The Arrival: A Short Story Told in Three Parts

102052433

Photo Credit: S. Carroll

One:

You never know what the heart requires. Even when you leave, you think, always, in the back of your mind, you should have stayed. And then, when you come back, you think, always, in the back of your mind, you should leave.

But this time you’ve been away for quite a while, longer than you’ve ever been before. Away from your husband, away from your son, away from all that you’ve known as your life for the past 62 years. You know it has been a while by the way the airport in your hometown smells. It smells foreign, dirty, dusty. You want to sneeze, but you don’t. There’s no actual sneeze in your nose, just the sense that you need to get the air from this place out of your system as quickly as possible.

“Psychology,” you think to yourself. “This is just psychology.”

You are not allergic to your hometown. You are not going to be sick from breathing the air here. You ex-husband is not actually going to drive you insane.

These are just delusions.

But still, you can’t fight how these things feel. You can’t convince yourself that you do actually want to be here, in this place with this man.

As you deplane, you wonder these things, over and over as you take in the dry dusty smog of the airport. You think about Vancouver. Wreck Beach. Coming alive on the shores with your kindred spirits. Nothing but the clean salt air and the cold bite of the Pacific Ocean to clothe your 62-year-old body. You feel peace. Or you felt peace, while it lasted. But that’s gone now.

Roy is hopeless. He called to tell you that he has lost his job. And this time it’s not likely he’ll find another. He’s thinking about filing for SSI. He hasn’t eaten anything except kimchi and rice since you’ve left.

“Not my problem,” you told yourself.

But it is your problem. He is your problem. You swore to love and care for him all of your days. How can you turn your back now? After all he’s done for you. Or at least after all that he has tried to do for you. If intentions counted for real blessings, Roy Ruskin and all those he loves would be the most blessed of all mankind.

But intentions don’t count, do they?

As you walk towards the exit doors, you see your son John, waiting for you, standing next to his illegally parked truck, smoking a cigarette. It’s not just Roy. Coming home means dealing with John too. So many lost boys. You, so tired a mother.

John doesn’t see you. You choke up a little bit, for just a second. Then turn around and head back towards the ticket counter.

Two:

I’m not mad. I swear. It’s not anything I would lie about. I mean, I think I’d be justified in being mad if I were actually mad, but I’m not. And, much to my credit, I’m not taking this opportunity to blow off steam in a self-righteous moment of indignation.

Nope.

This is me being a good guy for once. And, I must admit, it feels pretty good.

So, this is the deal, I’m at the airport. I’m here to pick up my mom. I wasn’t aware that I was going to pick up my mom tonight. Actually, about 2 hours ago, I was in bed fucking this semi-hot girl that I’ve been trying to get into bed for the past year and a half. Then, about 2 hours ago, my step-dad Roy calls me up and tells me to go to the airport to pick up my mom.

Mom’s been in Vancouver for the past six months. She split. She was sick of Roy’s idiotic antics. She was about 20 years too late, if you ask most people.

But, even a ridiculous old man’s antics can be forgiven, I suppose. After all, despite all the frustrations that come with living with Roy Ruskin, one thing everyone can agree on, when the shit hits the fan, he never ever bails.

There’s been a lot of times he’s been there for me. Every single idiot time I got drunk and wound up in some mess: wrecked car, fights (which means mostly getting beat up and left for dead) and then that one time I inadvertently hooked up with the head honcho of the local chapter of the Gay Mogs. Yeah, seriously. And, no, they weren’t “gay” as in colloquial “gay” as in lame or wimpy. They were gay as in they were guys that fuck guys. And they were nothing at all lame or wimpy. Not a big deal, I thought. I’m a little bit bi. So I figured I’d get blown and maybe jerk a guy off or something. But that’s not exactly what the Mogs were thinking. They were thinking about something a little bit more, how can I put this, permanent.

Anyways, I’m bound and blindfolded and God knows what’s gonna happen, when Roy shows up. He’s been tracking me for three days. I didn’t even know I’d been missing three days. And he catches up with the Mogs.

Dude is smooth when he’s gotta be. He’s got with him a bottle of 40-year-old Scotch from his family distillery in Scotland. He’s been disowned, so this shit is special to him. And the Mogs know their shit. And even if they didn’t, this thing is in a gold hinged rosewood case. They crack it open and pass it around. Civilized, of course. Every one drinks from the bottle but no one spills. Roy makes a deal. I don’t know what he offered. But they accepted. Later when I ask, he says it’s between him and the Mogs. He never mentions it again.

That’s the kind of guy Roy is.

That’s not exactly the kind of guy I am. But, given the opportunity, I am the kind of guy that knows when he owes someone a favor.

