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Wednesday 4 May
“Story about a Woman on the Eve of Her Wedding” – a prequel to “An Uneven House”

Filed under Prequels

If You Need Me I'll Be Over ThereEvery Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the fifth story in the collection, “An Uneven House”, originally published in Beloit Fiction Journal.

We open mid-scene, in medias res, as a party with all her aunts and lady cousins is wrapping up. The music has ended. The trash bins are full. The party’s at one of her aunts’ houses, the one who’s the amplest and most full of love for the woman. Picture hearthstones and brooms and wooden stools and gas lighting. Everyone glows. During the final toasts and well-wishings the woman stands as the recipient of a room full of smiles. She’s in her overcoat, and she holds a plate of cake. One cousin says something like, “And he’s so handsome!”, which drives everyone to laughter, and the woman feels her stomach tumble and vomit spits up and falls over her chin. She coughs and it sprays onto the floor, and quickly she turns and upheaves the whole contents of her belly next to the fireplace. The laughter’s turned to screaming and people rushing to her side. The woman waves them away, pleads forgiveness. The cake was the culprit, she explains. She had too much, though this will play strangefully owing to an earlier passing detail in the POV of an aunt which reveals that she hadn’t finished her single slice. Hence the leftovers she’d been given, which now lie on the ground, vomit-stained, and ensharded with pieces of broken plate.

Leap to the woman sitting alone at a vanity, in the velvety room she rents from a spinster cousin in the city, a Baptist with certain notions re chastity and cleanliness. No men in the house. Girlfriends received in the parlor, etc. The woman faces the mirror and takes the pins out of her black hair, which all night had held up perfectly, like a souffle. Without being too obvious/corny the story turns reflective. We learn about her late adoption by an aunt (mom = dead from pneumonia; dad = drunk –> drifter) and her job at the lunch counter a fifty-minute train ride from the room she rents. Here was where she met the man she’s meant to marry in the morning. He’d eat a chicken sandwich and a glass of milk every day and smile every time she’d look at him. After just a week of such lunches he asked her to a polka night, where during their third dance around the room he tripped her and she fell to the floor. She laughed but he didn’t. His face—earlier details will compare it to a bear’s face—fell and he knelt down and lifted her off the floor. “Are you all right?” he kept asking. “Are you okay?” He set her in her chair and kept her there the rest of the night, marking time on his thigh with a slap of his fat hand.

Handled, she’ll think at her mirror. From the beginning she’s felt handled, like an art object in a ramshackle crate. Then some details on the removal of makeup, its processes and unguents, which reverberate off the “art object” image in ways let’s hope are subtle. The woman leaves all her clothes on the floor to take care of in the morning and puts herself to bed. As soon as the lamp is out there’s a tapping at the window. At once, she knows it’s the fiance. He’s jumped to her fire escape from a trash bin before, the apparent ease of which leads her in mild terror to always latch the windowlock, which now the silhouette of him backlit by the streetlamp is pointing to. She lets him in and he stumbles and speaks too loudly. His tie is untied and if he wore a hat that night it’s not with him. She’s in her nightgown. This is the most he’s ever seen of her. “It’s bad luck to see me,” she says, and he reminds her it’s not the wedding day yet. His eyes roam over her like a spray can. In slurs and starts, he tells her of his idea: they’ll go to bed together. Tonight. Tomorrow, he says, they’ll be exhausted. He can’t wait any longer for her.

Story pushes inward on the POV here to reveal she wants this, too.

Then a knock on the bedroom door from the spinster cousin. “Everything all right?” etc. The woman glares at the fiance. The cousin, turns out, has vast savings she’s planned to give as a wedding present, so long as her all Baptist notions are upheld. The fiance knows the plan and dives behind the bed, causing the whole floor to shake. This leads the cousin to throw open the door. “I thought you’d fallen,” she says, looking purposefully around the room. It can get a little “Three’s Company”ey for some comic relief before all the stuff that’s about to happen. The woman comes quickly up with an explanation: the clothes on the floor. She stumbled. She reprimands herself for not putting them away properly, and this pleases the cousin back out of the room. She sends the fiance back through the window without a kiss.

The trouble with getting out of a story like this is the trouble with getting out of any story: there’s not enough time. Think about the metaphor of “wrapping things up”—like the story is a gift that’s made (or bought) and now at the end requires some kind of box and bow. But what about the time needed to build the box and bow? What about the mostly dull, overly precious look of a perfectly wrapped box and bow? Better to give just the box. Let the bow itself be an allure. Then, at the end of a story, tell them to open it. Tell them to open the box.

