Thursday, July 30, 2009

Writing Time

This was the time each day he'd set aside to write, so here he was sitting dutifully at his desk. Trying to write.

He thought he might look at some notes and vignettes he'd written over the years, see if they gave him any ideas. He was appalled by how terrible they were: heavy-handed, pretentious, desperately unimaginative. They tended towards the morbid – was that because the theme of death is so compelling, or did it indicate some dark fact in his soul? Perhaps a little bit of both: the theme was easy.

Distractions were unbearably tempting. E-mail. The news. He found himself scanning the New York Times home page, ostensibly for story ideas. Who was he kidding?

Time passed quickly, ruthlessly. 11:14. 11:27. 11:38. 12:04. 12:27. At one o'clock the time for writing would be over.

He wanted to write a short story. What makes a good short story? He tried to think of the great ones he'd read. Fitzgerald. The Diamond as Big as the Ritz. Now that's a story. Who can ever write a goddamned story like that?

Still he strained for ideas. It's a good story when something unexpected happens in a normal setting, he thought. Something appears out of the blue and everyone reacts to it with puzzlement, excitement, fear, and finally acceptance as their lives are changed forever. But what is it that appears? A motorcycle, he thought. A motorcycle appears. Where? In someone's living room. No, no. In their garage. What happens next? Someone rides it, trepidatiously at first. But then more confidently. The rider is transformed by his shiny, yellow motorcycle. People around town see him riding it. When they hear its snarling whine, they know he's coming. Then what happens? He gets into an accident and dies.

Terrible, terrible.

He thought about all the things that had happened to him in his life and none of them seemed like stories. It was all just a contiguous stream of more or less interesting events, no rhyme or reason. Is that the story? Is the story that the story's not a story? But how to frame it?

He killed some writing time by tidying up previous writing, changing a word here and there, adding a sentence or two. 12:43.

He felt determined and not entirely hopeless, in spite of the circumstances. On the face of it, there was no reason he could not write. He thought of embarking on a whole new project. An autobiography. The Autobiography of Nobody. Stick to the facts, start at the beginning. There, easy. It was deceptively encouraging to contemplate this massive undertaking. It was the smaller ones that gave him fits.

He reread what little he had written and posted it to his blog. 1:00.

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 13

On this occasion Mom and Dad wanted to take a walk with us. To parade triumphantly around the neighborhood, perhaps; to indicate to others that we were not just a happy family suddenly, but we were happier than them – we were taking a walk. Only the very happiest of happy people take walks.

Mom and Dad walked ahead of us, arms around each other's waists. Julie and I straggled behind. We were always a little bit embarrassed when our parents got along. If we were ill at ease when they were fighting, we were mortified when they embraced. It would have suited us best had they interacted like business partners, cordial and sexless.

I picked up a stick for a walking stick and I whapped it against the bases of mailbox and paper-box posts along the way until Mom fired me a scathing glare.

The Acquisition - 5

After the interviews we went to a dark, anonymous Midtown bar. Chris had martinis; Dave and I drank whisky. We tried to reflect upon the day's peculiar events, their absurdities and implications.

Only a few employees knew about the looming acquisition – the three of us, the CEO, some higher-ups on the West Coast. In the office the following day, everyone sat and tapped away at their computers like normal. Except nothing was normal anymore.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

The rain came first in big drops, splatting on the deck outside, so few you could count them. I wondered if there could possibly be more hard rain, just as there had been nearly every other day, it seems, in this stormy summer. And not long after that it came, in dense ropes, growling thunder in the distance. Was this some kind of joke?

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Rick's Last Day

The conference call had gone on for forty-five minutes or so. Rick sat in his office, swiveling slightly, holding the phone lazily an inch or two from his ear. Marty and Joanne were prattling on.

"Great idea, Marty. I'll take that as an action item."

"Thanks Jo. And when the RFP is ready for review, let's circulate it to everyone on the call."

"Will do."

"I'd like to get the dev team in on the ground floor. Maybe we can schedule an offsite with them?"

"I can reach out to Adesh and set up a date and location," Amy volunteered.

Rick didn't think that was such a good idea.

"Hey, everyone–"

"That's great, Amy," said Joanne.

"Hey, hey, hello, hey–"

"Can you get the testing department to attend as well?" Marty added.

No, no.

"Hey, hey! Hold on a second. This is Rick."

"I sure can try!" Amy said with exaggerated alacrity. Everybody chuckled.

