Serialized short story: On the Way to My Grave (Part 3)

Hi there! Here’s part 3 of a longish short story I wrote about 5 or 6 years ago called On the Way to My Grave.

Part 2 is here.

Part 1 is here.

……………………………………………………………………………………

Where to start? “Ma’am, are you Brett Denson’s mother?”

“I am,” she said. I tried to get a feel for her emotions. Would she slam the door, call the cops, threaten to sue, or tell me she doesn’t know what the hell I’m talking about, Brett’s downstairs playing Grand Theft Auto?

“I’m Tony Bright, the singer and guitarist of a band called Strangle Taffy. Your son. Uh, he was a fan of mine and wrote me a letter talking about his… unhappiness. I didn’t get it until Monday. When I heard what happened I came to express my condolences.”

She stared, dumbstruck. Then a grateful, melancholy smile broke through. “Please come in.”

When I stepped into her humble but neat home—which is a lot nicer than my molding row house—she said, “I can’t believe you took the time to come out here. My son was a huge fan of your music. This is such an honor.”

The phrase, “Benefit concert for Brett,” unfurled like a banner across my mind. I could perform it on Saber Cat field, or whatever they call it.

We hugged, like it was natural, and she offered a Diet Coke.

I said no thank you, and, as if we’d discussed it, she led me to the center of the house. “This is Brett’s room,” she said, touching the door. I didn’t ask her why her 26-year-old son had still lived with his mom. Then she pushed, and before I could check my reaction, I braced myself for bloodstains and police tape. She saw me flinch and said, “It happened in the basement.”

Over the bed hung a Strangle Taffy poster. A record label promo. We never got famous enough to sell posters in a store.

Sharon Denson read me. “Coach gave him that for making the game-saving tackle against ‘Ridge the year we won the championship.”

“Your football coach gives posters of my band to his players?”

Sharon took my arm. “Pounce was our theme song that year. The players took the field to it every game.”

“What?”

Pounce, like most rock songs, is a thinly veiled metaphor for getting laid. In case you don’t remember, it went (and I cringe): Pounce! I’m cummin’ round. Pounce! You’re going down. Bang Bang. Hey! Bang Bang. Hey! I suppose, if you have an innocent mind, it could sound like it was about-

“Saber Cats,” she said. “Cats pounce. That’s why Coach used it.” She directed my attention to the opposite wall. A framed team photo hung above the dresser. “That’s Brett,” she said, pointing.

The kids all looked the same. Nothing like the beefy, salt-and-pepper haired man standing to the far left in the picture. Coach. The guy who made me a rock star in Collingwood, Pennsylvania for one high-school football season. I should have collected royalties.

“Oh,” Sharon said, startling me. “This is my younger son, Paul.”

A gangly, narrow kid filled the doorway. I could tell he recognized me because I still remember what that looks like, but he bore too deep a wound to conjure a greeting. I could hardly blame him. His brother had blown his own head off less than a month ago.

Sharon put her hands on my shoulders and announced me. He said, “Hi,” and skulked away. His mother was too wrapped up in Brett to notice his misery.

I started feeling queasy. These were real people.

“He’s on the football team this year,” his mother said. “But, honestly, Coach only put him on the roster because his brother. Paul doesn’t play in the games.”

Awkward silence followed. I was standing in a house of ghosts unable to leave the Earth.

“What really happened?”

She sighed. “Brett’s dad died in a work accident ten years ago. The football got him through. But he didn’t have the grades for college or talent for a scholarship, and I couldn’t afford it anyway. He couldn’t keep a girlfriend or a job.” She looked at the floor.  “He was an unhappy person.”

I would not be writing this if I had not said what I said next.

“I think Brett was listening to my music when he did it.”

“I know,” she said. “I was home.” With that, the tears came like a cloudburst and her face pulled back as if a blast of fire was searing her flesh. She fell into my arms and wailed, her face pressed against my shoulder. Between heaves, she said, “I heard the shot.”

I stood there like an idiot, patting her back. “I’m so sorry,” I said at last, clutching her to me because I couldn’t look at her. “I hope you don’t think-”

“No, I don’t blame you,” she said, sniffling and wiping her eyes. She squeezed my arms and gently pushed me away. “But the others might.”

