Saturday, May 30, 2009

Reading Your Work.

I maybe should have posted an announcement here, days, even weeks before it happened, that I was going to be in a reading on Thursday May 28 at 8 p.m. at Dog Eared Books. But no matter--the reading indeed happened and it went well with a very good crowd in attendance too. A lot of my friends would have told you that they had never ever seen me read before. And they would have been correct. It was the first time I've read anything, in that sort of context, for at least 5 or 6 or 8 years. I was among an esteemed group of fellow readers, including Maria De Lorenzo and Ali Liebegott. The setting, a bookstore, was both familiar and unsettling. There wasn't a podium, for example, so I felt the need to pace a little, or do a nervous toe dance. An incredibly bright light was above my head. No microphone either which I think helped me to enunciate more clearly and pause more effectively between suspenseful sentences. Since I had to talk louder, I felt more in control. I was also wearing my Mr. Peanut Death Head shirt which some people in the front row found distracting but to me was quite empowering.

With the ten minutes I had, I read two excerpts from stories that are essentially about the same thing: what happens when people, under economic, romantic, or metaphysical duress are forced to flee to an environment that is strange, difficult and alienating for them. Usually, I'll take a real place and exaggerate its most salient features. I'll give it a new name too. In this case, I thought of Oakland and parts of Detroit I've only heard about and called it Ashland. (Actually, that was my Mom's recommendation. Shout out to her, as Palin would say.) I think this is generally a good way to make a fictional world come alive: base it on parts of other places, combine, set to mix and pour out on the page and then throw in some out-of-left-field details that you completely make up.

The first story was more polished, had been edited a lot, workshopped into the ground. The second I wrote in a sun-blasted frenzy down in San Diego for the Memorial Day weekend. It was raw, somewhat obscene and in a crisper, more sardonic tone that a lot of my other pieces. No editing, drafting or any of that was involved. Most people seemed more impressed with that second story which, for better or for worse, I called Pictures From Ashland. I only read two pages of it. It's sort of futuristic, but not really. It's cataclysmic, but too absurd to be all that disquieting. It's about people like me who want to live cheaply and do desperate things to achieve that goal. Below, I've excerpted a part I didn't read, but came after the part I did read.

From Ashland Story:

So we left on the 5 cent ferry bound for Ashland. And the others inevitably followed. The ones who had come before came out of their crawlspaces to try and have sex with us. A whole new genre of pioneer was born. I was one of them. We put down cash from hot appliances on a place as big and rotting as a turn-of-the-century zeppelin hangar. The former owner had that circus look going for him. He wanted to bring in the “new breed” he said. Fishy-sounding language, a tad Mein Kamfian. We would sow culture and harmony to the bad places and for very cheap too. It would be kristallnacht every night, I thought meanly, deliriously. He was making me hate what I was so I, of course, had to hate him even harder.

Our compound, all decimated concrete, steel and glass, was on the edge of the poorest, most bullet-riddled stretch of housing in the West of Ashland, a post-industrial boondocks known as Yardage Town. Trash-can fires. Old ambulances on blocks. Soviet-style housing. Industry had died there just like the bison. Our zest for novelty already set us apart. Days felt longer at first, impossibly long, like how you imagine the Serengeti. I needed to know where to go, what to do. I had no bearings to begin with. I was mapping every inch with my eye. Slowly. One day, I went riding on my bike just to test out space. Already, near the Zip Town projects, some kids had tried to sidewind me with shopping carts. They came out of nowhere from behind abandoned semi's. Soon bottles from passing cars went by my head. The shattering of glass was like a strange, yet familiar bird call.

I got out to what I thought was a safer pasture, a landscape beaten within an inch of its life.

I rode leisurely through the former syrup works of the Mr. Pibb bottling empire. Now nothing but blown-out barracks, tree-eaten asylums and autopsied terminals. This was what they called “non-residential” but instantly I knew that was a joke. A hundred, maybe a thousand unseen people cuddled up in the wreckage, with flashlights for eyes and nobody to protect them. Here you were pretty much in International Waters. Nothing but scavengers and pioneers and kids. I scanned every compass point. But I wasn’t vigilant. How could you be? He ran out of nowhere, dressed like a jogger from the ‘80s, shirtless and wearing short, tight spandex. I hit him dead on with my bike and he fell into a pile of smashed window glass. It haloed his head like dazzling blue snow. I sensed danger the moment he reared back up with the beautiful shards jammed in his cheek.
“Oh my god, I am so fucking sorry,” I moaned.

“Not half as sorry as you’re going to be bitch” he said, and he clocked me in the gut with an invisibly quick fist. It knocked the wind right out of me. A miracle it only did that. I bent double, struggling to find a breeze. In that instant, I was in grade school again, a grass-stained tomboy who loved to dress like Scout, (you know from To Kill A Mockingbird) on the day that Kate Gallagher huffing and puffing in her piss-yellow pigtails, punched me right in the kidneys. This time, the man doing it to me had more force, both scrotal and historical behind the blow. I fell to my knees, my eyes dragging down his long, muscular legs.

“That’s what we do to wild dogs around here,” he added helpfully. I got back up, feeling no less than a million things at once. For some reason he was still laying there, right in the street, staring at me and grinning, half-in-the-shadow cast by a machine-gunned watchtower, his other half in the acid light of the noonday sun. Nobody anywhere could see a thing.

The story doesn't quite go to the worst possible place it could go. Instead, I played around with the idea that everyone, in times of general cataclysm, can achieve some kind of paradoxical equity based on fearlessness. The ending is surprisingly happy, perhaps unrealistically so.

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