So, when Roy calls me in the middle of the night to drive two hours and go pick up my flakey hippie dippy mom at the airport. I go. And when I get there and wait around for another hour for her, I don’t complain. And, after all that, when it turns out she never shows up, and I just wasted my night like a first class chump, I consider myself lucky that I have dude in my life that’s been so good to me that I feel it’s the highlight of my week to get out of bed at 1:00 in the morning and spend five hours on a pointless errand on his behalf.

Three:

Kimchi is not meant to sustain a man for six months. It is said that a diet consisting primarily of this fermented and spice infused Korean pickled cabbage can lead to the early onset of stomach cancers, this due mostly kimchi’s abundance of nitrogen oxide compounds. But such are not the concerns of Roy Ruskin.

Following one of Roy’s favorite axioms, the 80-20 Rule, he has concluded that he eats kimchi and rice every meal for two reasons.

One: he is too poor and lazy to eat anything else. This comprises 80% of his reasoning.

Two: he is doing penance.

This second reason makes up 20% of Roy’s conscious thinking about his diet. He is punishing himself for all the pain he has caused the woman he loves. The woman that he would give his life for. The woman that he drove away with his countless unfulfilled dreams and unrealized potential.

Barbara. A saint among saints. Wise and patient and supportive, carrying a heart that seemed willing and able to be broken in every way that a human heart can be broken.

His last epic swing for the fences finally compelled her to leave. It was not a simple decision, made out of anger or even from self-preservation. It was, even then, an act of compassion. She saw, finally and clearly, that she cannot help Roy. That, in fact, her kindness and forbearance denied him the tension and desperation that he needed to be successful. She honestly and truly left for him.

Roy understands this. At least in his own way he does.

“80-20,” he thinks to himself. “80% for me, 20% for her. That’s why she left.”

But despite all this, Barbara has come back. He watches her from the far side of the luggage claim. He’s sitting on a bench, his baseball cap pulled tight over his teary eyes. He sees John, his step-son, outside. He doesn’t know why he called him to come pick her up. He doesn’t even know why she has come back. But he does know that this time, there is no chance he going to mess this up. Whatever obstacles may come, he is certain, he will do right by her. He will devote every ounce of himself to her. And not just some illusion of what he wants masquerading as what she wants. He will submerge his will, and choose, from this day forward to follow her lead, to serve her as his mistress and as his captain, as his goddess.

Roy watches Barbara stand for a moment at the doors. She’s looking at John, their son. She hesitates and then turns and heads back into the airport. He rises, brushes off his shirt and pants and takes off his ball cap. He leaves it on the bench and walks towards her, his strides quickening until he’s at a full sprint.

The Ten Commandments of Blogging

The Holistic Wayfarer shares some holy laws of blogging.

I am most guilty of #5 and #6, e.g. taking up the “like” button in vain and coveting asses.  But I am quick to confess, so that’s gotta count for something.

The Ten Commandments of Blogging.

1. Thou shalt not waste readers’ time. Offer up thy readers a worthy sacrifice that they might take and be satisfied.

2. Thou shalt honor thy muse. Be prepared in season, out of season to seize inspiration when she comes that ye might write, dance, photograph, paint thy bliss. Be not caught without thy scroll, ink, pen, iGadget, camera. Thou wilt not redeem the moment the locust has eaten.

Continue Reading –> HERE

On The Balcony: A Short Story

Park Soo-Ae in A Family

photo credit: Tube Entertainment

St. Patrick’s Day, 2003

John Chong is 22 years old

*

“Let me see that!” says Marsha.

“What?” says John.

“That! Your cell phone! Let me see it!”

Marsha shouts when she is excited, as if she’s drunk, even if she isn’t.

On the balcony, seated far above the busy din of everyday life with a sliding glass door separating them from the rest of the St. Patrick’s Day party goers, John Chong and Marsha Choi talk in the way that old friends who have never had sex with each other but always wanted to are apt to talk, finding mutual amusement at the expense of each other, like how siblings will sometimes banter the kind of banter that is loose and easy and that carries generations of unfinished business.

John gives her his cell phone. It is pink with colored sparkly lights on the antenna. When Marsha flips it open, it chimes out “Cascade of Fate” by Joost Benton. It’s a very heavy song, not at all pink and sparkly.

“You are so weird, John,” she says, holding the phone to her ear and checking her nails. “Joost Benton.”

“You know Joost Benton?”

“Nope,” she says, handing the phone back to him.

He looks at it. The display reads: Now Playing ‘Cascade of Fate’ by Joost Benton. He closes the flip top and puts it on the balcony ledge. The cigarette he was smoking is about two puffs past its prime. John puts it out and lights another. He offers one to Marsha. She accepts.

“Do you remember, with the Tribe, how you and I used to smoke on the roof of Swem?” she asks.

“Yeah,” he says.

“And all the people looked like bugs, roaches, skittering from one crack to another.”

“We’d make up stories about them, where they were going, who they were going to see.”

“Who they were fucking.”

“They all looked the same from up there. You couldn’t tell if they were tall or short, fat or skinny, white, black, Chinese.”