“Others?”

She stared, surprised. “The parents. Of those two boys who killed themselves last week. They were playing your song too.”

~ ~ ~

The forty dollars in my wallet represented the entirety of my assets. My bank account was overdrawn and my credit cards long ago maxed out and cancelled. Did I really plan to mount a career comeback with that?

I’ll just buy a couple drinks, I said. But sitting at the nicked-up table in that gloomy pub, I kept ordering one more.

Staring into my Jack and Coke, I shook the glass and watched the liquid whirl. See that guy, people used to say. He was in a band that had three albums. A real band!

How’s this for real: Three men dead, three families ruined, and a town full of parents terrified their child is next. I wrote the theme song!

With eight bucks left, I finished my drink and teetered to the men’s room. So much for alcohol poisoning. Two more wouldn’t get it done.

When I returned to my table, I noticed a brawny fellow with white hair and bushy eyebrows staring me down from the bar. He marched over and took the opposite chair. “You have a lot of balls showing your face in my town.”

(to be continued)


Serialized short story: On the Way to My Grave (Part 2)

Hi there! Here’s part 2 of a longish short story I wrote about 5 or 6 years ago called On the Way to My Grave.

Part 1 is here.

I never figured out what genre it belongs to (is nihilism a genre?) or what to do with it, and I’ve evolved as a writer to the point that this story no longer represents me. So I might as well post it. You are welcome to comment positively or negatively without concern for hurting my feelings. This will be the tale’s final incarnation and resting place.

…………………………………………………………………………

Done acting like a baby, I called our keyboardist, also named Tony, and told him about the letter from Brett Denson. Tony holds down a pretty good government job and has no use for me. His response was, “Whatever dude. The letter’s probably a fake,” before telling me he had to go.

Our drummer died in a car crash last year, and I don’t know what happened to the bass player. There was no one else to call. Strangle Taffy was just a memory. Like Brett Denson.

I left the wreckage of my Ibanez and went upstairs to get drunk. Sitting at the kitchen table, I poured shots of cheap tequila and fantasized about killing Hayden Campbell and all the other fuckers out there who humiliated me every goddamned day. Nadine. The customers. I dreamt about the looks of shock as they saw a cheap blue Ibanez six-string swinging at their heads.

I took Brett Denson’s letter from my back pocket and threw it on the table, wondering if the guy had been the last person on Earth to give a crap about my music.

The song referenced in the letter, Done to Me, never got radio play. It was the best song I ever wrote, though. A sweet, melancholy melody with bleak, nihilistic lyrics is magic when you pull it off right. Shit. They still play Dust in the Wind all the time.

Strangle Taffy had one buzz track called Pounce, which the record company made me write. One of those chant-along, one-hit-wonder types, only it wasn’t a hit. Our second album was supposed to be our breakout, but we rushed it and it sucked. The label gave us “one last chance” with our third release, which means we had a three-album contract to finish out. They spent about eleven cents promoting it and we were dropped. Fifteen people showed up for our last gig.

Tequila bottle empty, I zigzagged to the bathroom. The light hurt. Squinting, I opened the medicine cabinet and took out my oxycodone. Brett Denson had the right idea, I thought. I pressed down on the lid and tried to twist, but drunkenness robbed me of coordination. Then I put it on the toilet tank and attempted to push and turn with my palm, losing my balance when the bottle shot out from under me. I tumbled head-first into the wall.

On the floor, I remembered how eleven years ago I used to stare at myself in a full-length mirror thinking I was going to be the next Bono. Now I couldn’t open a child-proof cap to overdose on painkillers.

I awoke at four in the morning, still in my stupid white shirt and tie and curled up on the bathroom floor. I staggered to my feet, went back down to the basement, and found a crate full of extension cords.

Still inebriated, it took a while to make the noose. Finally I stood on the overturned crate, looped the wire over two crossbeams and secured it, and slipped the noose over my head.

The debris from my broken guitar lay at the foot of the crate. Even in killing myself, I recognized my knack for metaphors. Ever the songwriter. I thought, I’m about to be famous for one more day. Maybe they’ll play Pounce on the radio again. Maybe they’ll play Done to Me.

