Sunday, June 12, 2005

A parable

(Listening to: Poe, Haunted)

(The second half of "Take Two" is coming tomorrow.)

While driving through town, a man happens to glance at a restaurant. Through the window, he sees one of the employees -- a waitress. He's taken aback, because -- from a distance -- she looks like a girl he used to know, a long time ago.

Over the course of several months, he often drives past this place, and usually spots the same waitress. He thinks about that Girl From the Old Days -- he feels sad. That situation ended badly for the man.

But he sees this waitress, who looks like her. He wonders what she's like. If she's like the Old Girl.

He keeps driving by. He sees the New Girl. He thinks about stopping by the restaurant. To talk to her. He knows it's a shitty way to start a conversation -- "Hey, you know, you look just like someone I used to know..." -- but it could work.

Then, one day, he decides -- "To hell with it." During the afternoon, when he's often seen the waitress working, he arrives at the restaurant, ready to find out everything he can about this New Girl, who looks like the Old Girl from a distance.

But when he walks inside, he sees that there's a very good reason that the New Girl looks -- from a distance -- like the Old Girl.

She is the Old Girl.

The resulting conversation is awkward.

Moral: The world is too fucking small.

And your past clings to you like your shadow. Good luck getting it off.

Friday, June 10, 2005

Take Two

Part 1 of 2.

"You get one shot at this, junior," the old man said. He shook a crooked finger at my nose. "One."

I crossed my arms and angled an eyebrow, fixing him with an indignant glare. "Why? I mean, technically, you could give me as many as I needed, couldn't you?"

His shoulders sank a little then, and he brought his fingers up to massage the bridge of his nose. "Always with this. Yeah, I could, but I'm not going to. I'll give you one. More than most people get."

"I'm not most people," I said. "You do remember that I'm paying you quite a lot of money?"

He laughed. "Oh, yeah. Your money. Yeah, sonny, I remember."

"That doesn't change anything, I take it."

"Not a damn thing." He reached over and picked up his cane -- it was a thin little stick, dark wood finish, a simple black ball on the top. "Let's get this over with. It's close to supper time."

"Um...okay." I uncrossed my arms. My hands twitched nervously. "So...should I sit down, or what? What do you need me to do?"

"Just shut up and don't move." He closed his eyes and took several long, deep breaths. His lungs rattled like they were filled with lead pellets. I heard him suppress a cough. He just kept breathing, though -- in, out. In, out.

This went on for about fifteen minutes.

"Is something supposed to be happening?" I said, and the old man's eyes snapped open.

"Goddammit. What did I tell you to do? I said shut up. Really shouldn't be that hard, 'specially for a smart guy like you."

"Hey, look, old man--"

"Yeah yeah yeah." He waved a hand at me. "You ready?"

"Of course I'm ready, I've been standing here for--"

"You remember it?"

My eyebrow arched again. "Remember what?"

He sighed. "That day. Jeez."

"Oh. Yeah. Course I do." I could recall it perfectly in every detail. I remembered the weather. I remembered the clothes I wore. I remembered the smell of fresh paint wafting down the hallway from the new kitchen. And I remembered the look on the kid's face. That I remembered especially.

"You thinking about it?" He had his eyes closed again, and his left hand was working on the black ball on his cane.

"Yeah." Honestly, I hadn't thought of much else over the last few weeks.

"Good -- close your eyes." I did so. "Keep your mind focused. Remember. Just remember..."

Feeling somewhat silly, I kept my eyes shut. He was sucking back long pulls of air again; his phlegmy exhales sounded like helicopter blades underwater.

I tried to keep my mind focused, like he said. It wasn't hard to do -- I could see that old house with eidetic recollection. Every inch. Every piece of furniture.

And every person.

"You'll have about forty-five minutes to do your thing," he said. "If you don't pull it off, you'll come back here."

"What if I do?"

I heard the rustle of his clothes, and even my eyes closed, I knew he'd shrugged. "Beats me. Nobody's ever succeeded before."

"What?" I snapped, and my eyelids flew open.

But he wasn't there.

Neither was I.

I was back then.

"Holy shit."

