Monday, November 28, 2011

She is motion on two legs with drool, babbling, and a wicked smile. She is both wave and particle. She bounces from person to person like a pinball, leaving a trail of laughter and destruction. She is a little over one year old and named after an SUV.

Our house is full; fifteen or so of my wife’s cousins, aunts, uncles, and friends have come for Thanksgiving. They are my family, now, and are in my home, and this little girl squeals and laughs as she rips Kleenexes apart and scatters them on the floor like confetti, pulls DVDs from their cases and jumps up and down on them, chews the business end of a fireplace match and runs headlong towards the stairs for which there is no baby-gate, yet. Her mother, all of twenty years old and a young twenty, at that, is texting her new boyfriend on the couch, oblivious.

The little girl’s aunt and uncle who are both younger than the mother, sometimes catch her before she careens down the stairs or out the door, but they are equally intent on card games, eating or looking things up on their iPones. Another teenaged cousin who I haven’t seen in years takes over duties towards the end, and keeps the little girl from breaking her neck, though it's clear she and her own mom are less than thrilled that they are now the gate-keepers for a one-year-old ferral child.

My wife alternately tries to feed the kid the homemade food she's prepared especially for the littlest kids and tries to convince her cousin to put the little girl down for a nap in the pack'n'play set up away from the noise for that very purpose, but is unsuccessful on both counts, so she doesn’t eat more than a few bites of banana and a mouthful of applesauce in something like seven hours, and has no nap at all.

I’m watching my own seven month old, who is being passed around like a new toy. I try to keep an eye on the little girl, the living epitome of unchecked energy, but then someone catches her and I lose her, thinking she’s safe, until she breaks free again and I see her streaking toward the open back-door. All of us are watching her with one eye, but none of us is watching with both. My daughter starts to fuss, and as I move in to take advantage of this and whisk her away from the ruckus, I nearly collide with the little girl. She stops short with a smile and a dirty face, reaches for me, and, as she probably has to every male in the house, asks, “Daddy?”

Fifteen months ago, my wife and I nearly adopted that little girl. This was before my wife knew she was pregnant. Her then eighteen year old cousin was single, unemployed (though she might’ve had a part-time job if she'd wanted it), a college drop-out, and one of the most sheltered children I’ve ever met. I’m not being mean, here, simply honest. At eight months pregnant she’d been dumped by the child’s father, a significantly older guy in the military who’d rather spend his money on expensive toys and his time elsewhere, but who insisted on naming the kid after the SUV. My wife and I had been trying to have a kid for a few years, at that point, and were towards the end of a hail-mary attempt when my wife’s cousin called in distress over her situation.

She said that if she was going to give her baby up to anyone, it would be us, but she needed time to think about it. We felt something like Sartre’s characters in “The Wall,” waiting through the night for the firing squad. We talked it out between ourselves while we waited. We thought: here’s a kid who’s screwed up her life but could still make good. She could walk away and start over. Then again, raising a kid could be the best thing for her. It could be a crash-course in growing up, which she desperately needs. On the other hand, let’s be realistic: What does she know about the kind of hard work and sacrifices this would require? But what did we know about them either?

We tried to be logical. There was no way we could afford a kid just yet. I was training in a new position and, once I had that, gunning for a promotion, but I wouldn’t have it for another year. We had a plan, and that plan required our hail-mary to pay off, sure, but we didn’t expect to actually have a kid for another ten months or so. But here was opportunity tapping at our door. And we knew we could make it work, somehow.

When she called and said she’d decided to keep the baby after all, my wife waited until she got off the phone to break down. We both thought this might’ve been our last chance, but what could we do? It wasn’t our decision to make. We had to respect it and be supportive. We hoped for the best. We hoped she would take advantage of this opportunity, dig in, and do right by her soon-to-be child. When my wife found out she was pregnant a few weeks later, our course was set. But still, in the back of our minds, we wondered: what if?

While the family was in town for Thanksgiving, we had the opportunity to see several approaches to parenting. By far the most developed kid was a teenager, "Martin," whose single mother kept him in line (some would say nagged him constantly). But it was obvious this kid would have a future. It was obvious that his mother understood that the work of being a parent often means acting in opposition to your kid/s' wishes or natural inclinations. Kids test boundaries. It’s tiring to push back, but a lot of the time, you have to if you want the kids to develop positive habits. Another cousin, "Mandy," meanwhile, talked about sneaking out the night before and partying. Martin was sullen during this conversation, feeling left out. He didn’t understand how much his mother was doing for him by making sure he was left out, of course. Being a parent means being unpopular sometimes. Mandy's mother, on the other hand, didn’t even chastise her daughter for sneaking out to spend the night with her boyfriend. She simply grinned, apparently at the horrible joke that her other teenaged daughter was well on the way to having a baby of her own, just like her sister.

There is a lot of pain in this family, and it tends to manifest in self-absorption of one kind or another, which, of course, could be said of most of us. What that means in real life is some non-engaged parents. If I were unkind, I could say that some of these folks were too busy looking for their own gratification and ended up ignoring their children. This is the greatest fear I have about my own parenting. But perhaps that’s the difference; being aware of this means I can be proactive in preventing it. I don’t mean to sound conceited or arrogant. I’m not perfect; far from it. I’m deeply flawed. And if it wasn’t for my wife, I would be much more so. One of the first things I did when my wife became pregnant was start to see a psychologist. This wasn’t because I was depressed about having a kid; it was because I had a ton of issues and I didn’t want to screw my kid up. I didn’t have good models for parenting because of various circumstances, so I look around at other people, and I try my best to figure out what works. And seeing how these folks acted towards their kids, I learned a lot about what works and what doesn’t.

I may well still screw up royally. But I hope I don’t, and I plan to do everything in my power to keep from it.

After everyone left, my wife and I talked about the little girl and everything else I’ve been writing about. “They’re good people,” my wife said. And it’s true, I’m sure. The teenaged mother isn’t actively bad; she’s just a kid who happens to have a kid and is completely unprepared for it. Her mother is freshly divorced and trying to have some fun. Everyone has their own hell, and it’s easy to judge when you haven’t lived with the fumes. We’re too close to the situation to have any real perspective, and I’m sure we exaggerate what we don’t see and take what we do see for the worst. But seeing that little girl running wild while her mother ignored her and her immediate family only stepped in when she became a nuisance, we couldn’t help but wish that her mother had said yes, all those months ago. But there’s not much we can do about it. There’s always going to be horror outside the door. There’s nothing to be done about that. What’s inside the house, that you can affect.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Court Merrigan is a writer and world travelor. I was first drawn to his stories by the strong sense of place, which is familiar, and at the same time, often exotic. He blogs about writing and life here.

Me: Describe your writing for me: what is a “Court Merrigan story”?

Court: I take characters, bottle them up in a shitty situation, shake well, then minutely record the results.

Me: How important is sense of place to you, as a writer?

Court: Phenomenally important. I normally start with a place, usually even before a story idea, or even a character.

I lived in East Asia for a decade, so a lot of what I'm writing is set in real or imaginary places there. But I'm also from an unknown region of the country called Wyobraska, whose dust and wind bubbles in my blood. Its long empty spaces run through pretty much everything I've ever written.

Me: Have you found that teaching affects your own writing?

Court: Well, I don't teach writing, so not in that sense. I will say that a classroom does offer some insights into how people act under pressure, though. I also have learned a lot about how to be professional from teaching. When you step into a classroom, it doesn't matter how you feel; you have to put on a show that gets your content across. Getting up to write each day is much the same. You have to do it - or at least try to do it - no matter how you feel.

Me: Can you tell me a little about your writing routine?

Court:Now that our ten-month old is (finally!) sleeping through the night, I'm back to getting up at 4 or 5 and getting a few hours of writing in before the day job. I also write as much as I can on weekends and holidays but I've got kids and long ago promised myself that I'd put down the pen when one of them toddled into the room. Turns out, they toddle into the room a lot.

Me: As a blogger and writer, myself, let me ask: how useful do you find blogging to be for a writer?

Court: It has been fantastic for getting to know other writers. Unless you've already got a big name, I think it's pretty unthinkable that you wouldn't have an online presence as a writer, where people can go to read more of your stuff. For example,

I track all my rejection on the blog and archive them on a Failure page. This has been tremendously cathartic for me. I find that once I blog about a rejection, I never think about it again.

