Dating Advice vs. Writing Advice: Which is worse for your self-esteem?

Those tall dudes get all the chicks!

Those tall dudes get all the chicks!

Hey. This new thing came out the other day ago and it’s called The Internet. You should get one!

The Internet offers four things: The chance to insult people anonymously, porn, photo-shopped celebrities, and relationship talk. All of which, when swirled in that crazy blender known as your brain, conspires to foster body-image anxiety and ruin your self-esteem.

In real life, you prioritize. Your house is burning down = important. The creepy guy across the street who lives in his mom’s basement and never talks to anyone = not important.

On The Internet, however, everything is your house burning down. If some anonymous creepy guy who lives in his mom’s basement says, via an online comment, that you look like a squid, then OMG, people think you look like a squid. If a Love & Relationships columnist makes a generalized statement about attractiveness (you expect her to come up with actual content? She’s on a deadline!), then that statement applies to everyone all the time.

I’m glad the internet did not yet exist when I was a wee, insecure lad. Instead of blundering through my adolescence oblivious to all my shortcomings, I would have discovered just how unappealing I really am.

pierceFor example, it has come to my attention, thanks to The Internet, that body hair below the neck is disgusting. Thank you Pierce Brosnan for wallowing in repulsiveness with me all these years. You’ve been like a brother.

I’ve also learned that my speaking voice is a whole note too high. That’s only about 1/6 of an octave, but the ladies want what they want. It turns out they want blue eyes as well, not the brown ones currently soiling my skull holes like sad circles of fetid mud. And, of course, at 5’9”, I am two inches too short to ever get a ride on the love train. I actually read this matter-of-fact statement online last year: Men under 5’11”, who are not considered attractive…

What’s cool about the internet… the vast amount of information available at a single click… is also one of its problems. Your mind can’t process it all and it blurs together. If 51 percent of people think something, that “majority” turns to 100 percent in our heads. Yeah, probably more than half of the women out there would rule me out because of my height, but there are over 3 billion women in the world. I applied the Barry Manilow approach to dating my whole life without even realizing it. Barry Manilow didn’t care that 95% of the western hemisphere mocked him in the 1970s. He focused on the 5% that loved him and ended up selling 80 million albums.

Writing advice works the same way. We are bombarded with it daily (admittedly a self-induced affliction for most of us bloggers) and read way more of it than we can possibly soak up. The sum of all this advice, once it forms an opaque gelatinous substance in our minds, is that we need to be The Perfect Writer. The one who hits every possible style and substance point with each sentence. Nothing less than total awesomeness will do.

Rather discouraging, isn’t it, to try and please everyone?

If someone hopes to fit a (fictional) beauty standard that is attractive to 100% of the population, he is going to end up a hopeless wreck with shattered self-confidence. One doesn’t need to attract everybody, just somebody who appreciates the combination of quirks and qualities that make him unique. Fair warning: you may have to meet 50 people before you find that one. Now consider that your reach as a writer is rather broader than your reach as a potential romantic partner. If 1 out of 50 potential readers appreciates your quirks and qualities that make your writing unique, you’ll end up with a successful story.

♥♥♥

This post partly inspired by a comment thread on Timi’s blog, which included contributions from Timi, Uju, and Nancy.


Hilarious Amazon Recommendations

A small but very representative sampling of my DVD collection, which runs very heavy on trashy 70s and 80s horror and monster movies.

A small but very representative sampling of my DVD collection, which runs very heavy on trashy 70s and 80s horror and monster movies.

Anyone who shops online or browses free content knows that websites use search algorithms (or something else mathy) to get an idea of your interests and then make recommendations for additional purchases or other forms of consumption.

YouTube is pretty good at this. I watched a video of former Prince protege Sheila E on a whim the other day, and the right-side column of recommendations included a bunch of other 80s-era Prince proteges like Morris Day, Vanity 6, and The Family.

Amazon, on the other hand, is comically off target most of the time.