"Guys! Listen to me! It's Rick!"

"Seriously, I will loop in Hui's team. Good idea, Marty."

"Hey, yo! Time out! Time out!"

"Great, great. Moving right along," said Marty with a happy sigh.

Why are they ignoring me? thought Rick. Sure, he was a troublemaker. He knew they saw him as the grouchy naysayer, the one with the bad attitude. But how many times had he saved their asses as the voice of reason? He had a right to be heard.

Rick was on his feet now, pressing the receiver into the side of his head.

"Hey! Listen! Hey! Listen! Listen!" he barked, trembling. "Listen to me!"

"Jo, any final thoughts? Anybody have any questions for Jo? Or for me?"

Rick supposed his tone of voice had caused Marty and the others to pretend they didn't hear him. He took a breath to compose himself and tried a different angle.

"Marty, if I may. I do have a question. If I could jus–"

"No one? No one?"

Rick felt like the floor was gone below him and the sky had fallen on his head. He really was a ghost. Somehow, no one heard him anymore. He placed the phone down on his desk and, still shaking, composed a brief resignation e-mail:

I know you all think I'm a fucking asshole. Well, maybe I am. But I'm not a fucking moron. You will all regret not listening to me, and that's a promise. Go have your stupid, fucking offsite meeting and waste everybody's time, and this company's dwindling money. I worked so hard on this project that it breaks my heart to leave. But apparently I have to. I can't stay and watch it get fucked up like this.



Rick put his boss, Marty, on the to line and cc'd all nine participants in the call. He added Adesh and Hui and some notables from sales, and clicked "Send." Then he packed his few belongings in his backpack: the picture of his dog, the Mets pennant, the coffee mugs. He walked out forever without even bothering to hang up the phone, which still burbled with the voices on the call:

"You know what, we'd better run this past Rick," declared Joanne.

"Absolutely, Jo. Rick, you're so good at keeping us in check. What do you think?"


"Rick? Rick, you with us?"

"Earth to Rick," said Joanne. People laughed a little.

"Last call for Rick," said Marty. "OK, No Rick."

"I bet he has us on mute," said Joanne.

"I bet you're right," said Marty. "I'll shoot him an e-mail."

Monday, July 20, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 12

Suddenly the agony would end and there would be cookies. There would be ice cream. Mom and Dad would reappear, sometimes hand in hand, half-dead grievances buried in a shallow grave. The married couple reintroduced to the world. I was fool enough to fall for it.

Thursday, July 16, 2009

The Review

If you're reading this, what is it you're reading, really? This is the question Frank Allen explores in his latest short story, "The Review." Mr. Allen has produced a groundbreaking, jarring work of experimental fiction: a story that consists entirely of a review of the piece in question. No, your eyes don't deceive you. If you're reading this review, you are reading the work itself.

Where to begin? The story meanders somewhat in the second paragraph, as Mr. Allen searches for a foothold. Soon he finds it, paradoxically, by actually describing his peculiar literary struggle. In one particularly brilliant passage, he describes the brilliance of describing the current passage as brilliant. When in doubt, he seems to say, write about doubt. In other words: words can always, and only, be redeemed by other words.

"The Review" opens with a bang – a blunt declaration of the theme, the salient question at the heart of the work, followed by an ambitious claim to the scope and unprecedented nature of this literary exploit. One may fault Mr. Allen for immodesty – a charge that he later cleverly defuses by making of himself – but he backs up his boasts, especially in a stunningly acrobatic passage in the middle of the piece in which he effectively justifies his own immodesty by pointing out that he has just accused himself of it.

This is a story without characters – or is it? In fact, the sole protagonist is the work itself, struggling towards definition, passing through layers of meaning. It might even be said that the progress of the text from the first word to the last forms a story arc of sorts. Perhaps "arc" is the wrong word. Spiral? Moebius strip? No matter its shape, this journey is not for fainthearted readers. Do you need a reference point? Well, here it is: your reference point. And through it all, of course, there is an omniscient narrator: the reviewer. Me.

