Vignette: Smoking in the running lane

He tried to shake the image of her standing in the kitchen, her tiny frame draped in the XXL Absolut Vodka T-shirt she had been handed the night before by an overzealous liquor promoter. She had taken the shirt, laughing as she sipped her gin and tonic, and loudly disclosing that she didn’t even drink vodka but was always up for free swag.

One oversized shirt, pair of plastic sunglasses, set of Mardi Gras beads and beer kookie later, and they had rolled out of the club and to her place until the sun rose three hours later. They hissed against its glare through the curtains, which she hadn’t remembers (or bothered?) to shut.

She asked if he wanted breakfast — a fried egg, a Clif bar, a cup of coffee, anything — and he had refused, his stomach churning at the thought of anything but a beer joining the alcohol still sloshing inside of it. Snatching the plastic Absolut sunglasses from the side table in the hall, he waved goodbye with the promise of calling her, even though he wasn’t sure he had her number.

Wind blew down the lakeside block, but not the kind that had torn the window out and thrown its sash javelin-style into his leg. It was the pleasant kind that he used to use as either a challenge or a support system on his long runs. He had a hard enough time walking these days, let alone jogging mile after mile.

When the physical therapist released him from his daily sessions, she had warned that running was going to come harder, if it came back at all. A few failed starts and embarrassing crashes, and he had decided that if he couldn’t enjoy what he once loved, he might as well take pleasure in the exact opposite. Weekly cheeseburgers, ten-hour TV binges, club-induced one-night-stands like this one. She was a nice woman, really, even if she relied on the word “actually” too much. And sex had to count for some kind of cardio.

He had even picked up smoking, and as he approached the lakefront path, he pulled a pack of Benson Hedges from his jacket pocket and tapped one out, lighting it with the Bic that was on its last clicks. This had become his favorite past time: If he couldn’t run in the fast-paced pedestrian lanes, he would saunter along them, filling his lungs with tar and nicotine, and exhaling the smoke as runners passed him, almost taunting him.

Today the path was busier than usual. The marathon runners were out training on the last weekend before the big race, and he resented each one as they swerved around him, shaking their heads at his ignorance — or was it arrogance? Depending on the person, he was labeled as either.

Eventually the running path leveled off with the beach, and he took pleasure in cutting across in front of a man going at a particularly heavy sprint and forced to splash through a puddle to avoid him. He tossed the spent cigarette into the sand and walked straight into the waves, letting the water crash into the jeans covering the scar from the window sash. Not this year, the therapist had said, but maybe next year. Maybe next year he’d run the marathon, if he didn’t smoke his lungs out first.

He lit another cigarette and belched. It tasted like vodka.

Scene of the write: The Music Box Theater

The street festival outside is closed, shrouded in thick white plastic sheets held down with duct tape so the midsummer breeze doesn’t pick them up and fly them like Halloween ghosts down the road. The emptied racks and tables underneath brace themselves for another 90-degree day.

Inside the century-old Music Box Theater lobby, it’s cool — the kind of dried and seasoned air that comes out of an aging air conditioner. Indie acoustic music plays over the speakers, and the Manhattans served in plastic cups taste worth the $13 even though they don’t look it. A dark luxardo cherry burrows under the ice, a secret treat to whoever finishes the booze part first.

From my seat in a chair that was once maroon but is now a dusty mauve, I watch the employee sliding the letters off a sign above Theater 2. The words change from “Paris is Burning” to “Paris is Bu” to “Paris i” to “Pa” to muted white light.

The projector could be illuminating the screen with anything, and I wouldn’t know it until I peeled my sticky legs from the grip of the vinyl seat and waddled across the floor, plucking the shorts from their bunch between my legs, and walked under the ladder and through the door. No longer would it be the story of Harlem’s drag queens. It could be a grim noir with revolvers, running boards, stocking dresses and hats with little netted veils. Or maybe it’s a new experimental film hand-drawn by someone coming down from an Adderall high courtesy of their college roommate’s drug dealer.