Having said that, writing quality blog posts is a lot of work. I don't put nearly so much effort into them as I did when I was starting out. I post pictures. I don't write nearly as many reviews as I should.

Me: I’ve noticed that you’ve placed some excerpts from your novel manuscript at various journals (Fried Chicken & Coffee, decomP, and Midwestern Gothic). Can you tell me a little about this novel?

Court: In common with many others, I've been semi-obsessed with the apocalyptic for some time now. I think it has something to do with growing up in the Reagan-era 80s, the nukes piling up, plus the stack of truck-stop pulp fiction I read as a kid, mutants warring in a seared nuclear wasteland &c.

These days, though, nuclear armageddon, zombie apocalypse, a world-searing pandemic - those seem to me less likely scenarios for the end times than a slow free-fall into barbarity from our present peak of effortless interconnection. What happens to ordinary folks, to the sons and daughters of ordinary folks, when their world winds down around them? When the infrastructure of the infinitely wired past remains before them, untouchable?

So I took 4 kids, abandoned by their mother, left defenseless by a weak alcoholic father, threw them in that cauldron, and saw how far they'd go to stay with each other. Pretty far, I discovered

I finished the novel a little over a year ago and immediately sent it out to a slew of agents. Didn't get much response, so I divvied the manuscript up and started sending excerpts out. Rusty Barnes, Jason Jordan, and the folks at Midwestern Gothic were good enough to pick three of these up. A few other pieces are circulating which I hope will see the light of day, too. I'm hoping that with a few credits such as these, the manuscript might attract a little more interest this time. Here's hoping!

Me: How has being a father influenced your writing?

Court: As I type this, I figure I've got about more 10 minutes to work before my oldest gets up and needs fed and watered. Kids hem you in, no question.

And yet it is wonderful to be interrupted by by a slobbering 10-month old.

I'm one of those who willingly retreats for whole days into the sanctuary of your head. My kids won't allow me to stay there that long, though. I am thankful for it.

Me: Who are your biggest influences?

Court: Among the dead: Hem, for being source of nearly everything. I haven't read him actively in years, but can still quote whole paragraphs from memory. Faulkner, for showing me how language can be pushed its utmost extremes and still tell a story. And Nabokov, for being an absolutely inimitable exemplar of what beauty looks like on the page.

Among the living, I was thrown for a loop last year when I read everything Scott Wolven wrote. That guy has inherited the mantle of Hem and cross-pollinated it with some Cormac McCarthy and Leonard Elmore ("If it sounds like writing, I rewrite it"), resurrected the muscle and guts to heartbreak and noir. A couple of favorites of his you can find online:

"Everything Tastes Like Whiskey"
"News About Yourself"

Will Christopher Baer's vastly underrated Kiss Me, Judas also showed me some of the lyrical possibilities inherent in "genre" fiction. Same with Daniel Woodrell.

I'm also a devoted student of Lorrie Moore. She's heartbreakingly funny.

Me: Who’s writing the killer fiction these days? Who will history remember?

Scott Wolven, for sure.

And there's Frank Bill. This guy is a true original. I can't peg his literary genealogy. I'm not sure he has one. He's got a book out now; here's a couple great ones online:

"The Need"

Brad Watson, who lives down the road from me in Laramie, is writing short stories as well as anyone living.

Roxane Gay is doing some really really fascinating things with the short story form. She's on her way to great things, I'm sure of it. Check out the use of Venn diagrams in this one: "Between Things"

Other writers I follow around the internet are Brad Green, Matthew C. Funk, David James Keaton, Marc Horne, Paolo Bacigalupi, Stephen Graham Jones, Keith Rawson, David Cranmer, Rion Amilcar Scott, Tamara Linse, and Rusty Barnes.

No idea who history will remember; I'd like folks to think will be reading Controlled Burn, by Scott Wolven, but more than likely it will be something by George RR Martin on account of his selling a bajillion copies.

Me: What are you working on now/next?

Court: I have four short stories to finish - three crime-ish, one science fictionish - and then I really want to get back to this novel I started more than a year ago. I have one chapter and a whole lot of research done. Now I just need to devote my early mornings to finishing the damn thing.

It is going to be a fantasy novel set in a time and place that, so far as I know, is as yet unmined by literary fortune-seekers. That's all I can

Monday, November 21, 2011

Here's an excerpt from my young adult novel Sunlight...


Sol woke to his father's voice singing along with some Oldies station on the radio. Sol had been listening to music but dozed off, and his earbuds had slipped out. They whispered softly from his chest where they'd fallen and he turned them off. His father's voice was low and quiet and tinged with sadness even though he was singing a happy song. It sounded weak, compared to how Sol's mother's voice used to sound. She sang constantly when she drove, though the radio was rarely on. Usually, she sang the old-fashioned songs people sang in choir class and in church. A lot of them didn't make any sense, though some of them had a weird kind of undertone, as though once upon a time, they'd meant something, but people had forgotten what, so that all that remained was the tune, with no real power. Kind of like elevator music.

Sol had always liked her voice. Whenever he heard anyone else sing those songs, they sounded hokey, silly, grown people singing kids' songs. His own voice sounded weak and embarrassed when he sang along with a rock song, as though it wanted to hide. But she was able to infuse the words with a feeling and intensity that made them sound better than they really were. She did that with everything. Even saying Sol's name, she could make him sound better than he felt like he was. He heard her voice, drifting up from memory:

I've got a friend in Baltimore,
Little Liza Jane
I've got a friend in Baltimore,
Little Liza Jane.
Oh Little Liza, Liza Jane,
Little Liza Jane.
Oh Little Liza, Liza Jane,
Little Liza Jane.
I've got a friend in Arkansas,
Little Liza Jane...

He lay, feeling the motion of the car rocking him, and listened to the voice in his memory for a few seconds before opening his eyes. It was the first time he'd woken peacefully in weeks.

Outside the car, it was all sunlight. A brilliant, blinding brightness covered everything. Sol blinked and imagined he could feel the warmth from it, though his father had the air conditioner on. On either side, fields of sunflowers stretched as far as Sol could see. Their green stalks strained up towards the sun. Some of them looked as tall as people, and on top of the stalks, their heads were fat with yellow petals on the outside and a dark eye in the center, as though they were watching the car.

"Are you back with us?" Sol's father asked.

"Almost," Sol said. "Where are we?"

"Almost there," Sol's father said, turning to Sol. "See those sunflowers?"

"There are lots of them."

"Those are Dan and Jill's. They grow them for bakeries and processors all over the country."

Sol watched the dark eyes of the flowers flow past, wondering how they stood, with all that weight on top and only a thin stalk to hold them up. He imagined people with giant black faces and yellow hair standing straight out around their heads, which were so big, the people kept falling down. It made him laugh, until he wondered if there was more, here, than just sunflowers. There was something his mom used to say, and it came to him, then, in the didactic voice she used with her students: pretty is boring if that's all there is.

His father slowed and turned onto a gravel road that split the sunflower field in half.

"I think this is it," he said.

"You don't know?" Sol asked.

"I haven't been here in awhile."

"What if it's not? Don't people shoot trespassers here?" Sol asked. He looked around, nervously.

"You watch too many bad movies," his father said.

"You don't watch enough."

Sol could see a house ahead, rising out of the yellow and black sea of flowers. It was a big white square, two stories tall, full of windows.

"Isn't this the house from Texas Chainsaw Massacre? Sol asked.

"No, that was in Texas." His father glanced at Sol.

"You know what I mean," Sol said.

"I don't want to know what you mean," his father said. "This is a nice place, Sol. It's where your mother grew up. Different isn't bad. It's just different."

Sol didn't answer. At the mention of his mother, something caught in his throat as though he hadn't drank any water in hours.

They pulled up to the house and stopped. Sol's father turned to look him in the eye.

"Will you do something for me?" he said. "Will you give it a chance? It's just for ten days, and I'll be right over in Little Rock, less than two hours away, if something happens. You're fifteen, now. You should be able to handle this."

"Sure," Sol said. His father watched him with a worried look. But beneath the worry was something else, as though his father were about to shatter like a plate dropped on a hardwood floor. It made Sol uneasy. "But Dad," he said, carefully "as soon as I see a chainsaw, I'm out of here."

