There She Was [2018]

Everyone else had left an hour ago. The only reason she was still there was because she’d promised him a ride back to the station. And although she was ready to call it a night, she was much too polite to say a word. They had been talking, but the conversation had become more trivial, the increased banality correlating almost directly to the number of bourbons he’d consumed.

The bar was the kind of place in the city that didn’t attract many locals, not with the club scene being so much further West. With its bizarre, kitschy American diner vibe, it seemed to want to draw in tourists, but tourists didn’t typically venture this far East. The bar didn’t even have a name, only an address attached to the door in crooked numbers; an address that was almost identical to the couple of office towers that expunged a variety of worker bees every lunch and evening, and a fraction of them ended up here daily.

So it ended up being the sort of place that was chronically closer to empty than full, but still remained alive with a modest energy that didn’t demand much attention to sustain.

~~~

He’d seen her in the office on his inaugural day at the new job. Previously, he’d worked across the city in a shinier office tower, but quit because he needed a change. He was the first one from his pod to make it to the meeting in the boardroom across the hall (how does the new guy manage to be the first one to a meeting?), and she was already in the room, laying some innocuous papers across one end of the big conference table. She wore a midnight blue pencil skirt and some vintage styled, vanilla ice cream-colored top that had pleating down the front, and little keyholes on the cuffs of the shortened sleeves. She was stunning, and he always appreciated a nice top. Before either of them said a word however, another head popped into the room, a woman whose only business was to inform the girl that her team was actually meeting in Conference Room Seventeen instead. “Sorry,” she said, and began collecting her papers back into a manila folder.

She smiled at the new guy on her way out. That “Sorry” was nearly the only thing that rattled through his head during the day’s meeting. And for much of the next three weeks too, because he didn’t see her again until his fourth week on the job. As soon as the elevator doors slid apart he recognized her. It was easy. She was wearing the same clothes, prompting him to begin building up in his head the idea of this girl out of time, or like a heavenly apparition, maybe? They made eye contact, though she was in the middle of a conversation with another girl. She gave him the kind of mask-like look that made it clear he didn’t leave as much of an impression. Exiting the elevator on the very next floor, her careless, teacup-like elbow accidentally brushed into his arm. “Sorry,” she said once again before disappearing. But she didn’t disappear for quite so long this time.

It was that same evening after work that he’d seen her next. At the bar with no name. She was across the room, sharing the seat with nothing more than a cloud of introverted quietness, but when she noticed him she waved him over, and when she smiled it was with everything she had. Her face looked different; not anomalous, but new. He didn’t know if it was just the way light seemed to fill certain spaces or if there was some otherworldly countenance at play, but her features — though unmistakable — seemed to fluctuate depending on if she was in that office boardroom, on the elevator, in the back of this bar, or wherever they might cross paths next. Like her face was indecisive about whether her eyes wanted to be the most prominent component, or her cheekbones, her lips, or the curl of her ears.

They became friends; there was no secret modus operandi at play. A married man, after all, can be drawn to a beautiful married woman without the need to pursue anything more than friendship. Don’t most people prefer being in the presence of beauty, rather than the alternative? There weren’t any games, maybe some harmless flirting, but they both returned to their families at the end of every day; he to his wife and three children; her to her husband of only two years. She talked about her husband a lot, clearly head over heels in love. Still, he looked for cracks — Did she ever have regrets? Did they both want different things in their relationship, but were too afraid to voice their desires? — even though he knew there would never be an opening wide enough to justify creating a potential problem involving so many people.

Still.

In his mind he played out the scenarios. He couldn’t help being drawn to her so. That surreptitiously-splintered smile. The vulnerability of that solicitude within unsteady eyes. He envisioned movies and fairy tales, and considered how make-believe worlds only ever wanted to simply be believed. He imagined horrible scenarios too, where good people actually got hurt, or died.

But the one thought he couldn’t shake from his mind was this: if he and she had known one another when they were younger, his life might have been irrevocably and extraordinarily altered. He held onto that thought so strongly, it was beginning to feel like something that was just barely out of his reach.

He knew most all of her favorites by now: the food, the music, the books, the animals, the jokes, the films, the podcasts. He knew her fears too, but likely just the surface fears and not the real ones.

But they were still strangers, really. Unless someone is sharing a world with someone else, then a stranger they will mostly remain. The intimacy of home life, and those behind-doors tendencies could never be fully grasped by strangers. The infinite ways in which lovers need lovers. The availability of shoulders and ears in times of need. None of that existed here. All that applied were the ways in which barely-known people acted around others, how they needed the company in ways they were not aware of. Like pieces of that same thing that don’t even know it. How a picked apple needs a tree, or a tree might need the apple.

She made him lonely, and he sometimes wondered if he made her feel a bit lonelier too. And within that loneliness existed the possibility of something that could have been.

If he was honest with himself, there were moments when he didn’t enjoy his time spent with her. She had tendencies to go on a bit too long about subjects he had very little interest in. But those slipped into his selfish scenarios too; if they’d known one another when they were younger, then it stands to reason she would have assimilated much of his knowledge and many of his interests, and vice versa.

Once, he asked her what she was like in high school. What he envisioned, he thought obvious: homecoming queen; popular like the stars at nighttime; her initials scribbled inside boys’ notebooks and carved into trees. But she admitted to being a bit more of a wallflower. Unconfident. Insecure. She hated her teeth and loved to dance, and didn’t want anyone seeing either. She cried basically all the time. At parties. At home. She cried for help, but no one ever heard or paid attention. And there were certainly never any boyfriends in sight.

He told her he didn’t believe any of that. She had to have been perfect, because how else could that sad, unsure girl have blossomed into this wonderful creature he was lucky enough to have uncovered?

Her wandering eyes stopped to thank him, though with an undetected skepticism. While she was in the midst of considering the limits of friendship, maybe even questioning her own reasons for staying out at the bar after work so late and so often, he was preoccupied with a misplaced nostalgia. Maybe even some animosity toward fate’s unjust hand.

He regretted his own bygone decisions, made in earnest so long ago.

He yearned for a different set of youthful dreams; those dreams he’d once been content with now seemed ludicrous.

He thought about every calculated kiss and conquered courtship, and now considered them wasted moments.

And still, the more he knew her, the more forlorn he became.