Then I thought, maybe they’d play it anyway if people found out about Brett Denson’s suicide. What if I showed up to offer my condolences? It could be great PR. It could lead to interviews. A benefit show for his family. Airplay.

A tribute song. I could write a goddamn tribute song.

With great care, I slipped my head out from the noose and stepped off the crate.

~ ~ ~

Hung over, exhausted, stinking, and miles away in my head, I must have looked like I’d just climbed from the grave. Or got lost on my way to it.

Nadine, who isn’t a bad person, gaped at me a moment before regaining her poise. When I asked for the rest of the week off, she said yes without probing. I worked the remainder of Tuesday in a trance, thinking about how my last fan in the world might have just saved me.

I looked up Denson’s address on my lunch break and printed directions. Later, at home, I meant to think up a master plan, but I passed out. As I drifted away, I gave imaginary answers to questions from an imaginary TV journalist: Yes, Brett was my biggest fan, which is why I wrote this song about him (I look straight into the camera). It’s called Never Forget. La la la…

(Imaginary spotlights are so bright)

~ ~ ~

Collingwood is a former mining town, but I have no idea what keeps it going now. When I rolled in at noon on Wednesday, I didn’t feel so sure about knocking on Sharon Denson’s door and telling her I killed her son. I drove around town a while then zipped through county roads that spider web outward from the main strip. I saw a old farmhouses, ratty-looking ranchers, and a townhouse development by the highway. And one big, old colonial with oversized columns, perched on a hill overlooking town.

Back in Collingwood proper, I got two cheeseburgers from McDonald’s dollar menu, ate them in the parking lot, and considered hitting the bar across the street for a few shots of something hard and cheap.

Instead I stopped at a drug store and bought a pack of gum. Besides the usual junk, the store sold sweatshirts and tees that said “Saber Cats” and depicted a pissed-off tiger. The clerk said it was the high-school football team. They were the big thing, he said.

Ah, small-town U.S.A. American rock-n-rollers can make a living writing songs about places like this. I thought about the inevitable abandoned coal mines and downtrodden economy and halfway wished I hadn’t wrecked my guitar.

I arrived at Sharon Denson’s house at 5:30, parked at the curb, and watched. After a few minutes I started to feel like a weirdo, so I spit my chewing gum and got out.

The woman who answered the doorbell seemed tired, with lifeless eyes and limp hair pinned back by barrettes. I expected anguish and got drab.

“Can I help you?”

(to be continued)


Serialized short story: On the Way to My Grave (Part 1)

Hi there! Here’s part 1 of a longish short story I wrote about 5 or 6 years ago called On the Way to My Grave.

I never figured out what genre it belongs to (is nihilism a genre?) or what to do with it, and I’ve evolved as a writer to the point that this story no longer represents me. So I might as well post it. You are welcome to comment positively or negatively without concern for hurting my feelings. This will be the tale’s final incarnation and resting place.

I’ll post daily installments over the next 5 or 6 days. FYI, the segment breaks won’t fall as neatly as the last story I serialized. This one is less episodic, which is better compositionally but less suitable for serializing. C’est la vie.

 

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

On the Way to My Grave

By Eric John Baker (c) 2009

 

The following transcript is a verbatim reproduction of Anthony Bright’s handwritten confession, which investigators found on his kitchen table shortly after the shooting. Passages Mr. Bright underlined are represented with italics.

 

The letter came five days ago. It said (as I recall):

“Dear Mr. Bright.

By the time you read this, I’ll be dead. Before that happens, I want to tell you how much I love your song, “Done to Me.” It’s my favorite song of all time. It’s also the last song I will ever hear, because I am going to put a bullet in my head tonight when the CD ends.

Please know I’m not doing this because of you. In fact, your voice is going to comfort me in my final seconds.

I wish you peace and continued success in a world to which I do not belong.

Brett Denson”

 

It had been forwarded to me, still sealed, by someone at my old record label. I read it over a bowl of Cheerios, reread it, and then dumped the cereal in the sink.

I’m used to the quiet of living alone, but right then the ubiquitous silence threatened to suffocate. Was this letter a joke? I would have googled the guy, but I haven’t paid my cable bill in six months and they cut off my internet.

The microwave clock said you’re late for work anyway, so I shoved the letter into the envelope and took it with me.