"Deal," his father said, still too serious.

"And if I see anybody strange in a hockey mask..."

"I'm with you," his father said, his face finally relaxing into a grin. "I never liked hockey, anyway."

Sol allowed himself a smile.

Aunt Jill was short and husky with curly, dark hair. She was tanned a golden brown and wrinkled like an overripe pear. Sol could see the resemblance to his mother in her face, her eyes, especially, which were warm and dark as though they kept a great secret, and the skin around her nose, which wrinkled when she smiled and reminded him of a rabbit.

"The spitting image of your mother," she said. "How old are you, now, 15?"

"Yes ma'am," he said. “Old enough to get married in four states.”

“Well we’ll have to keep you away from Missouri,” Uncle Dan said.

Uncle Dan was stocky, a full head taller than Jill. His arms were long and dangled like an ape's with thick muscles that looked as hard as tree branches. His legs were short and stout and he stood hunched over, as though hiding his height. He was tanned a darker brown than Jill, his face stern as though he smiled only with great effort. He had a ring of gray hair on the edge of his head and a bald dome in the center and wore a bright cap Aunt Jill had woven to keep his head warm though it looked out of place on him.

Sol hadn't seen either of them in a couple years, and he didn't really remember much about them. His father told him he'd been to their house before, but it was unfamiliar. Time had become strange like that for him, though; even that morning seemed so long ago he could barely remember it.

After the re-introductions and exchanges of hugs, Uncle Dan helped Sol and his father unload their suitcases and carry them upstairs. He gave them a tour along the way. The house was a big square with a porch all the way around the front and sides. The front door opened to a living room with stairs along the wall. The wall above the stairs was covered with pictures of children Sol didn't recognize, and lots of old-timey black and white pictures that were probably of Sol's long-dead ancestors. The furniture looked handmade, which, Sol knew from his many outings with his mother to Amish markets, meant pricey. Or maybe Uncle Dan had made it.

Upstairs, a hall split the house in half, with rooms on either side. They each had their own room. There was a bathroom in the back corner, and a couple other rooms. Downstairs, the living room led to a kitchen, with a TV room on one side and a laundry room on the other.

Back in Baltimore, Sol lived in a townhouse, which was about half the size of this house, if even that. On the way back to the car, Sol asked his father where the kids in the pictures were, and his father said they couldn't have kids.

"I guess those are foster kids," his father said.

“You “guess.” So you’re not sure,” Sol said. “It could be kids they’ve gathered up to sacrifice to Cthulu on the Winter’s Solstice. They could keep them chained up in the basement.”

“What?” His father said. “Sol, what are you talking about? No one is chained up in the basement.”

“The attic, then.”

“Sol,” his father said. “No one is sacrificing anyone to...whatever you said. You
definitely watch too many movies. ”

“Cthulu is from a book,” Sol said. ”By H.P. Lovecraft.”

Sol’s father studied him. “When I was your age,” he said. “I was so busy trying to get laid, I didn’t have time for books.”

“I don’t believe that for a second,” Sol said.

“I didn’t say ‘succeeding.’ I said ‘trying’,” Sol’s father said, sending Sol back inside.

The house smelled fresh and clean, and all the windows were open. Sol took another suitcase upstairs. Through the screen in his room, he could see a wide yard with a garden near the house that curved around the back and a swing set standing empty, with two swings swaying in the wind. Sol went to the bathroom to wash his face, and through that window, could see the back of the house, with more garden, and a path that led to a barn and another small building beside it. Past the barn were a field and a stand of trees Sol could barely make out. Back in the hall, it was so quiet that he could hear the creaking of the swings and voices downstairs. He listened hard, but couldn’t hear any whimpers from the attic or the basement.

Sol was starting to get the feeling he was going to be very, very bored there. His music would only go so far. His father hadn’t wanted him to bring any video games, though he'd snuck in a couple things, and he was pretty sure they didn't have anything like that on the farm. In the TV room, he saw an ancient, clunky-looking computer sitting at a desk in the corner, but it looked like there were probably a couple squirrels inside on a treadmill powering the thing, so you had to put acorns in it to make it work. The more he thought about it, the more depressed he became. It's just ten days, he reminded himself, but it didn't really help. Ten days of being away from his cyber-friends was a lifetime.

He crept down to find everybody else and heard his father's voice.

"He doesn't seem to have any friends," he said. Sol heard the usual clink of ice cubes in a glass that meant his father was drinking.

"How's he been doing, since..." Aunt Jill's voice trailed off. "The funeral?"

"Distant. Withdrawn. Quiet. Not fitting in at school.," his father said. "But he's been like that ever since we moved him into a public school, really."

Sol’s fingers curled into a fist.

"He's always been quiet," his father added. "He'd rather play a video game or read than talk to people."

“That’s because people suck,” Sol said to himself.

"At least he reads," Uncle Dan said.

When he did talk, Sol wanted to say, the other kids hardly ever understood what he was talking about or got his jokes, so he just kept quiet.

"He's just so passive," his father said. "He just lets the world pass him by."

Sol's mom had always said that he let life happen to him, instead of seeking out new things on his own. That was why she'd put him in public school, so he'd have to explore new things and get out of his comfort zone, whatever that meant.

"Growing up is hard," Aunt Jill said. “Especially with what he’s going through.”

Ha, Sol thought; it was a nightmare. He ate his lunch surrounded by kids he barely knew who chattered away at the top of their lungs. They all had their own cliques: jocks, potheads, nerds. Even the loners had a clique. And the word got around that he'd been in private schools, so kids thought he was stuck-up. One mouth-breathing Neanderthal had called him a sissy and a rich boy, and said he would meet Sol on the front steps after school to fight. Sol spent the whole day dreading it and finally forced himself to go to the steps at the allotted time, but the other boy didn't show. Sol had hoped this would be the end of it. Far from it. The next day, the boy spread a rumor that it was Sol who hadn't shown up, and he was labeled a chicken.

His mom had told him that high school was a phase, that these things didn't matter in the long run, and when it was over, he'd never look back. But that was years away. He was stuck in the now, when it did matter. Now, she was gone. And he still had three more years of high school to dread. And it wasn’t like he could just tune out. Sol knew that his one shot at getting out of the herd was getting into a good college, so he’d have some options.

"It's hard fitting in to a new school, Jim," Aunt Jill said, cutting through Sol's thoughts.

"I don't think he wants to fit in," his father said. "I mean he gets the grades; I just wish I could find some way to bring him out of his shell."

Sol cleared his throat loudly and went into the kitchen with the others, just as his father drained the dark liquid from his glass. He greeted Sol with a shy grin, his face flushed. Sol made a point to check his watch, and his father looked away.

After unloading the car, they ate what Uncle Dan called a 'country dinner': mashed potatoes made from real potatoes, home-baked sunflower rolls, chicken fried in sunflower oil, fresh vegetables from the garden; all the ingredients they'd grown or raised themselves, Aunt Jill told them, except some of the spices, and the flour, which they'd bought locally.

"What about the chicken?" Sol's father asked.

"We uh ‘harvested’ it this morning," Uncle Dan said.

Sol's father glanced at Sol.

"What?" Sol asked, looking from his father's face to his Aunt and Uncle. He replayed the conversation in his head. "What do you mean 'harvested'?"

"They mean they killed the chicken and cooked it," Sol's father said.

"What?" Sol asked, "Why?"

"So we could eat it," Uncle Dan said. "For the special occasion of your visit."

"You mean you really killed it?"

"Yes," Aunt Jill said, "I mean we really killed it."

Sol's face dropped into a look of horror. "Is that legal?" he said.

"Uh-oh," Uncle Dan said, holding his arms out to be hand-cuffed. "Lock me up. Chicken killer."

Aunt Jill laughed. "Yes, Sol. It was our chicken to do with as we wanted."

"But, you killed it? I mean," Sol paused, unsure if he wanted to finish the question, "how?" Sol asked.

"Well, first you need an ax," Uncle Dan started to say, but Aunt Jill cut him off.

"Not at the table," she said. She turned to Sol, "it was quick and humane," she said.

"Humane?" Sol said, shaking his head at the word.

"Just don't think about it," his father said, selecting a drumstick. He passed the chicken around and Sol watched everyone else pile their plates high. Uncle Dan took a bite and Sol's stomach lurched like he was going to be sick. When the plate came around, Sol refused it.