~~~

Eight months ago, they sat together for the first time. From there, once a week, they continued to sit together, not really ever picking up where they left off because they tended to talk about many of the same subjects over and over again. An hour ago, the rest of the bar had cleared, and she’d simply been waiting for a sign that he was ready to leave.

He was never ready to leave.

“Come on,” she said with finality. “We’re later than usual. My husband’s probably wondering what’s taking me.” Her phone had been on the table the entire evening, and it hadn’t buzzed or bleeped once. Not once.

There was a lump in his throat. “You could text him. Let him know you’ll be a bit longer?”

She placed a palm on her phone, then warily spun it around on the Formica tabletop.

“He never checks his phone,” she says. “I’m trying my best to not be so phone-dependant myself. He tells me it’s actually very liberating.”

“Is it?”

She laughs a slight laugh, just for herself. “Not really.”

How does he say the one thing he wants to say without sounding crazy? I wish I knew you years ago, he thought. Nope. Too ambiguous. Maybe a bit creepy. I’m not really unhappy but I am sort of unhappy and don’t I deserve to be happy? Too whiny. She’d never again agree to meet him after work if he said something like that.

There was a framed picture above the bar of a man who used to work there, but had died some years before. Like the bar itself, the man’s photo did not have a name attached to it either.

He couldn’t take his eyes off that photo, or pull himself away from the tendrils of sad thoughts.