Vexing questions of "success" or "failure" tend to plague literature like "The Review." What is the author's intent? And if there is one, is it even valid? Perhaps the entire enterprise is solipsistic, tiresomely postmodern, nauseatingly self-referential. The tedious and predictable work of a pretentious – and evidently self-loathing – artist. There, it deserved to be said. But is the work any better, or worse, for candidly raising these criticisms? Mr. Allen is nothing if not fleet-footed: by posing the question that was just posed, he renders it moot; he transcends it. "The Review" is among those rare works that defy criticism; the author always seems to be a step ahead not only of the reader but of the critic. And this critic would be remiss in his duties if he did not give the author full credit for his accomplishment.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009


I scanned the stern faces of the people on the train. A busty Hispanic woman with a baby stroller, big hoop earrings and glittery letters across her chest. A business type, older, white, reading his meticulously folded Times. A family of sweating tourists, thin mom, fat dad; surly, Goth daughter in tow. A matronly black woman stood near me. When I met her wary eyes I saw in a flash that I was on the uptown 2, not the downtown. I got off at the next stop.

I didn't know where I was, but it didn't matter. All I had to do was either go under the tracks or over them to get to the train that went the other way. A splintery wall encroached into the middle of the platform, bearing obscure chalk symbols and warning signs, blocking the station name from view. I peered into a crack between the plywood sheets to find an arrangement of mysterious machinery – what looked like a motorized wheelbarrow, a box with tubes emerging from the top, a giant spool of cable – in the gray, dusty dark along the familiar wall.

I walked into the passageway that led to exits and connecting trains. A man played the didgeridoo at the near end while the dry rattle of a bucket drum echoed down the tile walls from farther down. Their accidental music, mournful and urgent, played to the involuntary audience in the middle.

I climbed some stairs. I descended some, too. I wanted to believe that if I melted into the stream of cheerless, purposeful travelers, then I, too, would have somewhere to go. We moved across mezzanines, down a ramp, through nondescript connecting chambers where Sheetrock and cinder blocks lay unattended in the shadows. The density of the crowd around me remained constant but the specific people seemed to evaporate at every turn, to be replaced by slightly different men and women wearing slightly different clothes.

I stopped at a candy stand and scrutinized it for a minute, reorienting myself in its happy, multicolored map. Blues and greens for mint and reds for cinnamon or berry; yellows, browns and oranges for chocolate. The Indian man behind the counter stared out impassively, resolutely still. I selected a metallic-blue pack of gum. Wintermint. On the front it said JUST BRUSHED CLEAN FEELING below the brand and MORE FABULOUS CLEAN FEELING! above it.

"Dollar twenty-five," said the man.

I only had a single dollar bill in my wallet and some change in my pocket. I managed to make the sum with a dime, a nickel and ten pennies.

"No penny, no penny!"

"It's all I have."

"No penny, no penny, no penny!" he insisted.

I defiantly placed my money on the change tray. He beheld it with disgust.

"Take, take!" he said, with a dismissive, backhanded wave. "Take penny!" He picked up a penny and replaced it on my side of the tray with an emphatic snap.

I swept the ten pennies into my palm under the candyman's sour gaze. And then I walked away, feeling the heat of his disapproval on my neck.

In a daze, I rejoined a stream of passengers heading down some stairs. Just then a train rumbled into the station and I was swept up by the sudden, frenzied rush. By the time I got down to the platform there were people jostling all around me, straining toward the open doors. The crowd parted grudgingly for the exiting passengers and then poured into the train.

Stand clear of the closing doors!

"Which way is this going?" I asked a woman whose shoulder was pressed into my chest.

"Uptown," she said.

I turned and elbowed my way out quickly, aggressively, muttering apologies all the way. Just as the doors were closing, I braced myself between them, holding them open for another fraction of a second with my forearms. I emerged onto the platform as they snapped shut behind me. As the train began to roll away, its squealing wheels played the first three notes of "Somewhere" from "West Side Story": There's a place.

There's a place for us,
Somewhere a place for us
Peace and quiet and open air
Wait for us

I exited at the other end of the platform this time, determined to find another train or at the very least some turnstiles and a set of stairs into the light of day. But this path was more labyrinthine than the first. I kept moving forward, climbing all the stairs I saw and entering each passageway, hoping to stumble upon an unambiguous sign: Exit, Downtown, Transfer. But soon I felt I was going around in circles; everything looked the same: disarray, rubble, suspended repairs and reconstruction. An hour passed, maybe, or maybe two, or five – it was hard to tell in the cloistered unreality underground.

I came upon a fork. A safety orange arrow, painted on a plywood board, pointed to the right. I stood and contemplated it as shadowy figures passed on either side of me and turned unhesitatingly down the prescribed path.

"There are two ways you can go! Two!"

