Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Food for the Fiction Monster

If you're anything like me, then I'm sorry for you.

But seriously, I have moments during most days in which I recall something from my past that is so utterly random and so detached from the present that it makes me stop in my tracks.

I chalk it up to my writer's mind trying to unearth bits of things that I might want to use in my fiction. God knows I can't do it while actually sitting down at my computer WRITING.

For example? Well, here are a few memories that came up in recent days, the ones I remember anyway. I've GOT to start carrying around a small notebook.

Chatty Cathy

- I worked as a night editor for a daily newspaper in Vermont. It's the last job in newspapers I ever had, actually. I would come to work at around 9 p.m. and work until 5 or 6 a.m., when the paper was beginning to be put together. My job was to edit the copy from the previous night's stories. Well, to keep awake, I made a fresh pot of atrocious sludge and drank it throughout the night. The taste killed me. The caffeine kept me employed.

Well, one morning, I was heading out when one of the copy editors waved me over to her computer. Copy editors tweaked the last stories. Spelling, grammar, that sort of thing. Nothing heavy. Never getting into the guts of the story to reshape it into something readable. This particular copy editor - I'll name her Cathy for the sake of privacy - was no shrinking violet. She told it like it was. To anyone. She had an opinion about everything and it was never flattering.

The thing that made it worse is that Cathy was in no position to criticize anyone about anything. She was a chain smoker, a bit frumpy in appearance, not well-read at all (of anything of substance beyond the tabloids), an admitted hater of men, and a fucking know-it-all. About EVERYTHING. I know you've met someone like her in your life. The type of person who just can't shut up and whose opinions are always vile and cutting.

Anyway, Chatty Cathy waved me over and I obliged. The morning copy editors were instructed to consult with me if they flagged something in a story beyond misspellings. So here I am thinking she's read something she doesn't understand and therefore must have me okay her corrections.


I bent low, over her shoulder, peering at the story on her screen and she says, loudly, "Nobody wants to see your open fly."

I had everything I could do to refrain from shoving her forehead into the monitor. Instead, I straightened. And zipped up my fly. Right there next to her.

Slow like.


- I was with my father the day he told my uncle, on my mother's side, that their brother had awoken from a coma and had smiled.

The back story first. My uncle Sonny, my mother's oldest sibling, had blown an aneurysm while going to the bathroom. They rushed him to the hospital and the prognosis was grim. He was not expected to live.

He was in a coma for over a week, the expectation being that he would never wake up. He was maybe not yet 50 years old and had two young children and a wife.

Everyone in the family visited him, that somber shuffle of people in an out of his hospital room who were there to give their last respects more than anything.

His youngest brother, my uncle Sheldon, was building a house from scratch. Ten days after the ambulance rushed Sonny to the hospital and the doctors had delivered their best-guesstimate for his lights-out, Uncle Shelly stood on the sub-floor of his unfinished house and was hoisting a beam into place when my dad and I arrived.

I remember this part most vividly. My uncle Shelly, in a sweat-stained t-shirt, stubble, worn-out from the combination of physical labor and emotional grief, his biceps straining against the pull of the huge beam, and my father stepping up onto the foundation.

"He opened his eyes and smiled at your mother," Dad said.

The beam fell to the floor and Uncle Shelly broke down in tears. My father embraced him. I looked out beyond the skeletal framing of the walls of his unfinished house, out into the trees, and I was angry at how awkward I felt.

The Coward

I'm pretty sure my college roommate was gay. My second college roommate, I should say.

I lived with Daryl my first semester, and he was a local. He lived on campus even though his parents were both professors at the college and therefore lived just a block from campus.

Daryl was not a nice person and the Yankee sensibility in me collided with his Texas-sized machismo on a regular basis. (pro-choice versus pro-life; women are partners versus women are housekeepers and child-rearers; black people are people versus black people are...you can guess what they were to Daryl.)

I say this not as an indictment of Texans. I actually fell in love with the people I met there. They were gracious, warm, and giving people. And I learned a lot from being near them.

Just as there are smart-mouthed assholes in New England, so there are in Texas.

Daryl was also vehemently anti-gay. The college I attended was a Christian university, so you can imagine his attitude toward certain "types" - gays, lesbians, liberals, Muslims, soccer players, anyone living east of the Mississippi, north of the Mason-Dixon; any football team outside of Dallas - were echoed throughout the campus. Even celebrated.

I stuck out like a sore lobster.

And boy did we have colossal arguments.

I mean, how could we not? He didn't even know who Steely Dan was for Christ Sake, and I absolutely refused to listen to Waylon Jennings.

But I regret to say, when it came to his stance against homosexuals, I failed.

Predictably, Daryl chose a new roommate for the second semester, a kid who lived across the hall from us and a fellow Texan named Jeffy. I'm not kidding you. His name was Jeffy.

Jeffy's roommate, Bob, was also a Texan, and was more or less ordered, by Daryl and Jeffy, to move his shit into my room. That's how I found out I had lost a capable sparring partner, and gained a new roommate.

Bob was quiet. Bob was a business major from San Saba who lived near Tommy Lee Jones. Bob was gay.

It was that obvious.

And while the subject was never broached between Bob and me, it didn't have to be. His effeminate leanings made me wonder, but I shook the thoughts off as an unfair, and cliched, prejudice. A book-by-his cover sort of self-admonition. The tearful calls home to his mother at night while I was "asleep" was what answered my question, however.

It's not like I got dressed in the bathroom stall from now on or feared some prison-shower kind of scenario being acted upon me when I least expected it. But I did feel fear, and that fear was realized.

Daryl and Jeffy, one morning, assaulted Bob with such a barrage of insults I felt like I was back on 4th-grade playground and kids who had just learned to swear were trying out every adjective.

Every homophobic epitaph ever uttered came from their mouths, and all because Bob had the audacity to ask Jeffy for his table back. The one they had used for their television when they were roommates and had been given to Bob by his mother as a college send-off.

Bob got his table back. In eight pieces.

I didn't say a thing to Daryl or Jeffy. I froze. I froze with my tongue stuck to the roof of my mouth. Of all the arguments I had had with Daryl about politics and sex and religion, I had lost my nerve when it really mattered.

To this day I hate remembering this. Of being a witness to a crime and doing nothing. I have never reconciled this with myself either. This fear that I am a big talker among big talkers, but when the battle ensues, that I become a coward's coward.

Bob finished the semester and we were never close and we never spoke about the incident. I left college and never found out what happened to him.


  1. Your story about Bob is heart-breaking. But I think it was something important for you. And maybe for him, too. I think there were major life lessons in there. The question is... do you live those lessons now?

  2. Liz:

    I was 19 years old, a year removed from high school, and 1500 miles away from home. 20 years later, I'd like to think I would react differently. More maturely, with less fear.

    I think the lesson learned here (for me anyway) is that turning to look away is just as much an indictment as being the perpetrator himself.

    Too tough? I don't think so. Would I react differently today? Absolutely. Today, I'm not gripped with fear of what my peers think. I really couldn't give a shit.

  3. Wow, this is heavy stuff here - especially the Bob story. It's odd, because the you that I know doesn't match the one you're describing. I guess we do grow up, whether we want to or not. I'd like to think most of us have improved with age.

    Although I can totally see you doing the Chatty Cathy thing.

  4. Wow -this is sad, scary, and self-indicting. Poor Bob, so out of place. Poor other guys, so full of insecurity and hate. Poor you, also out of place.

    One thing about your writing that impresses me is how entertainingly you can take a moment from your life and illuminate it by building a narrative around it. You're really, really good at it, and extremely consistent with your tone, pace, style. It's really enjoyable reading!