“Well, you could tell the Chinese guys,” she says.

“How?” John asks, a little sharply.

“Come on, remember? We used to joke about it. The Chinese guys had a gait, sorta hurried and in control,” she explains, thrusting her hands forward as if she were a robot holding an invisible box of tissue paper.

“And they were always going to Jones,” she says.

“I had a class in Jones Hall once,” he says.

“Yeah, so did everybody. That’s the only place they ever have any math classes.”

“Actually, I took an engineering class there.”

“What?”

“Yeah, it was like ‘Engineering for Poets’ or something.”

“How was it?”

“I don’t know. It was cool. It made my dad happy.”

“Your dad?”

“Roy, my step-dad, the mechanic for American Airlines.” he says.

“Yeah, yeah, I know,” she says. “Mr. Foxy McFoxy Pants.”

“You know, that’s kinda racist.”

“What?”

“McFoxy Pants. Roy’s fucking Irish you know.”

“Dude’s about as Irish as Michael Jordan is African.”

“You’re not making it any better.”

“Why’s everything gotta be racial for you, Johnny? We’re just hanging out, bro.”

She chides him, emphasizing the word “bro” as a sort of cultural code for college educated dipshit.

“Okay,” he says, waving his hand across his chest as if to signify that it’s time to move on.

“No, but seriously. Dude is a fox.”

“Well, dude also thought I’d make a good engineer. So he got pretty excited that I was taking that class.”

“Little did he know your ass can’t barely recite your times tables.”

“Haha, but okay, that’s true,” he says. “So, it was actually kinda cool. I’d talk to him about what I learned, pour point depressant, endothermic reaction, suction head.”

“Suction head huh?”

“Oh sure, in engineering we got all kinds of suction and all kinds of head. We got a suction line; we got suction pressure; suction service; and we got self-lubricating heads; cylinder heads; dynamic discharge heads. It’s sexy stuff.” John says, straight-faced.

“Of course, you only remember the prurient terms!” Marsha says, yelling. “You have no idea what any of those words mean!”

“Of course I do!” insists John. “For example: dynamic discharge head is an equation. It’s pressure from fluid plus pressure from resistance plus pressure required to accelerate. ‘Head’ actually refers to pressure. So dynamic discharge head is referring to…”

“God! Okay, okay, enough! You’re killing me, John.”

John appears pleased.

“Well, he was happy, my dad I mean. I think he thought I might change my mind and finally go into engineering instead.”

“Instead of what, Bible college?”

“I wasn’t planning on Bible college yet at that point.”

They pause to quietly smoke their cigarettes, careful not to make eye contact for the duration of the intermission.

“So,” Marsha says, after a reasonable amount of time to honor the idea that John will very soon embark on what she sees as an ill-advised career choice. “You just set him up for more disappointment then.”

“Yeah, sure, well, I got an A.”

“Obviously, you get an A in every class.”

“So did you.”

“But I cheated,” she confesses. “You’re just a nerd.”

“Well, we both ended up in the same place,” he says.

“Yeah,” she says, “the same place. A thousand miles from home, back in school, dating white people, being geniuses.”

John laughs. He’s one to laugh. He can’t resist. She makes him laugh.

“Why are you dating a white guy?” John asks, apparently by chance.

“Why am I? Why are you dating a white girl?” she says.

“Why am I? Mar, come on, you have to know it’s not the same thing for me to date a white girl as it is for you to date a white guy. I mean, it’s not the same thing to be an Asian guy in America as it is to be an Asian girl. Dating for you is a party, a fucking smorgasbord. You have your pick of any guy in the room. For me? There are probably 1-out-of-10 non-Asian girls that would even consider dating a Chinese guy. Politically, our dating habits have totally different significances. Me dating a white girl furthers the cause. You dating Vann? Sets us back.”

“Really? So you’re dating Berta for political reasons? Well fuck! That is sad. I’m sorry, but here’s a novel idea, me and Vann just like each other.”

“Yeah, of course, that’s fine for you and Vann. But there is always a political part to every relationship, even, no especially, romantic ones. There is always an issue of power, whether it’s a gender issue or a race issue or a nationality issue or a geography issue or a financial issue. Every relationship contains a power struggle. It’s inherent.”

“I don’t know how to respond to that.”

John starts to feel a familiar feeling in his head and his hands, tight and panicky. His thoughts race and race.

“Well, how about: ‘Vann is my ticket to whiteness. If I marry Vann, my last name will be Rotterdam and people will think I’m white when I talk to them on the phone. And we can have kids with light hair, nose bridges and double-eyelids. And Vann isn’t tied down to all those misogynistic Confucian values, and isn’t kept down by all the American stereotypes for Chinese men. So, he won’t expect me to cater to his mom or to cook for him. And he knows how to have fun and how to hold his liquor. And he isn’t cheap.’ Or how about: ‘Vann has a big fat circumcised cock!’”

