You would like Kate Waddell. She has a serene, focused smile and a great handshake; her palette could have been shaken from a box of Tropical Mike and Ike’s.
Her studio is tiled with happy canvases: glossy roosters sprawled in bold, contented shades of punch and berry; breakfast settings and bowls of fruit with backgrounds blocked out in shades of pink and blood orange. Even the rich blues of Waddell’s figure studies have a warm, street-lit quality. One can’t help assuming that the world of her mind must be a pleasant place to be.
“I’m just trying to bring some joy to the art world,” she says, peacefully dabbing at a rooster-in-progress. Turning to smile at me, warmly tanned, her hair pulled off her neck in a loose ponytail. “There are people who try to be so difficult by doing this offensive stuff, but I’d rather paint what is beautiful,” she says, and the galleries- Bee Street Studios, Brown Dog– are lining up.
She’s fresh off a show held at Candlefish earlier this month, and had worked hard on having ‘cohesive palette and subjects’ for that, making everything all of a piece. “I rely on brushstrokes and line to help everything go well together.”
Her next show is back home in Columbus, Georgia- “I’m going to do more fruit stuff for that-” where she attended the same high school as Teal Duncan andLulie Wallace, who’ve also limned out successful painting careers here in Charleston, creating similarly happy, comfortable canvases that make you smile.
Is there something in the water back home?
Waddell pauses. “The arts were really big at my high school,” she says.
I was intrigued. “Seriously?”
“It’s a smaller school, so they were able to really nurture us, fostering everyone to do what they liked best.”
We’re talking about brushstrokes, appealing lines, and I mention Wayne Thiebaud, one of my favorites. About a painting of his, Around the Cake, which hung for many years in my hometown museum. How’d I’d stand there and stare at it, transfixed, even when I was young- those thick, glossy strokes-!
“In high school, we had this assignment. We had to paint a portrait of an artist and also of his work. I did Thiebaud! His lipstick tubes- that was when I fell in love with painting.” Waddell smiles privately, remembering the moment...
Check out the rest of our interview here.
May 17th, 2015, Sunday
A lazy, lovely, voluptuous day. The both of us a little hungover.
“What are you thinking?” I say to Andrew.
He rolls over. “I’m thinking that the vessel in the middle of my head is a big one.”
I laugh, instantly gleeful, like a kid who’s found a wonderful stone. “Oh, I’m using that!” I say, emailing it to myself on my phone, and he smiles, pleased.
"How can you know who she is, if you don't read her work?" Christopher had said to him, a little fiercely, late in our party the night before.
We were all coming back from somewhere- the Royal American; a strange punk show, more people in the band than in the pit, a slow motion mosh pit of three, and then suddenly there was a fist fight- over what?- and everyone swept outside-
Andrew didn’t answer him, he was singing, swinging Aerie around on his back. I made some blurry excuse, everyone said goodnight. When the last of them had folded away, “I love you, I love you!” the thick, sleepy silence of our house without them seemed abrupt, aquatic. And then Andrew was snoring on the sofa, I couldn't move him.
He doesn't remember this part of things; now we're in the kitchen, talking about it.
"But I do know who you are, I know what's in your book," Andrew says, merrily. "Rape, suicide, death, death, more death- rape-"
"Well, Jesus," I say, a little taken aback; "I mean, yes, but that's like saying- I mean, plot is maybe the least important part of literature, that's like saying a dinner party is all about the seating arrangement; and maybe in one sense, it is- but really it's about the conversation-"
Yammering on as we put together breakfast. Croissants, a coconut from down the street. Blackest coffee. I want to loll about in the sunshine a bit, finishing Vineland, before we run out this afternoon to buy some chickens with our rooommate, he and Andrew have cobbled together a coop-
"Anyway, you know who I am," I say to him. But isn't this a lie? Is it possible to ever truly know all of someone? We can only, necessarily, see the facets they let us see- the facets we are able to see-
I have a scene about this in Evening’s Land:
I was only sixteen. Matthew was twenty. He had a motorcycle, his own house, everything. He knew who he was, where he was going. “What’s wrong?” he’d say.
“I’m confused. This happened so fast, how can you really know who I am? How can you really love me?”
He’d look wounded. “But that’s what we’re doing. We’re finding each other out. That’s what a relationship is.”
“But I mean, you can’t ever really know another person, can you? You just see a couple facets of them. But who they really are, that’s locked up.” I tapped my head. “Bone goblet, no key.”
“What are you saying?”
“I mean maybe the only way you can ever know someone is to grow up together. I think maybe I miss Ada.”
He shrugged. “So call her.”
“What are you doing?”
He was rolling an undershirt into his ball-cap. “Packing,” he said. “Let’s take a trip. You and me. I have to go to Colorado to see a guy, you want to come?”
“They gotta to do a count before they send the courier, I gotta take him this.” Matthew put money in my hand. “What do you think of that?” He grinned, watching my face. “That’s twenty K, how’s it feel?”
I’m hardly in a position to be acting affronted though. It was a great party, we all overdid it- especially me. Our friends chanting, “Paula Paula balla’ balla’ balla’!!”- at one point I was lurching around in the kitchen trying to explain to a lovely, articulate and especially empathetic friend how it would be so much easier if their elderly dogs died.
This is me: “You guys, spend the night!”
T: “Ah, we’d love to, but we have to get home and let the dogs out.”
Me: “Nooo. Wait, wait- I was thinking, do you ever just want them to die? I mean, it would be so much easier, you’d be free…”
T was appalled, but hid it well… “But you see, they’re our children…”
“I mean, I know, but-” Now, what I was trying to work towards was to tell him about this realization I’d had about freedom back in April, when we were dogsitting their sweet pups. I wrote about it:
April 25th, Saturday:
" ...Suddenly it occurred to me, guiltily, how much easier, how much free-er, their lives would be if their dogs were to die. Then they could travel at a moments notice, guilt-free. But conversely, I thought, stirring the pot of syrup, how much less of a home you have, without any animals. And then I realized that to be really and utterly free is to be without a home, without any root in the world.
How sad- really, how lonely, true freedom would be. It is our obligations that weave us to locus, to place."
Of course, what came out instead was “Hrr! Dogs die!”
Foot in mouth… fortunately, most of what I say to my dear, long-suffering friends hardly makes sense anyway, so maybe he took it in stride.
What a funny entry. Am a bit young to be self-referential!