“Yeah,” he ultimately said. “I think maybe it is time to go.”

~~~

They barely spoke during the drive to the station. That lump in his throat feeling bigger. She stole glances at him. His stark white shirt appeared fluorescent amidst the moon and street lights, making it easy to take note of the wetness that streamed from his cheek to his collar.

He didn’t show up at work the following week. The sudden, precipitous need for change had found him yet again. Sometimes, the thought of where he might have found himself had crossed her mind, but mostly, she wondered with some degree of melancholy whatever might have been had they crossed paths some other time and place.

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The First Degree

I was given the following short story prompt: “Write a scene that incorporates the following three things: espionage, a bagpipe player, and bacon.” (1000 words or less)

It’s a little unorthodox, and fairly preposterous, but here it is.

 

THE FIRST DEGREE

“You’re crazy, you know that?”

“I know that. You’ve been telling me for years now. But shut up, okay? The scene’s about to start.”

“Fine. I’ll whisper. How about that?”

“Better. I’d still prefer if you just shut up though.”

“You know, I told myself the last time I helped you that it was going to be for the last time. And now? I’ve snuck onto a movie set with you, and we’re wearing kilts and carrying bagpipes.”

“Honestly? If you truly want to never help me again, you’ve got to start making some better excuses.”

“Define ‘better.’”

“Come on. You were clearly giving me the first — and worst — excuse that popped into that tiny head of yours.”

“I was not!”

“You told me you were bedazzling your grandma’s purse today. Now, granted, that’s maybe not the worst excuse you could have come up with, but it’s got to be pretty close.”

“Shut up.”

“No, you shut up. And you’re holding that bagpipe the wrong way again. Don’t you remember anything I told you?”

“What makes you the bagpipe authority anyway?”

“My cousin played the bagpipes. He was in a marching band and everything.”

“So he knows how to play the bagpipe song?”

“Which one?”

Every song on the bagpipe sounds exactly the same. I thought there was only one song. Isn’t it just called ‘The Bagpipe Song’?”

“Definitely not.”

“How do you know?”

“Because that would be a stupid name.”

“My feet hurt. How long do we have to stand here for anyway?”

“Didn’t you log the plan away the last two times I told you?”

“I just like the reminders. And really, I still have no idea why you need to do this so badly. What’s with you and Kevin Bacon anyway?”

“Listen to me. Kevin Bacon is the center of the Hollywood universe! And the ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ defines how close you are to the center of that universe. If you’re a First Degree, it means you’ve made it.”

“Wouldn’t a Zero Degree be even closer though?”

“Well, yeah. I guess technically Zero would be closer than One. But that would mean I’d have to basically become Kevin Bacon.”

“Like John Travolta did in ‘Face Off’?”

“Kevin Bacon wasn’t in Face Off. That was Nicholas Cage.”

“What’s his Bacon Number?”

“Two. Same as Travolta, actually.”

“So you’re better than the both of them?”

“Not yet, I’m not. But once you start shutting up, I’ll be one step closer.”

“Can we go over the plan again?”

“It’s simple, really. We already paid off the guys whose parts we’re taking, and we paid them more than they were getting for this gig in the first place. So everyone wins, right?”

“I don’t see how I win in this scenario. That was my money.”

“You know I’m good for it.”

“Do I?”

“Of course you do. But can we please just focus here?”

“What’s this scene we’re in, anyway?”

“Kevin Bacon is the President of the United States, right?”

“No he isn’t.”

“In the film, dummy. Are you telling me you didn’t even read the synopsis?”

“I’d say that’s rather obvious at this point.”

“Okay, so he’s the President, and he’s tasked with stopping a nuclear war before it happens.”

“What year is this? That sounds like every action movie from the 80s. And we’re wearing kilts, because?”

“Because he’s on a Hail Mary mission to Scotland and needs to diffuse a bomb in the middle of the Highland games.”

“The President diffuses bombs now?”

“The details of the thing don’t matter. The fact is that I’m playing an undercover Scottish intelligence officer who happens to be a bomb expert and I help the Leader of the Free World decide which wire to cut.”

“I thought you only had one line?”

“It is only one line. I say, ‘Snip the blue one, me laddie.”

“I don’t know the first thing about writing, but that is terrible writing.”

“I’m not going for an IMDB screenwriter credit here! It’s a minor character role with only the one line. And I’ll get my name in the credits and a First Degree Bacon Number.”

“I don’t think you can stop a nuclear bomb simply by snipping a wire.”

“I didn’t know you were the expert on the subject. Now shut up, we’re almost on.”

(Director) “PLACES EVERYONE! AND…ACTION!!”

“Oh my god. Here he comes!”

“Shh!”

PRESIDENT OF THE U.S.A.

“You fellers play some mighty fine pipes there.

Now what can you tell me about this bomb?

And hurry now, we don’t have much time!”

BAGPIPE PLAYER #1

“Snip the blue one, me laddie.”

 

(Director) “AND….CUT! THAT’S SCENE EVERYONE!”

“Is that it?”

“That’s it. Mission accomplished.”

“Hey, I think Kevin Bacon’s waving you over. I think he wants to talk to you.”

“Probably congratulating me for making it to the center of the universe.”

“Probably.”

“Hi, Mr. Bacon. It was an honor to play that scene with you.”

“Listen to me carefully, kid. I’m going to personally make sure this scene hits the cutting room floor. Nobody gets within one degree of me without my authorization. You hear me?”

“Yes, Mr. Bacon.”

“So what did he say to you?”

“He told me I look good in a kilt.”

“Really? What about me?”

“Sorry. He didn’t mention you.”

“Say, why are those security guards charging towards us?”

“I think it’s best if we got the hell out of here. And fast. Run!”

END.

Tell Me Something I Don’t Know: The Falling (Chapter One.2)

Continued from HERE.

 “I don’t think I’m in love with Gene anymore,” Kate answered. Intuitively, both Jesse and Tommy reached their hands over and placed them on the tips of Kate’s fingers, which were still anchored to the tabletop. “I’d like to believe that I was in love at some point. But to be honest, I’m really not so sure now.” Her eyes darted back and forth between her two best friends. “I think I might have made a mistake.” Breaking her hand away from theirs, Kate slipped on her coat and wiped her eyes with one sleeve, just to make sure nothing incriminating had leaked out.

As much as I wanted to show early that Kate was never one to put up with anyone’s crap and that she was a strong female voice, I also wanted to show her vulnerable side, as slim a side as that is. There’s no way someone will want to cheer for Kate if she’s being a bitch right off the bat. It’s hard for her to admit she may have made a mistake, but it’s important for the story that she does.

The city itself breathes in with every tragedy: every obituary in the New York Times; every jackhammer upon its streets; every time a girl leaves a boy; every slight transgression that takes place within its invisible walls. And every time New Yorkers breathe a collective sigh of relief, every time they find peace in themselves, every time they find each other again, every time they bring new life into the world or enjoy a good book or put a fresh coat of paint on an old cracked wall, Manhattan exhales. The city breathes in. The city breathes out. Breathe in. Breathe out.