“Fuck you, John,” she says, quietly. “What? Am I supposed to become enlightened by that? Am I some kind piece of property that all you men are waging some sexual war over?”

“That’s not what I mean.”

“Well, that’s exactly what you’re saying”

“It’s not about me wanting to own you. It’s about us trying to move society forward.”

“That’s not what it sounds like. It sounds like some backwards ass medieval bullshit. And you’re talking all this shit, you don’t even know Vann.”

“I don’t have to know him. He doesn’t matter to me.”

“No, you do have to know him. He’s not your goddamn enemy. He’s a great guy. He’s funny and nice to everybody. He doesn’t have an agenda. He just likes me.”

“Of course he likes you. That’s not the point. It’s not about him liking you. It’s not about him being a nice guy. Fuck! I like him! Vann is cool! But that’s not the point. You-dating-him is more important than that. It’s more significant than that.”

“No,” she says, getting up to leave. “It’s not. It’s not more significant than that. It’s not more important than that. John, let this go. This kind of thing, it’s not helping you.”

“Helping me? Mar, you know what? What I’m saying is true. You just don’t want to admit it.”

“Admit what? That I’m a piece of meat in your socio-racial game of Monopoly? Or that I’m some conniving race-traitor?”

“Exactly,” says John, pseudo-sarcastically. “Right, that’s what I’m saying. Shit, Mar, open your fucking mind. It is political. It is about power. Even love is about power.”

“So what, are you and me about power?”

“That’s…” John begins, but he doesn’t answer.

He is stuck.

He wants to say, no, of course not. We’re really friends. We really love each other.

But, at the same time, he doesn’t want to say that. He wants his point to be heard. He wants Marsha to acknowledge that she had it easy and he had it hard. He wants her to apologize for how things were when they were kids, how terrible he felt when he realized that people, especially girls, just didn’t like him and there was nothing he could do about it. There was no way he could make himself white enough to make him not Chinese. He wants her to be sorry that she never stood up for him, that she never shared the secret to her success.

John shakes his head, ruminating on how pist he is, and snarls comically. It’s comical because he looks a little like a bulldog on account of his chubby cheeks and pronounced under-bite. He stops snarling to adjust his glasses. They don’t really fit his face. Then he lights another cigarette.

He tastes something indistinct on the roof of his mouth and wonders if his breath stinks. Rubbing his canines with his tongue, he looks around for Berta. She is talking to two of her girlfriends. She’s about half a foot taller than the other girls. They’re Japanese. A Mexican guy is trying to enter their conversation. Berta ignores him completely. The Japanese girls try to be courteous by nodding and laughing at his jokes.

Usually, John would be smiling, watching Berta being Berta. He is very proud of her; she makes him feel proud, as if her love for him is proof enough of his value as a man, as a human being. Looking at her now, he’s not a believer, and there isn’t enough proof in the world to make him one.

Marsha looks at John looking at Berta. She scans the room for Vann. She grins as she does this. There’s no urgency, just curiosity. Whatever he’s up to, Marsha is sure he’s not arguing with someone about socio-racial issues.

Much more likely, she imagines, that he might be hitting a bong in the small bedroom with Regal and Richard. They might be watching I Love Lucy and laughing a lot. At least Vann and Regal might be laughing a lot. Richard might be pacing back and forth, as if he’s a robot holding an invisible box of tissue paper, but happy. Very, very happy.

 

The Robbery: A Short Story Told in Three Parts

punch_in_the_face

1. The Robber

It’s not like I woke up in the morning and planned this shit. Sometimes, shit just happens.

It started out like this, I was just looking for somewhere to spend a couple hours waiting for my fucking mom to finish with her bridge club or some shit. I seriously don’t know what the fuck she was doing. Just that I wasn’t gonna be doing it with her, but I needed to wait for her ass to get it done.

I know, I’m a fucking asshole talking about my mom like that. Sorry. But, Jesus. At least I waited for her, right?

Anyways, I’m getting off track. So, where the fuck was I? Waking up and planning bad shit? Yeah, that’s not me. I’m not a bad guy. At least not on purpose, you know? I’m a, what do they say, a opportunist.

So, I’m waiting for my mom. Just sitting in front of the Gerry’s Liquor, smoking my menthols, drinking my big ass Monster tea. And this fucking dude walks out with a lotto scratch card and he’s got this look on his face like he’s just won a million fucking dollars.

Now, I’m not a dumb ass, I don’t think people walk around holding a scratch card with a look on their faces like they won a million bucks unless there’s some good fucking reason to walk around holding a scratch card with a look on their face like they’ve won a million fucking bucks.

So I ask the dude, “Hey, you got a look on your face like you’ve just won a million bucks.”

And dude says, “Yeah, I think I just did.”