Overhead a white girl strums her guitar and sings Rihanna’s “Desperado” in a voice trained for honeysuckle country and straining for grit. And in a blink, the Theater 2 sign says “Escape from NY.”

This Banned Books Week, to Hell with the Hays Code!

In the early years of movies, filmmakers didn’t have any restrictions — apart from the sense of morality held by whoever was funding them — as to what they could put in a movie. And so the Hays Code was born.

Ultra-restrictive, the Hays Code was a set of guidelines to combat the liberal content increasingly present at the movies (which, of course, pales in comparison to today’s films). The bottom line: “No picture shall be produced that will lower the moral standards of those who see it.”

Last week I learned about this mock photograph by A.L “Whitey” Schafer, who fit as many code violations as he could into a single photograph. At the time it must have been seen as shocking by some and considered deliciously disruptive by others.

Read more here.

Personally, I see this photo as a a much-needed middle-finger to stringent rules that, among other things, banned depictions of childbirth, interracial relationships, “sexual perversions (such as homosexuality),” religious figures as villains, and illegal drug use. You could not justify illicit sexual relationships between unmarried characters, and scenes of passion were closely monitored. In love scenes, partners couldn’t be in a horizontal position while kissing, and women had to have “at least one foot on the floor” (i.e. not in bed).

So what did Whitey do? He set up this photo, which broke ten of the Hays Commandments in a single image.

Writers face the threat of people reporting, banning or burning their books all the time. That’s why this week is “Banned Book Week.” To a lot of us, having your book be listed as a threat by ultra-conservative groups is a feather in the cap. The Hate U Give might be the most recent example I can think of as a YA novel that’s constantly in turmoil because of its realistic portrayal of a black teen being shot by a cop. Harry Potter was famously burned for its magical content — though its massive popularity stoked those flames, too, as not every fantasy book gets the same treatment.

That’s why this photograph came to mind when I sat down to blog this week. As writers we often have to make people uncomfortable to make our voices heard. Safe stories are sometimes nice, but we learn when we’re pushed to see things the establishment doesn’t want us to see.

The Hays Code was eventually abandoned in the late 1960s when enforcement became impossible — too many filmmakers were just paying the fine and making movies that shook the country to its core. If no one had flouted the rules, we’d still be watching versions of Frankenstein where the doctor’s god complex was completely brushed over.

It’s our job as creators to break the rules, but to do it in a way that “punches up.” Represent the marginalized. Criticize those in power. Funny, how that not only applies to making art, but also making life…

Excerpt from “Nobody’s Hero:” “Do you realize?”

Pru pressed the top of her head to the air-conditioner-cooled glass and gazed out and down the window at the ant-sized people 12 stories below. As they boarded and disembarked the 3184 bus, she could identify a woman in the red standard-issue polo for Target employees. A man in nurse scrubs. Two workmates in matching Centropolis Transit Authority jackets.

It must be nice, she thought, to have a job that didn’t follow you home on the bus. The two-for-one mop heads and $10 earrings would stay at the store. The allergist’s patients would go to their own homes to sneeze and cough and hack around the dog they insisted on keeping. The trains and buses would run with someone else behind the wheel. None of them would have their work phone tucked into bed with them like a teddy bear.

The song pumping through Pru’s earbuds changed to “Do You Realize” by The Flaming Lips. A breathy countdown started in her ear: “1…2…3…4” before a drum downbeat and acoustic guitars kicked in at full volume.

High school economics had been the bane of Pru’s 17-year-old existence — the sure end to her short life, and the highest hurdle she was sure she’d ever have to conquer — and she had coped with it by lying flat on her back on the carpet and playing this song through bulky noise-canceling headphones so loud that the supply vs. demand charts wallpapering her brain vibrated right off the walls and crashed to the floor.

As Wayne Coyne asked her if she realized that happiness made her cry, she closed her eyes. She couldn’t remember the last time she cried, from happiness or otherwise. Maybe it was when Joseph — or was it Jordan? She couldn’t remember any more — Holmes had ditched her at prom for his ex. She was clearly overdue: It was time to stoke up Field of Dreams or Finding Neverland and let five or six years worth of emotions come pouring out of her tear ducts, uncorked like a fine aged wine.