The city breathing was a device I added late in my first draft. I might add a “Breathe in” when something negative happens or is about to happen. Conversely, there might be a “Breathe out” alongside moments of relief and happiness. The above paragraph is the set up for this device so that later readers would quickly understand the use of the Ins and Outs. I like the idea that if our narrator is the city itself that there is also some minor omniscience there; a little bit future sight. It doesn’t feel as unnatural as if a character thought it, and it gives the readers a gentle guideline for the turns the story takes.

This brings us to the end of Chapter One. Soon I’ll begin chipping away at some of the ideas behind Chapter Two.

Character Names

Have you ever read a novel where some of the character names really bothered you? Or maybe you found the name to be a perfect fit for the character? Have you ever kept forgetting who characters were? Confusing multiple characters with one another? I’ve been thinking a lot about my character names recently, and whether they really work for my book or not.

It’s a hard thing to realize that a name is just not working. As writers, we spend so long on developing our characters, and a name is part of that development. Sometimes we fall in love with a name so deeply that the idea of changing it would alter the entire story.

A few of the characters in my third novel, This Never Happened, have gone through name changes. Sometimes it’s other characters in the story who appear to fit a certain name better that precipitates a name swap. Sometimes they fall victim to the “same letter syndrome”, when two characters’ (especially main characters’) names begin with the same letter and causes confusion for the reader. As a writer you need to eliminate as much unnecessary confusion as possible.

Cepik “Epic” Small is the novel’s protagonist and obviously has a very unique name. Initially I wanted to simply name him Epic but this was slightly too unusual for a given name so I did some research into similar-sounding names that could use Epic as a nickname. I discovered the Polish Cepik (pronounced Seh-pick) and from there gave him a bit of family history that was not entirely necessary for the story but helped flesh him out a bit more. The name Epic originally tied into the first working title of the book: it was going to be called Epoch (as in an important event in history) and Epic sounded similar enough in pronunciation that there would be a common thread there. After much consideration this proved to be a little too far outside the box so some simplification was needed. The surname Small came to me via one of my favorite movies, When Harry Met Sally. There is a character with the line: “I’m Ben Small. From the Coney Island Smalls.” My book takes place in Coney Island and I just couldn’t shake the line out of my head, so it’s kind of an homage. Also, I like the juxtaposition between the words “epic” and “small.”

Below are some of the other characters in This Never Happened who have unusual – but hopefully memorable – names:

  • Abigail “Abi” Ayr: discovers an unexplained connection between herself and Epic. Abigail is a pathological liar and may have some rudimentary psychic abilities. She loves video games and referencing games such as Minesweeper and World of Warcraft.
  • Gideon Flat: Epic’s new therapist, after his previous one (Doctor Griffin) dies.
  • Armand Bester: Epic’s friend, co-worker and would-be writer/playwright. His play – called The Duality of Three – is eerily similar to events in The Third (a fictional novel that Epic is reading).
  • Zoltan Lintzel: An odd scientist who is somehow connected to a MMORPG and is also strangely familiar with Epic’s past. He claims to be from Switzerland. Zoltan is Hungarian, Lintzel is German. I liked the idea of not really knowing the man’s origins.
  • Margaret “Margo” Asus: An actress from The Duality of Three; played the dead girl. Was the name of the waitress at the UnDiner until I felt it was a better fit here. Her name holds a connection to the mythological pegasus, with “Peggy” or “Peg” being a nickname for Margaret (therefore Margo Asus = PegAsus).
  • Doctor Griffin: Epic’s former therapist, recently committed suicide. Just like the Margo character, the good doctor also holds a connection to a mythological creature (Griffin = lion/eagle hybird).
  • Lobstero: Abi’s father. His hands are deformed and have the appearance of lobster claws. Lobstero is a performer at the Coney Island Sideshows by the Seashore.
  • Wilma Dradtstl-Small: Epic’s mother, left them when Epic was only five years old. Practically the only thing Epic remembers of his mother is her oftentimes telling him he was “born ten thousand years too late.” But what did she mean by this?
  • Dorothy: Waitress at The UnDiner, the Coney Island coffee shop frequented by Epic. Was Margaret Asus, then momentarily Lorna before becoming Dorothy.

Novels Within Novels

In my new novel (“THIS NEVER HAPPENED“), I’m exploring the novel-within-a-novel concept. Stop me if you’ve heard this before. It’s true, I already did this in my second book (“THE FALLING“). In The Falling, my main character (Tommy) is a novelist whose debut work (“BLANC“) was essentially a detective story set in 1940’s New York. Tommy based the detective character on himself while modelling the amnesiac serial killer he was chasing after an old friend (Patrick) who Tommy had been harboring negative feelings for. When Tommy gets it into his head that Patrick has returned after ten years in a grand act of revenge, he also decides that Patrick is using the scenes in Blanc as inspiration. I used three “excerpts” from Blanc and placed them sporadically within The Falling, at points in the story where Tommy’s feelings might be justified by the reader. But these were also scenes that intended to help readers better define the true nature of Tommy’s and Patrick’s close relationship.

But where the fictional novel within The Falling served the story as non-linear character development, my new story utilizes the concept in a very different way.

The FallingThis Never Happened COVERIn This Never Happened, the protagonist (Epic Small) is riding the F-Train through Brooklyn when he finds a tattered copy of a book on the seat beside him. Below is an excerpt from Chapter Four of my book:

“The novel is entitled The Third. The cover is a painting of two identical left forearms, with their wrists facing out. Somebody has defaced the cover with a bright green marker, having drawn juvenile slits along the wrists with blood streaming out. Like they are bleeding pesto or possibly belong to some sort of space creature who has assumed the form of a man. Checking the front matter, I discover this is an English translation of a French novel by the author Jean Trepanier, first published in the Seventies. This translation was published a few years after that. The back cover offers no synopsis, no indication of what the reader might be in for.”