At this point, I’m cozying up to him, nice and easy. Trying not to spook him. I don’t even know what the fuck I was doing, but I did. You know, like instinctual. So I creep up to the fucker, take a nice slow gander at his lotto, make a nice friendly comment like, “well, well, well, congratulations, old chap.”

And I pop him, right the fuck in the mouth, and grab the ticket and bail the fuck out. Good night.

2. The Robbed

You know some people are just lucky. You think, for most of your life, that isn’t you. You wake up every day, and your life is kinda lame. You got this lame job, lame friends, lame lovers, when you even have any lovers at all.

And a resignation sorta falls over you. You kinda give up on things getting better, on the possibility that maybe, some day, your lucky day will come.

But still, some weird little part of you won’t let go. Some stubborn and optimistic little piece of your soul just keeps insisting that your lucky day actually is going to come. You just need to hang on, one more day.

Just one more day.

Do not give up.

But that little voice, most days, just sorta goes about its quiet business. Not really making a fuss. Not really getting loud and preachy. It’s not like you wake up with Tony Robbins taking you by the shoulders and demanding you give it the old college try.

So, this little voice, this little character, the thing it does: it makes you go buy lottery tickets.

And so you do.

And lo and behold, one day, one perfectly ordinary day, it comes through and you win.

At least for a minute, you feel like everything is different. That you’re one of the winners. That you’re lucky.

And then somebody punches you in the face and steals your prize.

3. The Witness

Gerry makes a point of making conversation with everyone that comes into Gerry’s Liquor. She calls it “her” liquor store because they share the same name, but she doesn’t own it. She just works there. The late shift, most of the time. But the way she takes care of the place and the way she treats the customers, it’s not unusual for people to assume that she is actually the owner.

There’s one man that Gerry has known for years. A sad person, usually in to buy beer and cigarettes and, randomly, lottery tickets. She notices that he has come in with a slightly elevated attitude tonight. It’s not that he’s happy. It’s more that he’s not so burdened.

He comes to the counter with his case of Natural Lights and asks for one of the new tickets, the Wheel of Fortune. She smiles as she pulls the ticket for him. She’s got a a feeling about this ticket, it’s gonna change his life.

Asian Men – Black Women

My friend Elliott Chen interviews Asian Americans that don’t fit into the usual stereotypes (whatever those are!):

  • Arthur Chu, the Ultra-cocky Jeopardy Villain
  • Shaoi, Asian Lady Tractor Trailer Mama
  • Elliott himself, who lived through the murder-suicide of his mother and step-father.

Elliott’s most recent subject is Ranier, an Asian American dude that loves Black American women.

RanierwGF2-1

If we’re having an honest conversation, there are some interracial couplings that America is more comfortable with: Asian Women with White Men, White Women with Latino Men, Latina Women with Black Men.

And there are some that draw curious double-takes: Asian Men with White Women, for example.

And even today, there are some that elicit the moronic outrage of America’s deepest racist fears. One sad example is a Cherrios commercial that sparked angry racist comments in 2013 from idiots who could not tolerate seeing a happy interracial family on TV.

Here’s Elliot’s interview with Ranier, the Asian dude that loves Black girls.

 

Writing Group Dynamics: Reading Submissions

man_looking_at_stack_of_papers

Reading submissions for a writing group can be as time consuming as the group meetings themselves. But it’s the hinge from where good feedback and critique comes from.

Here are some pointers from Tammie Bob of the College of DuPage on how to read writing group submissions:

  • Read the submission at least twice.
  • The first time through, read it as a reader. Pay attention to: Did this make sense? Did I enjoy it? What kinds of readers would like this?
  • The second time through, read it as a writer. Focus on what needs to be changed and how to make it better. Make comments and suggestions around: what’s missing, what doesn’t flow, what is confusing.
  • Always try to think in terms of what the writer is trying to accomplish, not what you would try to accomplish if you were in the writer’s shoes. Try to understand the writer’s goals, interests, quirks, voice.
  • Pay attention to Characterization, Continuity, Technique, Format, Dialogue, Plot, Pacing and Conflict.
  • Characterization: Do the characters seem real? Why or why not? Is there too much time spent inside a character’s head instead in action?
  • Continuity: What’s unresolved? What’s inconsistent? Is the writer’s personality/opinions too intrusive? Is there too much/too little detail?
  • Technique: Is the English readable? Typos, grammar errors, run-ons?
  • Format: Paragraphs/sentences too long? Transitions between paragraphs/scenes? POV clearly established and maintained? Clutter?
  • Dialogue: Do the characters’ words seem natural and to fit their personalities? Is there enough dialogue? Are their voice distinct? Is the dialogue used just for backstory or for actual character development? [Rule of Thumb: no more than four lines of dialogue should be written without a break, some action, even if just a gesture.]
  • Pacing: Does the plot and subplots move fast enough? Do the plots skip around too much? Are action and dialogue balanced?
  • Conflict: Does the conflict that is brought up earlier resolve to a reasonable conclusion? Is the conclusion appropriate for the character development?