She dreams of gifts and presents, and the next morning, at the chapel in a square on the south end of town, word comes to her through a chain of cousins that the fiance is pacing his room and saying things like, “I’m not a man for her.” Everyone’s afraid of a jilting, but she knows he’ll be there. He will be there for the rest of her life now. At the altar she can barely see him through her veil, barely see the priest as he asks him his intentions. We won’t know what she’s lost to get here. All those times she spit in his milk. Then he says, “I do,” and her heart stops.

*

You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-05-04  ::  dave

Wednesday 27 April
“If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There” – a prequel to “If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There”

Filed under Prequels

!webcoverEvery Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the fourth (and eighth and eleventh) story in the collection, “If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There”.

The day I left Pennsylvania for my new life in Nebraska, blackouts ravaged the northeast. The news came in over our car radio somewhere just before Indiana: New York, Boston, all the way down to Baltimore, nobody had any power. It was a hot sunny afternoon. The highways Dad drove over were the flattest I’d ever seen, with a horizon that never rose above eye level. I felt like we were going to crash into the sun, which kept itself blindingly before us, making everything shimmer. Mom worried aloud about finding a hotel with electricity, and I worried for the first time about going somewhere so vacant. I would know nobody. I would drink too much one night and stumble past town limits and suddenly be the tallest thing on the landscape for miles, ready for the tornado or the bolt of lightning to render me in shreds.

We found a hotel with a backup generator in small Illinois town I’d never step foot in again. I got my own room, and that night I dreamt of being buried in a corn field, but playfully, my head up above ground as though I were at the beach, while underneath I felt moles and prairie dogs plough passageways through my insides.

Much later, my parents in the minivan driving back east, I stood one evening in Lincoln’s Haymarket, wondering what to do next. I hadn’t made a friend yet. I was right by the train tracks at the beginning of a light rainstorm. Above me hung big boulders of clouds, but out on the western horizon the sun looked like an orange slice as it set above the browned silhouette of a cargo train slowly rolling southward. The sunlight cast on the meager fifteen-story skyscrapers of this small town made them beam and shine their brightest colors against a denim-blue sky. I felt my jaw slung loose, gaping upward at the half-arc of a rainbow sloping over the place where my new home sat. It was a sky I’d never known before, a sky so far away from the ones I’d taken for granted, and suddenly as though in greeting the whole sky flashed and sparked with a half-dozen threads of lightning that stretched beyond my field of vision. God’s grill, it looked like, and I broke out in laughter, right there in a parking lot at the edge of the West.

I had a roommate named Bruxton I ate lunch with sometimes. Not much of a friend. He was tall, blond, and solid, and in our room he’d sit with a nugget of tobacco tucked in his lip he’d spit into plastic cups. One lunch, pizza and chicken fingers, he asked me, Are you from a small town or a big city? He had never met someone from the East Coast before, even though I clarified that Pennsylvania—particularly the hills of Western Pennsylvania—wasn’t really on the coast. But I said, Small town, definitely.

Oh yeah? he said. What’s the population?

I thought it was something like 8000. Mount Lebanon had over 30,000, and we weren’t even half as big.

Bruxton said, That’s a big town.

Oh, I said.

My town’s got 400 people in it, he said. I was one of fifteen in my graduating class.

I didn’t even get to grow up in a small town. Numbers meant different things here. The temperatures, the cost of gas. On Saturdays our football stadium, filled to capacity for a record number of years, became the state’s third largest city by population. I guess I had chosen Nebraska so as to undergo such transformations. I’d felt hemmed in on all edges, and everywhere I turned I saw more family. Jerem had made our parents proud by going to Penn State, never being too far away to come home when needed, when missed. I’d figured that running off to a point smack in the middle of the country would be a noisy coup d’etat, plates thrown and parental feet put down, but Mom and Dad treated it mostly as a puzzle. Where are you going to go without a car? Mom asked, as we’d first rolled into town.

I wasn’t going anywhere. There were nights I could forecast the rest of my life here, nights where out by the airport I’d look up and see so many stars the sky for the first time had depth and texture. One night a guy down the hall with a car, not much of a friend, took us out to Denton (pop: tiny), where we pulled up alongside Ford F-150s outside a bar called the Daily Double. A girl my age stood on a low stage and read numbers monotone into a microphone, and the guys from my floor—all born-and-bred Cornhuskers—persuaded me to order chicken gizzards. What are they? I kept asking. I pictured the flap of skin that hung jowlishly from their faces.