Anyway. With a cold to keep me honest, I was relatively responsible this past weekend: got all on top of office work, so can spend most of the day today working on Savages, which is coming along in fits and starts. Trying to keep myself distracted while feedback on EL trickles slooowly in... want to have a full spectrum of responses to consider when/ if I'm told to revisit it. And patience is not my strong suit...
Dreaming with Jeff.com: Jeff Bridges' sleeping tapes. As amazing and Lynchian as they sound. 'All in this together...'
Inherent Vice: Instant top ten favorite EVER movie. Wow, man- wow. An absolute must see, like twenty times.
Vineland: Of course I pulled my Pynchons down after seeing IV (my copy of that is still with an old friend back in Tucson, alas, but maybe I'll buy another) "She'd been living her childhood in a swamp full of intrigue, where, below, invisible sleek things without names kept brushing past, barely felt sliding across her skin, everybody pretending the surface was all there was."- Thomas Pynchon.
So, so twisty, so viny of course, and good!! I want to try Gravity's Rainbow again now, but he always ends up getting too much into my writing, and so I have to stop. But maybe after I finish the full draft of Savages....
Myers-Briggs Personality Test: There's a lot of fascinating material out there about how your personality type meshes with others, how you fare in relationships with other types, what you tend to do and obsess over, how you'd be at raising kids, etc. It's a little eerie to read, honestly. Mine- INFJ- nailed me right down to the way I worry about getting lost in new places. And tend to get lost in places I should know by now as well. I guess another INFJ trait is looking for 'twin-mindedness,' and combined with idealistm- well, hah! Anyway, would be very useful to utilize the test as I'm sketching out these new characters- maybe I'll take it for each of them, get in there a little deeper.
Here's a shorter version of the same test, supposedly reputable, if you don't have time for the longer one. It's worth doing, though.
Have had a shitty cold, been feeling sorry for myself and wearing this blanket around the house all week. Blaurgh. Now- how about some more pictures of cats, since I'm sick and feel like shit?
"Then I see Nura’s boyfriend walking around outside. Blake. He’s Cat’s best friend- in fact, Cat is how we all met each other, a thousand years ago, or two, depending on how you count it- but let me tell you about Blake. He’s the kind of guy who comes over for dinner and then stays at your house into the next week, only you don’t mind because he just sort of makes a space for himself. Re-upping the beers in the fridge, maybe your cocaine, too, crawling comfortably into bed beside you when you’re watching a movie, always with something good to talk about. But just then I didn’t feel terribly social, unsure, in fact, who had seen what of me last night, and so I drew back into the trees, watching him.
He was going to wash his car; he’d parked the thing in the densest shade beneath the oak trees where the sunlight wouldn’t dry the paint too quickly, splotching things. He loved that fucking car. Even parked, his Yenko has the taut crouch of a racehorse, and I can tell how he’s savoring the slender nubility of her door’s handle as he’s getting out; how, walking away from it he loves the intelligent expression of her headlights and grill the way other people love a breed dog. He’s standing in the garage, looking back at it as he slops car wash soap into the first bucket, already starting to hum without even realizing it.
He filled that bucket and then another with hose water, stopping for a drink, and then he dragged the length of the hose out to the car and stuck his thumb inside the nozzle to blunt the spray and began to wash off the Yenko’s wheels, loosening and softening the dirt before he knelt and put the long, skinny wheel brush to them, working lovingly down between the spokes that were as familiar to him as the keystrokes that bought him the car itself.
Computer code. If that had been his first golden ticket, Nura was his second. Then came the Yenko, which he'd bought not long after. But the Yenko was more than a ticket, a ride. She was both river and sail, a creation so irreducibly perfect Blake could not imagine her as anything other than the sum of her parts.
Yet for years, he’s told me, he’d believed he was shut out from ever being able to participate in such a thing- the Nuras of the world, the Yenkos- if he couldn’t become a success as a ball hero, he didn’t want it any other way.
It had sunk in during Blake’s first year in college that he would never be good enough to go pro. Slowly at first, like Chinese drip torture, and then all at once: the scalding knowledge that he could never be what they called a five-tool player.
One of the luminescent ones the agents hunted for from the stands; no matter how much he trained, he would never be fast enough, he’d never be able to hit for average or power like some of the other guys; his arm was never as strong or accurate as some of the others. The ones for whom it came naturally. Once he started noticing them, the other guys. How many of them there were. It was then that he knew. No way he could go pro.
Only thing was, it had been his entire life, baseball. When that receded, video games flooded in, eclipsing the passage of time like a hungry tide.
“The way the games can dissolve hours, stealing days and then weeks; it’s better than painkillers, better than booze. You walk into the flash and the throb and you don’t have to come back. Or, at least, not very often.” He’d only gotten into app design because finally his father, normally a mild-mannered man, had suddenly gone explosive on him. Blake still remembered the night clearly. It was summer, rain was coming, the barometric pressure had already begun to drop. He could feel that, even in their basement, through their window wells.
He hadn’t looked up when his father came stomping down the stairs, stood there glaring at him. That in itself was not unusual. Blake had been so fixated on his game that he was afraid to breathe too deeply and jumble up a shot. Much less turn to look back at his father-
“So this is what you’re going to do now?” his dad said. “You’re going to sit here and rot like some kind of fungus? Blake. Blake, I’m talking to you, you disgusting maggot. Look!”
“Dad, chill- whoa, what the fuck?”
But his father was gathering up crazy fistfuls of games from the storage cabinet. The plastic cases escaped and fell from his hands, their discs scraping out onto the tile floor.
“Jesus, you’re going to scratch everything, what are you doing? Hey, hey, now you owe me like 400 bucks, that shit is expensive-”
“You will not,” his father roared, “speak to me like that!”
Then Blake had had to chase him out onto the lawn, in the rain, and his father had thrown everything in a pile on the grass and for a confused second he wondered if the old man was going to try to burn it, in the driving rain.
“What the fuck are you doing?” he said, and a moment later, even as the John Deere kicked into gear and its headlights carved shifting tunnels onto the pile of colored plastic, Blake still heard his own voice repeating, in a terrible cringing whine- “Dad, what are you doooing?” and he was ashamed- blinded with anger- ashamed- as the John Deere lurched towards his video games.
He screamed and ran at them, trying to protect them like some deranged mother bird, but his father wouldn’t slow down and there was nothing he could do but run, slipping on the grass, out of the way. Shards of plastic stinging his calves and thighs as the tractor crunched over the pile.