As you may deduce from my lead image, I am a fan of horror and monster movies, particularly the grimy, “video nasty” kind that played at drive-ins and urban cinemas in the 70s and 80s. “Why” is a different post; suffice to say that you won’t find many mainstream films on my shelf. Which is the reason I shop on Amazon in the first place. Best Buy and Target simply don’t carry much in the way of Japanese giant monster flicks or Spanish werewolf movies.

I receive nutty Amazon recommendations… or should I say “wreckommendations,” and took a few screen shots for your amusement. Note the reason for the recommendation in the red box at the bottom of each screen shot:

Amazon wreckommendation - Mickey Xmas

 

Look, either you’re one of them Disney people who can’t get enough of It’s a Small World, or you are obsessed with giant, toothy destroyers of worlds. There is no overlap. This is from Godzilla vs. Biollante:

godzilla vs biolante

 

******

And then there’s…

Amazon wreckommendation - breathless

Because they both start with B? Because “breathing” shows up in the poster art?

beast of hollow mountain

*****

 and…

Amazon wreckommendation - my girl

Look at the picture from Demons 2 below and tell me what complex statistical analysis determined it was made for the same audience that enjoys a sappy, gentle love story featuring two precocious children.

demons 2

*****

or…

Amazon wreckommendation - The Interview

Yes. The controversial 2014 comedy starring two current high-profile movie stars is practically an unofficial sequel to a trashy, no-budget splatter flick from 1977 that played at 3 drive-ins for all of a week.

Amazon wreckommendation - melting man

*****

and finally, my favorite:

Amazon wreckommendation - sound of music

scream blacula scream

One is a lush, sweeping epic featuring the most glamorous, beloved movie stars of the era, full of unforgettable music and directed by a Hollywood legend. The other is some drivel about a governess who falls in love with a Nazi and gets in trouble for turning the drapes into ugly clothes and putting them on his obnoxious, entitled children.


What exactly are “unnecessary” words?

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don't understand nuance.

Never hire a Dalek to edit your manuscript. They don’t understand nuance.

One of the problems with writing rules is that writing deals in words, and we, as writers and readers, experience words differently.

The term “rule” implies (to me) a black-or-white statement with no nuance. Do not drink bleach is a pretty good rule. Get rid of words that do not add meaning, however, is more complicated. Applying that rule without nuance may not leave you with the best-possible finished work.

Look at my post title as an example. On a mechanical level, the word “exactly” is unnecessary. Without it, “What are unnecessary words?” is still an easy-to-understand construction. But on a subtextural level, is does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” The addition of that single word says, Eric is skeptical about something, and this post is going to challenge the status quo. Not bad for one of those crappy old adverbs everyone hates.

If writing served the solitary, utilitarian purpose of conveying information, banishing words that do not add literal meaning would be a sound objective. But writing isn’t solely function; it’s also art. Art has style, rhythm, form, and flow. In the previous paragraph I wrote that “What are unnecessary words” does not at all mean the same thing as “What exactly are unnecessary words?” At all does not add surface-level meaning. A robot would not glean additional information from it.

However, I’m not writing for robots, I’m writing for humans. I added at all because I like the rhythm of the sentence that way, and I like how it flows with the rhythm of the sentences before and after. You may look at that sentence and say, “I would not have written it that way,” which is fine, but, see, it’s my sentence. Write your own blog post. Damn it.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

Danger, Will Robinson. You are forgetting why you started writing in the first place.

If you have taken a writing course or read books on said subject, you’ve likely been presented with an essay showing the power of lean, simple, crisp writing from which all unnecessary words have been excised. No doubt the essay was at once like a cool breeze blowing off the ocean and a bright blue sky with life-renewing sunlight washing over your body. You were suitably impressed by the writer’s (and editor’s) expertise.

Of course, those essays are great lessons for the rest of us. Learn how to be a lean, mean writing machine! But what if you are going for gothic dread or satire or noir? Sometimes you need those “unnecessary” words to lend weight or make people laugh or perfect the timing associated with stylized storytelling.