It’s by the stomach, Bruxton said. I pictured sweetmeats and intestines. It’s where they keep the gravel, he added, unhelpfully.

They arrived, deep fried, and tasted like wet erasers. I must have made a face because they all laughed. I played four rounds of Keno and lost each one. If I had a nickel for every time I heard “Mustang Sally” on that trip from Pennsylvania, I could’ve afforded to play a fifth, but instead we went home and fall soon fell, and the wind I felt every day from every direction started to turn malevolent. It snowed the day I took my first college final, but that was weeks and weeks before I’d know true winter, with snow up to my thighs and windgusts aiming to knock me over. In Nebraskan weather I was a child again. Or still. I’d have a whole life ahead of me of staying out of trouble.

*

You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-04-27  ::  dave

Friday 22 April
Why Pay for Your MFA?

Filed under Endorsements

Awards, Accolades & Publishing
News came in yesterday that Alan Chazaro, a MFA student at the University of San Francisco, where I teach, won something called the Intro Journals Award from AWP. For those outside MFALand, this is an annual series of awards granted by our prof. org.: the Association of Writers & Writing Programs. (Like the MLA but for creative writing.) Every creative writing program in the country is invited to submit one student’s work in poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, which then get judged by a single writer. The top 4 students (8 in poetry) are chosen to win publication in a leading journal and, of course, prestige—the idea being that AWP is introducing the world to talented new writers via journal publications.

Two key things:

  1. The judging is blind. No names or affiliated schools are anywhere on the manuscripts.
  2. A USF student has won an Intro Journal Award every year for the past four years. And we’ve had someone win in every genre.

This is a success worth bragging about, and so I have. Here and on Twitter. And it shows a continued track record of excellence: our students’ work wins awards and finds publication while they’re still students here. And yet, as far as I know, USF has never once been ranked in even the top 50 MFA programs in the country.
(more…)

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-04-22  ::  dave

Wednesday 20 April
“Remedy” – a prequel to “Smear the Queer”

Filed under Prequels

!webcoverEvery Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the third story in the collection, “Smear the Queer”, originally published in Barrelhouse.

My second semester at Pitt, I was denied entrance into Honors O Chem owing to what I was told in a postcard sent by campus mail was insufficient academic performance during the fall semester, but in my heart I knew it was out of a failure of nerve. No, I hadn’t taken certain gen-eds scheduled by my adviser seriously enough, writing in EngComp but never bothering to revise a paper about Dick Butkus’s movie roles that garnered me the first (but not last) C of my academic career. But on top of this, I told myself the afternoon after I got the news, standing in too light a jacket on the Cathedral Lawn under a skeletal tree frosted in fresh snow, I hadn’t pushed. I hadn’t made myself undismissable. I had shown my adviser the A I received in Chem 100 and drawn his attention to the honors courses I took in high school, and after he suggested I meet with the head of the University Honors College, a brusque sandy blond man with a face one size larger than his head could normally bear whom everyone seemed affectionately to call just “Doc”, I did and I got him to smile, and he said to me, I’ll always remember, “You’re really going places, Jim.” As we shook hands at the end of the conversation he’d reached up with his left hand and gave my shoulder a soft squeeze, not far from an embrace, I thought, and I kept my eyes looking in his eyes until he soon looked away.

There was, the postcard read, an appeals process, but that afternoon I couldn’t imagine undergoing it. Maybe I was full of spite, or maybe I was only cold. As I said I’d underjacketed that morning, and the winter wind was spilling in and running up along my ribs, and my body kept seizing itself to find extra warmth. The Lawn was still, a thick quilt of snow running all the way south to Forbes Avenue, cut across here and there by the stitching of other people’s footprints. Behind me the traffic chugged on Fifth, and in the quiet that fell between redlights I heard nothing but the softened air of a city in midwinter. I wanted to hear it more, so I walked inward on the lawn toward Heinz Chapel, my brogans doing a less spectacular job of keeping my feet dry than I’d hoped, thinking I’d still be visible from here. I was the one Z-axis in a Cartesian plane save for the trees, the chapel, and the Cathedral of Learning, which rose from the lawn like a tombstone.

The guy was late. He was twenty minutes late. I’d begun in my head a countdown from twenty-two, before I’d walk away from the Lawn and return to my dorm room and go back to bed having not put my life on a different, darker course, but right when I got to six on the countdown I saw a tall, thin body with a burst of red hair walk in from my left. It stopped at an intersection of walkways, facing me. It raised a hand in a wave, and I waved back. The red hair tilted away from me, toward the Cathedral, and the guy, if in fact it was the guy, walked away. I followed always, owing to the steady pace he kept, at a distance and soon I was in a stall in the back of the men’s room on the ground floor.