He was screaming so hard he thought that his vocal cords might pop, if vocal cords were capable of such a thing, but he hadn’t cared. Nothing mattered: shrieking, he turned back- and so did his father, again and again, until the little heap was no more than glittering confetti sinking into the mud.
His father stomped back inside, his glasses opaque with rain, mission accomplished, while Blake collapsed over the confetti. His throat was blood-raw. Had he been screaming this whole time? His whole body keened: the games were his reality, his passport, all that he had.
“You owe me 400 bucks!” he screamed again, at the flapping screen door. But eventually, his wet hair clinging to his face like shredded tissue, still clutching the single empty envelope that had escaped the blades, he’d had to go in (and he refused now to ever mow again)
and he’d lain in bed sobbing, without a life.
Now he was smiling, remembering how it was as he cleaned the Yenko’s sidewalls and then rinsed her undercarriage, from various angles. He dumped out both buckets and began again, this time from the top down.
After all, he used to say to himself, who was he if he couldn't be a baseball star? The crack of the bat, the stink of dip and the way it used to light and sing inside them as they went swaggering around in their piped pants- four o’clock sunlight shining down on the unnatural grass, and then the hum of artificial light that enclosed the green diamond from the rest of the world when the sun slid away, hours later- all that had made a kind of shape inside him. He was unrecognizable to himself without it.
Shapeless, full of weird dreams- shoving his hand into the batting glove again and again but now it wouldn’t fit over his fingers; and he was in the hole, they were calling his name- or worse yet, those dreams when he was out in center field, far from all the others. His body was locked in slow-mo while the world sped up around him, as if it had forgotten him. Every dream came on like a fresh and inescapable hell.
Shapeless time. The hours like bottomless sacks he could never fill. Gone too, was the effortless camaraderie with the other players. He couldn’t face them any more than he could watch a ball-game on TV. Just the sight of the bright green playing field made his gut knot up and twist off into cramps, like a bad case of shits.
The difference, of course, was that it refused to leave his body: his bitter truth of not being good enough, of not being special. For example. His hands lacked that magical loosiness that, in combination with power, could turn a man into a great hitter. He wasn’t especially fast, or strong, or even cunning. All he’d had was the desire to be those things.
His coach even took him aside once. “Rice, kid, sit down. Sit the fuck down, you listening to me? Kid, I’m gonna tell you the truth and save you some years, way I wish somebody had me. You just don’t have it, kid. All right?” Ol’ Coach, buzzed on beers and tired and honest because he was getting divorced and had lost his faith in everything- so why shouldn’t everyone have it straight- “You hearin’ me, Rice?”
“You’re a good guy, Rice. You’ll be all right.” As if Blake could only be as relieved to hear the truth as Coach had been to tell it to him.
Now Blake was drinking from the hose, relishing the brightness of the day. So bright you slit your eyes against it. How about a beer? It was always whispering to you in the summertime, coming down with the sunshine: how good a beer might taste, nice and crisp and tingling in your blood as it worked inside you, knocking off tension and hang-ups the way a wheel brush knocked dirt off a tire. Invisible dirt, that was the worst kind, the most corrosive. The brake-dust and heartaches and bushy longings that grew up tall in South Carolina, shining down as it did on the houses and yachts of billionaires and their gorgeous untouchable daughters.
He came inside and I slunk around behind the cabinet as he grabbed up an armful of High Lifes, thinking there was no one awake in the kitchen to judge him.
(it was only nine in the morning, but it was summer, you know, and he was washing his Yenko, no judgements from me)
When he went back out he clicked on the radio, he walked back out onto the grass and pulled out the windshield wipers, one-handing them into their propped position away from the glass as he drank. He soaked the mitt in the soapy water and sopped it over the car in gentle circles, over the paint that was was as blue-dark and cool as those moments right before a thunderstorm, when you busted your ass getting inside the screen door just before sheets of rain began to fall down in those big relentless blades shattering down like panes of cold glass, scattering mud and flowers and broken plastic into the air like colored birdshot. It was the hard blue of midnight.
He worked in circles around the car, moving from the top down, washing her gently with the hose between rounds to keep everything wet until he’d finished and would dry her by hand.
I wondered how he remembered the years he’d dissolved into video games. The worlds he’d seen there, and the wars he’d fought and the women in them, how at some point it must all have begun to seem real, or real enough. That was when he disappeared from the ordinary world, anyway. He hid from us on his birthday, even deleted the day from Facebook, not wanting anyone to be able to keep score.
Sometimes in the silence, he told me, he could hear familiar voices. Eerie, small, maybe just a particularly malevolent strain of tinnitus-
“Let’s see… he’s what, twenty-six, twenty-seven? And he’s done… nothing, he still lives at home…?”
“All he does is play video games. His dad has to take him down his dinner at night or he forgets to eat.”
Not that he could fool himself. One November and then another mowed by and Blake was forced to admit his life had stalled. Now suppose, just suppose, it never got started again? Suppose fifty Novembers from now, he’d be standing as an old man looking back down that long tunnel of months, knowing that his young self was all the time going to turn into the older one, still sitting in the same place on the couch (sitting deeper and deeper) never going anywhere. That all of it, every breath and lunch and every doubt- that all the long collapsing tunnel of his life would be pointless, to no important end.
But after his games were mowed into pieces, leaving him broke and with nothing to do, open stretches of time gave him palpitations. So he slid into an obsession with social media instead. Fiddling with things, it turned out he liked that. Fiddling with stats, with this and that, and like a duck taking to water he learned code, almost without his own noticing. He built his first app, Statstalk, in just under two weeks. It was a tool that allowed him to keep tabs on all the hits received on his various social media outlets. With a click he could see not only where they came from, he could see who was looking.
The next part happened so quickly it hadn’t seemed real. A bidding war between the government and a billionaire in San Francisco. Always a bit of an idealist, Blake chose the billionaire, and for a little less money, too- and suddenly he was famous. Anyway, for a moment he was. Now he was just rich.
He stood back, observing the fat water droplets form on the Yenko’s paint with satisfaction. He rinsed the mitt and picked up the second, older one to use on the undercarriage.
