Hacking at the Root

An admission to myself

Often devoid of credit, but the desire for credit

Must be the greatest admission of all—how small

 

See the bases get covered,

The circular logic spinning itself

As if I didn’t pay the pattern maker

 

A seemingly impenetrable barrier

Of laundered and distressed awareness:

Too clean to recognize, but too dirty for display

 

The willingness to understand

Suppressed

By the thirst to be understood

 

How often can I arrive late to my own sluggish conclusions?

Before the invitations, themselves

Return to an oblivious sender?

 

You hear my alarm as if I remembered to remember

As if the memories were available

As if availability was there when I needed it 

 

I was doing a lot less coke.  And the cleaner I got, the clearer I began to think.  I was still restless at night, scribbling in my notebook, but the verse actually seemed to be darkening.  Something was happening to me in increments, something that I wouldn’t have noticed had I been using; because I’d always assumed that the drug taking had darkened me.  But now that I was cleaning up, I was remembering that I wasn’t too cheery to begin with, so maybe the drugs weren’t the core issue.  Perhaps they were a distraction—or more pointedly, a symptom.  And I could buy nasal spray or whatever to manage the management, but clearly there was something inside me that required more effective handling.  Psychological shrubbery grown wild, the leaves of which I’d been hacking away at when I should’ve been hacking at the root.

There’s a scene in a film called The Salton Sea that opens with a tracking shot of a drug den.  It’s a group binge, the participants clearly enthralled, oblivious of anything beyond those walls.  Then the drugs run out.  Two are elected to go score, and as they head for the door one of them asks the time.  “Twelve,” says the other.  That means midnight, we assume, but then the door opens, daylight floods the room, and everyone recoils in horror.  That it’s noon doesn’t jar anyone.  It’s only the light—a literal assault on unadjusted eyes, but we get a metaphoric sense as well.  Light is the unwelcome reminder of the world out there.

I used to go to these parties all the time.  The only difference was that I was being paid, which provided a tidy excuse.  If you’re using regularly, you’re probably spending a lot more on drugs than you’d care to calculate.  You’re going out more and staying out later.  Eating, sleeping and exercise habits are being compromised.  You’re drinking more and smoking more cigs.  You’re talking more, listening less.  The only voices you really hear are the ones inside your head, and those voices are lying to you.

I remember one night at the restaurant, shortly after I’d moved back east.  It was a particularly busy shift and I was struggling to keep up.  Certain servers—I couldn’t tell which ones—were making it harder on me.  When I was watching, they’d do their jobs: placing the forks and spoons in the appropriate cradles to soak, the plates in the bus tub, rubbish in the trash bin, discards in the compost.  But when my back was turned, some would leave messes for me to disassemble: silverware, napkins, doilies, chicken bones—all jumbled together on shakily-stacked plates.  The few seconds this saved them clearly outweighed any guilt.  Sure, they weren’t dealing drugs.  They weren’t dropping bombs or selling bogus derivatives on Wall Street, but that’s my point.  We’re all for snuffing out insidiousness wherever it lurks, but we often overlook mindlessness and its cumulative effects.  That’s how it was for me: a slow accumulation of rationalizations and transgressions, and I see it everywhere now.  How often, and easily, convenience wins out over conscience, image over integrity.  This notion that you’re getting away with something—it’s like being holed up in a room.  It’s like hiding from the light.

The Wrong Rice

Jeannie was souring. She yearned for hairdressing work, her vocation of training, but rather than search aggressively, she was content to complain, blame the market. Then she “lost” her job at the clothing store. I was handling the bills, which suited her fine, but I was getting agitated as well. Jeannie was cute but she wasn’t exactly arm candy, which made her attitude all the more baffling. She spoke of connections she had—industry people—but the evidence didn’t bear it out. From what I could tell she had two friends, Nicole and CJ, her roommates from before she moved in. Theirs was a triangular friendship, built drunkenly at the Burgundy Room on Cahuenga every night. Now Jeannie seemed to be falling out with the other two.

