it.”

“And wear what?”

“Go liberated or get in the top drawer in the big bedroom. Probably forty in there. Two of the ladies are about your size. Find one you like that fits. They’ll never miss it, and if they do I’ll tell them the dryer ate it.”

She came back dressed, with an obviously lacy bra under the t-shirt. “You’re a weird sort of guy, space man. You cook a little, do laundry like a Chinaman. You’ll look at my legs and show me the shower but not to make me feel creeped. Where’d you learn to be a house boy?”

“Lived with a girl who failed home-ec. The rest was mom went to work. Simple survival.”

“Same here on the survival. Only my mama was murdered and he got away with it.”