Epic begins reading the novel right there on the subway, and realizes without a doubt that this is going to be a confusing tale. It is a story about twins, though the two men (Tristan and Luca) share no relation and don’t really look alike. The fictional author (Jean Trepanier) continues to describe Luca’s physical features differently; he’s Chinese, he’s an Eskimo, he’s a little girl, or he’s morbidly obese. There’s no rhyme or reason as to why the descriptions change but the reader and Tristan and all the secondary characters are meant to simply assume they are identical twins. Luca proposes that the two men switch lives, and without much of an argument from Tristan the two swap jobs, apartments and girlfriends.

The Third is written in a way and perceived by Epic to be something that is worth questioning. Is this a real book? Was it intentionally planted on that subway for Epic (and him specifically) to discover? And in another twist, when Epic discusses the strangeness of this book with his therapist (Gideon), it turns out that Gideon has read it too. But Gideon’s version of The Third is a little different: there is a whole other character in his version, one that does not exist in Epic’s: a third twin (er, triplet, I suppose) plays a key role in this alternate version, and his name is simply The Third. Why the divergences in the two books? Who holds the “correct” version? These are all questions that I’m hoping readers will ask, but ultimately, the two copies of The Third play a key role in the bigger picture of This Never Happened. They serve as clues towards the secret within the entire story.

Still transitioning from the outline-to-writing stage, my goal is to have This Never Happened completed at the end of 2014.

Excerpt: THIS NEVER HAPPENED – Chapter Four

In an effort to share some of what I’m currently working on, here is an excerpt from the beginning of Chapter Four of my new novel, THIS NEVER HAPPENED. Our protagonist, Cepik “Epic” Small, is a lonely soul, lost in New York (Coney Island specifically) and searching for his proper identity. He has recently began sessions with a new therapist (his previous therapist killed himself) and he’s had brief but strangely significant encounters with an mysterious as-yet-unnamed girl. Here, Epic is riding the subway on his way to work.

So read on! Comments are very much welcome.

CHAPTER FOUR

Every time I ride the F-Train I feel lucky. I don’t know why that is exactly since I don’t think good luck has ever befallen anyone who’s rode the F, but inevitably I will catch myself thinking, “This is the day something special will happen.” Because of this, I don’t take the F-Train very often; in fact I avoid it as much as possible. Because too much good luck, too much eager anticipation for something unknown cannot be healthy. And how likely is it that good luck could be a constant anyway? That goes against the very idea of luck. Maybe it’s something akin to this pleasure delaying, like Doctor Gideon said to me yesterday. Still, based on the alarming fashion in which this train shook upon leaving the station there was certainly no reason to believe good luck was on its way.

There’s a delicate electricity in the air tonight, a feeling like if one were to tread ever so far from where they were meant to be sinister events might unfold. The clear summer twilight seems to hide dark clouds beneath it, rather than the other way around. Yet the rancid, musky odour of the Coney Island station greets me as it always does, smacking all my sense at once. Sure, it’s still comforting in a way, but I feel like I need to put myself outside of my comfort zones (again, as Gideon suggested) so I find a seat in the open and across from another passenger, in fact the only other person in view, rather than a shady spot in the corner of the last train. The old man ignores me, he of the two-piece checkered suit and ascot, looking like Al Pacino from The Godfather. On his feet he showcases a pair of worn bowling shoes, one noticeably larger than the other. His left arm rests upon a massive garbage bag on the seat beside him, its contents unknown but enigmatic. The deviant smile on his face captures me for a moment; why is he smiling so? I want to keep staring, but I know I’d be utterly defenseless should he make sudden eye contact with me. Thankfully my hand glides against a newspaper beside me, which is enough to turn my attention elsewhere.

Tonight I’m riding the F-Train to Roosevelt Island. I’m meeting Bester, a coworker of mine, at The Salt Mine, a trendy new restaurant on Roosevelt’s Main Street. The small island, slivered between Manhattan and Queens has a dark and dirty history of penitentiaries, lunatic asylums and holding pens for victims of Smallpox. But today Roosevelt Island is slowly transforming itself into the latest of New York City’s gentrified neighborhoods offering luxury condos for a young, affluent demographic. I was supposed to pick up the company van from Bester at our warehouse in Gowanus but he called asking me to instead meet him on Roosevelt Island. There’s something wrong with the van. I don’t know the first thing about the inner workings of my single-slice toaster, but Bester apparently thinks I’m the company’s newest expert on vehicle repair. My guess is he did a little weed-induced off-roading through Queensbridge Park in the van beforehand and simply requires an alibi before filling out the night’s routine paperwork. I figure as long as he’s spotting my subway fare it’s all fine with me.

The copy of the Daily News beside me seems to have gone untouched, as if the Sunday edition had been delivered directly to this seat. I catch the words “Coney Island” right on the front page in big, bold serifed letters. There’s rarely ever front page news about Coney Island, and if there is it’s only because of a tragedy. I remove the newspaper for a closer look. Apparently there was a homicide yesterday, it happened during the Mermaid Parade, just a few blocks away. I try to recall if I heard sirens or screaming, but it’s almost like I wasn’t even there yesterday, like Gideon had me under hypnosis or something. There are no names or much in the way of description, sensationalistic journalism at its best. A man in his late twenties/early thirties was strangled with his own shirt. He was discovered by a homeless man in an alley, who had probably wondered at first who had taken over his turf. I think again about how long it’s been since I’ve talked to my father; he probably isn’t worried about me, but I remind myself that I really do need to call him one of these days.

The next few pages are of no real consequence. I glimpse over them as the train stops at Avenue U Station. A penguin at the Central Park Zoo that was believed to have died yesterday was now miraculously alive again. Some gibberish about a coma-like condition called cerebral hypoxia. Hypoxic hypoxia or some such thing. Simply glancing over the article doesn’t give me any glaring insight, nor do I really find it interesting enough to read deeper. The rest is so mundane it seems the same stories have been printed over and over again. Effortless stories for the simple sake of daily dissemination; a sewage pipe burst in the Upper West Side; a new dog park opens in the Village; Hampton green tomatoes may reduce cervical cancer.