Now Wayne Coyne was reminding her that everyone she knew someday would die, and she caught a laugh in her throat before it could escape. Yes, that much was clear, as indicated from what she had just witnessed: Her boss, her friend-turned-tormentor, dead on the lab floor, surrounded by baby carrots and unresolved, origin-unknown animosity.

And that made it even harder to grasp why tears weren’t coming to her eyes — happy, or sad. Rather than waiting around to be told to recognize mortality and acknowledge that sunsets were just an illusion caused by the Earth’s rotation, she ripped the earbuds out of her ears and tossed them to the desk before returning to the article she had just pulled up onto her computer on how to chill a body at the right temperature to throw off a coroner’s report.

Worth the weight: On slowing down and dropping deadlines

Two things about me, one that I don’t like to admit, and one that I love pulling from my hat whenever I need to feel superior to others:

1. I am highly superstitious about some things, and typically in the opposite way as other people.

2. I used to be a journalist.

Now that you know these two things, you’ll understand when I say that I’ve always considered Friday the 13th to be a lucky day to accomplish things, such as ask a boy to prom (he said yes) or send a novel manuscript to an agent (he, too, said yes). And as a former magazine editor and reporter, I also function best with deadlines. If I miss them, I spend a debatably healthy amount of time berating myself for being forgetful, dysfunctional or just plain lazy.

In April I told my agent I’d have a full manuscript of Nobody’s Hero to him by Friday, Sept. 13. By the time I finished extracting marrow from my bones and putting it on a page — how else can you describe writing the first draft of anything? — I had less than a month to edit it, send it to my beta readers, incorporate their suggestions, copy edit, and ship it off to Ross via the Gmail Express.

In other words, to make my deadline I’d have to go on a leave of absence during a high-stress time at my day job, stop sleeping, cut ties with all my friends, and retreat to my apartment like Johnny Depp in Secret Window. And if you’ve seen that movie, you know that it’s best for everyone that I don’t become Johnny Depp in Secret Window.

So a couple weeks ago I looked at the 2019 calendar again and saw with relief that Dec. 13 is also a Friday. The year has given me one more lucky day, and it means that I can make Nobody’s Hero exactly as I want it to be before sending it off. And that’s the point, isn’t it?

Mom keeps asking me if I’m enjoying the writing. Not if I’m doing it, or if I’m almost done with it.* She wants to know I’m having fun, and now that I’m allowing myself the pleasure of time, I am.

*Lesson to friends of writers: Don’t ask how close they are to finishing a project. Ask if they’re enjoying it. My mother is a wise woman who has dealt with the many Creative Moods of Kate.

I’ll admit that the editing process started painfully. That’s what happens when you write a book over 18 months — and may be why Stephen King insists that he writes a book each “season” rather than a year and a half. When you take that long to write a story, the tone changes, and although the characters morph into what you want them to be, they don’t always do it the way they should. Case in point, Pru Mornay is absolutely heartless in Chapters One through Four, and while having a flawed main character is interesting, having an irredeemable one is off-putting. The structure was all off, with the perspective shifting between characters from paragraph to paragraph instead of section to section, and innumerable details were flat-out wrong.

In the end, I had to rewrite those chapters, and in the process, kill multiple darlings. Farewell, Foster’s glib and uncharacteristically cold remark about Pru’s dating life. Au revoir, Opal’s penthouse apartment. You were once a gorgeous description and massive plot hole.

But the revisions are becoming easier, or at least more fun, to make, and as I read through what’s already on the page, I find more opportunities to organically world-build and bring in snippets of commentary that I wanted to make clear but never had time to develop when working off plot alone. I’ve had a couple revelations and added some minor characters that help deepen the personalities of my supporting cast. There’s a notebook on my beside table that I use to write down words in the books I’ve been reading (Donna Tartt’s The Goldfinch and Robert “JK it’s Rowling” Galbraith’s Lethal White) that I want to incorporate into my own work. “Gawping,” for one. “Indefatigable,” for another. Anything to liven up the writing.