"Have some salad," Aunt Jill said, putting some on Sol's plate. He picked at it, but his stomach wasn't in it. Everything smelled like the chicken, even the salad. It smelled so good it made his mouth water, but all Sol could think about was that poor chicken who gave its life for them. Harvested, they'd said. It was like an episode of "The Twilight Zone." He could hear the others chewing and smacking their lips. His stomach flipped like a light switch from queasiness to hunger. He was starving but he felt guilty for being hungry, and even though everything did smell and look good, he stuck with the salad, but still ate little.

After dinner, they went out onto the porch to relax. Sol's stomach murmured, and every time he thought about it, he felt guilty again, so he tried to ignore it. Finally, Aunt Jill went inside and came back with some fruit and nuts and cheese on a plate and handed it to him. Sol wolfed it down thankfully.

"He's not concerned over the feelings of that apple," Uncle Dan said.

"Hush, Dan, let him eat," Aunt Jill said. “It’s not his fault.”

They were quiet for a while and Sol put his earbuds in again and listened to music until he noticed everyone laughing at something Uncle Dan was saying. Sol turned the music off and listened himself. He didn't know what the big deal was; Uncle Dan was just telling stories about things that had happened on the farm or in town recently. But pretty soon he found himself drawn in. Most storytelling Sol had heard was just kids bragging about stuff that probably hadn't even happened or telling dirty jokes that weren't funny anymore once you knew what the words meant. Uncle Dan's stories were different. He was funny, but he didn't tell a story just to get to a punch line. He was like a musician playing an instrument, crafting the details like notes, paying attention to each one. Everyone listened as though it were a concert, and when he finished, they sat in silence again.

"That was funny, Uncle Dan," Sol said.

"Thankee," Uncle Dan said. "Better than a video game?"

"No," Sol said. It made his Uncle laugh.

“It’s real life,” Sol’s father said. “Real life is better than games.” His face was flushed red, and he was slurring his speech. Aunt Jill and Uncle Dan watched nervously.

“Then why do people play games?” Sol asked.

“Because they can’t handle the real world,” Sol’s father said. He looked right at Sol when he said it, so there could be no doubt who he was really talking about. Sol felt himself blush.

“Everyone needs a little escape now and then,” Aunt Jill said. “That’s what we’ve been doing by listening to stories, escaping.”

“There’s a lot of difference between talking about things that really happened and playing a video game,” Sol’s father said. “That’s pure escapism.”

“What would you call drinking alcohol?” Sol said. “Is that ‘pure escapism’?”

Sol’s father got a nasty look on his face.

“Jim,” Aunt Jill said. Sol’s father looked at her, angrily. She shook her head. Sol was surprised when his father clamped his lips together and didn’t respond.

"Well, I'm wiped," Uncle Dan said. "I'm going to bed."

Everyone followed him up, silently. Sol didn’t realize that he’d been shaking until he got to his room. It took him several minutes to stop, and when he finally crawled into bed, he realized he'd left his music downstairs.

He lay listening to the wind and the noises of the night, which were surprisingly loud. There were lots of bug noises, crickets and things he couldn't identify. He was in a world of half-sleep, randomly thinking about things that had happened that day.

Even though his Aunt and Uncle seemed okay, he definitely didn't want to be there. He'd had it out with his father for weeks about coming.

"We're committed," his father had said. He taught sociology at the University of Maryland, and he'd taken one summer term off from teaching in order to attend a conference in Little Rock, which left Sol stuck. So he'd arranged for Sol to stay with his Aunt and Uncle in Arkansas.

"I didn't ask you to do that," Sol said. "You should've asked me what I wanted."

"Well, it's too late now. It's a done deal. They expect us to come."

"You go. I'll stay here."

"Okay Sol. You want to know the truth? That's exactly why I didn't ask you. Sometimes we have to do things that we don't want to do but that are in our best interest. Remember when we had to force feed medicine to your pet rat? She didn't want to take it, but it was in her best interest to take it. It was difficult and painful but it had to be done. And after a couple times, she just laid back and took the medicine. And she got better."

"She died," Sol said.

His father glared at him. "A year later," he said. "Of old age. She was three. That's a healthy age for a rat."

"So going to Arkansas and living on a farm for two months is like giving antibiotics to Daisy how, exactly?"

"Sol, I don't want to argue with you about this. And I don't have to. We're going. That's it. End of discussion."

Sol slammed his bedroom door so loudly he knocked pictures off the wall in the living room. He heard them thud to the floor, which made him feel a little better. Then his father cursed loudly which made Sol feel a lot better.

* * *

Sol woke. For a moment, he didn't know where he was, then the feel of the strange bed reminded him. A new noise had joined the crickets. It was a rhythmic squeaking and a kind of rubbing sound. He'd been dreaming about the squirrels he'd imagined in the computer; someone was making them work really hard and their wheel was squeaking. Now that he was awake, the noise was still going. It sounded kind of like the noises you heard from other beds at boys’ camp. He didn’t want to think about that.

He found his cell-phone and flipped it open. The clock said midnight, and local time was an hour behind Baltimore time, so it was eleven. Too late to be swinging. Maybe it was a bear, scratching itself against something like they did in the zoo. He remembered his mom saying that Arkansas used to be called the bear state, but now most of the bears were gone, except up in the mountains. Was he near the mountains? Sol didn't know. He'd slept through most of the drive. What he remembered was flat land as far as he could see. It didn't seem particularly mountainous. Maybe not a bear then, maybe a deer.

He flipped his cell phone open and used the light to find his wallet by the bed. He flipped that open and dug out a photo of his mom. It was a head shot, showing her open smile and plain, sensible, teacher's hairdo, and clothes. It was the only picture of her Sol had. His father felt that Sol was clinging to the past too much, so he'd taken all of the other pictures and put them away in a box.

"We have to move on," he'd said. "It's been almost a year. You can't sit in your room all day looking at pictures." Sol didn't mention the picture he knew his father kept in his dresser drawer. It didn’t really matter what he said; he’d learned that lesson.

Sol had printed this picture off the website for the school. He stared at it for a long time, then he found the other picture behind it and looked at that one for a long time too. If his father knew Sol had this one, he'd have been even more upset.
Eventually, Sol fell asleep, and dreamed of swinging on the swing set, going higher and higher, almost to the top of the house while a bear with a bald patch and a bright red hat pushed him. On top of the house, Sol could see Daisy, his pet rat from when he was a kid. She was doing something with her back to him and didn't see him, and he couldn't tell what. Sol wanted to jump off the swing and onto the house, where Daisy was, and see, but every time he swung higher, the house grew higher, so he couldn't quite make it. Then a deer came up, singing like Sol's father had been in the car, and said it was his turn, and Sol had to get off.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Decade of Torture in Gay America, or Cut ‘em off, Cut it out, or Cut ‘em down

I am attached to my testicles. I can’t foresee a time, a place or a circumstance that would lead me to forsake them, to rid my undercarriage of their furry globosity, or surrender them to a mad scientist. The bond is territorial, as well as psychoemotional. Besides, who else would have them but me? How could they satisfy the needs of any other man but mine? Put simply, they have one master—moi. Moving in the cephalic direction, take my cortex; but first some definitions: Me is the guy you see on the street, turn to your friend and say, “My, who is that handsome and brilliant gentleman”? However, ME is invisible. It is the essence of Me. It is the flow of Me, the conscious Me. There are some philosophers who would argue that my cortex--the nuts and bolts—make Me, ME. That is, the machine is ME. There are some neuroscientists who would agree with them. On the other hand, there are those who would argue conversely. Simply put, the hardware is not the “end product”. So, as it stands, my cortex can either be ME or not. If not, then who, or what, is ME? And what about Me? Rimbaud knew that Je est un autre, i.e., “I is someone else”. Well, that’s all well and good if you are a 17 year-old genius, riddled with lice, and destroying French poetry with ink, sperm, and fire. Easy for him to say. My point is that ME emerges from a very, very large network of intricacies, delicacies, monstrosities, curiosities, and divinities, that no machine can create. ME is outside of the machine. ME rises like a vapor as the machinery churns away. Rimbaud was right. I is someone else and that I is unique to this crinkly universe. It is unable to be held tight in the fist of oppressors or fools with pointy hats and dripping with symbols of beliefs. I have come to understand this: my visible self is superficially alterable. But ME is forever ME. This is not the same as the Self (that’s a bag of Buddhist worms that I dare not open). So here’s the point: there is more to ME than Me…….and my testicles.