I’d met Nicole and CJ. They had the funky hair and stylish clothes, but they were both brusque and unseemly. My theory was that Jeannie had always attracted more men, leaving Nicole and CJ to subsist on the runoff from last call’s panic rush. It’s the same scene at every club in Hollywood. The offensive house lights, having been forced upon the crowd so suddenly and so mercilessly, feel like a sexual death sentence. Bar patrons, looking like utter shit all of a sudden, scramble. Bedlam ensues. Bodies begin funneling through the bottleneck, spreading out into the night, regrouping on the waiting curb. 100 cigarettes are lighted. “So where’s the after party?”

With Jeannie becoming increasingly withdrawn, her phone stopped ringing altogether. I wasn’t surprised; surely Nicole and CJ were getting laid more. Jeannie was sedentary, sinking ever more deeply into my couch.

I’d dropped a few grams at the King King, and I was taking the surface streets home. I called Jeannie to see if she wanted anything. A burrito with beans and rice, she said, so I stopped at Machos Tacos on Vermont. When I got back she was on the couch watching Family Guy, my Homer Simpson slippers on the coffee table, her feet buried inside them. I handed her the bag of food. She thanked me flimsily and began excavating.

“Wait, you got me white rice.”

I just looked at her.

She presented me with a takeout container, flaps fanning out. “You got me WHITE rice from a fucking taco stand!”

“You asked for rice, I ordered rice.”

“I meant MEXICAN rice.”

“Are you kidding?”

“Whatever. Forget it.”

“Forget it? I don’t think so Tonya Harding.”

White trash equals Tonya Harding; my mind just went there. Missing the reference of course, Jeannie just called me an asshole. I agreed with a caveat: she was too dim to fathom the scope of it. She abandoned her food and began storming around, gathering belongings. I plopped on the couch and lit a cig.

“I don’t give a shit where you go, just leave the key.”

“NO!”

I got off the couch and went after her. “Give me my fucking key!”

She kept her back to me. “I’m calling Maus!” she said. She’d struck another nerve. Jeannie had been telling people that she’d befriended Maus at the Burgundy Room, which was patently false. She’d glommed on to Maus while I was living with her, and the two shared a superficial girl bond at best. I knew that Maus was a capitulator, though, and that she’d buckle to Jeannie’s rants. I figured my key had to be in the bag swinging from her shoulder, so I reached for it.  Under its own weight, the bag bolted south, the strap catching the pit of Jeannie’s elbow. I was mortified, first at the thought of her being marked, then at the thought of my being implicated, and finally at the thought of having just prioritzed my reputation over her injury. I apologized effusively. Not only was Jeannie unmoved, she was emboldened. She left nearly gloating, key and all.

I went outside to brood over a beer. The skyline was orange, ominous, and I gazed for a moment, put a Parliament in my mouth. I patted my pockets for a lighter that wasn’t there, but I felt my blaster, so I pulled it out and bumped twice, maneuvering the scooper around the unlit cig dangling from my lips. There was work ahead: collapsible boxes to fill, locks to be changed. I hopped in the Geo and lit the smoke and headed for the Home Depot on Sunset and Western, the only one open 24 hours, the one that, because of the supposed aisle by aisle cruising code, my gay friends called the “Homo Depot.”  I want to say that hardware was for tops and plumbing for bottoms, but perhaps that’s just a fanciful reconstruction.

Gone Daddy Gone (excerpted)

I’m thirty-six years old and I’m pacing the yard outside the house on Bright Street in Northampton, working up the nerve to call my father.  It’s warm.  I’m coatless.  I could do this all day.

But we need to have the talk.  I’ve been procrastinating.  I know my dad; he won’t make the first move.  I have to thank him for the money anyway; that’s my Trojan horse.  I take a deep breath and dial 727.  The light beats in my chest turn to those thumps: the ones I associate with anxiety, bullying, confrontation.