It was my parents' old house -- the one they bought after my brothers and I left home. A cozy little place for just the two of them, rather than the cavernous barn we needed to house our rambunctious family.

I was standing in the living room. My bare feet sank into the white carpet -- a deep, soft plush carpet, kept pure as snow by my mother's fanatical care. It stretched out across the room, the coffee table and sofa mere islands in its ivory sea.

Of course, none of this was here anymore -- it was all swallowed up in flames four years ago; an electrical fire swept through the house and turned it all to cinders while firemen uselessly slashed it with water. My mother got lost in the smoke and never found her way out. The wreckage was torn down and a playground for the neighborhood children erected in its place.

And yet there I stood. Not in a sandbox, but in my parents' living room, and my mother's perfect carpet.

"Holy shit."

I heard the sound of gravel under tires, and I turned to the window in time to see my father's car pulling into the driveway.

The movies -- my mother had taken my sons to the movies. I had been sick that morning, and she volunteered to keep the kids out of my hair while I recovered. Now they'd come back.

The old clock on the wall -- the one next to the soft-focus photo of my father, who had passed a few years earlier -- chimed its musical number. Six o'clock. I had until six forty-five.

And all I had to do was not screw up.

My family was stomping up to the front door.

"This time," I whispered, "no mistakes. Not again."

The door opened.

Here we go.

To be continued...

Thursday, June 09, 2005

Meat and potatoes

(Listening to: The Beatles, With the Beatles)

My mother told me a story once, about my father. When the incident took place I can't recall, but I'm pretty certain it was prior to my birth.

Mom made dinner -- a roast. She marinated this hunk of meat for days in various spices and such. It cooked for hours while she watched over it, adding more spices and flavorings as they occurred to her. (While she had plenty of cookbooks, she shunned them for this exercise -- she was flying solely on intuition.) For most of the day she did this, lovingly turning a lopsided hunk of cow flesh into a fine meal, fit for a king. As she described to me, in such glowing terms, it must have been the greatest roast ever seen on this planet, if not the Milky Way galaxy.

Ten minutes before it finished cooking, Mom tossed some chunks of potatoes into the pan with the roast, giving them enough time to soak up the flavor but not enough to turn them into mush. She tossed some salt on them, I think.

Proud of her accomplishment, she served the meal: her gorgeous roast, sliced into single-serving pieces, covering most of the plate she placed before my father. Appropriately, the afterthought potatoes were clumped on the side.

My parents-to-be began eating. A few minutes into the meal, my mother -- anxious for feedback, like any artist -- asked, "How's the roast?"

My father looked up from his plate and, his face the picture of innocence, said, "Oh, it's fine -- but are there any more potatoes?"

Writing is like that.

When I write something, there's always one part in particular that's special to me. The place where the personal things are hidden. Where the soul is, if that doesn't sound too cheesy. And after I let the story simmer in itself, slowly building in flavor until it's ready, I place it before my audience (whoever will read the damn thing) with expectant eyes. And though I'm looking for any response at all, I'm always hoping that it's the personal stuff they'll comment on. That the hard work -- and that stuff is almost always the hardest part -- will be rewarded. When I ask them, "What did you like best about it?" I'm always hoping the special part will be the answer.

It almost never is.

I wrote "Jack Renfield Opens His Eyes" about three years ago. Now, for those who've read that story, don't panic -- there's not a lot of really personal stuff in there. (No need to call the police.) I wrote it for the writer's group I was part of at College of the Mainland, and I did it largely for shock value -- I was always the quiet guy who sat in class and kept to himself, his nose in a book, and (after being given the assignment of writing something supernatural) I dumped this on them in an attempt to be memorable. But there were still little touches that meant a lot to me: the events in the story are certainly horrifying, but was my depiction of them horrifying? If you read the story, you'll notice (hopefully) the detached, unsympathetic way in which it's told -- this was highly intentional. I was hoping a flat, dry, almost clinical discussion of such disturbing actions, people, and situations would add to the horror. I was eager to know if I'd succeeded.