By the time my train reaches Avenue N Station, I’ve already tossed the paper aside, without bothering to fold it back neatly into its once pristine condition. On the seat there is now a book which I hadn’t spotted when I took the newspaper. I almost wonder if somebody left it beside me as they passed by, but I’m confident in my certainty that no one other than the gentleman across from me had been in this car. It is a novel, a softcover and dog-eared in its condition.

I pick it up, and it feels only slightly heavier than I imagined, just enough to seem significant.

The novel is entitled The Third. The cover is a painting of two identical left forearms, with their wrists facing out. Somebody has defaced the cover with a bright green marker, having drawn juvenile slits along the wrists with blood streaming out. Like they are bleeding pesto or possibly belong to some sort of space creature who has assumed the form of a man. Checking the front matter, I discover this is an English translation of a French novel by the author Jean Trepanier, first published in the Seventies. This translation was published a few years after that. The back cover offers no synopsis, no indication of what the reader might be in for. I’ve been meaning to read a new book so without any consideration I simply open the novel to Chapter One and start reading as the F-Train disembarks from Avenue N.

The writing is by no means extraordinary, but this may be due in part to the English translation or maybe Jean Trepanier is simply a poor writer. Or possibly both. Right from the start, the novel does not seem so out of the ordinary. It is about a young man named Tristan Montminy. Tristan is a Parisian university student who also works part-time in furniture construction, but I get the feeling that what he does is not actually important. I’ve always wondered how writers decide to craft their stories. Obviously not all information in a book is relevant to the story but where do they decide to plant the clues about what really matters? Clues about where the tale is truly headed?

The book opens with Tristan in the middle of building an oblong kitchen table when his girlfriend Emilia shows up in a huff. She is pissed at him for something he doesn’t even remember doing, but he’s not too worried about it; he’s been forgetting things lately anyway, presumably a result of all the marijuana he’s been smoking. Trepanier then takes us on a two-page journey to Tuscany, where Tristan and Emilia once took a trip together and came home with a wooden vegetable crate full of pot. After a brief and fruitless argument Emilia exits, just as abruptly as she entered. From there, Tristan continues his woodworking, now with the author inexplicably going into great detail about the grain and the color of the wood. Seriously, there’s nearly four pages of description here. I look up from the book: the F-Train has stopped at 42nd Street/Bryant Park. Only four more stations until Roosevelt Island. The old man across from me is still smiling at nothing in particular. If only I could find the strength to ask him what kind of prescriptions he might be on because it’s definitely not what I’m taking.

As the train starts off again I continue reading. Tristan is on his way to class, though there’s never any mention of what classes he’s coming from or going to. Upon entering the lecture hall, Tristan stops. He suddenly recalls a dream he had one week before; a dream he did not remember until now. However, the reader is not privy to the details of this dream, which I find irksome. Tristan is soon snapped out of his reverie when someone calls out. “Luca!” they shout. “Hey, Luca!” Tristan looks around and spots a stout young man he doesn’t recognize. This person is most certainly waving at him. “Luca! What are you doing here?” he asks.

It takes my brain a few seconds to register hearing that we just left the 21st Street/Queensbridge Station. What? How did I miss my stop? The old man is gone now too, probably having exited the train while my attention was caught between the pages of the book in my lap. The next stop is Jackson Heights, a fair extra distance from where I want to be, and I sit on my own the entire way there. I fold the corner of the page I’m at in The Third and watch a darkened Astoria and Woodside pass by the window. The subway is so close to a few buildings that I can see the details of the lit apartments. Tiny slices of unknown lives flicker by, not unlike a film reel, almost animating the goings on inside. Mostly just televisions tuned to the same channel. The lonely blue light is so hypnotic that I almost don’t realize the train slowing down. Slipping the copy of The Third into my bag I exit the eastbound station and run the gauntlet over to the Manhattan-bound side, barely making it in time for the next F-Train. I scramble through the swarm of commuters spewing from the train and find a spot, again in the middle car.

There’s some bug buzzing around the tip of my nose and when I try to brush it away it hovers around my left ear, humming its maddening song just for me. Then into the right ear. As I swat at the thing maniacally I almost miss the girl outside the window. She must have just gotten off as I went the other way. I know for sure that it’s the same girl I saw during the parade yesterday, still in the same clothes, still wearing the same sunglasses. I can clearly see a skull-and-crossbones pattern on the back of her denim jacket. Although shrouded by the eye wear, I can tell she recognizes me too. That, or she just might have a staring problem. It’s the same look from across the street as the day before. I don’t even have time to raise a hand or nod in mutual recognition before the F-Train rattles off and the girl disappears back into a faceless crowd.

Cont’d…

Progress

This Never Happened COVER

Just a quick update on the progress of my third novel, still tentatively called “THIS NEVER HAPPENED.” Things are coming along great! I’m still mostly working in the outlining stage, with roughly four chapters fully written. I’ve had a few major plot points that were tying my story together, but they weren’t really tying each other together (if that makes sense) until a few days ago. Sometimes a bunch of great ideas don’t really work unless they’re playing off one another, which is what’s finally happening with my novel. The characters are also all starting to play off one another nicely, with interestingly unexpected connections being made as well, which always helps a novel’s progression.

Basically, I’m liking it! And I’m excited about opening up my Google Doc every day. So there you go.

Hopefully I can share another few pages one of these days.

Themes

As I (slowly) write my third novel, and try to hone my craft a little more with every sentence, the idea of THEME keeps popping into my head. Buzzing around my brain all the while nagging me to not forget what my point is here. I think with this story, much more so than my previous two, I need to keep my themes evident in everything; every word in every sentence of every chapter must all be leading somewhere, hoping to say something coherent and meaningful.

My third novel (tentatively named “THIS NEVER HAPPENED”) juggles such ideas as Identity, Dreams, Reality, Memory, Happiness, Depression, Purpose, Family and Love. It treads into Boy-Meets-Girl territory. It plays with the reader’s head, making them question what is real and what is not. And before you it, it turns itself over and transforms into a far-fetched and sci-fi laden mystery. Yes, that’s a lot to think about. And it takes a lot of planning and outlining to keep everything on the tracks, heading in the right direction. The key to this? A solid theme, of course. But there’s more to this as well.