I’m relieved when he answers.  I didn’t want to leave a message, prolong this, plus it soothes me to hear his voice: warm and crackly with age, like an old record.  At seventy-five he’s mellowed considerably, seems content, and contentedness had never come easily to my dad.  We have that in common.  And then the divorce, his retirement, the move: all within such a short period.  Everyone was concerned, including my mom.  Maybe even her especially.

The small talk goes well, so I decide to regale him with the story behind my living situation.  He knows that my brother Michael, his own divorce pending, has lost access to his house—a judgment that was handed down on the same day I left California—but my father is unaware of the effect that this has had on me.

I was permitted to leave Los Angeles on the condition that I continue formal probation in Hampshire County, living with my brother, a reputable businessman and homeowner.  I was to check in monthly and find legitimate work, like any local offender, but now I had to explain to Hampshire County Probation that the housing, my transfer’s lynchpin, had fallen through.  I contacted Chief Foley from my childhood home, pled my case.  Foley was unmoved.  He gave me twenty-four hours to land an address in his county—or else.  That meant revocation of the transfer, and my LA-based PO had bitched about the paperwork.  His final words were “Fuck this up and I’ll hang you.”  I repacked some things and headed for the door, brushing past my mother on the way.  “What if you don’t find anything,” she said, “where’ll you go?”  Back to jail, I replied.  There was no time to bullshit her.  I drove straight to Northampton with the goal of targeting tattooed, wayward-looking women on Main St.  I realized the outlandishness of that, but it was too late for Craigslist.  That I succeeded can only be attributed to luck coupled with the Jedi mindset: that zone in which you simply cannot fail.  A young woman named Teresa took me in, a situation that would sour soon enough, but I could tell Foley that I was living there, on Bright Street.

Dad likes my story, which I tell comically, leaving out the part about mom’s despair.  He laughs easily these days, and in stark contrast to when I was young, he’s very attentive.  He no longer talks over me.  I thank him for the money, a much-needed two grand that helped tremendously with the settling process.  I’ll get it back to you as soon as I can, I tell him.  Of course he rebuffs the offer.  “You’ll inherit it anyway,” he explains, “why wait another ten years when you need it now?”  I tease him about his optimism, reminding him that he’s already outlived his own father by several years.  Again, he laughs.

I wait for the next lull, take a breath, and dive in.  No amount of mindlessness or impulsivity could explain a drug business five years running, so I make no excuses.  I just explain that I did what I did willingly, recklessly, methodically.  I paint broad strokes, sparing him extraneous details.  No point in defending my product line.  That I sold only what I used, eschewing heroin and other opiates, probably wouldn’t sound cogent to him, I assume.  To him drugs are drugs.  I do explain, however, that while I broke the law, I broke no moral code of my own.  Everyone involved was a consenting adult and no one was ever coerced, cajoled, etc.  It’s very important to me that he understand, “I never meant to hurt anyone,” and though I know how flimsy that sounds, I say it anyway.  He stops me, tells me that he gets it: the temptation, the lifestyle appeal.  He even uses the word “glamorous,” which I’m sure I’ve never heard him say before.  I begin to realize that my nervousness had nothing to do with any perceived disapproval.  It was about my father’s true feelings, and how I’d have to live up to them now.

Ever since his boys had grown he’d cherished every moment he could spend with us, in person, on the phone, and the divorce had only intensified that.  Here I am throwing myself on his mercy, and all he wants is for me to feel better.  As determined as I am to repent, I feel consoled, so I give in to it.  “I just didn’t know,” I say.  “The sales thing wasn’t happening, and then this opportunity comes along.”  Again, he tries to comfort me, tells me that it’s okay.  Now I’m the one talking over him.  My new job (restaurant, kitchen), the writing I’ve been doing, the possibility of grad school.  I’ll make things right, I promise!  Then I feel the tightening in my throat.  I’m trying to keep from breathing—no, I’m trying to keep from crying.  “One day,” I say, “I swear I’ll make you—” and my voice cracks on “proud.”  Now the tears come.