“You bring the money?” he whispered

“Lisa said you’d give me a deal?” I whispered. “This is my first time.”

“Forty dollars,” he said. “Normally it’s fifty.”

His bright hair had to be visible over the stall’s partitions. We were, I’d hoped, alone in there. I heard nothing but a faucet’s drips plinking off the room’s dirty tiles.

“Why are we in here?” I asked.

“You want to get thrown out of school?”

I could appreciate his discretion. I unwalleted two twenties and held them up in the air between us. He looked at me, then at them, and then the money was gone.

“Start slow,” he said. “Two at most, if it’s your first time.”

Then he brought out the plastic bag I’d just paid for, and without a word I took it and shoved it into my underwear, because things fell out of pockets all the time.

The guy raised an eyebrow. “Anything else you need?” he asked, smiling. Then he put his hand on my shoulder

I was back in my room in minutes. What I needed, I wanted to tell him, was to get into Honors O Chem, and barring that I needed to know what had happened to the candidacy I’d been led to believe was beyond eligible. I needed also to know why at least once a week after I shut the lights out I was finding myself lying in the darkness of my room and sobbing, quietly enough for Brad, my snoring roommate, not to hear, but hard enough for it to hurt, my stomach cramped and heaving, my pillow soaked with tears and spittle. I was not, historically, a crier. I would be, I’d always promised myself, a comprehender, but that night in my room, Brad gone on some wrestling tournament across the state, I reneged on the deal, slitting open the windows that flanked our bunkbeds for the frozen air to seep in, and undressing myself only after I’d turned out the lights. I slipped naked into the bed and took with a plastic PITT ORIENTATION WEEKEND 1979 cup of water three of the pills I’d purchased, and in no time at all the world I found myself stuck inside got reduced to one color, one note that if I could find it on the piano would lie way down on the left end of the keyboard.

I was cold and I stayed cold the whole weekend. Why, I wonder, did I become a scientist? My parents never pressured me to be anything, and all my brothers make money for a living. I heard once, or I read somewhere that our ambitions come from the newest part of the brain, the part of it that sits right above our eyebrows, as though they were the captain of the starship that steers us. I’ve pretended more than once that I could be such a captain, setting always an optimal course, but I’ve rarely been able to rise to a challenge. I’ve been, instead, a tester, a man directed by the wills of other men. It has over time taken me places. I’m good, I’d like to think, at swabbing a deck.

*

You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-04-20  ::  dave

Wednesday 13 April
“The Wonderlanders” – a prequel to “Karl Friedrich Gauss”

Filed under Prequels

!webcoverEvery Wednesday, I’m posting a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the second story in the collection, “Karl Friedrich Gauss”, originally published in Hobart.

Hobart actually once published another prequel of sorts, as a web-extra to promote the release of their Games Issue, which “KFG” was a part of. You can read “Owen Morris’s Other Creativity Games (To Date)” here.

Just because it was summer didn’t mean I didn’t have anything to read or read up on, but because after dinner I was told to “take a break from being you” I found myself walking all alone along the cul-de-sac—which, I learned, just last week, is French for sackbottom. I passed eight houses on Sunset Court, three of which were the same model as ours but mirror-imaged, with bedrooms to the left as you got to the top of the stairs, not to the right, and though I’d never been inside any of these houses I felt that were I ever to walk through it would be like starring in a horror film where I was the first victim, and the last. It was almost seven. At the bottom of the sack the neighbor kids sat in a circle, James’s kickball rolling from one kid to another. It was James and Annie and Michelle and Jerrica and David and Bryan and Xander. “Owen,” Michelle said. “Owen!”

There was still a lot of light out. It was just a few days past Fathers’ Day.

Everyone stood when I got there, like an audience. “We want to play kickball but we’re an odd number,” Michelle said. And I said, “You certainly are.” And I laughed but nobody joined me. Michelle wanted to pick teams and called herself team captain.

“Let’s just do boys versus girls,” Bryan said. “You guys take Owen.” Then he laughed and everyone joined him.

The problem with sports, I knew, was that they had no creativity, and nobody learned anything from them. Sports were only about other people’s bodies, which made them elitist and unfair, because while I’ve worked hard to strengthen my mind and learn all I could I was cursed, Papa told me, with “your mommy’s little pixie body.” I ran slow and kicked soft. In team sports I got blamed for any disappointments, so that evening I pointed out we could split between those of us living on the east side of Sunset and those of us living on the west, which by my calculations would even up the teams in both ability and sportsmanship. Xander and Bryan, for instance, could only be on the same team if everyone enjoyed noisy aggression and being called buttwipe a lot.