I do not suggest that when writing teachers talk about “words that do not add meaning” they lack the insights presented in this post. I do think, however, that the nuance of this message gets lost by the time it filters out to inexperienced writers and novices, leading some of them to obsess over rules and, in the process, lose the unique character of their writing.

Most times, extraneous words are exactly that: Clutter that must be cut away to reveal your voice and bring your story to life.

Sometimes, though, a word that adds no meaning can change everything.

♦♦♦


The Art and Science of Editing

Writers. Your best friend is your editor.

The members of your writing group and your beta readers can be great assets, nudging you toward the type of material you were meant to create and, sometimes, painfully, letting you know it’s time to move on from a piece that isn’t working.

Mike Babcock

But whether we writers want to admit it, we are competitors. Pretend you are a hockey player for a moment, and imagine your fellow writers as team members. You all want to win the game together, but that doesn’t mean they are okay riding the bench while you get all the ice time. What player ever fantasized that someone else scores the big overtime goal?

When our fellow writers read their pages in a critique group, or when we are asked to beta read a story, a big part of us wants to provide support, encouragement, and guidance. Meanwhile, a deeper, more concealed, far less secure part is busy comparing ourselves. Am I as good as this writer? Am I better? Would I have written it that way? If I slam this piece in front of everyone, will I feel a bit too much sadistic pleasure?

Your editor lacks something your writer friends carry into every writing-related interaction with you: An agenda. Or maybe I should say you and your editor share one agenda. Your success.

Ideally, your editor also has experience and fluid intelligence, since these tools are essential to the science and the art of the editing craft.

I’m going to get the “science” out of the way first. The science of editing, of course, deals with grammar, punctuation, syntax, and language mechanics. A good, experienced editor can spot the extraneous words, dangling modifiers, and parallel-construction errors you passed over a dozen times in revisions. Your editor can also see story logic problems and help fix them by moving a paragraph or sentence up or down the page.

When your editor makes such corrections, it does not mean she understands writing better than you do or that you are not good enough. Every writer makes mistakes. Your editor makes those sorts of mistakes in her own writing, which is why we all need an editor. Writing is hard.

As an editor, the art of editing is the aspect that intrigues me the most. The art entails appreciating and respecting the writer’s voice, embracing the poetry in his words, understanding the rhythm and flow of his prose, and, for lack of a better term, “getting it.” A good editor can see the aesthetic quality in a manuscript, and her edits only remove that which obscures the writer’s vision.

A good editor does not try to change your vision or trample your voice. If your editor is caught up in rules and cannot see the words for the letters, get a new editor. If you write noir and your editor does not understand noir, get a new editor. If your editor tries to take over your manuscript and make it read as if she wrote it, get a new editor.

If your editor is smart and makes suggestions that sometimes sting but that you know, deep down, to be true, listen. A good editor is your most trusted advisor.

In our hockey metaphor above, your editor is the coach. She never gets to leave the bench. She wants all of her writers to score the overtime goal, because no matter who scores that goal, she wins.

You.

You.


I hate onions

You know what I love? Grapes. All kinds of grapes. Purple grapes. Green grapes. I love grapes in bunches, one at a time, or in groups of twos and threes.  On the other hand...

You know what I love? Grapes. All kinds of grapes. Purple grapes. Green grapes. I love grapes in bunches, one at a time, or in groups of twos and threes.
On the other hand…

I hate onions. I hate them raw. I hate them cooked. I hate their “flavor” (as if horror were a flavor) and the way they crunch and the way the horror explodes in my mouth and won’t ever leave. I hate them fried. I hate them caramelized. How is caramelized even a thing?

I hate onions.

Why does everyone insist on putting onions in my food? I never said I wanted onions. Stop making assumptions.

The food people put them on my burgers and sandwiches. They put them in my salads, including potato. I’m glad my soda has a lid.

To me, this is the same as blowing cigarette smoke in my face and then saying, “Oh, I assumed you wanted smoke in your face.”