I can hear my father choking up.  His breathing labored, he struggles to tell me that he’s proud already, that he always has been.  We’re both crying freely now, yet somehow I can’t resist appealing to his manliness, for he ought to know: his boy was no punk.  “No one fucked with me in jail, daddy.  And the cops didn’t break me, either.”  Again, he tells me that he’s proud, that I handled myself well, the way he would have.  “You were always a good boy, James.” 

Now I know.  This man, the one I’ve wanted so badly to please my whole life, the one I’ve always suspected of having to accept my existence after the fact—he loves me regardless.  And he always has.

That would’ve been September or October of ’09, whenever I got around to making the call.  But I know that mom called in November.  I was headed home from the gym, I think, but I was definitely going south on King St.  She asked if I was sitting down.  I said I was driving, which answered her question in the literal sense, I suppose.  Actually, mom, I’m standing.  On the edge of a cliff.  Teetering.  That might’ve made a difference, who knows?  You can’t blame someone in shock.  “Your father had a heart attack,” she said.  “He’s gone.”

Dissolving a Decade

I met Lola at the Lucky Duck on La Brea.  I was munching on the orange chicken she’d served me when she said, “You should come to my speakeasy.  I run it out of my place on 10th and Broadway every Saturday.”  She handed me a card that was busy with color.  It featured a sexy-looking Asian girl and a 213 number.  Call before you cum it said.

I went with my friend Vince.  We lingered by the door while I dialed the number.  Once inside, we were led around a drywall partition and into a loft space flickering with strobes.  The place was huge, black-lit, and littered with vintage lounge furniture.  There was a full bar with an Asian motif, so we ordered Tsingtao and lingered there, bobbing our heads to the techno and watching the go-go girls as they danced with their hula hoops on platforms in platforms.

Then Vince whacked me on the shoulder.  C’mon he motioned with his head.  I followed him to the bathroom where he pulled out a baggie.  “You got a key?” he said.  I handed him my set.  Propping the bag open between his thumb and forefinger, he extracted a heap of powder, perfectly peaked, like a snowcapped mountain.  He steadied it up to his nose and sniffled harshly.  Then he did it again, sloppily this time, and a mist of white cascaded to the floor.

My turn.  I snorted audibly.  The bite was sharp.  A bitter drip oozed down the back of my throat.  I swallowed, quivered.  It’d been nearly a decade, and I’d forgotten about the high, but I remembered the anesthetic quality, so I dipped my pinky in the baggie, put some to my tongue, and in an instant, that decade dissolved away.

We walked back out to main floor.  The music was thumping and the strobes were fracturing everything to discontinuity.  The dancing girls, short-skirted and knee-high-booted, seemed more elevated now, flashes of light hurling around them, their spasms reduced to a series of slow-motioned jerks.  Everything looked sexy.  People laughed and danced and drank and laughed and danced some more.  It’d only been a week since the last gathering, but it felt like a reunion.  It felt limitless.

A Luddite Weeps at the Gym

I once picked up a woman at Packard’s.  She was heavily tatted and pierced, had the geometric, multicolored hairdo, some scarification—the prototypical gal I’ve been attracting since I was twelve.  When we got back to my place, the first thing she noticed was a copy of Rolling Stone sitting on the ironing board.  “Lady Gaga is the shit!” she said.  This saddened me.  It made me yearn for the old days, when we met at all ages shows: all sweaty with sticky hair and runny makeup.  Ripped jeans, safety pins, Doc Martens with colored laces.  Ten dollar T-shirts from Newbury Comics.  We were like a tribe.  Maybe we weren’t into the same bands exactly, but fuck pop music, fuck the radio (though we loved our college stations), and definitely fuck Mtv (unless of course it was 120 Minutes).