I volunteered as pitcher, because even I could roll a ball across a blacktop. I took my place on the manhole cover at the center of the sackbottom and I turned to face my teammates, and in the spirit of taking a break from being me I took a risk. I said, “Okay, team, let’s call ourselves the Wonderlanders!” I had just finished reading Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that afternoon, and I suppose I was still taken with the place. I felt that I could be the White Rabbit, keeping everyone always on task.

I pitched to James and he got on third. I pitched to Jerrica and she got on third and James got home. Then I was supposed to pitch to Annie but Annie’s dad drove home from work and we all had to move out of the way. He stepped out of the car, which was long and shiny and black, and his tie was loosened from his collar, and everyone on the unnamed team started begging him to kick, because Mr. Flowers was the biggest of all the dads but Papa, and he could kick very, very hard. He set his briefcase by the car and jogged over to the homeplate driveway and I told myself, Just get this over with and it will be too dark to play and you can go home and read in Dad’s big leather chair.

I pitched it and he kicked it and the ball flew like an angry comet at my face. I shut my eyes and felt the punch of it on my nose and then the crack of my head on the blacktop.

I had a fantasy. I was lying on the floor of an enormous garage, and over me towered shelves full of large labeled boxes. It was dim in there, with faraway bulbs, as though this were a cave filled with choreographed fireflies. I looked to my left and a box on the bottommost shelf read HOW TO BUY CLOTHING THAT NOBODY NOTICES, and to my right I found WHAT PUBERTY IS AND WHEN IT WILL HAPPEN TO YOU AND WHAT WILL HAPPEN. I got up and started walking down the aisle. There was SOLVING ANY RUBIK’S CUBE and EVERY CITY’S DISTANCE FROM OMAHA and UNCOOL ERASER SHAPES and even HOW TO BE GOOD AT KICKBALL (KICKING). This, I could see, was a great start, but where would I find HOW TO BE GOOD AT KICKBALL (PITCHING)? Or (CATCHING) even? Why weren’t these boxes directly adjacent? The shelves stretched in straight lines to a single point far in the darkness. I turned around and same. I ran down the aisle until I found a break and then I cut across looking left and right and reading labels as fast as I could, and at one point I even found a ladder and climbed higher than I’d ever be brave enough to climb in waking life, but no matter where I turned I never saw a box labeled HOW TO FIND THE BOX YOU’RE LOOKING FOR.

When I snapped out of it I didn’t have a choice in the matter and my stupid body started to cry. Everyone crowded above me like tall trees. Mr. Flowers was kneeling and holding a handkerchief to my nose, which must have been bleeding because I could taste in the back of my throat that flavor, like butter and a bucket of nails, that I always tasted when I worked a finger too far up a nostril. I didn’t want to make a noise, because I wanted instantly to be unseeable, but I could hear myself wailing, and every time I choked or took a breath there was a tall tree saying “You’re all right” or “It’s okay,” as if they knew something I never would. I knew that summer was a different land I slowly fell into every June, where boys and girls who’d said things one way at school started saying them a different way, and where little babies could turn like that into snorting pigs. Our cul-de-sac wasn’t an unsafe place, but it was an unsure one. Tricksy. Mr. Flowers was there, with my blood on his handkerchief, and everybody’s face faced mine, and I could tell they only wanted as much as they could get before the sun went down and we all got called indoors.

“Owen,” Mr. Flowers said. “I’m so sorry. Are you all right?”

I was sniffling and then I made myself stop.

“I’m all thumbs,” I said, and like that everybody laughed.

*

You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-04-13  ::  dave

Wednesday 6 April
“Five Alive” – a prequel to “Pamela”

Filed under Prequels

!webcoverStarting today, and every Wednesday for the next nine Wednesdays, I’ll be posting here a short, 1000-word prequel to one of the eleven stories in If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There, which comes out June 1. This one’s a prequel to the first story in the collection, “Pamela”, originally published in Indiana Review.

I lived in Laguna Beach, and I lived with my dad, and once when I was ten he had me throw a dart on a map of California and said that he would take me there. I had baby hands, and the dart had real feathers on it, and when I threw it landed on Laguna Beach.