Unfortunately, this was not always the case in America the Beautiful. From the mid-forties to the mid-fifties, gay men were being tortured into “normalcy”--and torture is not too strong a word. If any of these methods were used outside of the sanctity of the ward, the practitioners would be tried and jailed. They were hailed instead. The culture of the day, the perfect world of homo-geneity (<>, I said “homo”) decided that the ME of gay men and women did not have the same valence as the ME(s) of the Real America. They had to be altered, or insidiously destroyed. There were many knights willing to rise to heed the call.

Dr. Walter J. Freeman was trained at the University of Pennsylvania Medical School after graduating from Yale College in 1916. His area of specialty was neurology. He began working at St. Elizabeth’s Hospital in Washington, DC and while there earned a PhD in neuropathology. He left St. Elizabeth’s and took a position as the head of the neurology department at George Washington University Hospital in Washington, DC. Freeman performed his first prefrontal lobotomy in 1936. Ten years into his practice he began performing prefrontal lobotomies using a procedure developed by a neurosurgeon in Italy. This procedure did not require the surgeon to enter the skull. Instead, he entered the pre-frontal area through the patient’s eye sockets, thus its name—the transorbital lobotomy. Freeman mastered this procedure known as the “icepick lobotomy”, so called because the instrument used—the orbitoclast—resembled a common household icepick. First, he used electroconvulsive therapy (ECT) aka “shock therapy” to induce seizure and that had an “anesthetic effect” in the patient. Then he would enter the patient’s brain by using a metal pick, wiggle it back and forth, thus severing the neurons in the prefrontal area. Let’s review: first he induced seizure via ECT, then he used a metal instrument, essentially an icepick, to perform a lobotomy through the patient’s eye sockets. In all fairness, until the advent of psychotropic drugs to manage patients who fell into the broad category of mental illness, this was an acceptable procedure.

Thirty to forty percent of his patients were homosexual.

Snapshot: Atascadero State Hospital in Atascadero, California. A mental institution that became known as the “Homosexual Dachau”. Castrations, lobotomies, chemical “treatments”, and experimentation were on the menu of cures for the “perverse”. Guess who stopped by? Now, to be fair, there is no clear documentation indicating that Dr. Freeman performed any icepick procedures on the resident queers. However, why else would a lobotomist be vacationing at such a glorious institution? And there were plenty of folks, i.e., MEs, who needed curing, who needed to be scoured clean of their perversity. Didn’t work. Oh, and don’t bother looking for personal records of these incidents. Not a scribble on a paper. They worked clean.

Then, as now, torturing homosexuals is acceptable. Then, they used orbitoclasts; now, they use laws, lies, bibles, and big happy smiles. This remedy offers the slow death. Destroy hope, opportunity, security, stability, equality, and you destroy the subject, the Me on the street, with the full intent to obliterate ME. Or force them into a very, very dark cave. Not a shot fired, or a noose formed. Except in the cases of the 30% of teenagers who identify as gay: they find just the right rope, just the right height, the right time and the right place. Then they jump into freedom, or sail from a bridge. Tortured into believing that swinging blue from a rope is better than being Me. Not a magazine was filled, no weapons brandished. America is purified by the blood of the sinner. The flags wave over NASCAR and football and churches and the Homeland rests, secured.

But the MEs live on.

* * *

Jim Mancinelli's Bio:

His first chapbook, Primer, was self-published. His second chapbook, In Deep, was published by Plan B Press. His writing is informed by the spirit, the earth, the heavens, the voices of his Italian heritage. His poems have appeared in various issues of Philadelphia Poets, The Schuylkill Valley Journal of the Arts, Sea Change, Mad Poets Review, Fox Chase Review and Poetry Ink, an anthology of Philadelphia poets. Jim was a finalist in the 2011 Atlanta Queer Literary Festival, judged by Mark Doty. He has been a featured reader in various Philadelphia, New Jersey and Delaware venues and a featured reader on Live from Kelly Writer’s House. Jim teaches in the Speech-Language-Hearing Science Program at La Salle University in Philadelphia.

Monday, November 14, 2011

I woke to the sound of my daughter crying, coming from the bedside monitor. My wife was still asleep, exhausted. I'd been up till 1 working. I got up and stumbled to Ellie's room to check on her. I didn't want to coddle her--we were trying to get her on a sleep schedule, but she needed a diaper change and was probably hungry. I turned on the closet light with the door mostly closed, so just enough light leaked through to see what I was doing, but not enough to keep Ellie from sleeping. I turned to the crib. When Ellie saw me, she smiled and giggled, and wiggled her arms and legs. Her whole body tensed in joy. I stood over her and just took it in.

Before Ellie was born, I always felt like there was--forgive the cliche--something missing, like I was an ill-used toy limping along minus its shed parts. A lot of this came from a childhood spent witnessing my mother's prolonged illness, growing up in an economically devestated area with few prospects of escape, and watching a lot fo my friends fall by the wayside due to drug abuse and hopelessness, among other things. The long and short of it has been that I've spent most of my life feeling like I was pretty much on my own. I spent much of my time in my own head, rather than focused on the negativity around me. But having a child forced me--forces me everyday--to be "here." It's kind of like having a little drill instructor screaming in my ear--sometimes, literally like that. Sure, I'd like to sit around all morning, but the baby must be fed. And she's not going to nap if she doesn't get some exercise and some kind of stimulation, so she needs to go for a walk. And if I want to get anything done for myself, I better prioritize and work efficiently.

Of course, it would be easier to just be a bad father. I could ignore my daughter or pawn her off on my wife. I see it all the time. But the real question here, is which is more rewarding: sleeping a little longer, or getting to see my daughter smile up at me at 4 a.m.? I've slept at least a little just about every night for the past 35 years. I only have so many opportunities to spend time with my daughter.

My daughter makes me be a better person. This is because she calls the bluff inherent in the chip on my shoulder. It's convenient for me to blame certain problems on others, on my environment, on whatever. But what about Ellie's problems? I'm the only one to blame if she has problems, other than physical issues beyond my control. Therefore, it's up to me to be a good father and, by default, a good person. I want to do well at my job so that our situation is secure. I want to drive safely so there's less of a chance of her being injured. The ramifications are far reaching and surprising.

But I'm not just talking about guilt; guilt will only get you so far. When it's 4 a.m. and I see my daughter smile and reach to be picked up, it doesn't matter that I haven't slept. When I see my wife playing with our daughter, I envy her. I want to be part of that.

* * *

Now, it's some time after five. The sun is just starting to add gray to the black pallette of the room. I've fed Ellie, and she's fallen asleep in my lap. Technically, this is a no-no. We're supposed to put her back in the crib before she falls asleep. But my wife is asleep in the other room. I've got a pillow propped against the wall to lean against. I can barely see Ellie's face; she looks tense as though she's considering a difficult problem. I touch her face, caress the space from the top of her nose between her eyes. She relaxes and exhales in a sigh. I've got work in a couple hours; I'm not going to sleep tonight. That's okay. Who needs sleep?

Thursday, November 10, 2011

I first got to know Tom Williams when he was the editor for the Arkansas Review and later American Book Review. When I heard he had a book out, I ran out and bought it. Okay, I wandered over to my computer, and ordered it, but still; you get the point.

Me: Why Mimics?

Tom: Because I’ve always admired this odd gift, this dubious talent, this curious capacity to shape one’s voice to that of others. And because to me it’s a perfect kind of role to explore my usual questions about what is art and what is an artist’s role, especially an artist of color. Essentially, it boils down to this: I had always wanted to write about someone who risks his own personality in the pursuit of becoming a great mimic. I wrote a story about this phenomenon and it didn’t satisfy the urge. I wrote this novella and always loved it, even as it sat, in my various hard drives and floppy disks, for years.

Me: You seem to be lampooning some of the players in the 80s comic boom. Who were the standouts to you?