And how bout Nura, he might have thought then, cracking another High Life. He still couldn’t entirely believe his luck in having her. The way they’d had happened was nothing short of miraculous. The way she’d dropped a smile on him as they crossed on the sidewalk. She was on her phone, chattering happily at an invisible friend, and had loosed on him that unguarded smile the way summer sun glints off a windshield.
And to top everything, Nura’s light just happened to fall over him the very day he’d accepted the billionaire's bid, and so- almost not recognizing himself!- Blake had turned on his heel and asked her to come celebrate with him. He could have just as easily gone down on his knees right there, not needing to know anything else about Nura besides that careless, glittering smile that was like your favorite song spilling out of a well-lit bar. But of course in that moment how could he have known how rarely Nura smiled- how could he?
“Do me the honor of celebrating a guy’s brand-new status in the millionaire’s club? By which I mean, me- I’m rich?!” he said to her, laughing as he said it.
And she’d laughed, too, of course she had, incredulous. And then she let him buy her a sandwich, and then an ice cream, and then a fancy dinner that same night. And like that, she was his.
But deep inside himself he knew he was just an ordinary man, one who’d stumbled onto the right idea at the right time. He’d captured a goddess with the same blind luck as some idiot in a myth. His own private goddess; his immortal chariot, and both of them bought with stolen time. How long could it last?
Sooner or later Nura’d realize the truth about him. That probably he’d never get as lucky as he had with Statstalker again. And then she would leave him, she’d be out the door. After all, he was a normal. She was otherworldly. Nura loved to strive the way a racehorse loves to run. She was like a movie star, lean and wild and unknowable, always going places. He couldn’t conceive of growing old with her, much less Nura’s ever actually being old. In some ways being with her was like playing another video game. Real, but not quite real.
Glittering, undeserved, at his side like a dark star.
He gave the car another rinse and then took a squeegee to it, a California Jelly Blade made from medical grade silicone, only the best for his Yenko. Last of all he dried the machine with a square of chamois that was as soft as a woman’s arm. The car winked back, absorbing his attentions as though they were her very birthright. And they were, of course, a Yenko is a minor deity.
And yet… when he was honest with himself, what was wrong in wanting a woman you could feel comfortable with? A woman who was maybe something more like a Volvo? Simple and unquestioning, a man could feel safe with a woman like that. What was wrong with wanting to feel safe? Nothing, that’s what. Not yet, but someday...
Someday. Not just yet. There was a time for Yenkos, and there was a time for Volvos. Whistling, he came inside, and I used the opportunity to dart across the lawn and run in through another door.
People were starting to move around the house. I slipped upstairs to my weaving room with my cooling coffee, wanting to avoid any conversation before I started working. I sat at my stool like a spider taking its seat at the web, feeling an awareness, a delicious ESP, extending out around me in all directions of the house: here a pulse, as Cat turned over in his bed, sighing at the dawn of another day; there a pulse, as Nura stretched out lazily in the wicker room with her sketch-pad.
As Blake walked through the kitchen, pleasantly loose-limbed and certainly not feeling any pain, when he saw Nura folded up with a sketch-book in one of the wicker chairs in the sun-room, he grinned at her in spite of himself, in spite of all the fights they’ve had recently, that much she told me later- he sauntered into the room and Nura gave him one of her almond-eyed smiles, and then the cat came out from beneath her chair, all cobwebby, smiling up at him, too.
The cat stretched and yawned, her arching pink tongue saw-toothed bright in her black face. Anyone who thinks size doesn't matter should consider the implications of a housecat suddenly become twenty times its size. Certainly a cat is an instrument of death and destruction if any has ever walked the earth. But Queenie was no bigger than a football, which endeared her to everyone she ever met, except anything that smaller than her- kittens, anoles, bare toes. She was a brisk and efficient assassin, ‘nice to know ya- no hard feelings, pal, yer what’s for dinner.’
Queenie leapt up beside Nura, scratched quickly at the arm of the wicker chair to create a cool, sandy debris for a nest, and then lay down.
“Girl-baby makes her own shade,” Blake said.
“She’s a snake-killer, too,” Nura said, idly. “Good ol’ Queenie.”
“What you working on, babe?” He sat, and Nura showed him her sketchpad. A tomb-like structure, two thick-bodied snakes squiggling over the top of it. He traced over them lightly with his finger, and she jerked back slightly, worried he would smudge it. “Hell, why not three snakes?” he said.
She turned the paper sideways, squinting at it, falling right into his trap. “You know what, you’re right. It does need a couple more.”
He crumpled his beer can. “Why can’t two be enough, Nura?”
“Blake. You have to love with open hands. Stop worrying so much about what’s in it for you, what’s coming back to you. Just love. Let it all out.”
“You're making this all mumbo jumbo, but really you just want to fuck other people.”
Nura looked at him. “Yeah, I really do, Blake.”
He stood quickly and left the room. His beer can gleamed at her accusingly from the floor. She kicked it through the doorway and resumed her sketch, drawing a third, fourth, fifth snake draping over the tomb’s face.
Blake, Blake. Nura wasn’t the kind of girl who could make him happy. She didn’t care about making him happy- and she didn’t want to care. If there’d been any chance she’d grow up to be a breeder, that had shriveled up and died like a salted snail when she went home to visit her sister a few weeks ago.
Nadya had crapped out four brats in a row. Their incessant screaming and whining, their idiot conversations; all that had thrown salt on Nura’s womb. She’d said as much to Nadya, too.
“But who will love you when you are old then, if you do not have a family?” Nadya said to her, stiffening.
“That’s a stupid reason to have children. Because you are afraid no one will love you later in life? I want to further society in ways besides just contributing to its population. There’s enough of you doing that.” No, there was no guarantee family would love you when you were old; Nura did not love hers. Visits home were a mistake, a waste of time. Maybe she would make no more, that’s what she told me.
Nura looked at her sketch. Family, bah! There was far more comfort in art and nature and warmth. Warmth! Warmth itself is a gift, whether it came from the sun or from a man. Or from this glass of tea. Smiling to herself, she sipped, shading in small, perfectly rectangular marks along the scaly backs of one viper and then another. Yes, art and silence and warmth- that was enough."
-excerpt from Savages
Haven't decided whether I'll keep this framework for this chapter or not... I've got some chapters oscillating between first POV & third, but so far only one narrator. But that changes for me, and rapidly, as you know all too well.
Am a bit in love: Peacetime, by Luke Mogelson.