This week was the last (onion) straw. I bought cranberry-almond chicken salad at Costco. What I got was ONION chicken salad, with chaser lights. Big-ass chunks of diced, crunchy, unbridled, sociopathic onion. I cannot taste the chicken, the almonds, or the cranberries.

If I want onions (which I never would), I’ll ask.

People use the “layers of an onion” metaphor to describe people and things that are full of surprises and mystery. Why? Every layer of an onion is exactly the same as the one above and below it: Nasty.

If I were dictator of the world, I’d be benevolent. Free tacos on Sunday and all that. But, I’m sorry; no freakin’ onions. If you want onions, visit Onion Island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, the only place I permit them to grow. Don’t think about smuggling one out, either. Your punishment will be legendary!

Pray I never become dictator, onions.

I now return you to your regularly scheduled blog reading.

I feel about onions the way this poster promoting the 1897 horror comedy "Psychos in Love" feels about grapes. It takes all kinds!

I feel about onions the way this poster promoting the 1897 horror comedy “Psychos in Love” feels about grapes. It takes all kinds!


One More Post on Gender Roles

Lizzie Armanto

In a quest to become a better person, or something, I made 2014 the year in which I confronted my biases regarding gender roles.

This happened for three reasons I can think of:

One, my novel-in-progress stars three female protagonists, and inhabiting their heads has necessarily forced me to do a lot of thinking, reading, and learning about the similarities and differences between women and men.

Two, I stopped saying, “Why can’t a man own a purse?” and went out and bought one.

And three, because items one and two made my continuing biases all the more apparent. I still have a viscerally different reaction to a man not being able to stick up for himself than to a woman struggling with the same situation. I’m still less patient with an emotionally needy guy than an emotionally needy gal (though I’m not real fond of either). I continue to be terrible at feelings not related to being annoyed.

But let’s repair my psychological problems in some other post and stay on point today. As I’ve discussed previously, I believe that gender roles once serving an evolutionary purpose have simply become social assignments in the modern world. I won’t enumerate examples at length, but there’s no reason that a man must avoid carrying a purse if he finds one useful (like I do) or that a woman can’t get together with her friends, drink beer, and shout at the TV during a football game.

In exploring the social discourse, I’ve done a lot of reading on gender roles (mostly blogs and online opinion pieces), and I notice a lot of backlash against the idea of breaking down these barriers. Many folks say, in essence, “Men are meant to be protectors and women are meant to be nurturers, and gender-traditional behaviors and interests are natural.”

Somewhat less old-fashioned and knightly are the frequent complaints regarding “The pussification of men.” That is, loosening gender roles has caused men to become feminized and will inevitably lead to the end of all things traditionally masculine.

It’s fair to say people tend to be uncomfortable with change, so the anxiety is understandable and probably natural to a degree. But if you are a gender traditionalist, you might be misinterpreting the intent behind the message. Ignore anyone who said you can’t be traditional. You can be the guy who drives a truck and watches football and goes deer hunting and is into fixing up cars. You just don’t have to be. The only thing you have to be in my vision is tolerant of guys who aren’t like you.

In a less gender-role restrictive society, a guy who is into fashion or jewelry or who prefers to stay home with the baby can do so without being told he is not a “real man.” A woman who would rather spend two hours swapping out the alternator in her Chrysler 300 than embroidering a pillow should not have to justify her preference for “masculine” endeavors, either.

Conversely, a woman who likes dressing fashionably, wearing make-up, and doing her nails—or a guy who works construction and spends his free time pumping iron—does not need or deserve to be harangued by zealots. Because that happens, too: Thought police swooping to lecture and demand that people stop conforming to traditional gender roles.

The point is, whether that black stuff on your fingertips is engine lube or mascara, you should have the  freedom to be you without someone coming along to enforce society’s alleged preferences.*

*As long as no one gets hurt. You are not free to be a serial killer, cannibal, or reader of incantations that open the gates of hell and unleash the demons.**

**this is not an all-inclusive list of really bad things you shouldn’t be, such as an unstoppable killer robot, an ivory poacher, or person who likes REO Speedwagon.