Tom: I’d hate to say lampooning, though it’s probably an accurate assessment. I tried to be very reverent in my treatment of comedians, from the eighties and beyond. Certainly, to my mind, the comics of that period that find themselves clothed in my character names and behavior are Bill Hicks, Richard Belzer, Robin Harris, Eddie Murphy, of course, and Andrew Dice Clay, who was the real inspiration for Rhino Stamps, and many more. But I tried to get in every period of American comedy history I could too, so there’s also Elaine Boozler and Roseanne Barr, Edgar Bergen and Andy Griffith, Henny Youngman and Bill Cosby, Mort Sahl and Bob Newhart. The only ones that I would not try to smuggle in, either in disguise or obvious allusion, were Pryor and Carlin, who just seemed too big to try to reduce to my stage. Isn’t it shocking to realize, as I just did in typing their names, that both are dead? I keep thinking about all the important figures of my youth who are no longer with us: Joe Strummer, Joey, Johnny, Dee Dee, the aforementioned Bill Hicks, Robin Harris. Man, it makes me feel old and sad.

Me: Why did you choose to use no real names of comics?

Tom: Because I wanted to make this more my own and allow for the possibility of what John Gardner calls the “small changes in the laws of the universe” that a tale writer must employ. I knew Douglas Myles was going to do astonishing things, and just didn’t think that would work in a recognizable universe, where instead of having, say, my Jason “Speedy” Gonzalez, you had this world’s Paul Rodriguez. From the first words of this book, which were the first words I wrote when I was drafting it, I knew it took place in a world I was devising, and I just had to keep it of a piece. Though as some have pointed out, there is a great pleasure in playing, Spot the comedian while reading the book, which I entirely approve of.

Me: In the world of this novel, comedy is taken very seriously—so much so that several scholarly journals focus on it. What is our world missing from not respecting comedy as much?

Tom: I’m kind of making fun of the people who take comedy very seriously. The Mimic’s Own Voice is, at its roots, a parody of a scholarly monograph, and comedic studies is my exaggerated version of American Studies and Film Studies and all the kind of developments in the academy that, in the words of my students over the years, make going to the movies a job instead of fun. Yet I think we should take comedy seriously. It’s often the only thing that allows us to endure. And I do think we should revere comedians as much as any artists. Certainly, I’d take Pryor or Carlin, or Rodney Dangerfield for crying out loud, as inspiration over ninety-nine percent of the actors and a good percentage of the musicians of the past fifty years. (True story, I was recently watching Back to School—which I do every time it’s on—and kicked myself for not having a Rodney-like character in the book. A Sam Kinison one, too. Remember him? He’s dead as well.)

Me: What has your relationship with Main Street Rag Publishing Company been like?

Tom: Speaking as someone who has toiled in the shadows for so long—publishing a few stories a year, submitting to book contests to no avail, working with a respectable agent over another book and having it turned down by everyone from Knopf to Highlights for Children—I feel like Scott Douglass and Craig Renfroe saved my publishing life. And for that I’m grateful. Add to that that Scott designed a beautiful book and I had a hand in selecting and shaping the cover art, and that they do so much work on their website and in going to AWP to promote the work, I feel honored to be a Main Street Rag author. As well, the books they’ve published in this series of novellas (that they even published novellas at all!) are ones I feel humbled by: Ben Tanzer’s My Father’s House, Barry Graham’s, Nothing or Next to Nothing. John Oliver Hodges’s The War of the Crazies. These are books to get in your hands, readers, all of them authored, as well, by ace gents.

Me: Who are your biggest influences?

Tom: I really don’t know the answer to this question any more, as I have read so much and been moved by so many—the core group of Roth, P, Percy, W, O’Connor, F, Johnson, C and Faulkner, W—that it seems the answer is everyone. But I want to take time to talk about two key teachers I had: Lee K. Abbott and Jim Robison. I might be the writer I am today if I didn’t read Barthelme and Allende but I would certainly not be without Lee and Jim.

Lee was a tyrant in workshop. You got copies back from him with words slashed out, furious question marks emblazoned, suggestions for similes that you knew were demands. Lee walked around a lot in this room that was reserved for workshops, while all of us sat on worn and mismatched furniture in a circle around the periphery. This one time, when my story was up, Lee stalked me across the room, as if the influence of Raymond Carver could be sniffed out. (It was 1990—wasn’t everyone influenced by Carver then?) Lee said, Who’ve you been reading? I knew he knew. But I stalled, said Richard Ford. Who else, Lee said. Tom McGuane, I said. Tobias Wolff next. Maybe Bobbie Ann Mason. Who else? Lee was smiling. He knew. He knew. Finally I gave it up. He proceeded to talk about how Carver’s stories worked, often bringing together two variables, like the man with no hands and the guy out of work in “Viewfinder” and how at first they would seem almost incompatible, but then develop almost magically in the story as informing each other. My story tried to do that and didn’t. And it was imprinted on me then a couple of things: I needed to figure out what writers were doing but also figure out what I was doing.
In addition to the scoldings—once Lee said, to another student, not me, “In the words of John Saxon in the movie The Appaloosa, “Why did you do such a stupid thing?”, I’ll also never forget the praise Lee gave. One of my paragraphs received, Great three sentence run, and I wanted to frame it. But in all, Lee was the man for craft. He taught where stories started, where they ended, how you got characters alive on the page and moved them from place to place, and how you made sure that the reader was not made to work excessively hard to get what you were up to.

Jim might have been Lee’s complete opposite. He was self effacing in class, often wishing, it seemed, that somebody else would take the lead in the workshop discussion so he could offer an occasional witticism from the back row. He was also genuinely enigmatic. Once, on the chalkboard at the then awful workshop rooms at U of Houston, he wrote a time (I forget it now) and said, “Still the best marathon time for any member of the Creative Writing Program,” then erased it. Looking back, that was the same joy I got out of his fiction: sudden, illuminating flashes that vanished before they showed too much.

If Lee was the man for craft, Jim was the man for ambition. He could look at the draft and see in it the story it wanted to be. He’d say something like, “Tom seems to be working within the high modernist tradition here but violating it just a little with this flourish of uncertainty near the end.” And when my classmates turned to me, I’d nod, wishing I’d known that was what I wanted to do. Then I’d go home and get to work on doing just that.

But it’s like I tell my CW students now, be on the lookout for two teachers who might be the devil and angel who manifest on opposite shoulders. When I’m writing, I’ve got Lee Abbott hovering over one shoulder saying, “You sure about that, bud?” when a story stumbles out of the gates, and Jim Robison hovering over the other and saying, “Aren’t you trying to enter a dialogue with Ellison here?” To repeat: without these two fine men—great writers and great guys—I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now.

Me: As an editor for American Book Review, you must’ve seen some good books lately—what really blew you away? Or, if nothing did, what was wrong with them?

Tom: Lydia Yuknavtich’s The Chronology of Water. If all memoirs were like this, no one would be griping about the genre.

Jim Greer’s The Failure and Artificial Light. I think Jim and I dial into the same hidden radio frequency for inspiration. We both love stories of hidden or lost manuscripts, find French film divine, and don’t mind using the proverbial fifty cent word now and then.

Ben Tanzer’s You Can Make Him Like You. How Ben does it, I don’t know. But he writes a book every season of the year and each one’s better than the next. The fact that this one’s about a guy about to become a dad hit home with me, but it’s also a valentine to Chicago, a city that always deserves more love than it gets.

Extie Ecks, Normally Special. A collection of stories in a volume so compact it fits in a shirt pocket, though the characters are as wily as fire eaters and more human than not. I am not a big fan of the short short, but Extie has me reevaluating my aesthetic.

There are more, but these were the most recent and the most vivid. As far as what I see for ABR, I get excited every time I assign a review because it seems like there is , no other phrase can describe it, a fucking shitload of good books out there right now.

Me: Would you mind telling me a little about your writing schedule?

Tom: When I’m working—which I have to say I’m not right now (see reply to next question)—I am at my most productive when I’m aiming at two to three pages a day, seven days a week. Doesn’t matter if it’s a story, essay or longer work, I need to stay with it, from day to day, stopping in the middle of a page, a scene, a graph, a sentence. Rereading the previous day’s work. Making cosmetic changes, then picking up where I left off. I recently read Ron Carlson’s great little book, Ron Carlson Writes a Story, and he had some great advice about not even pausing to look up if, for example, a song you want to put in the story came out the year you’ve set it. I’ve done that, and wound up losing the thread of what I was trying to work with that day. Damn Internet.