I looked around, petrified. A homeless woman sat by the wall to my left, her earthly belongings packed into garbage bags piled in a heap beside her.

"Uh, excuse me, which way should I go?"

"You wanna be a slave?"

"I'm sorry?"

"You wanna be free or you wanna be a slave?"

"Uh, I... I wanna be free."

"Look at the color of my skin," she said. "My people were slaves."

I nodded patiently. She pointed a curled, arthritic finger at me.

"But you is a slave to money."

"Yeah. I know. I'm sorry. But do you know how to get out of here?"

"'Sgonna be your downfall, yes it is," she continued obliviously, nodding to herself, her voice gaining a gospel lilt. "Praise Jesus, thass right. Thass the truth now, ain't it. Uh-huh."

"I know. I'm sorry. I just want to get out of here. Out of this station. Do you know which way to go?"

"Aw honey, you gots to decide fo' yaself now!" She erupted into a mad cackle that quickly deteriorated into an emphysemic cough. When it abated she spoke again, clapping to some unheard rhythm.

"Freedom or slave, baby, freedom or slave. Gots to make a choice now."

"I choose freedom," I said, hoping this would spur more concrete direction.

She stopped clapping and looked straight into my eyes. "Why then the only way out is in, honey. The only way up is down." She pointed to the floor.

"Thank you, ma'am," I said uncertainly.

I walked left, disobeying the sign, hoping this was the counterintuitive trick the woman was proposing, the one to solve the riddle. The narrow path, walled by gypsum and lit by construction lamps, meandered unpromisingly. But I was determined to see its end. At least this was different. This was something new.

I came upon an opening to a public space, people walking past in both directions. Maybe this is it, I thought. Maybe this is the way out. I came out to find the old homeless woman to my right this time. A jolt of dread shot through me. I'd emerged from where I'd entered.

The woman looked at me and smiled. "You didn't hear what I done told you, now," she admonished. "I ain't talkin' about no left or right! No right or wrong." Her eyes widened and she pursed her lips, watching me bear the impact of her words. "I'm talkin' about up or down. You wanna be free? You gots to go down, baby." Again, she pointed downward. "Way on down, now."


"Thass right. Get on down, now. Get."

I nodded solemnly and walked past her, retracing my original steps. My heart pounded and my head burned for what I was about to do. I descended some stairs, and then more stairs, and found myself back on the platform for the uptown 2. I walked to the front and crept gingerly along the edge. I examined the space between the rails, the bed of damp dirt and debris: cigarette butts and coffee cups, a plastic fork with missing tines. A double-A battery, a fragment of a pencil and a lollipop. A fat rat scurried under the third rail. A sign said: Do not enter or cross tracks. I peered into the tunnel. A red light burned bright in the blackness; farther in, there was a green one, too. Though I didn't want to enter, there was nowhere else to go.

Monday, July 06, 2009

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 11

I lay on my bed and stared up at the galaxy. My dark blue ceiling was covered with the constellations: Ursa Major, Ursa Minor, Orion, Gemini, Leo, Cancer and Cassiopeia. They glowed a pale green at night but somehow seemed more real when daylight filled the room and each star was revealed as muted and imprecise. My dad had painted them, painstakingly, with a National Geographic map for reference. My dad painted the stars.

This is what I did when my parents fought. I stared at the fake stars. I thought of the planets surrounding them, populated by howling beasts or, more often, some enlightened race: a world where death does not exist, with its glittering city of levitating streets and telepathic streams; everyone allied in the promotion of truth. I traced a route there in my imaginary spaceship.

My mother was a fury. Sometimes, suddenly, she would become extravagantly angry. Scream bursts of bitter, cutting invective between stifled sobs, pointing, trembling. The extreme amplitude of her rage, out of proportion to the here and now, made the true source of it seem far away in space and time. If she was yelling at my dad she was not his wife; she was every wife, punishing every husband who had ever lived for his selfishness, his profligacy, his laziness. If she was yelling at us she was not our mother; she was every mother, raging at every child ever born for its whining, its stubbornness, its ungratefulness, and not least the ravages it had committed upon her body. For its very existence, really. When you were on the receiving end of my mother's anger you got the feeling you were paying the price for some ancient and irredeemable sin. The sin of being, perhaps. The universe's fall at the moment of creation. It was a pure, abstract wrath; this had the curious effect of making it both more commanding and less personal.