Complete story: On the Way to My Grave

For those who don’t like to read serialized fiction but were curious about the story I posted recently in installments, here’s the whole deal.

Premise: Washed-up rock musician Tony Bright, stuck in a dead-end job and hooked on alcohol and painkillers, receives a letter linking a fan’s suicide to one of his songs. Seeking to reclaim past glory by exploiting the tragedy, Tony lurches headlong down a dark path from which there can be no return.

Word count: 6000.

I wrote this tale about 5 years ago and could never figure out what to do with it. So I shall post it here for, I hope, your enjoyment.

 

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

On the Way to My Grave

By Eric John Baker © 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.

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?”

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 of 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.”

“Who the fuck are you?” I said, the booze choosing my words.

“I’m the one who introduced that stupid song.”

Done to Me? How the hell did this old bastard know that song? He didn’t look much like a college radio DJ.

“Pounce,” he said. “It was our team song.”

It hit me. “Coach?”

“Coach Van Der Bruggen,” he said. “You don’t get to call me Coach.”

I twirled my finger, trying to bait him into throwing me through a window and finishing me off. But he sat there, stone faced.

“You think you’re some hot shot?” he said.

I laughed. If only he knew.

“Nobody gives a crap about you,” he said. “I may be some small-town hick in your eyes, but around here I’m a winner. I’ve coached this high school to three state championships. I coach winners.”

I discovered my mouth hanging open when a dollop of drool hit the table. Coach kept talking, oblivious: “My only regret in life is playing that stupid song. I let a cancer into my locker room—you—and look what happened. Three players from that team are dead. Congratulations.”

If he planned to kick my ass, I wanted him to get on with it. “I don’t think anybody ever killed themselves because of a dumb-ass song like Pounce.”

Unmoving, fists clenched, he said, “I’m talking about Done to Me. That song.”

I waved at him, accidentally knocking over the acrylic stand-up for the drink menu. “You never heard it until this week.”

Then, there at the table, he recited the chorus word-for-word, as if it were a poem.

I twisted around, hailing the server for another drink.

“Brett took the CD home from practice one day and fell for that depressing crap,” he said. “You should have known.”

“Who are you, the town conscious?” I couldn’t fit the ‘n’ sound in there drunk.

“Son, I am this town,” he said, clearly not for the first time. “Now, you best get out of here this minute if you want to see tomorrow.”

“Wait,” I said. “That big house on the hill with the columns… that’s your place. Wow, you really are king of this little shit town.”

He reached across the table and grabbed my shirt, pulling me forward like I was filled with straw. “Don’t make me say it again.”

~ ~ ~

I sat in my car for a half hour, clearing my head and slowly acknowledging the truth in Coach’s words. When Strangle Taffy did its only national tour, we used to hang out backstage and make fun of the dinky hamlets we played at the same moment we were pawing the local groupies like horny teens and counting our ticket receipts. Maybe a high-school football championship isn’t a multi-platinum album, but it means something to people and makes heroes of guys like Coach Van Der Bruggen. People need heroes, not indulgent, mediocre rock musicians.

Imagine that, though, I thought, my face resting on the steering wheel. All three suicides were players from the same championship football team.

All three from the same team. Odd.

I sat up.

How did Coach know to find me in the pub? Maybe Brett Denson’s little brother wasn’t so disinterested in me after all. Maybe he followed me and then told Coach where I went. But why would a bench warmer be so tight with Coach?

Suspicion aroused, I turned the key in the ignition, popped the transmission onto gear, and lurched out of my spot, almost wiping out a passing car.

~ ~ ~

As Sharon Denson opened the door for me the second time that night, I hoped the chewing gum hid the scent of booze. I guess I cared what she thought of me.

“Is Paul home?”

She sighed. “I suppose I shouldn’t let him out on a school night.”

She wanted me, of all people, to think of her as responsible, which is funny but not. “It’s ok. I’ve done a lot worse than stay out late on a Wednesday night.”