The writer's group liked the story. But all their comments -- aside from one person noting that it was "chilling" -- seemed focused on the story's structure. See, I started in present tense, then flipped to past tense for a flashback, then came back to present tense for the conclusion. This was the only way I could think of to tell the story, really -- it was plainly obvious and not at all impressive to me. So I was praised for the part that required zero thought, and the rest of it -- the personal stuff -- was left to starve with, "Oh, yeah, I liked that, too."

Is this a bad thing? I really don't know. After all, the writer's group liked my story, just as my not-yet-father certainly enjoyed the dinner my mother prepared. But it's a confusing mix of disappointment and elation that arises when I get these responses.

You're probably wondering what brought this on. This afternoon I started editing and revising "The Outlet," a short story I wrote last year but was never entirely satisfied with. And when I passed it around to friends and acquaintances, I certainly got "I liked it!" in return from most people...but nobody said anything about what it was I really want them to like. (And no, I won't tell you what it is.)

Perhaps I'm just whining. I recall another anecdote, this one from Stephen King. He was driving with his wife -- he behind the wheel, she in the passenger seat looking over a fresh-from-the-printer copy of his novella Hearts in Atlantis. He thought the story was hilarious, and waited for her gales of laughter...but they never came. He kept glancing at her during the drive, hoping for her smile to crack and the giggling to start, until she turned to him and said, "Will you keep your eyes on the road before you get us all killed! Stop being so damn needy!"

'Cause after all, as my mom told me -- he really loved those potatoes.

Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Soon he will be ready to face the Trials

"Remember, young padawan, extra cheese is $1.50 more."

(Listening to: The Mars Volta, De-Loused in the Comatorium)

We had a new driver begin work today.

The story behind the departure of our previous two drivers is both irrelevant and boring, so we won't get into that. Suffice it to say, this is a new guy. There are those who call him...Tim.

While the managers gave him vague pointers -- "This is the oven," and other such helpful tips -- his on-the-job training was left to me. Though I started to protest, citing that these things really should be the responsibility of the managers -- they're the ones who get paid for it, after all -- I realized logic was futile in this situation, as it is most of the time at the Inn. So, begrudgingly, I took him on as my padawan learner.

There wasn't much to it -- frankly, my job isn't that complicated. When dirty dishes are brought to the back, wash them. ("How do I run the dishwasher?" "See that button, padawan?" "Yes, master." "Push it.") When an order is ready, take it to the address on the ticket. When the phone rings, answer it. Since the majority of our duties are self-explanatory, I spent much of the time fielding idle questions from my young apprentice. The first one -- as it always is, with anyone who starts working there -- was "Do we get free pizza?" and I, of course, was forced to reply in the negative. He was slightly disappointed, but I think he'll feel better after he actually tastes our pizza for the first time.

One of the managers came up with the idea of sending the youngling along with me on a few deliveries -- he'd ride along in the car beside me and watch the Pizza Master in action. This idea was quickly and decisively shot down on account of it being incredibly stupid. ("You see, padawan, you take the pizza to the door, and ring the doorbell." "Oh, that's how it works. I was going to throw rocks at their windows until they came outside. Thank you, master." "And make sure you get their money." "Oh, so I can't trade the pizza for baseball cards or bottle caps, then?")

I spent the evening holding his hand (metaphorically speaking) and answering his innocent queries ("How much do you make a week?" etc.). Things would have been smoother without the plumbing emergency that prevented our use of the dishwasher for the last hour of the night. ("I have a very bad feeling about this." "Calm yourself, padawan. Fear is the path to the dark side.") But all things told, it was an uneventful experience. And he is now certainly better equipped than I was after my first day -- I didn't have the fortune to be trained by someone who spoke fluent English, so it took a while to get my feet beneath me.

Tomorrow, there will be more training -- he must be schooled on the technique of cutting the pizzas, and he must pass the ordeals of answering the telephone, taking orders, and not screaming at the customers who ask if there is pepperoni on the Veggie Max pizza.

After that, he will be ready to face the Trials alone. And then he will be a Pizza Man. The Force is strong with him -- I forsee him becoming the greatest of all the Pizza Men.

Or, more likely, quitting in disgust after his first few paychecks. Either/or.