I now heard her muffled shouts punctuated by the smashing of dishes on the kitchen floor. In spite of her enormous temper, it was unusual for her to break things. I somehow knew I had to exit my room and bear witness to this. My dad was pacing in the dining room, haltingly trying to reason with her, hands up in a gesture of pleading. My sister sat on the couch in the living room, body stiff, arms folded. Instinctively I sat with her.

"I'm scared," I said.

"Don't worry," she said. "Everything's going to be OK."

Friday, July 03, 2009

We walked up and down Monaco after morning practice, through narrow walkways, hilly streets. You could take elevators from sidewalk to sidewalk, as though the city were a giant building with no roof. We drank white beer; its slightly sickly taste is the taste of summer.

It's a pretty city, but forlorn, inert, insulated in space and time; dominated by the dreary, functional architecture of the sixties and seventies. A city with the means to change but no desire.

The Acquisition - 4

The day was punctuated by lunch in the conference room: scrupulously distributed white boxes containing a gourmet-style sandwich, a bag of kettle-fried chips, packets of deli mustard and mayonnaise, a dainty cookie. Meals assembled by gloved hands in a clean room. There was the requisite, tense small talk: Where are you guys staying in town? When do you fly back?

My last interview was with Vincent Shuck, a tall Dutchman with a cloudy accent. He conducted the entire interview beside the whiteboard of a conference room, dry-erase marker in hand. He asked me exactly one question: "How would you like your technology to be used?" I acquitted myself with a vaguely meaningful answer that I'm not sure he listened to.

Vincent turned to the board and drew elaborate diagrams and flowcharts. This product group, that product. Arrows from one node to another. From several nodes to one. The consulting services group. A Venn diagram. Synergistic opportunities. Vertical markets. Words inside boxes, words in a bullet-pointed list. Sales account managers. ROI. On the few occasions when he turned to me he fixed his gaze on my third eye. I nodded judiciously and strategically punctuated his discourse with affirmations: Uh huh. Yup. I see. Right. After forty minutes he capped his marker, apparently satisfied.

The Autobiography of Someone Else - 10

I rode home from Harry's and left my bike out on the lawn. I walked in and Mom and Dad were at it again. They'd been fighting for weeks now, every day or every other day. Today my dad was sitting on the ottoman beside my mother, who lay prone on the couch with her arm draped on her forehead, wilted, like someone suddenly stricken; like a fainted, dainty lady in a play.

My father spoke softly, with his elbows on his knees and his hands clasped as though in prayer. My mother stared blankly back, blinking, her eyes raw from crying. You could imagine he was tending to her, like a doctor or a parent; you could imagine he was quietly destroying her, a devious courtier delivering some unfathomable insult to his detested queen. You could imagine he would kill her. Though they were at odds, there was an air of conspiracy between them: two adults in complex, intimate congress over a bewildering and irresolvable question. The rest of the world had fallen away and there remained only them and their precious problem. Was this not love?

Thursday, July 02, 2009

To the public library: past the street vendors with the American flag bandannas and pashmina scarves and the grow creatures in the water, a man offering his hand to a dog tied to a tree, a construction worker knocking mud out of his treads. In the men's room stall on a shelf above the toilet paper there's a lighter that's decorated with little red dice.

I sat at one of the long tables and spied the nearest power outlet, where another table met the wall. The coveted seats beside it were occupied by two women; I could look over one's shoulder at her screen. She was video instant messaging with someone. Her correspondent's face appeared dark and grainy in the frame, with the corner of a picture hanging on the wall behind her. She seemed young, attractive, optimistic. A friend on a student exchange program in Barcelona. I imagined that the woman here was similar, that the picture she transmitted to her friend was almost like a mirror, of a like-minded young woman, hair down instead of up, out in the world, practicing the cello, contemplating a career in molecular biology or law.

The woman across from her got up to leave and so I went over to take the open seat and use the available outlet. As I rounded the table I glanced at the instant messaging woman and saw that she was badly disfigured. Half of her face was swollen and dark red; not from an injury, it seemed, but from some longstanding deformity. The moment I looked at her she looked at me, somewhat mournfully, almost apologetically; it seemed that she was very accustomed to meeting people's gaze this way. I looked away, not brusquely but as normally as I could, trying not to betray reaction. I sat down and handed her my laptop plug. She smiled weakly as she took it, and fumblingly plugged it in. It was very, very hard not to stare at her face, not even to glance at it again, to scratch that prurient itch.