She led me to the bedroom beyond Brett’s and flipped the light switch. The space housed a twin bed, a dresser, an iPod on the night stand. A couple lamps. Nothing that indicated a teenage boy with a personality lived there. “You gave him that?” I said, pointing to a laptop.

“Christmas gift. Money’s tight since my husband passed away, but I have to do something. Kids are so status-conscious these days. When we were young—”

“And the iPod?”

“Oh, no,” she said. “Coach gave it to him. He won it in a raffle and didn’t need it. He’s been awfully good to my boys.”

Coach gave it to him. “Do you know where I might find Paul?”

She pondered a moment. “Try downtown. The kids hang out on the strip in front of the doughnut shop.”

~ ~ ~

Sobered—not legally, I suppose—I cruised Main Street, passing the pub then a convenience store and a block or two of shops closed for the evening.

My gas gauge read a quarter of a tank, and I had three bucks in my wallet. If I survived the night, I might never get to leave.

Ahead glowed the yellow arches of McDonald’s across from Dunkin Donuts. A bunch of kids sat on benches outside. Two other boys laughed and shoved each other while their girlfriends looked on. I made a right by the donut shop and spotted a lone kid was attempting half-hearted skateboard tricks. Paul Denson.

He picked up his board and began to strut away as I stepped out of my car. I called his name and he stopped. I must have still showed a faint aura of celebrity.

“Hey man,” I said. “I been looking for you.” The temperature had dropped in the past hour, so I put my hands in my pockets and hurried to where he stood. He bore that same haunted look, rendered more ghostly by the streetlights, like a harbinger of something sinister and deadly. And close.

He continued to stare with eyes resting on darkened half-circles. I said, “I’m surprised to see the star of the football team hanging out by himself. Where’s all the girls?”

“My brother loved you guys.”

“Yeah, I know,” I said. “I’m really sorry about what happened.”

“He wanted to be a writer. He used to write essays and short stories and stuff. Poems and lyrics, too. They were real good.”

His suicide letter did show a dramatic flair. I told Paul I’d like to see Brett’s work someday.

“Are you guys gonna put out another album? Maybe you can use some of his words.”

After we were dropped by the label, people would ask when the next album was coming out, and I’d lie and say we were shopping for the right deal. But no one had asked for such a long time, I felt all right telling the truth.

“Unfortunately, our time has passed. I’m pretty sure Brett was the last person who cared about us.”

He gazed at a crumpled Dunkin Donuts cup lying on the sidewalk. “Your song was the only thing that made him feel ok. He fell asleep to it every night.” With forced cheer he said he liked some of our songs, but he didn’t mean it.

“Do you know why he did it, your brother? I guess it’s selfish of me, but I kind of feel responsible, you know?” I stood silent, waiting, and his answer came laced with venom.

“I don’t know why he did it, but it wasn’t you, ok? You can go back to your party life and forget all about my brother. He’s just a stat. You’re all good, man. Life is good. So go fuck yourself, all right?”

As the words spilled out, his rage made me feel ashamed and selfish and at once so aware of my stupid, pointless arrogance.

“I’m sorry,” I said.

“Yeah, you told me.” He fought back the tears desperate to get out.

I’d already pissed him off, so I figured I might as well confront him. “Paul, why are you on the football team if you aren’t good enough to get into the games?”

His voice went limp. “I don’t know.”

“Did you call Coach and tell him I was here? Did you follow me to the pub on your skateboard? You know, sometimes people in a position of power can make kids do things they don’t want to do. Does Coach ever make you do things you don’t want to do?”

I cool breeze tore down Main Street, much colder than the air it displaced, kicking up dust and leaves and forcing my hands back into my pockets.

Paul Denson dropped his board on the sidewalk and, as he turned away, said, “Leave me alone.”

“Why did he give you an iPod?” I asked, but he was already rolling off in the opposite direction. If Paul chose to remain as silent as the three dead kids, I had one option left.

~ ~ ~

The big colonial on the hill stands out in Collingwood. Across the street and down a block, I parked in the night shade of a low-hanging tree.