“Easy enough,” he said, and we drove in his Lincoln Continental down the Street of the Violet Lantern to what I liked to call the seashore. We sat on the sand and shared a bucket of fried chicken and two bottles of Fresca until the sun set and my dad made me listen for the click of “the light of the earth” going out, he called it. I only heard the whoosh of the waves and the cawings of the gulls angling for some chicken skin, and the whole drive home, all fifteen minutes of it, I thought about birds eating birds.

Street of the Violent Lantern, I used to call it.

That night took place the day after Mom took off, and the next morning I was in school learning cursive. We kids sat in quiet rows with wide-ruled dittos of sketchy, dashed letters we were meant to trace over. I did the capital-Q in Queen three times, just to let my fingers have their fun. Mrs. Greenspan paced in front of the classroom, her hawky eyes all over us, and she was wearing her marmish white cardigan despite it being so sunny out. The sun was pouring in through the windows on the side of the room. I could feel it on the skin above my frilly bobbysocks. Bridget, my best friend and a blonde, was even fanning herself with a sheet of paper she’d folded over a dozen times. I was flying through the worksheet, and then at the top of the second page I was presented with “Mommy” and then “My mommy and me,” and I balled up the ditto and threw it across the room.

It got me a recess dictionary word. I had to march my lunch tray across the school to our hot classroom and eat the fish sticks and orange slices under Teacher’s gaze, sipping up my Five Alive more noisily than I had to. Greenspan had a big butt that hefted her up from her chair like a cushion and brought for her lunch what looked from across the room like a bologna sandwich. What kind of woman would I grow up to be now? I didn’t know how other girls learned it. Greenspan’s punishments were meant to be instructive, and so I like all the troublemakers before me had to sit and write out, word-for-word, a definition from our student dictionary. That day I got play. “In cursive,” she reminded me when I flipped to the right page. Play wasn’t so much relevant to my crimes as it was long. It spread across two columns like a rot.

I was, I thought, a funny girl. I liked to play with the girls and the boys. I wasn’t afraid to get dirty or skin my knees on the blacktop, but I didn’t play Smear the Queer and I didn’t like patty-cake games or clapping hands. I wore more shorts than skirts, but that day I had a dress on, something lineny and white with orange trim, and my hair was up in crooked pigtails I’d had to tie myself that morning, with fat orange yarn. Flat hard shiny Mary Janes. It was like I knew I wouldn’t be running around outside that day, and so inside I wanted to make some fun of my own, and without thinking much about it I started turning every lowercase w into a saggy set of tits by crosshatching little nipples at the w’s troughs. Or sometimes I’d draw a little circle or two just underneath and turn it into a butt that shat. Tiny. Very tiny and light and hard to notice if you were just reading. What did it cost me? I couldn’t wait to get done and tell Bridget about it, but then I looked up out the window and there she was, right outside the room and standing at such an angle that I could see her but Greenspan could not. She was grinning at me in my incarceration, and then she was pointing behind her, to where we both knew the girls’ bathroom was.

I was the only child in the room, but I raised my hand.

“What is it?” Greenspan said. She had a pencil stuck in her hair like a chimney.

“Can I use the bathroom please?” I said.

“Can you?”

I tried not to roll my eyes.

“May I, please?”

“No you may not,” she said. “Not until you’re finished.”

The injustice of it. I wanted to piss all over the floor, but I couldn’t let loose with anything even at gunpoint. Bridget was out there shrugging and I didn’t want her to run off and have fun without me, so I hatched a plan. I tapped my foot and squirmed in my chair. I said “I really really have to go” without even raising my hand, but Greenspan kept her old head focused at whatever useless garbage she was writing at her desk. Outside her line of sight, I was able slip out of my desk and stash the Five Alive under my dress, squeezing it with my thighs while I did the proper dance. I couldn’t, I squealed, hold it in any longer, and began squatting next to the desk.

Greenspan ran over and saw the little puddle I’d squeezed out. “Go!” she said. “Go and be quick about it.”

I waddled to the door, freed, and in the bathroom I chucked the Five Alive into the trashcan and assessed the damage to my dress. Bridget ran in and I gave her the lowdown, and it bent her over so far in convulsions I felt again like the classroom hero I knew myself to be. “What’s going on outside?” I asked.

“People are laughing at you,” she said. “Nobody knows why you’re wearing that dress.”

The girls’ bathroom had three sinks, three mirrors, three metal shelves underneath. A light in the corner was flickering, as though marking some target. I’d never been laughed at, as far as I knew, because I’d never done or said anything stupid. That was for other people. What did those people care if I dressed up for school? What did they know about being good? I was an orphan now, or almost.