 ~ ~ ~

You probably don’t know who I am, so here’s my two-line bio: I used to be a budding rock star. Now I’m the motor vehicle clerk at a car dealership.

Though I work in a back office and no one sees me but the office manager and the lady at the motor vehicle agency, I have to wear a tie and a white shirt. Cheap white dress shirts from a discount store look even chintzier than other colors. It’s the official uniform of lost souls.

When I got to work that morning, I checked “Brett Denson” against the online obituaries.

Sure enough. Brett Denson. Age 26. Beloved son, brother. Survived by mother, Sharon, brother, Paul. No cause of death given. He was born, raised, and died in some town I never heard of called Collingwood, 200 miles away in the next state.

The office manager, Nadine, walked in and I closed the browser. She stared at me for a long second like she caught me skimming from the cash register.  Give a guy a break, Nadine. I hadn’t gotten a fan letter in years, and it was my first that doubled as a suicide note.

At 4:30, I left by the service entrance. I avoid the showroom because I don’t like being seen in my $12 dress shirt and $5 tie. Customers give me a look that says, oh, you’re just trash who doesn’t know the difference between Bloomingdales and Walmart. Whatever.

The service door hadn’t shut behind me when I heard the voice.

“Hey, Bright. Why so glum?”

Christ. Hayden Campbell, the sales manager, the number one person I try to avoid. He had a speech ready.

“Did you see that guy driving away?” he said. “That was Darnell Tubbs. He just took delivery on the fifth car he’s bought from me. That’s loyalty.”

“Yeah, I printed up his temp tag.” I can never think of anything to say to Hayden.

He put his arm across my shoulder, marking territory. Pissing on my leg is against HR policy.

“You can’t live on past glory, my man” he said. “In this world, it’s ‘what have you done for me lately?’ That’s my secret to success.”

“Good advice,” I said. He wasn’t done.

“Do you get what I’m saying to you? When I started here eighteen years ago, we were selling maybe a hundred cars a month. Now we sell a thousand cars a month. Because I instituted a culture of winning.”

“Look, I’d love to stay and chat, but-” He must have sensed he was losing his audience when I put on a show of removing my keys.

“I’m just saying you can’t make your mark working in the back office,” he said. “I know you want to earn more money. So let me know when you’re ready to come work for me, ok?”

“Ok,” I said, faking a smile and shaking his hand. The thought of Hayden Campbell as a boss makes me want to drink chlorine. “I’ll let you know.”

He patted me on the back as if I’d said yes. “This isn’t for charity. I can make a salesman out of anybody, but if you’re going to come up front, don’t make me look bad. I’ll bounce your ass without batting an eyelash. Is that clear? This is your last chance to not be a loser.”

Attacking Hayden Campbell is a bad idea. Besides being able to afford a good lawyer and having lots of cops for customers, he’s taller by a foot and built like a power hitter. He was busy admiring his automobile kingdom instead of noticing my face turning red anyway, so I nodded my appreciation and bolted.

When I got home, I smashed my guitar on the basement floor. Just like rock-and-rollers do, only full of self-pity and with tears and snot everywhere. I imagined the concrete to be Hayden’s head, but the real victim was the guitar. It’s not as monumental as it sounds. I hocked my good guitar, my Les Paul Custom, years ago to buy heroin. The one I destroyed was a 250-dollar Ibanez I hadn’t touched since whenever. I’m not a guitarist anymore.

(to be continued)


Can you be a good novelist AND a good short story writer?

dr evil and mini me

I’m sure somebody brilliant can, but what about the average, competent wordsmith?

Though I’m a business writer by profession, I consider myself a novelist for no good reason other than the novel is my preferred vehicle for storytelling. 80,000 words feels about right for saying what I want to say. Still, I’ve dabbled in short fiction, usually ending up with unwieldy pieces that are too long for literary rags but too short for standalone publication.

Over the past several months, I’ve been intermittently digging old stories from the vaults (otherwise known as my hard drive) and rereading them. Most were written 5-6 years ago, with periodic revision since.

My first conclusion: I’m not sure I understand the short story as an art form. What makes a short story “good”? How much stuff needs to happen for it to qualify as a story and not a vignette? What does a character arc look like when you only have 4000 words to play with? Why can’t anyone in the Galactic Republic program R2D2 to speak English? It can’t require more than a few megabytes of memory.