 

 

Neil Gaiman’s 8 Rules of Writing

I am a ridiculous sucker for “rules of writing.” I don’t ever follow these rules. But goddamnit(!) do I love to collect them.

Plus, these were given to me by my writing teacher, who is also a published novelist, so there’s a tiny bit more weight to it…

neil-gaiman-lantern_0

Neil’s Rules:

  1. Write.
  2. Put one word after another. Find the right word, put it down.
  3. Finish what you’re writing. Whatever you have to do to finish it, finish it.
  4. Put it aside. Read it pretending youve never read it before. Show it to friends whose opinion you respect and who like the kind of thing that this is.
  5. Remember: when people tell you something’s wrong or doesnt work for them, they are almost always right. When they tell you exactly what they think is wrong and how to fix it, they are almost always wrong.
  6. Fix it. Remember that, sooner or later, before it ever reaches perfection, you will have to let it go and move on and start to write the next thing. Perfection is like chasing the horizon. Keep moving.
  7. Laugh at your own jokes.
  8. The main rule of writing is that if you do it with enough assurance and confidence, you’re allowed to do whatever you like. (That may be a rule for life as well as for writing. But its definitely true for writing.) So write your story as it needs to be written. Write it honestly, and tell it as best you can. I’m not sure that there are any other rules. Not ones that matter

http://www.brainpickings.org/index.php/2012/09/28/neil-gaiman-8-rules-of-writing/

The Contest: A Short Story

John Chong is a lost soul. Having ultimately failed at the only thing he was ever good at, he sets off to unearth the long buried truth of his past. What he finds is strange and complicated. This story is his first stop on that long journey.

NOTICE: this story includes explicit language and description

Pissing at the Moon by Pieter the Younger Brueghel

Pissing at the Moon by Pieter the Younger Brueghel

Early Spring, Rainy Season, 2010

John Chong is 29 years old

*

There’s this painting in the lobby of Dolly’s Dilemma called “The Contest.” As a kid I thought it was a picture of this bunch of old dudes looking at the ocean. But one day, I was about 12, I realized that they aren’t just looking. They’re standing in a row jerking off to see who can produce the strongest ejaculate.

Dolly’s is a little like that painting. It’s got a bit of an identity problem. Sitting right here on the edge of Dhagston, Dolly’s is a drag-bar-slash-steakhouse, meaning it’s a family diner by day and full on drag-queen heaven by night.

The place is not even really named Dolly’s Dilemma. God knows why we call it that. [1]

I’m here to meet this old waiter named Paul. It turns out he knows my family. Supposedly he knew my father. I don’t know why, but whenever I hear someone’s got something to tell me about my dad, I can’t help but go see them. This guy says he used to be in Dolly’s stage show with my dad. And that my dad was this super fucking gorgeous drag queen.

I don’t remember that part.

But I do remember this place.

Crazy hippies.

And in those days they were crazy, but I mean friendly as fuck too. God, I actually liked them. My Aunt Maureen and Roy, back when they were still together, were so down with these fuckers. Even now she still talks about Dolly’s as if she still hangs out here. But she probably hasn’t stepped foot in the place in like 10 years. [2]

I’m just looking at the old painting when this old dude comes out from behind the swinging door between the kitchen and the dining room. It’s gotta be Paul, the dude that knew my father.

He rushes over as soon as he sees me. Grabs me and starts yelling in my ear.

“John? Little John? Oh my God, Johnny Mark Chong! My sweet boy!”

“Hey, hey, hey,” I say, struggling against his surprisingly stern bear hug.

Then I give in.

What the fuck?

Who cares, right?

So, for a second, I let myself lean into him. My over-tight shoulders let go and I hug him back. Then my face kinda goes flush and I tear up. Why the fuck for, who knows.

“Paul,” I say. “Right? Paul?”

He lets go long enough for me to take a step back.

“Yes! Jesus, John,” he says. “Paul! Uncle Paul. Well, just Paul. You’re a grown man now. Jesus! You’ve grown! Like a tree! Like a big strong tree!”

“Well, not so strong.”

“Well, strong enough, right?”

He hugs me again. It’s like he can’t stop. I’m not really into it. I don’t mind affection. But neediness or sentimentality of whatever the fuck this is. It’s not my thing.

“So, what’re doing now?” he says. “You’re a preacher, right?”

“No, not any more. That didn’t work out.”

“Oh,” he says.

I definitely don’t want to get into that subject, how I went to Bible school to make peace with losing my dad and then left when I found out that the Bible says my dad’s burning in hell. So, I change the subject before he can dig into it.

“So, Paul, how are things at old Dolly’s?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Things are hard. Dolly’s not the same. These days, we’re just a bunch of old queens trying not to fall down on top of each other.”

“Sorry, man.”