“I like it,” was what I said.

“What are you going to do about the stain?” she said, pointing to the back of me. “It’s mostly orange.”

I was going to sit on it, and I was going to ignore the looks of every single kid in school, and I was going to go home and throw the dress in the outside trash. California would always be my home, and my dad would never take me anywhere new. To this day, I couldn’t define play to save my life.

*

You can pre-order If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There here.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-04-06  ::  dave

Friday 25 March
Don’t Make Me Watch Your TV Show

Filed under TV

I.
The other night I was out at dinner, and someone was talking about meditating. Decades ago that would indicate I live in San Francisco. Now it just means I spend lots of time with white people.

The Meditator was talking about how meditation works. The process. The benefits. The before-and-after narrative of self-discovery and -healing. One person at the table said it sounded nice, but it didn’t ever work for her. I said something similar: meditation’s insistence on not-thinking didn’t help me find what I was looking for, whereas Ignatian spirituality—which insists instead on dialogue and creative imagination—did.

“But Dave,” the Meditator said. “It’s not about not thinking.” It was about changing your relationship to your thoughts, I was told. There were similar things told to the other person. It was, for the Meditator, not as though we were speaking honestly about our lives, but that we were willful ignorants, blathering about nonsense.

All I kept thinking was this: I don’t watch that TV show, okay?

II.
Sometimes in a conversation someone will say something, or something around us will happen, and I’ll get an exciting feeling in my head. Then I’ll say, “Do you watch 30 Rock?” Or American Dad or Friends or any number of shows I’ve seen dozens of times, one of which once made a funny/wry/accurate comment that I want to reference.

Often, the person I’m with will say, “Not really.”

Every time, I feel bad. “Oh,” I say. “Never mind.” I feel bad because my exciting feeling finds no outlet.

Who’s at fault? Everyone knows: It’s never the person who doesn’t watch my TV show.

III.
I’m writing this up because I continue to be surprised and confused by the Meditator’s inability to listen to us non-meditators and trust that we’d tried it, decided against it, and found our own way. I watch plenty of other TV shows. They’re also entertaining and important to me.

I’m on Twitter a lot, and more and more these days (probably as people continue to get impassioned about presidential candidates), I feel like Twitter is a feed of people insisting you watch their TV show.

Or no, it’s more than an insistence. It’s that your life is lesser than theirs, that you yourself are lesser than they, because you don’t watch their TV show. It might be a specific kind of logical fallacy: Because this worked for me it must also work for you. It requires from the believer a certain lack of imagination. Or a certain belief in other people.

A lot of people on Twitter want me to watch the “Hillary 2016” show, and when I say that I don’t watch that TV show, this results in the onset of an argument about how I’m watching the wrong show. I’m not watching the wrong show. I know myself better than you do, and I know that “Bernie 2016” is the TV show it’s important for me to watch. I don’t recommend it to everyone, and I can’t fault you for watching your own show.

Actually, what’s happening is that people want me to watch the “This election is important and that importance is happening here online” show. But that’s a show I have no interest in watching.

1 comment  ::  Discuss  ::  2016-03-25  ::  dave

Monday 21 March
I Reread Nightwood

Filed under Books

book-cover-nightwood1My first semester of gradschool I took a class a newly arrived Brit taught called American Literary Nationalism, which looked at books from Washington Irving to Paul Bowles to show how the U.S. leaned on Europe in building its literary heritage. It was a good class. The paper I wrote on A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court failed to find a thesis, and I got an A-.

One of the books we read was Nightwood by Djuna Barnes. I don’t remember anything we discussed. I didn’t remember anything of the book, but I held onto it through three different moves knowing it had some magic to it and that I didn’t want it not in my library. Then a few weeks ago when I was going through my bookshelves I saw it and tilted it down so’s to sit on its long, unbound edge—a sign that here’s a book I haven’t read yet.

So I reread/read it (mostly in bed before sleep; not wise). Nothing of the book was recognizable. I couldn’t begin to tell you what the novel is about, or whether I liked it. It’s about a woman named Robin Vote, an American in Europe, and the women and men whose lives revolve around her. It’s about talking and self-regard. I liked it well enough. Sentences were gorgeous at times and distracted at other times. Characters were both rich and inexplicable. Here’s the one section—the first good long look we get at Robin—I marked up again after having marked it up a first time:

He walked a little short of her. Her movements were slightly headlong and sideways; slow, clumsy, and yet graceful, the ample gait of the night-watch. She wore no hat, and her pale head, with its short hair growing flat on he forehead made still narrower by the hanging curls almost on a level with the finely arched eyebrows, gave her the look of cherubs in Renaissance theatres; the eyeballs showing slightly rounded in profile, the temples low and square. She was gracious and yet fading, like an old statue in a garden, that symbolizes the weather through which it has endured, and is not so much the work of man as the work of wind and rain and the herd of the seasons, and though formed in man’s image is a figure of doom. Because of this, Felix found her presence painful, and yet a happiness. Thinking of her, visualizing her after she had gone, however, was as easy as the recollection of a sensation of beauty without its details. When she smiled the smile was only in the mouth and a little bitter: the face of an incurable yet to be stricken with its malady.