A question or two: Do most writers pick one single theme and run with it? Do they keep it loose and not worry too much about whether the reader will identify their theme? Are their books thematic-heavy, impossible to not pick up on it? Is it more common a writer’s work to have multiple themes? Does it sometimes have no theme at all? Does anything go?

Next, I decide to revisit my original synopsis for the book, the hook if you will, hoping my burgeoning ideas for the story will remind me why I’ve chosen to write the story. Here is one of the first things I wrote when I started this project, then tentatively known as “EPOCH”:

Epoch: A black hole collapses and ten thousand years later a baby boy is born. Each event is linked wholly to the other. As the boy grows up he feels as though he doesn’t belong anywhere and he eventually becomes certain he was never meant for this world.

After much deliberation and considering my original hook and dissecting the ideas and chapters I’ve already gotten down, I decide that my main theme is Identity. My main character has never felt like belonged and has always had a difficult time trying to fit in and figure out who he was meant to be. But knowing where this complicated tale is headed, I also want to make Reality a theme. I figure this particular novel is best suited to be heavy on these two themes so how do I start really tying them into the story?

Next, and with a fine-tooth comb, I go through the five full chapters I have so far (roughly 10,000 words) and make sure the idea of Identity is really tied into what my characters say and what my main character thinks (this is a First-Person Narrative). I take a look at all the words and re-think why they’re there and if I could use a better sentence. This is something that will be done again in the editing stage, but by then it will mostly be for grammatical reasons and making sure my exposition reads clearly.

Reality is something that begins to be questioned later in the book, and plays a large role, but it’s the kind of idea that is best used with a smattering of clues, first unnoticeable, then with a light dusting, and finally a full-blown “make the reader question everything that’s happened” scenario. I remind to think about this as I go, but the truth is that with proper outlining the editing stage will help me decide when too much information is being given or if more is needed.

But for now I’ll be saving my document and closing my computer for the night. In bed I’ll think about this more-refined direction and hope that the words will start to flow a bit faster tomorrow.

How about you writers out there? How do you tackle the use of theme in your work?

Open the Box

The dusty, brown box stares me down, blaming me for the funk I’m in. I haven’t written much lately. Nothing worth noting. It’s not my fault, I tell myself. It’ll come, I say.

I’ve been misled by my own misdirection. Hey, look over here. There’s something worthwhile over there. Open this book and your eyes will land on the most galvanizing passage. That website is sure to inspire you if you will only keep clicking. The box just needs to be opened.

I am not unlike a tree at winter’s end, my bare branches waiting to be full again. But unlike the tree which simply waits for spring, I am responsible for filling my own branches.

Here, let me open that box. Watch the words grow once more.

The Falling – Chapter Twenty-Nine

CHAPTER TWENTY-NINE: From Montauk to Morningside Heights

ONE YEAR LATER.

The wind bit into Tommy as he waited for the E-Train out of Jamaica. It didn’t bother him though. If Rachel had told Tommy that he would one day enjoy the two and half-hour train ride from Montauk he would never have believed her.

The train station was full of sketchy and unsavory characters, but Tommy didn’t mind them either. A pair of homeless men huddled in the corner, ignored even by the security guard who wandered listlessly on patrol. The two men could have been twins for all Tommy knew; with their scruffy beards, drab monochrome clothing and matching New York Islanders hats. He had bought a wholly unspectacular Spartan apple at the station, paying for it with a crisp twenty, and Tommy tossed the men all of the change that had been rattling in his pocket ever since. They probably weren’t really Islanders fans, he thought in an attempt to justify his own charity.

Tommy had surprised the Ponzinis that morning when he showed up on their doorstep asking Dick Ponzini for his daughter’s hand. Patrick told him the whole scenario sounded a little old-fashioned, but he didn’t want to dissuade his friend from making any life changing decisions. Tommy’s father had done it the same way, as did his grandfather before him. No one in the family was quite sure how Leyland Mueller had proposed but Tommy imagined it must have gone down in the exact same fashion. Just a day before, Tommy visited Ellis Island to find his great-grandfather’s name; he felt it would serve as some sort of familial approval of his proposal to Rachel. It took him well over an hour to find the tiny name etched into the Wall of Honor. It was both comfortable and unsettling to read his own moniker nestled in amongst thousands upon thousands of faceless, long-dead immigrants. A year ago, Tommy considered going by his proper birth name, but the truth was that he still hated it. He decided to stick with Tommy rather than pretend things were any different than they had always been.

Heeding Patrick’s advice from the day of the tennis match, Tommy agreed to simply tell Rachel he loved her. He paid her Columbia professor fifty dollars to give him ten minutes at the start of the lecture, Rachel’s Socio-Cultural Anthropology class. Tommy put on a smelly tweed jacket and a fake mustache and proceeded to bore the entire lecture hall by bull-shitting about the societal merits of Super Mario Land for a full seven minutes. He hadn’t practiced any of it, but the majority of students weren’t really listening anyway. Rachel knew it was him right from the start, but she was simply too dumbfounded to do anything but smile at the man’s lunacy. Eventually Tommy just wrote “I love you Rachel Ponzini” on the whiteboard. He asked her to see him after class, and then he left. Rachel moved into Tommy’s 113th Street apartment exactly four days later.

The E-Train finally pulled in and it was even colder inside because somebody thought it would be a good idea to leave the air conditioning on. Still, Tommy refused to let anything bother him. The cars clack-a-lacked beneath Forest Hills and Queens Boulevard and Hunters Point before thundering through the East River. Tommy loved the ease of the subway system, but if there was one thing he missed when riding into Manhattan from Long Island, it was seeing the glorious skyline of the world’s greatest city coming into view. New York City never ceased to stand guard, ever vigilant as its people perpetually changed. They continued to face new ordeals every day, but the wisest of them knew it would always be so. Their ebbs and flows were not pre-determined but they were also not entirely unexpected. The city would always breathe in and out.