Well, I’m old now.  And times have changed.  The average freak is more likely to be into Katy Perry than Nick Cave.  How the hell that happened, I can’t say.  It probably has something to do with Madonna.  (That issue of Rolling Stone, btw, featured a piece on Dennis Hopper’s final days, which is why it was on my ironing board.  As for why I had the ironing board, I have no excuse for that.)  I think everyone, including me, figured I’d outgrow punk rock culture.  But not only do I still love it at forty, my appreciation for it has grown, perhaps because it’s always been there for me.  For years I avoided downloading, for fear of it.  There’d be nothing tangible there, and I was reticent about providing information,typing shit, and, like, committing to something.

Well, all that’s changed.  I got my account with iTunes (way easier than I imagined) and I’m loving it.  I even had my mother dust off my old cassette tapes and ship them to me, so I could see what I’d forgotten about.  Dag Nasty.  The Virgin Prunes.  Anti-Nowhere League.  All my old favorites at 99 cents a pop!  I’ve been having a blast building my library.  Syncing to my Shuffle.

I was one of those sensitive-type punks.  (We didn’t have a name for it then, but I read that it’s called “emo” nowadays.  I also read that emo-types, understandably, hate that label.)  So what went along with all the thrash and hardcore was a slower, more melodic sound we called New Wave, which sort of morphed and mainstreamed, becoming “alternative” in the 90′s, but that’s getting off point.  Among my latest downloads is a song called “What’s the Matter Here?” by 10,000 Maniacs.  It’s about child abuse.

With the shuffle, obviously, any song could play at any time.  I was at the Northampton Athletic Club, doing shoulder shrugs real close to the mirror, when Natalie Merchant got to me.  It was the crescendo that did it:

All these cold and rude things that you do, I suppose  you do because he belongs to you.  And instead of love and the feel of  warmth, you’ve given him these cuts and sores that don’t heal with time  or his age.

I’d forgotten about the passion in that vocal, so hauntingly beautiful.  I felt the tears well up in my eyes.  I worried that this might look odd: a grown man crying in the gym.  I hoped that people would simply assume I’d had a blistering set, hence the puffy eyes and crimson face.

And then I wondered why it mattered.  I was feeling something.  And feeling felt good.  It was that old friend again, the one I keep neglecting.  The one who’s kind enough to keep giving me second chances.

Seriously…

I’ve never posted back to back like this before, but something’s been on my mind, so I’m breaking the fourth wall, just for a moment.  I received this email from a writer friend in reference to a recent post, “Anatomy of a Lengthy Rejection Letter”:

i read the blog about the rejection letter. i just hope it doesn’t piss off other agents. first rejection letter is like a badge of honor, right? that’s the beginning of every good success story. i’m not saying don’t blog about it, i’m just saying that in blog-type the tone of that blog is unclear. you like him, you love him, and there’s some sarcasm in there – are you throwing him under the bus or praising him or…?

Okay, first of all, it’s not my first rejection letter, but it is the longest and definitely the sweetest.  So if I may, let me ask you, dear reader, for a favor.  If you would, scroll back a couple of posts to the one in question, give it a read (or a reread), and ask yourself: is there really any ambiguity about the tone?  Certainly it’s cheeky, but it’s clearly appreciative, no?  There is sarcasm, sure, but is there any doubt that it’s meant to satirize an aspiring writer’s neurotic inclinations and not the publishing industry at large?  I mean, should I be scared of having posted this?  Because if so, I think that’s the kiss of death.  I think to begin censoring myself over what anyone important (as if anyone important is actually reading these posts!) might think would be, for me, an unprincipled corruption of the artistic  process.  In some small way it would mean that I’ve sold out before I’ve even begun.  And how goddamn sad would that be?

The agent that sent that letter went above and beyond.  I don’t think there’s a shred of doubt that I applaud his efforts—not only his looking at my work, but the manner in which he rejected me: with his actual thoughts detailed in a personalized way.  I mean, this guy—like any agent—is busy.