The first time I read it, I underlined all the instances of yet. The second time, I bracketed the whole paragraph. I find it stunning. The ¶ amazes me with its movement and detail. I also find it heartening, in that here, amid this display of unimpeachable talent, I can see Barnes making a character out of language the way a painter creates form through brushstrokes.

I could be wrong, but I see a compositional strategy there I’m hoping to absorb. I’m writing a novel, you see. It’s going slowly.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-03-21  ::  dave

Tuesday 8 March
If You Need Some of If You Need Me I’ll Be Over There It’s Over Here

Filed under Announcements + Books

Indiana University Press, who’s publishing my debut story collection, has posted an excerpt over at Scribd. It’s the title story—or, rather, the first part of the title story, which is told throughout the book in three parts. They’re all autobiographicalish, this one perhaps the most, in that I did, indeed, finish the Friday New York Times crossword for the first time on the day of my maternal grandmother’s funeral.

For those so excited for IYNMIBOT that this excerpt just isn’t enough, stay tuned to this blog, where once a week for the 9 weeks leading up to the June 1 pub date, I’ll be posting prequels of each story.

Because people are all about prequels, probably.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-03-08  ::  dave

Monday 4 January
Very Bad Paragraphs — Bullshit Homophobic Faith Edition

Filed under queers

From Taffy Brodesser-Akner’s profile of some hipster megachurch pastor that NYC-types and NBAers are into:

And here I have to say out loud how much I like Carl. I say it here because I still felt it after this conversation. I like him even though he is ideologically opposed to things that are important to me. I somehow could not fault Carl for his beliefs, because they torment him. I couldn’t fault him for them even though his influence is so vast and all it would take was a word from him to heal the suffering of so many people who feel like they’re without a tether. I could dislike Carl because in the end his belief is an organism outside reason. It’s Carl who will take my jokes about how Christianity seems to much easier than Judaism and follow them up with 200-word texts in which he tries to use this toehold to tell me his Good News. He is so worried for my soul, and this should annoy me, but instead it touches me, because maybe I’m worried about my soul, too, and Carl wants so badly for me to enjoy heaven with him. How can I fault someone who is so sincere about this one thing than I have ever been about anything in my life? But on the other hand, if there’s one thing that’s true about Christianity, it’s that no matter what couture it’s wearing, no matter what Selena Gomez hymnal it’s singing, it’s still afraid for your soul, it still thinks you’re in for a reckoning. It’s still Christianity. Christianity’s whole jam is remaining Christian.

The bullshit lies in B-A’s thinking, bolded above. That beliefs (in this Carl’s case: Jesus hates homosexuality and abortion, despite his obligation to love gays and women who control their own pregnancies) torment the believer, that the believer feels them sincerely are not reasons to excuse them. I trust that any number of Trump supporters are sincerely tormented by our president’s mixed race, and I will die faulting them for this wrong belief.

I’m glad for a lot of things after having done the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius last year, but foremost among them was meeting my spiritual director, a gay priest. When you come to know Jesus very well, it’s so easy to see not only that he loves gay people, but that sex between men is as holy and Godful as sex between straights. This assuredly rich straight pastor has made a choice to exclude gays from heaven, and that choice has come not from Jesus, but from his own learned hatred of gay people.

Any time a straight person claims to want to enjoy heaven with you, one thing is clear: they’re worried about themselves. Not you.

 ::  Discuss  ::  2016-01-04  ::  dave

Books
2016-01-02 :: dave
Endorsements
2015-12-30 :: dave
NF + teaching
2015-12-29 :: dave
NF
2015-12-28 :: dave
Obvious Things
2015-12-08 :: dave
Announcements + NF
2015-11-24 :: dave
Obvious Things
2015-11-16 :: dave
NF
2015-11-13 :: dave
Very Good Paragraphs
2015-11-03 :: dave
Comedy
2015-09-01 :: dave