I wrote the first draft of The Mimic’s Own Voice entirely by hand, and wonder if I should get back to that routine to avoid the temptation of checking to see, for example, what’s up on Facebook or whether anyone else has given me only four stars on Goodreads.

Me: How has being a father influenced your writing?

Tom: I have not written much at all since my son Finn’s birth in 2009. Reviews and some little essay like deals—I really liked an essay I wrote to introduce Charles Johnson’s story “Popper’s Disease” in an issue of The Collagist—but little fiction to speak of. But it’s not all Finn’s doing. I’ve now changed jobs twice in four years, moving from Arkansas to Texas to Kentucky. But a few things stand out about my writerly life since the happy day Carmen and I were joined by the Finner. My friend Josh Russell advised me to not beat myself up about not writing, and to do “head work.” Josh says that once he started writing more regularly, he had so much stored up. I’m looking forward to getting some stuff on paper, that’s for sure. I’m also more aware that I’ve become such a softy, as a father. I worry about a strain of sentimentality entering into my fiction, too. But above all, I am more aware, as a father that I want to be sure that what I do write is something that Finn will want to read when he gets older. You see: what a softy.

Me: What are you working on now?

Tom: I have a collection of stories out right now, called Among the Wild Mulattoes, and have never given up completely on the novel that my agent sent out back in 05, True To the Blues. One of the advantages of writing a lot that doesn’t get published is that you always have a nice backlog to work with. Not that anyone’s clamoring for more Williams—but I do think I’m about to get back into the game. Just as soon as I finish this interview and the report for my department that’s due in the provost’s office . . . which in many ways is the most complicated fiction I’ve ever essayed.

Monday, November 07, 2011

A year after we started the testing, Jillian and I were stuck in traffic thirty miles outside of Little Rock. We were supposed to be at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock clinic at eleven to get the results of my test. Then, we were supposed to go immediately to see our psychiatric councilor again. We lived several hours away, but this was the only place in the state that offered the Huntington's test. We hadn't moved in an hour, and it was nearly twelve.
The mood in the car was one of nervous delusion. Jillian was convinced we would get good news. I was convinced we would get bad news. Semis stretched in front of us, down the one open lane on either side of the interstate. Lines of cars intersected the interstate periodically, none of the vehicles moving. The smell of tar permeated everything. Workmen occasionally moved equipment as though trying to appear busy, and then stopped and stood around sweating and talking.
"I bet they go to lunch," I said.
"They better not," Jillian said. "I'm not waiting any longer. Don't see why they couldn't give us the results over the phone."
"That would be too easy," I said.
We were a year into what was supposed to have been a six-month testing period. The first clinic we'd gone to cancelled our initial appointment because their psychiatric councilor refused to work with them anymore. He disapproved of the fact that patients were allowed to leave the testing process without further psychiatric evaluation. We'd fought tooth and nail to have my mother genetically tested, which would have helped clarify the results of my test if mine was inconclusive. Her obstinate doctor strung us along for months, refusing to return long distance phone calls, leaving us on hold indefinitely, before we finally gave up. We'd only talked to an actual doctor once, and spoke with our 'genetic testing counselor' (Sara) only a handful of times.
Sara was an energetic redhead, eager to help us the two times we actually visited her office, but we got the feeling that we knew more about Huntington's disease than she did.
The testing process was hard on me, but it was equally hard on Jillian, who felt that she couldn't burden me with her fears and problems. The only mention made at any point of her needs during this process was by the psychiatric councilor, an odd man we met one time who simply asked her, "How are you holding up?" Before coming back to my mental health, before her eyes could even begin tearing up. At this point, we just wanted it to be over with.
There was no cure, no treatment. It was a win or lose situation. We'd spent a year eating blueberries and trying to go for walks as often as we could. As the testing progressed, we had found ourselves going out to eat because we were too drained to cook. We had both gained weight, and watched TV more and more. I had stopped writing and we both worked longer shifts. We had withdrawn from friends, and the mythology we had hoped to build for our lives was forgotten. We had both hoped that facing the dragon of this disease by undergoing testing would take away its power over us, but it had only made things worse. And as the months dragged on, we'd stopped talking about the testing, about our fears, about our plans. Until it was appointment time.
Sitting there, in the car, I couldn't help but think about the last time we'd made this trip, three weeks before, to have the actual test. It had been a simple procedure; they'd taken some blood and we'd been on our way. Before this, we'd spent a half hour talking to a psychiatric councilor. He was a hawk nosed man who stared at us until we felt like mice, and asked surreal questions to test my cognitive awareness.
"Where are you?" he asked.
"I'm in your office," I said.
"How did you get here?"
"We drove. We took turns. Oh, wait. Did you mean literally, 'how did we get here?' Cause we used Mapquest. I think we took a left on University from the interstate. I don't really remember. Or, did you mean, more in a philosophical sense?" I asked, smiling nervously, waiting for the talons.
"I'm going to tell you three words," he said. "I want you to remember those three words because I'm going to ask you about them later. All right? The words are apple, Ford, Ohio."
He stared at me for a moment and then scribbled furiously on his paper. I watched, growing more confused.
"Draw this," he said, passing it to me. He'd drawn a rough pentagon. "Don't lift your pen. Just draw it."
I drew it and he looked at it appraisingly before jotting something down.
A little while later, he asked me what the three words were.
"Apple," I said. "Ford."
"Do you remember the third one?" He asked. "It was a state."
"Arkansas?" I asked.
"It was Ohio," he said. "Do you know what day it is today?"
"It's Wednesday," I said.
"And the date?"
"Twenty-something," I said. "I don't know. But I never know what day it is. I mean, that's normal for me. "
I was terrified that I had failed the test. Each time he asked a question, I was more nervous, more afraid. The fact that the questions seemed so odd to me didn't help. I thought maybe they weren't odd questions, maybe I was just losing it. Maybe the Huntington's had already started. That could happen. Usually people manifested symptoms in their forties, but it had happened to children, and grandmothers. And the questions just kept getting stranger.
"Have you ever considered suicide?" He asked.
"Yes," I said. Jillian turned and looked at me.
"What happened?" he asked.
"I didn't do it," I said.
Finally, he finished. The psychiatric councilor told me that he thought I was okay to take the test.
"One in four people commit suicide immediately after getting the results," he said. "I'm telling you this so you are ready for it. I think it is imperative that you come here immediately after getting your results. You might even wait and open them here."

"Ohio," I repeated on the trip back. "Apple, Ford, Ohio."

I had started graduate school during the testing process and in order to see our psychiatric councilor and give a blood sample, I had missed my acting class. I was a terrible actor and was only taking the class because the head of the playwriting master's program in which I was enrolled felt that I needed to broaden my understanding of actors. I was the only graduate student in the class, but it was a mixed bag, ranging from a grandmother auditing the class for free to a transsexual who showed up, on the days he came, late, wearing a dog collar, acting his scenes in high camp.
When I returned later that week, the class was strangely quiet. The teacher, a graduate acting student, seemed agitated, nervous. He talked to us about "what had happened," never referring to it so that I had no idea what it was. But we must press on, was the gist of his speech.
"What happened?" I asked.
The teacher turned deer-in-headlight eyes to me. Another student told me that Todd, the transsexual student, had committed suicide over the weekend by overdosing on pills. He was found in his apartment. The grandmother suggested that we all sign a card, for his parents.
I hadn't really known Todd; I don't think any of us in class did. I had always been polite to him, or at least not rude. I'd talked to him maybe two or three times for longer than a sentence. That's all I could say, all most of us could say. After class, I waited to talk to the teacher. He was clearly not taking it well. I didn't know what to say to him that he didn't already know. I apologized for missing class, told him I liked the class; I said as much as I could for as long as I could and left.
Later, in another class, someone brought up the suicide. I said what little I knew about it.
"You look like you're about to start laughing," a classmate said, staring at me, puzzled.
"It's a nervous reaction," the professor said.
I don't know how I felt about Todd's death. Suicide had gone from an abstract thought to being the ghost in the chair beside me. I tried hard not to think about it, and when my classmate pointed out my strange facial expression, I knew that the psychic battle had spilled onto the visible plain. This lack of control seemed like the first step down a dangerous path. Stress, the psychiatric councilor had told us, could bring the symptoms of Huntington's disease to the surface. And what would I do, if I tested positive. What would I do?
When I was a teenager, I'd gotten into vicious arguments with my brother about this.
"I will go off somewhere, out in the woods or something, and shoot myself," I said. "If I had any balls, if any of us did, we'd go do the same for Mom."
"Well stay the hell away from me," my brother said. "If I get it, I want all the time I have to live."
"It's not living," I said.
"Just stay the hell away," he said.
I remembered my father and his brothers taking their mother out of the hospital, when she was dying, and taking her home. They'd organized it like a raid, one brother blocked off one hall, another a different hall, and my father carried her out so she could die in her own bed.
My sister wrote letters to Dr. Kevorkian, praising him for the work he did, for the battle he fought. Dignity was what he was fighting for; the reason my father and uncles had taken their mother out of the hospital, against the doctor's wishes, so she could die with dignity. Is that solace? It had to be. If I'd learned anything in life it was that.