John Galloway died suddenly in his sleep on Christmas morning. By then he’d entirely forgotten who he was, but he never forgot how much he loved his wife. Keekee Kaufman awoke one evening to discover she was perfectly fine; her schizophrenia was simply no more. She walked out of Bellevue and made her way across the Triboro Bridge. As she looked down onto the East River she found no desire within herself to jump off. Troy “The Shark” Dunlop was found dead and shirtless on the floor in the men’s room after suffering a severe heart attack from massive energy drink consumption. Apparently he had been practicing some ultimate fighting moves in the bathroom mirror when it happened. He never did find his missing Randy Couture bobble head doll. Dwayne Reamer eventually found himself in an editing position at Pendulum Publishing. He even garnered his own small office overlooking West 39th Street. His office was big enough for a mini-fridge, so nobody could steal his yogurt anymore. He had also been putting the finishing touches on his own book: Catch Me if You Can: the Next Generation of American Catchphrases.

Tommy transferred subways at the 50th Street Station, taking the 1-Train north. The station smelled particularly grimy that afternoon, but the grimier the better. To Tommy, that only meant the city was running as it should. It was comforting. He sat as far back as he could in the train’s very last car. A beggar with no legs slowly patrolled the subway, pushing himself on a skateboard with his calloused hands. Tommy had no change left in his pocket, but he did find a pen which he dropped into the coffee tin hanging from the man’s neck, claiming everyone could always use a good pen.

An unfunny lawyer named Hugh Morris contacted Jesse Classen one day in February, letting him know that something had been left for him in John Galloway’s will. It was a comic book collection, still mostly unsorted and piled up in the basement of the Gramercy Park home. When Jesse went to collect it, he was astounded by the sheer volume of valuable rarities. At first he refused to take them, but once his friends managed to convince him that it would represent the final stage of the healing process, Jesse finally succumbed. There was a copy of The Amazing Spider-Man #1, an assortment of rare Buck Rogers and Lone Ranger comics, a three-hundred issue run of the newspaper edition Spirit comics from the Forties, and most incredibly of all, a near-mint copy of Detective Comics #27. Jesse quit his job as assistant manager at Midtown Comics and used the value of the collection to open his own comic book shop in the Lower East Side. He called it Edie’s Bunker, and he was the store’s sole employee. When Jesse was ready to see Sharona again he did just as he was instructed and went to the streetlight on MacDougal Street to find the necessary information regarding her next show. But there were no posters to be found. There was an ad for free computer lessons, and two of the nine phone numbers had already been torn off the bottom. And there was another girl there, taping up her own poster for a lost cat. It wasn’t her cat, Jesse learned, but her friend’s. Betty Bentley hated musicals and chicken wings and black licorice and comic books, but the two of them decided to give each other a shot anyway. Jesse soon found that compromising was far better than living alone with regret.

The 1-Train came to a slow stop somewhere between Columbus Circle and Lincoln Center. The lights went out and most everyone onboard panicked. Tommy could easily tell which of the passengers were tourists and which were not by the levels of alarm they displayed. It was funny to him just how obvious people could sometimes be. He took the moment to appreciate the artwork spray-painted onto the tunnel walls just behind the window. There were areas of New York that Tommy knew he would never get the chance to see, which bothered him more than most anything else. It was moments like these that he savored, considering himself even luckier than he was just the moment before.

Kate Prince and Gene Schneider divorced in March. It turned out that Gene had never had an affair, nor did he want one, but Kate was done either way. She took enough time for herself to finish her first novel, The Falling. She self-published the book but failed miserably in promoting herself. She wasn’t looking for fame or notoriety; she was just happy to have finally finished it, and she was proud of herself. When The Manhattanite eventually did end up being a success, just as Tommy predicted, Kate still did not let it get to her. Tommy deserved all the accolades he got. Eventually, she found an editing job at another publishing company and the very first book she pulled from the slush pile turned out to be an award winner. Kate finally returned to the gym, but balanced her new lifestyle out by taking up smoking. She claimed to have curbed her Nicorette addiction through cigarettes. For her birthday, Jesse made Kate a collage. It was a collection of GAP ads taped together with the addition of comic book word balloons glued above Kate’s head. The many denim-clad Kates were saying such things as “Bow before the might of Doom!”, “Walloping web-snappers!” and “By Odin’s Beard!” It was very Warhol-esque. Kate kept the collage above her desk at home, proudly showing it off to anyone lucky enough to spend time with her.

From the Cathedral Parkway Station it was only two more blocks to the coffee shop, but Tommy leisurely took his time. He was looking forward to meeting with his friends and telling them the big news, but he’d been in much less of a hurry lately than he usually was. Besides, he knew his friends weren’t going anywhere. New York was no longer just his; it was all of theirs. They still continued their attempts at convincing Patrick to get out of Brooklyn and move back to Manhattan, but they didn’t push him too hard since they all knew it was bound to happen eventually. Sheldon was already starting to show the signs of a budding Thomas Mueller. The boy loved being in the city, he loved hearing the trains underground when he passed a station stairwell or a grate on the sidewalk, and he quivered a little bit before heading back home to their apartment on India Street. Sheldon was quick to make friends with hotel doormen; he helped Uncle Jesse out every Saturday at Edith’s Bunker; and once a month he would bug Tommy enough to take him on the three hour sightseeing boat tour around Manhattan. He loved listening to Tommy tell the stories of every building and every street and every bridge they passed, and never ceased in suggesting Tommy give tours for a living, since it sometimes seemed Uncle Tommy had nothing else to do with his time. Tommy’s only response would be to challenge the boy to do the same.

As he approached the corner or Broadway and 112th, Tommy stopped for moment to process everything that had gone through his mind that morning. He thought about his brother and how much he would have loved to have had the chance to share the city with him. Everything was perfect there; it no longer mattered how much things changed or whether or not they remained the same. Tommy would continue to love New York City forever. Patrick, Kate and Jesse watched him from the window of Tom’s Restaurant. I couldn’t help but watch him too. His passion would never cease to astonish and baffle us all. Patrick almost gave Tommy another second to collect himself, but he chose to bang on the glass instead, snapping him out of his fervor.

 

THE END