Awesome story. I love this sort of writing, all- sort of bitter and surreal and protags being unflinching with themselves, witnessing themselves-
"I was living in the armory on Lexington Avenue. First Sergeant Diaz had given me the keys. I slept on a cot in the medical-supply closet. “Two weeks, max,” I’d told Diaz. But as the months went by I kept postponing a reunion with my wife. I was comfortable where I was. The armory took up an entire city block. There were secret passageways, subterranean firing ranges, a gym with an elliptical. At night, if drunk, I connected to a bag of saline. I always woke up hydrated. I never had a hangover.
It was peacetime, more or less. It was for us, the New York National Guard, at least. Between drills, I worked as a paramedic for a hospital in Queens. My partner on the ambulance, Karen, had applied to the police academy. She wanted to be a detective. This, for me, was troublesome: as a rule, from every residence we visited I took stuff. Not valuable stuff. Small stuff. A spoon, say, or a refrigerator magnet. I’d never been caught. Still, ever since she sat for the civil-service exam Karen had been acting leery. Once, while checking for prescriptions in a diabetic man’s bathroom, I came across a plastic hand mirror, pink with black polka dots. I was about to shove it down my pants when I glimpsed Karen in its glass..."
I've been loving hot, gooey 6 minute eggs for breakfast (amazingly my boiling privileges have not been revoked) but forgot them in the sink all morning and now, having found them again, they are cold... sadness.
Finished smoothing in all the new stuff yesterday, and rejiggered the ending. This new ending was slow in coming, so hard to wait for, because if you've got a shitty, disappointing ending, no matter how delicious the preceding pages, well you've got a shitty, disappointing book. (The Club Dumas, The Man Who was Thursday*, I'm looking at you.) *Andrew read this to me out loud when we first started dating :) o, his radio voice!
So I hope this one's more satisfying (haunting). We'll see. I've started sending the thing off to friendly eyes. So now I bite my nails, play frantic catch up with my day job. Maybe pick up on Savages again. I've been told to check out Don Winslow's handling of a big cast of characters first, so will have to read that soon.
Anyway, I learned some cool stuff when I was squirreling around, trying to figure out how to rejigger my ending. In our world, as you know, we have a podcast for everything, and I am the podcast queen. This one started off kind of slow, but towards the ending it had all kinds of ideas going off in my head. Some key points in it for me were:
1. You want an unexpected but inevitable ending (Flannery O'Connor)
2. The ending is already written in your book somewhere.
3. For shapely fiction, don't remove the sense of conflict and tension at the end. This should live on to haunt your reader- but you still need to tie up your narrative arc.
4. Last of all, and the scariest: The last line should be a flashlight; when you reach it, it should illuminate the whole thing.
So how about a little something from my book to leave you with, huh?
This is from Chapter 7, one of the new ones written from Faye's perspective. (I had to change her name to Faye from Nell, as there were two N-starting names in EL.)
April 9th, 2011
So Ada’d gotten in a fight at school with Jenna Hazel because Jenna had called her a freaky-eyed slut, and at the end of it Ada had a black eye, but Jenna had two. After that, Ada was instant friends with Jenna’s ex, an older boy named Matthew Blue we’d heard legends about for years, and now we were at his party.
The other guy who lived there called himself Witchhazel. The two of them were small time pot dealers: glass and charred buds were everywhere, but their place smelled meaty and herbal from smudged sage, and an incongruously good pottery collection was ranged along the tops of the adobe walls. Mobiles of driftwood and dried chiles hung from all the doorways, and a big cougar-colored cat bellied up to everyone as they came in through the door.
Ada picked the cat up and snuggled him against her as we stood there, looking into the dark. The house was cool and cave like. There was a humidifier, blankets and beanbags. A small television crouched in one corner, an old Nintendo spidering out in front of it, and Witchhazel, some scary chola girls I didn’t know, and Matthew Blue were all sitting there, hiding their hands.
"Nice place," Ada said, into the room. Her black eye looked kind of jaunty and she knew it.
Matthew Blue was curved low in his chair, as long and thin as a bean, his blue watch cap tugged rakishly over one eye. He nodded over at us faintly, too cool to stand up.
“The sugarbears are here!” Witchhazel said. He came over for a hug, and I saw he had a nasal strip wrapped around one finger as a band-aid. He smelled like mildew. I made myself small in his arms, trying not to touch him.
“Ain’t we sugarbears?” one of the cholas said from the beanbags. Picking at her long, pierced nails. “Mijo, please.”
“Nice shiner, girl,” Witchhazel said, ignoring her.
“Thanks,” Ada said.
In one of the back rooms I could see people with spoons and needles. I kept looking all around me, everywhere except the single place I wanted to look.
He was at ASU now, but the stories about him still trickled through high school like blowing sand. He was one of those beautiful, wolfish boys who always seem to be ranging along the perimeters, infamous for coming up with one crazy scheme after another. In grade school you used to hear about him stealing candy from the concession stand, selling it to everybody at half price. He led the kids in Barrio Hollywood in making a conveyer system through the sewer drains from pulleys and skateboards.
They’d spent that whole summer rolling through their neighborhoods blasting super-soakers in through the windows of passing cars - and then it became a high speed weed delivery system, which led to Matthew’s first run-in with the cops. Everybody said that when they’d caught him, and the officer asked him what he had to say for himself - Matthew had reached out and tickled the man’s belly.
His dad was a lawyer who collected fine wines; Matthew filched them to drink in the secret hallway behind the theatre room. He used to tag all the cool kids to go back there with him between classes.
Matthew loved to test his limits like a wolf loves to run. And here we were, a couple lambs running to slaughter. More people came in and the music cranked up. Witch poured us a drink and Ada went off somewhere, and I was sucked into a confused conversation with some stoners about caving. Finally I skittered outside and found her again. I had begun to feel so anxious that I felt inhuman and buoyant, my body filling with beating wings. I could hardly hear what anyone was saying anymore.
Ada was with Matthew, the two of them standing close, sucking down cigarettes, laughing hard. A knob of painted wire was sticking out from the adobe wall and I pulled on it shyly, watching them together. They made a matched set. The both of them Homecoming Court pretty, but in their feral ways: Matthew lean and tall, with sly brown eyes like he wasn’t quite ever letting you in; Ada with her slinky ticks, her knowing gaze, her laugh as sharp as a blade. Oh, she was terrifyingly pretty, even with that muddied eye. Suddenly I wondered that we’d even been able to find one another in the first place.