“Please! Don’t be sorry. I’m happy. I do what I love. I have friends. And today, I get to see you. This is so great. God, I loved your dad.”

Paul hunches over, one hand against the wall the other on my shoulder. Struggling to keep his balance. But he keeps smiling. He keeps making eye contact. His eyes are like icy blue, like a fucking Alaskan Malamute. Staring at me like I’ve taken the shape and form of God himself.

“Matt was so good to me,” he says. “Better than Roy even, you know?”

Matt was my dad.

I don’t know if I mentioned that.

Roy is my Aunt Maureen’s ex-husband.

Pretty sure I did mention that.

Roy’s also my step-dad, which I know for sure I haven’t mentioned yet.

I know. It’s ridiculously confusing. There’s so much more. But I’ll spare you.

Paul’s still talking about my dad.

“Matt used to take me out with him, when I was just this little gay kid. He never treated me like a kid though. He always said, ‘you’re a man, Paul, the world just ain’t accepted that yet.’”

“Yeah, he said a lot of shit like that. A regular walking fortune cookie.”

“Well, it meant a lot to us. Me and all the other weirdos. He had so many weird friends, you know?”

“I sorta remember that,” I say.

“Your dad, people loved him. You know why? Because he was always comfortable in his own skin. And ‘cause of that, he never judged nobody else. Never. Not us queers or addicts or gangsters, whatever. He was a regular freaking Jesus.”

“Yeah, ‘the mark of a gentleman,’ right?”

“Huh?”

“This thing he used to say: the mark of a gentleman is to live and let live. The trick is, you gotta do both.”

“That was a good one,” he says. “So sweet.”

Paul straightens himself up against the counter. I think I can hear his back crack a couple times. Dude is obviously in bad shape.

There aren’t really any customers in the place. Just one table with three middle-aged women drinking old fashioneds. Paul nods at them. They wave him over. He waves back but shakes his head no, pointing at me.

“Your dad was a lady killer too. Man, always had girls hanging all over him. I don’t know how your mom put up with it, God bless her soul. But he stayed loyal though, I’ll tell you that. Seriously. Your dad was loyal to a fault, as you know. I mean, in the end, you know, that’s sort of what killed him.”

“What do you mean?”

“Shoot, you know? I mean, no one wants to blame anyone anymore, but back then, your dad was working this job with Roy. Someone messed up the specs on the window alarms. Armed patrol showed up, those folks got hurt, I mean, no one died. But your dad and Roy, they put some people in the hospital that night. Your dad took the fall for that. But, it was Roy that messed up those codes.”

This was all news to me. All I ever heard about my dad was what a criminal mastermind he was. Never that he royally fucked up some job. And who the fuck even knows what kinda job Paul’s talking about. Stealing shit, fucking smuggling shit, or God forbid, something worse.

“After Matt got out, he was trying to walk the straight and narrow but he had a real hard time getting work. He had to leave Dhagston, which was brutal for you and your mom. Your mom couldn’t stand it. But Matt had to make money. He wasn’t gonna make a living dancing here! So he went off to California. People out there are more apt to forgive, or maybe they just didn’t ask. But he got work at Boeing, which was good work. He was on the 747 project. He was so proud of that plane. He said ‘this is it, Paul. This plane is gonna be THE plane for the next hundred years.’ Shoot, and he was right. You and your mom were ready to join him out there, but then, you know, the accident happened, and well shoot. Sorry for bringing that up, John, not like you asked to hear about all this. I’ll stop.”

“It’s okay Paul, really. What happened?”

“We don’t really know, you know. I mean, it’s all pieced together. But Roy was in Chicago, O’Hare Airport. Working maintenance for American. Well, you know that part, right?”

“Not really,” I say. “Roy never talked about it.”

“You know he lives back out on the Landing now, though, right? He got a place over by the Old Starlight Book and Culture Club. He’s like a regular beatnick poet now. Spends his days drinking and then writes about it, like Charles Bugokowski.”

I start to correct him, but leave it alone. Nobody likes a know-it-all.

“Yeah,” is all I say.

“Well, Roy,” he says. “Really though, you sure you want to hear this? It’s about your folks?”

“Are you looking for permission, man?”

“Well, I guess so. But, I mean, sometimes we say things and it changes people’s lives.”

“You don’t need my permission, Paul. If it’s something you want to say, then you should say it. For your own sake. Let me worry about me.”

“Okay, well, Roy was always in love with your mom. He couldn’t help it. He’d tried to keep his distance, but it always stuck.”

This all isn’t news to me.

“So after your dad passed, you know, he left Maureen to be with your mom. Which doesn’t matter in the end though! Because you’re Matt’s son. You got Matt’s heart and goodness, you know, his generosity and you’re not lazy. So, you’re Matt’s kid, no matter what.”

“I don’t know about that,” I say. How this guy thinks he knows what kinda heart I have is beyond me.

“But Roy,” Paul says. “He always felt like he was the one that raised you. That he was your real father.”