I’ve tossed some of these stories in the direction of different beta readers to get some general opinions, which have ranged from “I was hooked from the first word” to “Burn it.” Which shows the limitations of getting feedback from a statistically insignificant number of readers, but that’s a different post. What I discovered is that people don’t like when you experiment with different voices and writing styles. I thought freedom was the cool part about writing short fiction, but that may not translate into enjoyment for the reader.

My second conclusion: I am not engaging in further revisions or seeking publication for any of these stories. Aside from a few flash pieces, I have only written one short story in the past 3 years, and, in comparing it to the earlier ones, it blows them away. Perhaps I’ve improved too much to feel these old stories represent me as a writer anymore. I hope that’s the case.

The point of all this is I am going to serialize at least one of the stories here, and maybe more. Some of you may remember I already did that with one of my old pieces, The Last Stop (which I’ve just pasted in its entirety under the “Fiction” tab above, if you want to check it out).  In terms of blog traffic, I was quite pleasantly surprised at the response to my serialization.

So, starting tomorrow, I’ll begin serializing another of my malformed progeny, On the Way to My Grave, featuring yet another unlikable protagonist! I must have been going through a phase.

With Thanksgiving next week, I will post fewer, slightly longer segments—compared to last time—to get it done before the holiday. You are welcome to critique, destroy, hate on, or respond as you otherwise please in the comments. I shan’t be revising the tale further.


Celebrating my 200th post with a new “video” for a song from my album

Now that is freakin' merry.

Now that is freakin’ merry.

∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗∗

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I really super duper wanted to come up with my best post ever for #200, like a Good Housekeeping Christmas issue with a gingerbread home on the cover, but, well, I’m not in that place right now (What shall I so with these extra twizzlers I planned to use for “molding”? They’re getting stale!).

I’m sure every writer, poet, musician, sculptor, painter, embroiderer, chef, and other creative person runs into the same wall that I do from time to time. You know the one I mean. The Wall of Doubt. A wall so imposing it demands capitalization.

Tell me if this seems familiar:

Idea 

Enthusiasm 

Burst of creative action 

Certainty that this is the best thing you’ve ever done 

Bearing down to work out the kinks because that’s what it takes to be great 

Anticipating global accolades for your brilliance, perhaps even a movie deal and a Nobel Prize 

Plowing plowing plowing 

Grinding grinding grinding 

Slowing slowing slowing 

Stopping and looking at your creation 

Wondering why anyone in the world would ever be interested in this drivel 

Staring blankly and becoming unresponsive, so much so that your loved ones take you to see a specialist. In the waiting room, they try to cheer you up with a tattered copy of last year’s Best and Merriest Christmas Issue Ever from Good Housekeeping 

You take Good Housekeeping’s word for it.

Perhaps one of my flaws is my limited tolerance for self-pitying, always-persecuted types. Bootstraps and all that. That doesn’t mean I’m not tough on myself and highly critical of my own creative output. After starting my novel a couple of years ago and then writing and revising in earnest through most of 2014, I’m so familiar with the story now that the character’s experiences have begun to stink of “so what?”

Am I overselling their motivations? Underselling them? Is the subtext obvious to the point of being clunky or is it so hidden to the point of being undetectable? Are my metaphors clever, corny, or confusing?

Having been through this before with my other fiction projects, I intended to skip it this time by doing fewer drafts (3 or 4 instead of 10-15), but I guess I’m getting more efficient.

No advice or encouragement is requested or needed, as my work will stand or fall on its merits. However, I am eager to hear about your similar (or different) creative experiences in the comments below.

I’ll close by posting this new video of the song “Some Days” from my album. If you have lived through ups and downs of your own design, you’ll probably relate to the lyrics.

Once again, Tony Parisi plays bass and keys and sings, and I play the guitars and the drums. No computers or drum machines involved.

 

 


I’m a dude and I’m wearing nail polish

My friend Kristen, who does nail polish tutorials and blogs for a cosmetics brand, and who uses the superior -en spelling of her name (who am I to argue?), recently commented that her husband will not let her do his nails.