And I’m sticking to editing a chapter a night, maybe more on the weekends, fueled by scotch, whiskey or limoncello. Sure, Hemingway said “write drunk, edit sober.” These nights it feels like I’m doing more rewriting, so as far as I’m concerned, he can put that in his Cuba libre and sip it.

Because dammit, I’m having fun!

A coda: Jidenna released a new album, 85 to Africa, the week after I finished the rough draft, and the first track was called “Worth the Weight” featuring Seun Kuti. While the song focuses on the experience of displaced and emigrant Africans around the world, particularly in America, a line really spoke to me as I came to terms with having to let go of my personal deadline in favor of drawing even more marrow from my bones to bolster Nobody’s Hero to its full strength:

“And I pray that I’m the brightest sound that you ever felt / I’ma take a million flights around, ’til that shit is felt / That’s that lead the way, ayy / That’s no piece of cake, ayy…”

Short Story: Would You Like To See Magic? Would You Like To Do Magic?

Oh, mamma, I didn’t mean to do it I didn’t mean to make a deal with the man in the scarf and diamond shoes at the end of the block but OK yes you told me not to talk to him, and I didn’t think you meant not to be polite you’re always saying I should be polite so when he said Hello I thought I should say Hello back and then he said he liked my hat and I said I liked his scarf and the next thing I knew it felt like that long blue and white scarf was wrapping around my wrist and pulling me into the alley where he lives and then he handed me a cup of tea from a kettle over the trashcan fire and it tasted so good, mamma. No, not as good as yours, of course, but so good, like the way marshmallows smell when being burned over a fire of dry leaves on a cool October night, the night that Ansolo wrapped me in his coat and told me he would always love me no matter what no matter if the sun goes black and the skies turn solid.

And that’s when the man said Axiom Would You Like To See Magic and the flames in the trash can turned purple, not like your dress purple, but like the flowers on the lavender bush outside, like the color I’m always trying to get right with my paints but never do because I add too much white or too much blue or the green accidentally runs into it. They were so beautiful, mamma, and they spit vibrant silver sparks unlike any fire I’ve ever seen before, and then he asked Would You Like To Do Magic and what color I’d like to turn the flames next, and I thought of one, and they turned that turquoise shade that only silk can hold.

I asked him what else he could do and he took my hand in his and put a thumb to that scar on the back of it from when I fought Brandlee on the playground when she was making fun of Tobi, the new half-orc in our class, and suddenly it disappeared and I didn’t have the crescent moon of her nails etched on the skin anymore and, mamma, it felt so good, like someone had peeled a layer of pain off my flesh and I could stretch and dance and breathe again. And I thought Ansolo, lying in that bed, waiting for me to come and read to him or paint by the window while we talked or, at least, while I talked as he can’t really talk much without tiring himself out and coughing and falling asleep now that the Sickness has reached his lungs and I asked the man if he would come with me to see Ansolo so he could heal him and the man just laughed and flung his scarf over his shoulder and said I didn’t need him to come with if I learned how to heal Ansolo myself.

Mamma, I know I shouldn’t have I know that I know you said not to enter into deals with strangers, let alone the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, but he said it would be easy and that all I’d need to do was shake his hand and I’d have the power to heal Ansolo and turn fire purple and turquoise and do so many other things like vanquish evil so elves like Brandlee would never make fun of half-orcs like Tobi and I don’t know how he knew all of that but his diamond shoes were so shiny and he was so nice and the tea tasted so good and I went to Ansolo’s house feeling like the man was still squeezing my hand like I was walking hand-in-hand with a phantom and my arms and chest and legs tingled in anticipation of knowing that I could cure Ansolo now and make him better and we could finally get out of this little town and have the adventures he promised me while wrapping me in his coat that autumn night.

And it worked! It worked, mamma, and once I had taken Ansolo’s hand he stopped coughing and his legs started to twitch under the blanket and he actually swung them over the side and stood up and walked to the window, right past the easel I had been painting at and looked out at the trees like he was getting up from a good night’s sleep instead of months of slow death as his body gave up on him. And then he looked at me and asked me Who Are You.