We finally reached the clinic two hours late. Sara was waiting for us in the lobby. She led us to her office and, before we could even sit, told us that the test was negative. I didn't have it. Jillian cried, Sara cried, and I sat quietly, unsure as to how to process this information.
We were inside the clinic for fifteen minutes, then back on the road, back in the traffic. We never even considered going back to the psychiatric councilor. It was an unspoken agreement.
Jillian chatted manically in the car. We talked about kids, talked about buying a house. We made plans again and floated through the next few days, fat and happy, and finally settled onto each other one night and fought like dogs, letting out all the tension that had been building over the last year. When the dust settled, we were empty, and waiting to fill ourselves.

Over the next few months, it occurred to me that I had no plan for this happy ending. Like my brother, I had been so prepared for a devastating result that I didn't know what to do. I was like the old doctor in A Tale of Two Cities, unsure how to live without his chains. I had gone from thinking I had a certain future to being just as uncertain as everyone else.
I was also flooded with guilt. How could I live with myself if my sister became sick? How could I be happy after my mother had suffered so horribly? After the tragedy of my mother's life, I felt, on some level, that I deserved to suffer as she had. It seemed like the least I could do. But this feeling passed. The disease had already consumed my mother's life, I wasn't about to let it have mine.
This, I think, is the true tragedy of my mother's life: forty years overshadowed by fifteen. Trying to make sense of her life was like trying to hear a whisper in a room full of shouting. For me, she had always been the stranger dying in the other room. My earliest memories were of playing school with my sister, our mother reading Happy Hollisters books to us, but even then she was shaky and distant. And later, when she required a nurse, I remember stepping off the school bus and seeing my mother leaning on her nurse a little ways down the road, so as not to embarrass me in front of the other kids. When I was very young, I couldn’t go to the bathroom without her banging on the door, asking me if I needed any help. I couldn’t play without her sticking her head in every few moments to ask if I was okay. Though it bordered on smothering, she seemed to be trying to give us all the attention she could in the time she had. She wanted us to know she was there. She worried. She tried. She loved us. This much, I knew. In the end, isn't this all one could ask from a mother?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

“I Know, It’s Only In My Head:
How One Album Changed a Mind.”

I tend to judge people by the music they love. Not the music that they just listen to, but the music they are passionate about. Of course, if they’re not passionate about any type of music, I usually don’t spend a lot of time thinking about them.
Ask someone what their favorite album is and they’ll waffle. They’ll hem and haw and give you a list, depending on their mood. I have one answer and it’s been the same since 1994. Many great albums have come out since then, but nothing has made an impact on my life the way Counting Crows’ August and Everything After. Nothing has quite captured the essence of who I believe I am, then and now.
“Beneath the dust and love and sweat that hang on everybody, there's a dead man trying to get out.”
In the early 90s, I was a teenager, not unlike other teenagers, but definitely not like all other teenagers. I won’t say my life was the worst life. I know people have had it worse, but it doesn’t diminish the bad things in my life because that’s the life I had to live. Pain is relative. You see, you will have these things that happen to you, things you don’t control or invite, but they happen nonetheless, and they shape you. People will react to these outside forces differently. Some will act out. Some will internalize. Some seem to shrug it off without a second thought. Some of us crawl inside our own heads and refuse to come out.
“Mama, mama, mama, why am I so alone? I can’t go outside I’m scared I might not make it home.”
I was agoraphobic. For three years, I scarcely left my house, not to go to the movies or concerts or my grandparents’ house for holidays. I finished high school at home, which is the only way I would’ve finished because I was flunking out with astonishing ease. For three years, I heard “It’s only in your head.” The mumbles of doubt resounded in my head, and I hated everyone for not understanding, because unless it’s happening to you, you can’t understand what it’s like to drown in this wave of terror every time you felt you were losing control of the moment.
I would sit alone at night in the dark, headphones on, music seeping into my brain. I’d run my palms in circles on my legs until my thighs were numb. I know now it was a form of meditation. You do what you can to escape. This is what I did to cope. I would listen to these angry songs and all of that pent up rage would just boil inside me and my stomach burned to the point that sometimes it was hard to eat.
Then in early 1994, I heard this song, “Round Here” and the first moments when the organ is rising and the guitar comes in, and then these lyrics, the voice and the words were like nothing I’d ever heard before.
“Step out the front door like a ghost into the fog where no one notices the contrast of white on white…”
I’ve always had diverse taste in music. I was one of only a few people I knew in the small town where I grew up who had listened to things like Run DMC or the Violent Femmes, but I would also listen to Motley Crue and Lynard Skynard. I just loved music. It was something I craved. I think, looking back, I can remember escaping into songs as far back as four or five years-old, listening to 8-tracks of Roy Clark and the Statler Brothers before school.
But this song was something different and I had to have that album. August and Everything After. I was 19 and didn’t have a driver’s license, because the first panic attack I remember having was standing in line at the DMV when I was 16 and I just turned around and left. My mom drove me to the Best Buy that had just opened up on the other side of town. It was a week day, mid-morning. The only time I would even attempt to go places because I knew there would be hardly anyone there and I could get in and out quickly.
I remember taking that CD home and listening to it, start to finish and again and again. Musically, it blew me away. It was miles away from the “grunge” that permeated the radio and MTV at that time. The closest thing I could liken it to was The Band, but these songs hit me on a whole other level. The instruments merged to create this warm envelope of sound and Adam’s voice…I know he’s heard it a million times, but listening to those songs, it was as if he were speaking directly to me. It’s a ridiculous notion, but when you’ve spent so many years adrift from humanity, it can be overwhelming to find a voice who seems to understand that maybe it is just in your head, but that doesn’t make the pain any less real, and here were these songs about people who felt the isolation, the sadness, the desire to just be seen as who you are and to have someone accept that.
“Believe in me because I don't believe in anything, and I want to be someone to believe.”
What was less obvious to me at the time was the notion of hope that the songs held. It took a while for me to understand that the voice in these songs was looking for a reason to live. “Round Here” was an anthem about figuring out who you are and being okay with that decision, because no matter what you decide, you’re not alone.
The story in “A Murder of One” is a man telling a woman that she doesn’t have to remain in an unhappy relationship because there are options, but the universal message is “just because your life is like this now, you can choose to make it something different.” It’s the perfect end to a collection of songs about despair and hope, the repetition of a lament, a plea, a statement, “Change, change, change.”
I still have the copy of that CD that I bought almost 18 years ago. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve listened to that album. I can’t even give you a decent ballpark figure. It doesn’t matter. After a certain point, it just becomes a part of who you are as a person. As I write this, I’m listening again, and every line still resonates. All these years later, these songs still say better what I was feeling then than the thoughts that I can muster and type out.
In the end, I’m not sure if it’s an album that defines me or it’s me that defines that album. The poet Miller Williams said, “A poem should start as the writer’s and end as the reader’s.” I think that’s a notion that holds true for all forms of art, and to me, it definitely stands in the case of this collection of songs, created by a group of talented musicians, accepted by a lonely kid in a dark room, carried forward by a man still carving out his name.

* * *

Chris Fullerton is the epitome of disaffection, a misanthropic attention-whore who at times has considered himself a writer, a musician and a clown. You can find him all over the Internet, but he isn’t really there: Twitter. Tumblr.