How many people never find their missing piece, never even know she exists? You could be walking right past her every day and never even realize. Never even recognize her, your other half, your very closest of friends.
But in that heartbeat it began to seem to me that there was an unimpeachable gulf between Ada and I after all. She was handling this, was made for this. Cool college parties, talking to older boys in the dark. And I was not. I was frozen somewhere outside myself, witnessing myself there as if I were only half real. I turned to go back in, maybe even to leave.
Then Matthew Blue glanced over at me. “Hey, it’s Faye, right?” he said. As easy as that.
I nodded, wrapping my arms around myself with a shimmering happiness. “Can I have one of those?” I said, joining them.
Matthew’s eyebrows slid up and one side of his face went into a smile. It was a habit of his, that lopsided smile. We were just kids, but his habit was already starting to crease his face in a way that made me think of old-school Westerns; men wearing stars and black hats.
“You smoke?” he said, incredulous.
“Oh, I’m just an opportunist,” I said, shyly, taking one.
“Kids these days,” he said.
Ada grinned at me around her hand and the floating ember of her cigarette lit up like a firefly. She had these deliciously secretive ways of doing everything, Ada could make eating a cheeseburger seem mysterious. “You have to watch out for Faye, she’s a wild one,” she said to Matthew. “She bites.” Smiling, I copied the way Ada was holding her smoke, leaning towards her, and she lit mine with hers. “Go easy,” she said, and she wasn’t just talking about the cigarette.
But I pretended not to know what she meant. She wanted Matthew for herself, but Ada was always reeling in boys. There was something about Matthew that made me feel both still and trembly inside. A new feeling. I wanted to know what it was.
“What’s this, you bite too?” Matthew said to me. “Jesus christ, and here I had you pegged as a sweet little angel, my mistake…”
“You have no idea.” Ada grinned and rolled her eyes up at the sky, and I knew she’d decided to let me have him.
“Oh, god,” I said, inhaling tentatively. The smoke tasted strange, poisonous. I felt it curl all through my veins, and dizzy little sparks went off in my head. The side of the adobe looked rheumy in the dark; thick and milky, like a spiked milkshake, as if decades of people had stood here smoking in the dark. I wondered if the place had ever been clean.
“Okay, well first off- I’ve always loved biting people,” I said, and Matthew laughed.
We were drinking wine out of red plastic cups, and he poured some of his into mine, smiling.
“That moment when you first sink your teeth in,” I said, covering my glass with my hand to stop him, laughing, “I used to have these passionate dreams about it. Chasing my enemies down and just sinking my teeth into them. It was incredibly satisfying. Biting slow and deep into somebody who’s all springy, slightly resistant; hot, salty.”
“You’re a cannibal,” Matthew said, and wasn’t sure what to do with his face.
“Men for breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Ada said. She looked careless and abstracted, shoving her hand through her red hair. Hardly listening. She’d heard this story a million times before. She knew how much I liked to tell it, though.
“So maybe I was some kind of jungle thing in a past life- okay, anyway, so we’re on the playground, Ada and me, and out of nowhere I just turn and attack this kid-
“Robbie,” Ada said.
“-like, I flew at him, at Robbie, the back of his head, and knock him to the ground. And I bit him really hard, and then I kind of came to, and he’s screaming and crying, and then I remember just standing there, sort of astonished at the fact of my own brutal efficacy, the way I’d just- bam!-dispatched him. Like in my dreams, you know? I think maybe that was the first time I ever got in trouble in my whole life. Ms. Hernandez, she was crazy-appalled. She yelled at me, put me in time-out. The way they did that in Catholic school, you had to stand next to the chain link fence and hold on to it for the rest of recess. Remember, Ada?”
“Yeah. Pretty sure I bleached out a couple of the rungs, they made me stand there so many times.”
“So I’m standing there crying, while Robbie goes limping back to kickball, all like, shocked and shaky. I mean, nobody saw that coming, I straight up leapt on him out of nowhere.”
“In sum, you’re a psycho,” Matthew said, his eyes soft.
“I guess, man. Little bit.”
“With an angel’s face. I think I like that.” He blew smoke at me, smiled. There were tiny smile lines etched at the corners of his eyes. "I'm surprised you girls came here, you know? This isn’t the kind of place a guy usually meets girls like you.”
"We like to say yes," I said, and Ada was silent, letting me talk. She knew why I’d bitten Robbie, what had happened to me the night before.
"I'll try to make it so you never have to say no, then," Christopher said, seriously.
“What makes you think you know anything about me?"
"I'm in the business of knowing about people," Matthew said. He looked at me, smiling lazily, and then he looked up at the sky. “The first girl I ever loved was crazy.”
“Jenna?” Ada said.
“Hazel? No, Jenna was just-” he waved his hand. “You guys don’t know her. This is a girl, she and I were kids together. She broke my heart, fair and square.”
“I think once you’ve experienced love, you should just push it away. So that it never becomes tainted, you know? Love is like a drug. You get addicted. You start to need it, and then you get weak, you get vulnerable,” I said. But I could already feel things inside me rearranging themselves as I looked at him, and I knew I was lying.
“No, I think love is selfless,” Matthew said, slowly. “I think that’s the point. It’s not about pleasure or even pain. It’s about giving yourself up to something larger-”
“Sounds very impressive, Mr. Blue,” Ada said.
“But that sounds like an addiction,” I said. “And what if you choose the wrong person, and then you waste your whole life loving them, refusing to see that your person is nothing like what you believe them to be?”
“But you can’t always try to control things, mama,” Ada said. “We can’t control anything. The moment you realize that is the moment you get the real power. Being comfortable with uncertainty, being able to operate that way, when everything around you is in chaos. To be able to take events in hand…”
I didn’t know what she was talking about.
“No one’s perfect,” Matthew said, waving her words to the side. He was talking just to me, I realized. Intently, as if it were just the two of us, standing there in the warm dark.
“People aren’t archetypes,” he said. “I mean, you don’t know me well, so maybe I seem that way to you now. I’m just a fucking drug dealer, right? But we’re all just people, in the end. And the flaws are what is important, maybe what’s most important of all—because once you decide to look past the flaws and love the person that’s there inside—and they love you in return, in that same way—you’ve both crossed this kind of threshold; you’ve found real love. And then you go on holding up your image of them like a flame, because you love them so much. You show them their best self and help them rise up to fulfill their potential. And whether or not they ever actually achieve their full potential doesn’t matter; it’s the journey, learning how to love, how to become, that’s the point.”