She conducted a quick verbal survey of the men within earshot, asking, “Would you let a woman put nail polish on you?” I summarize the collective response thusly: NOOOOOOOOOOOO FREAKIN’ WAAAAAAAAAAAAAY!!!!!!!

That is, the ones who didn’t immediately run and hide said that.

Witnessing this event unfold, my inner non-conformist felt a surge of adrenaline. My inner non-conformist is also well aware of my slow philosophical evolution on gender roles in modern society (in short, I’ve come to believe gender roles are largely meaningless constructs that often hold us back from being happy and pursuing interests for fear of being judged and ostracized).

All of which led to me announcing, “I’ll do it.”

The way I remember this moment, it was a TV show and the camera cut to me just after I spoke and the room had instantly fallen silent. A fine piece of comedic editing.

I picked the colors, but otherwise, Kristen knocked out this design in about 10 minutes today with no planning. And you know what? I’m just as much of a dude as I was before. Imagine that.

Eric's nails

nails 014

nails 013

Eric's nails

nails 001

nails 004

If you click on the last picture you’ll (probably) get a closer look. My favorite is the ring-finger web, though the middle finger bat is cute.


Diversity on TV

Note: For blog-friendly brevity, I’m only discussing ethnic diversity right now. LGBT representation on TV warrants a separate post I don’t feel qualified to write.

Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) - The Walking Dead

Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green) – The Walking Dead

“Diversity on TV” was not improved simply by allowing all-black shows like Family Matters and Moesha to co-exist alongside Seinfeld and Friends, the latter two taking place in an alternate-reality New York populated almost exclusively by white people. Rather, in the 1990s we experienced “Segregation on TV.” Of course, large ethnic minorities want and should have TV shows that appeal to their lives and interests, but it’s hard to argue that most mainstream TV producers and writers were anything less than oblivious to the diversification of western culture in the last decade of the 20th century. Even most of the shows targeted at black audiences featured suburban families that were “relatable” to white viewers.

I bring this up because my friend Janna Noelle wrote on her blog today about a TV character that had a huge impact on her younger self. Not central to her theme, but still important, was what she viewed as a surprising amount of ethnic diversity—for a ‘90s series—on said show (read her post to find out).

Janna closed her piece by asking what TV shows her readers are watching these days. I responded with Doctor Who, Sleepy Hollow, and The Walking Dead, and it occurred to me as I wrote my answer that all three shows are notable for their diversity, at least in terms of a white/black dynamic (we’re still falling short with Asian and Hispanic characters on television).

The stars of Sleepy Hollow at Comic Con

The stars of Sleepy Hollow at Comic Con

3 of 6 principal cast members on Sleepy Hollow are black or, if you prefer, people of color (Lyndie Greenwood is mixed race). The Walking Dead, after a bit of a rocky start diversity-wise, has moved beyond tokenism and has given its black characters plot-central storylines. Former spare part Sasha (Sonequa Martin-Green, top image) has become an integral player in season 5 and was essentially the star of last night’s episode.

Doctor Who still retains its white doctor/white companion dynamic. Only season 3 (of 8) featured a non-white companion, Martha (played by Ghanaian-Iranian actress Freema Agyeman, incidentally one of the prettiest people on Earth). That said, the modern era of the venerable British sci-fi show has featured numerous recurring characters and featured guest roles played by people of color and has also depicted mixed relationships (and LGBT characters) in a positive light.

Common to all these shows is the “colorblind” storytelling. That is, the ethnicity of the characters rarely matters. Their storylines and experiences are interchangeable in that way.

And some would say that’s a problem. It’s certainly complicated. For a progressively minded white feller like me, I might see this as a great sign. “Look, skin color doesn’t matter in time travel or in the zombie apocalypse. Progress!”

On the other hand, some people don’t have the privilege, like I do, of racism being a choice. People who have been on the receiving end of institutional racism might consider the colorblind approach to be so much BS. “That’s not how it would happen,” they could quite rightfully say. “Not progress!”

Still others of any background might argue, “We’re not going to get past this issue if we keep harping on it. Progress?”

What do YOU think?

15-year-old Courtney Woods, the first woman on the moon (according to Doctor Who)

15-year-old Courtney Woods, the first woman on the moon (according to a recent episode of Doctor Who entitled “Kill the Moon”)


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