I waited until 11 o’clock to ring the doorbell. Coach Van Der Bruggen didn’t strike me as a guy to hide behind a peephole and ask who’s there, and I was right. Heavy footfalls approached from the beyond the door, with not a moment’s pause before it swung inward.

“Who the hell-” I didn’t think his scowl could get meaner, but it did when he saw my face. “You! I thought I told you to get lost.”

Now what? “I need to talk to you about Paul.”

“What about him?”

To write songs that connect with listeners, you have to know something about human nature. Knowing about human nature helps you manipulate people. Coach needed to be important. “I’m worried he might try to hurt himself,” I said. “I tried to talk to him, but I think he needs to hear it from someone he respects. You, I mean.”

Coach’s scowl softened. Sort of. “All right. Follow me.”

He led me through the foyer and into a well-appointed home office. Lots of real wood and not a hint of particle board. A row of football trophies filled an inset shelf. One statuette, too tall and bulky for the allotted space along the wall, stayed on his desk.

He said, “This one isn’t a trophy. It’s a bronze statue. The mayor had it made a couple of years ago. Town pride.”

He adjusted its angle. “Frankly, if I didn’t win anything to get it, I don’t want it. And the damn thing doesn’t fit on my shelf. But the son-of-a-bitch mayor insists on visiting me all the time, so I leave it out.”

I tilted the statue back, pretending to admire it. It was heavy. “So, is Mrs. Van Der Bruggen home?”

The scowl returned. “What the hell is wrong with you, son? We’re not friends. Tell me about Paul and get out.”

I waited a moment. “People don’t kill themselves because of a song, Coach. It takes a lot more than that. Something traumatic. Shameful, maybe.”

He moved behind his desk. Did he keep photos in there? A flash drive full of secrets? I noticed a safe set into the wall.

“Look,” he said, “I know that. But when a kid is troubled, that song isn’t what he needs to hear. Understand? This town has had enough grief, and you being here doesn’t help. It makes it worse.”

I saw through his stern father-figure routine. “Why is Paul on your team? He’s not an athlete. Why did you give him an iPod?”

His fingers fidgeted. “For heaven’s sake, the kid lost his father. His dead brother was a football hero. Someone has to look out for him.”

Eying his defensive posture, it all become so obvious. I leaned forward, literally with nothing to lose. “You sexually abused Brett Denson and those two other guys on your team, didn’t you? And now you’re doing the same thing to Paul.”

Ten long seconds passed, my pulse drumming in my ears. At last he said, “You get out of my house right now or I’ll call the cops. The cops in this town will do anything for me. Get it? Any. Damn. Thing.”

“Go ahead and call ‘em. And when they get here, we’ll see what they do for a rapist.” I had him! I had the bastard and he knew it.

Coach crossed his arms and stuck out his chin. “Prove it.”

I pointed toward the wall behind him. “We can start by seeing what’s in that safe. You keep videos and photos in there? Your real trophies? Or maybe they’re in your desk. On your laptop. If you got nothing to hide…”

A victorious grin appeared. “You want to see what’s in the safe? Fine.”

He turned and began punching the number code. “You think I got all this from coaching high-school football? No sir. I have connections. I’ll take your job. I’ll take your house.” The safe popped open. “I’ll take your life. You were born to lose, Bright.”

This is the absolute truth: I entered Coach Van Der Bruggens’s house to confront him about lavishing gifts on easily manipulated boys. About taking advantage of a kid who’d lost his dad. About Paul. I came to make Coach admit the real reason those three men killed themselves was the shame he’d burdened them with all those years ago.

I did not enter this man’s house to do what I did. It’s just that I got sick of being called a loser. No more crying and smashing guitars on imaginary heads. No more being treated like a misbehaving teenager by haughty co-workers and arrogant judges and condescending assholes who used to be my friends. Or by mindless brutes like Coach. No more.

I’m not a loser.