So please, do me this favor.  Give it a looksee, and, if you would, comment here at this post.  If you leave a comment and you live here in Western Mass, I’ll take you out somewhere.  We’ll get a drink, at least one.  I don’t care if you’re a boy or a girl :)

Thanks,

Jimmy

Slow Hemorrhage of the Soul

When I arrived in Los Angeles, one of the first things I noticed was the near-constant presence of cocaine, and its ubiquity had nothing to do with any sort of subculture.  It was at all the grungy after parties, of course, but it was also at the wine and cheese gatherings, the ones that start at six.  Put on a collared shirt, bring a bottle of Bordeaux, kiss the hostess on the cheek, do some coke.  People who would be considered “grownups” back east were using cocaine openly in LA.  I hadn’t done it in eight or nine years, and what I remembered was juvenile and sketchy: people winking and pee dancing off to the bathroom.  But now it was out in the open, and more like a tango: tension and slinking, staccato speech patterns, syncopated dialogue.  I’d be chatting up a girl, cutting up lines casually, the number determining the length of the dance, the girl following my lead.  I’d better offer him a smoke, get into the rhythm of his jokes, or he’ll whirl off with the coke.

Within the fierce social-climbing jungle that is the LA party scene, cocaine is more than just an accoutrement.  It’s bait.  You can lure with it, build a party around it.  People will stay so long as you don’t run out.  You can’t buy charm, wit, affability, handsomeness or intellect, but you can find a delivery dealer.  But there’s an unintended consequence, one that’s slower and somewhat more insidious than the obvious health and legal concerns: you become an asshole.  How affable I was to begin with is questionable, but over time my motivation to be polite diminished considerably.  Why polish your manners when you can just pull out your bag?

I became an unapologetic cokehead.  And everyone knew it.  After all, that was the point.  If you needed a bump, you came to me.  It was my contribution, the least I could do.  I was glomming onto a scene that far exceeded anything I could’ve imagined.  Everyone had been around long enough to have acquired connections.  If we wanted to go to a certain club, we got on the list.  Having never bypassed a velvet rope in my life, I fell quickly into the flow of entitlement.  And the timing!  Bands I’d loved growing up—Sex Pistols, Bauhaus, Pixies—were reuniting and gigging in LA.  I was backstage at the Fonda when Echo and the Bunnymen were about to go on.  The show was delayed because Ian McCulloch was characteristically drunk and missing (“Same ol’ fuggin’ coont,” muttered one of the roadies).  No ardent Smiths fan ever expects to encounter Morrissey, so when I saw him at the El Rey it was like a dream.  That impossibly close shave, the hair, the hurt.  I wanted to touch him, if only to freak him out, but he was flanked by bodyguards.  I saw Circle Jerks, Buzzcocks.  I got in everywhere, easily, and always had the run of the place.

Then there were those grungy after parties.  We may’ve begun the evening in the inner sanctum, getting high with the opening act and watching the headliner in style, but by dawn we’d be at a gutted loft space downtown, scraping our vials and scrounging for douched beers and leftover pussy.  Fine dining, VIP-lounging, dive bar slumming, house party crashing—it was all part of this adult-but-not limbo we swam in: an oblivion linked, inextricably, to cocaine.  I always had coke on me and it would’ve been foolish to pretend that I didn’t.  My friends were the hip ones.  I was a mere tenant among them.  If one of the boys wanted a bump, what was I going to say?  Sorry, can’t spare one.  Thanks, though, for getting me in everywhere and getting me laid all the time.

C’mon.

The Lydia Story

Lydia was the quintessential hipsterette: pretty, edgy, hedonistic, volatile.  One night at my place she made an announcement.  “Who wants to see me clap with my ass?”  She then moved to the far wall so that everyone could see and turned her back, hiked her skirt, dropped her panties, and began bouncing on the balls of her feet.  And voila!  Her buttocks smacked together rhythmically.  Loudly.  It was at once ridiculous, impressive, and stupefying.  We all applauded, adding irony.