I’m Axiom Your Wife I told him and I went to stand with him at the window and take his hand and remind him how he would hold me just so like our bodies were designed to fit together and he pulled away and looked at me like I always looked at the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes, that is to say Go Away I Don’t Know You I Don’t Trust You I Don’t Want To Talk To You, and my heart burst out of my chest and dropped to the floor with a thud as I saw in his eyes that he didn’t know who I was and that my easel by the window had disappeared and so had the paper flowers and birds I had hung from string over his bed and so had the tiny portrait of us at the festival last summer and so had the ring he wore around his finger to tell everyone that he was mine that I was his that we were lassoed together with gold bonds that couldn’t be severed.

And I realized as I twisted my own gold ring around my finger, holding tight to it so it wouldn’t disappear too, that he didn’t know me that he didn’t remember me that to him that night by the bonfire with the marshmallows and the moon hadn’t happened or at least hadn’t included me and I saw over his shoulder the man with the scarf and the diamond shoes sneer at me as he held something aloft that sparkled in the morning sun and it was Ansolo’s ring and memory of me. I was so distracted by the sight that I didn’t notice that Ansolo was about to walk right into me then walked right through me like I no longer existed in his world and I wondered, mamma, if I didn’t exist for him if he didn’t exist for me either, but I know that’s not true, mamma, because I still had the ring on my finger and I still could smell his skin and hear his laugh and remember when we first met as kids on the bank of the creek by our house where we caught gillyfish in our bare hands until the backs of our necks were red with sunburn. Why, mamma? Why did the man with the scarf and diamond shoes take me from Ansolo, but not Ansolo from me?

It’s agony, mamma, like Ansolo took a part out of his heart and I took a part out of mine and we swapped them, like trading out two identically shaped but differently colored puzzle pieces except now he’s handed my piece back and has walked away perfectly whole, somehow, while I have this extra piece of me that was once part of him jammed inside of me reminding me that he once loved me but doesn’t even know me anymore and I’ll always love him but will never be able to get him back.

Why are you looking at me like that, mamma? What do you mean you don’t remember Ansolo?

Vignette: Moxie’s mood makeup

Even lost at sea, she lined her eyes to coordinate with how she felt that day.

At the start of the adventure, she painted her lids with dazzling purple glitter, adding a dot or a star that reflected how shiny and new this wave-riding world felt to her. By the end of the day, the glitter would have flaked and fallen onto her cheeks so that in certain lights, it looked like sea spray, sometimes tears.

They called her Moxie, even though she had never asked them to. Her real name was Sue, but there was a mute man on the crew with a parrot he spelled out as “S-O-O” using a fist and two O-shaped hand gestures. At least, that’s what everyone preferred to think that sequence of sign language letters meant. He could have just been telling them to jack him off. And anyway, Moxie was fine with her new moniker. She’d always wanted an “X” in her name.

The longer they floated aimlessly — except, notably, when they were plowing through the waves to get away from a giant sea monster or enemy ship — the less color she used. Sometimes it would be brown or muted green that brought out the flecks in her hazel irises: A sign that she was being particularly introspective that day. Other times it was a faint gold that reflected the red-sky-at-morning and a particularly playful attitude. And then there were the dark days, like the ones after Porfry and Greela were snatched overboard by a giant squid, or when Yaru was shot through the heart by rival pirates, when she smudged black kohl across her lids and cried it off by supper.

One night a crew-mate called Kraken snuck into Moxie’s quarters and found the tiny box containing her eye paints. It was ebonied wood with a tarnished clasp of cheap metal that had somehow not rusted shut in the sea air that cocooned everything in moist warmth. Moxie knew that Kraken was in her room the minute she heard the screams, the guttural gurgling, and seen the blood creep from under the door and into the main galley as the boat pitched. She calmly opened the door, stepped over the puddle of Kraken’s blood, and closed the box.

By the morning, the blood was cleaned up. The only sign that Kraken had once been on the ship was the stain on the wood planks outside the door. It was the same reddish brown as the dramatically winged eyeliner painted across Moxie’s lids.