I guess I looked pretty annoyed at this point. Paul grabs me and holds me again. I’m starting to be okay with it. The hugging I mean, not this bullshit story.

“So,” he says. “That’s Roy’s story. That’s why, he says, he gave you guys all that money when you were growing up. And why he put you through seminary. And why he writes. You know he started writing, right?”

“No,” I say. “I never knew that.”

“Yeah. His poems are almost all about you. He’s got this book he wrote for you, he called it A WORD TO LIVE BY. [3] It’s terrible, because Roy’s a terrible writer, but it doesn’t matter. He wrote that for you.”

I don’t even notice that Paul’s holding my hands, both of them in both of his.

“You okay, kid?” he says.

“Yeah, I’m good,” I say.

I’m smiling but tearing up again. And my skin feels cold, even my hands in old Paul’s warm pudgy mitts. It’s like sour wires crawling lengthwise across my arms. Stupid. I’m not gonna fucking cry over this.

“Hey, man, I gotta run,” I say, handing him my business card from Hesperian. [4] “But let’s keep in touch okay. I mean, this is too rare, you and me.”

“Yeah,” he says. “But you just got here.”

“No, seriously, let’s pick this up later,” I say, stopping to put my hand on his chest, patting his sternum in genuine respect.

“You get it, right?” I say.

He sighs.

I assume he gets it.

I’ve had enough for now.

But before I go, I don’t know why, I have to ask him about the picture.

“Hey, what’s the deal with that picture?”

“What, ‘The Contest’?”

We both turn to face the painting.

The men in the picture are very old. The have their backs to us. They seem to shoot their loads one after the other or maybe it’s all at once, masturbating and ejaculating into the foamy sea. They cum a lot. There’s an ocean of the stuff.

It’s impressive.

There’s something in there about growing old. About getting it up for one last hurrah.

“Yeah,” I say. “The fucking contest. Is that for real? They really trying to see who can shoot their loads the farthest?”

Paul laughs, happy.

“No, kid. No. The contest isn’t about that. They aren’t contesting against each other. They’re contesting against fate.”

I’m already leaving at this point. I look back at old Paul. He nods at me like he’s just shared with me the smartest fucking shit any old dude ever said to a younger guy.

But I don’t know if I understand it.

In the parking lot, I’m out of smokes. I know there’s some Golden King menthols in my glove box. They aren’t mine. I hate menthols. [5] I go to get them and it turns out the pack is empty anyway.

And I start crying again, then I start laughing.

I get in the car and head out to the Landing, to the Old Starlight Book and Culture Club.

—————————

NOTES

[1] The establishment known as Dolly’s Dilemma is legally ran under the moniker of “Delmonico’s Steak House.” Delmonico’s owns a non-transferable liquor license. When Jerry Delonte bought the restaurant, he attempted to legally change its name to Dolly’s Dilemma but quickly found that if he were to do so, he would need to apply for a new liquor license. The process of which he would not be guaranteed approval. Incidentally, this situation created Dolly’s dual personality, which serendipitously reflects the many layers of Dolly’s “Dilemma.”

[2] “Dinner Hour” at Dolly’s Dilemma is 4:30 to 8:00. This is widely understood as family time, and the restaurant functions strictly as a steakhouse. No dancing. No stage show. Just slightly overcooked sirloins and Coca Colas and lots of hugs and lots of kisses. John was never comfortable with the constant physical affection of Dolly’s staff and patrons, begrudgingly offering a handshake in response to offers to embrace. More often than not, the wait staff would hug him anyway, which only further annoyed the poor boy.

[3] Roy’s book was self-published a few years ago, in 2003. No one, not even his friends and family have read it all the way through. It was an epic mish-mash of Isaac Asimov, Amy Tan and the Chronicles of Narnia. But his ex-wife, Maureen Chong, once said something kind and accurate about Roy’s book. Her words were, “Roy, this was hella ambitious.”

[4] HTS is the Hesperian Theological Seminary, the Bible college where John received his Masters in Divinity. Though he has left the pastorate, he maintains a day job at the seminary as an Old Testament research assistant. It is an exceedingly laborious and low paying job.

[5] John was once a regular menthol smoker, preferring their minty aftertaste to regular cigarettes. However, in 1999, the “fiberglass” rumor was widely circulated, convincing many menthol smokers that their cigarettes had an elevated lung cancer risk. This rumor was untrue. In actuality, scientific studies have shown a significantly lower rate of lung cancer among menthol smokers. Of course, the lowest rate of lung cancer remains among non-smokers.

OTHER NOTES:

[1] This story takes place in the same community where “eleven-17”, “Sweet Like Caramel” and “One Good Memory” take place. John Mark Chong is the same John in “Sweet Like Caramel”. Maureen Chong (John’s paternal aunt) is the protagonist is “eleven-17” and a minor character in “One Good Memory.”