I smiled at him. The scent of creosote hung in the air between us, and somewhere a bird was singing out its night cry again and again.
“We live in a world of non-love, that’s why people are so obsessed with it, that’s why we see it so clearly,” Ada said, looking around. She shook her hair and then began to stack it on top of her head in a lopsided bun, the ash from her cigarette tilting wildly.
I reached for her just as her hand went back down safely. Her hair fell over her face and she grinned happily.
"We should celebrate," she said. "Just us and old Reverend Moon. There's something happening here. Right? Something about this place, the two of you. You kids. This moment." She lifted her cigarette and moved it in a sign of the cross in front of us. “Don’t ever forget this.”
“Let’s get you some water,” Matthew said. He moved back and held open the door, grinning at her fondly. Then we we were all standing around blinking in the kitchen, and it was like returning to earth after having thought maybe you’d escaped it.
Witchhazel was sitting on the oven, talking to a chola girl. He was wearing yellow ostrich cowboy boots.
“Can we shower?” Ada said to him, abruptly.
Witch blushed. “Of course, just go through there. But it’s, um, kind of a mess.”
“That’s cool,” she said, and I had to follow her.
I hoped Matthew was behind us. For a while I felt him there; his gaze on my neck, and then it fell away, and I knew she and I were alone.
The rafters in Witch’s bedroom were strung with drying herbs and there was some weird kind of altar above his mattress. Action figures, skulls. Dirty black sheets, his bed unmade, cheesy tapestries pinned over the windows. And Matthew was gone.
Witch’s bathroom didn’t have a door. I slid up onto the bathroom counter and squirted toothpaste on my finger while Ada examined the shower skeptically.
I could see from where I sat that it looked slimy. Long black hairs were pasted on all the walls and on the soap. The shampoo was uncapped, lying empty on the shower floor next to a dead, knotted-up spider.
"Huh," Ada said.
She was instantly herself again now that we were alone, and I realized that her stony act had been to get me away from Matthew. Had I made her jealous?
“I think maybe ol’ Witch isn’t really a showering kind of guy, you know?” she said.
"I don’t know, but no fucking way am I going in there,” I said.
“Dude, we have to. We smell like pot, your mom will kill us.”
She turned on the faucet.
“Why, do you want to go home already? It’s not even-” I flapped my hands around. I didn’t know what time it was.
The water groaned through the pipes and came out smelling sour. The room began to fill with steam as Ada undressed.
“So what do you think of Matthew?” she said, innocently.
I wriggled, grinning helplessly. I folded my legs up, dropped them again.
“He’s... a city I’d like to visit,” I said.
Ada smiled to herself quietly. “He likes you,” she said.
Then I saw the long, angry cuts on Ada’s legs, high on her thighs. They were purple at their edges, and deep.
“Ada… what the fuck? You fucking promised!”
“Jesus.” She turned away. “I have. It was just-” She stepped into the shower, waving her hand at me. “Sometimes I still need to, that’s all.”
“Whatever.” I slipped out, pissed. As I left she was still talking, making promises. Assuming I would be still standing there. Like always. Ada would never have imagined I’d just walk away from her like that. I never had before. But the things rearranging themselves in me, one of them was a long thin cord, and it had snapped. It truly creeped me out, her fucking cutting.
“I’m not sick,” she’d say; but it was. She was tempting out a beast I knew by name. That ashy dreamless sea drawn down by girls with their knives, by men with blackened spoons- and by the end of this story I will be sundered there, but Ada was always made for the bright shore.
I didn’t want the darkness for her. For her to slip and fall, irretrievable, into my sea. I used to worry sometimes that I’d somehow infected her, that what was bad in me had found her out, too.
When I first learned about Ada’s cutting- swapping dresses, a warm spring day- she cried and cried, and then we talked about it for hours. She promised me she would stop, but she never did. We’d talk about it again. And again. Now, buzzing with something I knew wasn’t entirely anger, I stood in the bedroom doorway, looking for Matthew.
He was in the kitchen, talking to some Latina I didn’t recognize. She looked like she was from Phoenix; a beautiful, tea-colored Barbie with a tight-packed bounce beneath her micro-dress. Her long, glossy black hair was curled into shapely ringlets, twin wrist dermals glinted delicately against her perfect skin. They were laughing, standing close.
What was he saying to her, I’ll make it so you never have to say no-?
Hot-faced, I turned back into the bedroom, feeling like an idiot. Then suddenly someone had my hand, was winding his fingers into it. Matthew. I threw his hand away.
“Don’t go,” he said, pulling me to him.
The pressure in the hallway seemed to change around us as if the floor had dropped out and he were breathing up all my air. “Just-”
"Dance with me, Faye," he said.
"It wasn't a question. I'm trying to make it so you never have to say no. Remember?"
“You’re a fucking player,” I muttered, but Matthew knew what he was doing. He fitted me to him gently and folded his arm around me so that I automatically curled into his arms, just as if I belonged there. Then he lifted his arm again, so that I spun, and we were dancing, stepping, turning, laughing, and the girl in the kitchen watched us quietly.
His face, when it touched mine, was very warm. "You're beautiful," he said. "Tell me about a time when you were happy." We were electrically close. "Tell me," he said.
I tried to think, shook my head. "I’m happy now,” I murmured. Because I didn’t deserve this, whatever was happening- although- would it be crazy to enjoy it while it lasted? Or would that only make it all worse?
"You're running from something," he said. "Something in your head. Or is it… something in your future? What is it that you don’t want to do?"
"Please don't... tell me about myself. Stop."
He touched my face again. This time he didn’t take his hand away. "Hey, it’s okay. I won’t. We're all running from something. But how old are you, anyway?"
I tried to laugh. It sounded fake and dumb. "I'm growing up as fast as I can," I said. Then I tried to pull away again, but he still wouldn't let me, as if I were a bird he’d caught with his bare hands.
"You're young. You're so young."
"I know. I know." I shook myself free. “You keep telling me about myself, why do you-”
"I can take you home. Do you want me to take you home? Let me do that."
“I don’t want to go home.”
"There’s a lot of people here. Let's go somewhere," he said.
Matthew’s bedroom was cleaner than Witch’s. He had books, maps. More than one laptop open on his desk, I’d never seen anyone with more than one laptop.