Gripping the bronze statuette, I circled the desk and brought it down on the back of his head. He fell forward, thundering into the wall, and then whirled, his legs wobbling. I swung again, striking his forehead. He raised his hands, dazed and slow, and I hammered down. He slumped to the floor, and I struck once more. I doubt I looked much like an avenger while shouting gibberish and spitting as I rained blows. I looked like a madman, I’m sure, and I stopped striking only when his flesh became pulp and the bone no longer resisted.

Gasping yet exhilarated, I dropped the bludgeon. I pivoted. No one watching. No blood on my hands. Twisting back, I gandered at the dead man on the floor, unrecognizable with his face crushed in.

The blood streak he left on the wall led to the open safe. I reached in and stole five hundred dollars along with the loaded Smith and Wesson .44 Coach intended to kill me with.

No pictures or videotapes, but they’d turn up. Cops would have to search the place.

I stuffed the trophy in his office garbage can, along with my blood-speckled shirt, tied off the bag, and removed it. With the cash in my pocket and that hand cannon tucked under my belt, I marched outside, pausing to rub my fingerprints off the doorbell.

I tossed the bag into the Nevasha River two hours and a hundred and fifty miles later. It sank like an ugly bronze statuette. I watched it go down while wearing a sweatshirt I’d bought at the rest stop 115 miles back where also I filled my tank. If they had asked why I walked in wearing a t-shirt in forty-five-degree weather, I’d have said it’s rock and roll, man.

~ ~ ~

Yesterday morning, Thursday, I went to work without sleeping. Nadine said, “Tony, why are you here?” I told her I needed to do a couple of things. With everyone outside buying bagels and coffee from the snack truck, I shredded Brett Denson’s letter and left.

When I woke up early this morning, I started writing this. Which seems counterproductive, having shredded the letter. But I’ve been thinking about the police coming after me and how to handle it, and telling this story has helped elucidate things.

I always liked that word. Elucidate. I’m elucidating things for you: I’m not a cold-blooded murderer.

Regarding Coach’s guilt: I did what I had to. He’ll never be able to hurt another kid now. I did ask myself, but what if you’re wrong? Then I imagined Hayden Campbell saying, “Kill that negativity, Bright. You can’t change the past,” and I felt ok.

About five minutes ago, I decided that this feeling–knowing I helped somebody—is what matters, not some dumb rock song I wrote. I finally matter. Not that the authorities will understand, so I’ve also decided what to do when they show up. See, I’ve got Coach’s .44 loaded and lying on the table.

And look here. Two police cruisers just pulled up outside. I’m about to be famous for one more day.

Bang Bang. Hey.

 

Reproduced below: One of the first reports of the incident to appear on the news wire.

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Strangle Taffy Singer, Two Police Officers Killed in Hail of Gunfire

WEST BRANFORD – Tony Bright, former lead singer and guitarist of the now-defunct pop-rock band Strangle Taffy, gunned down two police officers outside his West Branford home just hours ago before being shot to death by an investigating detective, according to police and an eyewitness. The names of the two dead officers have not been made public, pending notification of family.

 

Sources inside the West Branford Police Department say Bright was wanted for questioning in connection with an out-of-state crime, though that information could not be officially confirmed. When reached by phone early this morning about a possible motive for the shooting, Police commissioner Ji Hung Kim would only say, “We are deeply saddened by this tragic event, and our hearts and prayers go out to the families of the slain officers.”

 

A press conference is scheduled for 11 a.m. today, and a department spokesperson promised an official statement at that time.

 

West Branford resident Akmal Ahmadi, who lives across the street from Bright’s rented house, said he witnessed the shooting.

 

“[Bright] just walked out onto his porch like nothing happened, then, bam, he pulls out a gun and starts shooting point blank,” claimed Ahmadi. “I heard cracks and saw bodies dropping and then it was done. The whole thing was over in about five seconds.”

 

Ahmadi said he was unaware of his neighbor’s former celebrity. “I guess maybe he’ll get famous again,” he added.

 

Bright, 31, had had several brushes with the law in recent years, mostly for drug-related offenses. Strangle Taffy disbanded following the release of their third album, 5 Dolls for an August Moon, in 2008.


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