"Little lost Faye," he said. He kissed each of my eyelids.
"I'm not any of those things," I said, but I was saying one thing and doing another, and he wasn’t listening to a word I said.
"What, you’re not even a Faye? You're cute." He stroked my hair, and pleasure slipped through me. He felt so good.
"You were going to tell me about something happy," Matthew said.
"You're insistent, is what you are," I said.
"Don't you know about me? I get what I want.”
"And what you want now is a bedtime story?" I murmured.
He squeezed me.
"I'm not good at stories. You want Ada for that."
"Story," he said, snuggling me. “And the one I want is you. Not Ada.”
"I remember... being nine or ten. With Ada.”
“We were at her grandparents place in the country for a week or something, and her dad sent us out with this big bag and some scissors. We were supposed to cut down musk thistles. This invasive species, you know? But we found this creek instead, and some tadpoles, and then there was this cow skull, too, and she was telling me about how one time, she’d been out there all alone and she found all these massive bodies, all lying in a row- cows that had been struck by lightning. Then all at once it was really late, and there was a storm coming in. You know how you can feel it in the air sometimes? And we were totally, completely lost."
"Wait, what, this is a happy story?" Matthew said.
I laughed. "Worried you won't get what you want?"
"Never. I always get what I want. Trust me."
"Hush then. So we're out there all alone, and the wind's picking up. It's dark, and we're crossing this huge mud bank, because Ada is sure it's a shortcut back to the cabin, and what do I know, right? So there's all this mud, and the moon, and us, and these coyotes start crying and screaming. And they sounded loud, like they were really close by, and Ada starts fucking telling me this story about how sometimes coyotes do come after little kids, which I didn’t know. So then we're terrified, right? We’re running, and our shoes get sucked off in the mud. And there was something, right then, about that moment that was perfect. That's my moment. Running through the mud, not knowing what was going to happen. I felt utterly alive."
"Maybe you like to be lost," he said.
"Maybe I do."
All my life I’ve wanted be somewhere else; someone else. I did like to be lost. When I was lost I forgot who I was. I could be anyone. As a kid I used to walk around reading a book until I didn’t know where I was.
I wanted to be so lost that when I looked up, I couldn’t recognize anything around me. This meant I had to walk a long time. Then I had to give in and knock on people’s doors to ask them if they would take me home. You’d be surprised how happy you can make people when you ask them to come to your rescue, if you just ask for it in just the right way, so who was I to deprive them?
I had other hobbies, too. I’d slide into unlocked cars whenever I found them. Sit at the wheel, breathing what it felt to be someone else. I stole things. Kept them, looked at them, knowing how my own action had unfastened that of someone else’s, turning theirs loose in the world to float like a ghost. Secrets, lost actions. A true map of the world would show all the lies.
"Lucky me." Matthew kissed me lightly. "You've got a lovely taste," he said, "and a lovely touch, and I'm glad I found you.” He kissed me again, and I kept my eyes open, watching him. His expression was so tender I couldn't believe it. With his eyes closed he looked young and sweet and his lips were like wine. Somehow he sucked all my breath away and the next thing I knew we were crushed together. I felt my heart tremble wildly.
“I wonder what will happen next?" He touched my mouth softly, as if I were a rare and delicate flower he did not want to crush, and then he bit his thumb. “I think I know.”
“You’re such a hippie,” I said.
Someone pounded on his door. We ignored it.
The pounding got louder.
“What?” Matthew said, sharply.
And then I could tell we both had the same thought at the same time, that maybe the cops were here. I looked at his window and wondered if there were cacti underneath it, because somehow I’d lost my shoes.
“It’s Ada, let me in!”
“Uh-” Matthew said.
I looked at him. “It’s fine, mamacita, I-”
Ada threw open the door. Her face was hot and wild like I’d never seen it. “What the fuck? You ditched me- there wasn’t a door, and some fucking guy came in.” She was close to tears. Her shirt was soaked. I could picture the scene. Some handsy drunk guy, and Ada trying to fend him off, to dress herself and escape. Alone and vulnerable. Because of me.
“Oh gosh, I’m sorry, I didn’t-”
She flung my hands away. “It was fucked up. I’m going home.”
I didn’t say anything.
“Okay,” Ada said. “You’re staying.” She looked at Matthew and then back at me, her eyes hardening into golden nails. “Okay, fuck you, bye.”
She closed the door. Quietly, and that was worst of all. I felt like eggshell. We’d never had a fight before.
But I was mad at her, too. Because now, after all, she was the one ditching me, and I turned to Matthew shakily, I wanted to grind myself against someone’s metal, wear myself down.
"You said you knew what would happen next," I said. “Tell me.”
“Are you okay?” he said.
"Whatever. I have to go."
He grabbed me, laughing. "Hey princess, wait.”
“Do not call me that.”
“No, stay with me, she’ll be fine. How about this? I'll write it down. I'll write down everything that's going to happen. But you have to promise me you won't read it yet."
I paused. "Okay."
He took one look at me and laughed. I was still hot-eyed and pissed, distracted.
"Ah... jesus. You girls. You'll read it as soon as you have your hot little paws on it, just for something to do. So I’ll tell you what. I'll write it down and then I’ll mail it to myself tomorrow. So you can see from the postmark that I really wrote it all down, like I said I would. And when it's time, I'll give it you."
"How will I know it's the same envelope?"
"You can kiss the seal."
He had to go out into the kitchen to find paper. When he told people what he was doing, the beautiful girl loaned me her lipstick. "I hope it's something really nice," she said.
"Thanks. Me too."
Matthew sat at the table, writing. He smiled at me.
"He's cute," she whispered. “I think he really likes you.” She had wide-set eyes and a clear, innocent expression. What were all of us doing there, at that dirty place in the dark?
"I like him," I said, suddenly aware of how I must look to her. Dishevelled, pale-faced, barefoot. I don’t know. Maybe they thought I belonged there.
Matthew stood up and walked over, folding the paper into the envelope, and the way he did it with such precision without even needing to look down gave me little butterflies- oh, good with his hands- and he gave me the paper to kiss, and I did.
My heart was drenched in wine. I stayed and stayed.
Pauline West's first novel, EVENING’S LAND, is winner of the Helene Wurlitzer Foundation Award and recipient of the Carol Marie Smith Memorial Scholarship for the NOEPE Center of Literary Arts.
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