Lydia never missed a party.  She’d be in my lap one night, Huff’s the next.  You wouldn’t have guessed that she was Skot’s girlfriend.  Couples were always tricky.  I supplied many, and sometimes they’d place orders together, sometimes separately, and when they’d do it separately, I was expected to keep mum, which was standard procedure; there was no need for anyone to know anyone else’s habits.  But often, one of the two would begin asking me, for whatever reason, to ignore the other.  I’d politely explain that I wouldn’t do that, and that it wasn’t a money issue.  To ask that of me was overstepping, I’d argue, and groundless.  They had to agree.  But breakups were trickier.  He takes his friends, she takes hers, but who keeps the drug dealer?  Answer: both, separately.  And people just had to accept that.  I couldn’t be expected to choose sides.  (I’m just now realizing that although I had gay customers, I never had gay couples.  Weird.)

Skot and Lydia’s breakup was messy.  There were rumors of a physical altercation, which didn’t surprise anyone.  Skot had once slapped a woman publicly and because he couldn’t deny it, he’d occasionally thread his mea culpa into conversation, just to ensure that his spin would reach everyone eventually.  And Lydia was, well, Lydia.  Whatever happened, she went straight to bed with Huff, my downstairs neighbor and good friend.  Why him? I wondered.

Huff and I had always competed amiably.  I had the cash and the little empire, but he had a bohemian charm I just couldn’t feign.  He played guitar, knew his way around a mixing board.  He was an artist, and therefore more soulful.  Lydia had been flirty with us both from day one.  And now Huff was feeling invaded by her.  “She keeps texting,” he said.

“Just ignore her.”

“I am, but how long can I keep it up?”

He had a point, I thought.  With cell phones, we’re all fucked.

Then Lydia called in the middle of the night.  She’d never been over alone, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I applied some deodorant, moved my hair around.  When she arrived we hugged and kissed as usual.  I sat her on the couch, got her a beer.  She bought a bag and began tamping it.  “Save it,” I said, taking a seat next to her.  I poured out plenty for us both

She was trying to be her peppy self, but I could see that she was distraught.  “I don’t know what’s happening,” she said, “he’s not answering my texts, he won’t see me.  What am I supposed to do?”  I wondered who she was talking about at first, and then I realized that it didn’t matter.  Skot and Huff were interchangeable now, and Lydia was flummoxed.  How, within days, had both men slipped through her nail-bitten fingers?

I consoled her breezily on the motives of men.  She seemed intrigued, even though I was basically just offering fish-in-the-sea platitudes.  I was probably more flattered by her attention than she was by mine.  The conversation turned to cocaine, specifically its long-term effects—a subject on which I was presumed to be omniscient.  I told her not to worry.  “Look at Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood,” I said.  “They were major cokeheads for many years.  And now they’re fine.  Eventually you quit, and any damage reverses itself.”  This was my pat answer.  I’d deploy it occasionally, citing Fleetwood Mac because they’d supposedly ripped a shit-ton of blow and were old now and clearly not dead.  While on the subject, I mentioned the classic Stevie Nicks rumor: that she’d corrupted her nasal passages to the point where her assistant had to blow the coke up her ass.  Lydia finished her line, swiped her nose, and turned to me.  “Do you wanna blow coke up my ass?”

It was easily the least expected, most thrilling question ever asked of me.  (And I realize how sad that is.)  I choked out an affirmative.  Lydia then peeled her stockings and underwear down to her ankles, turned over on the couch, hiked her skirt, and parted her cheeks.  I was supposed to be preparing, I realized, so I quickly grabbed a full baggie and jammed in a straw.  I would blow from the other end, obviously, but I was besieged by unknowns.  How deep do I go?  How hard do I blow?  How much is enough?  How much is too much?  She was waiting, I realized, and the situation was clearly time-sensitive.

I packed the straw about half an inch deep and inserted it carefully, so as not to scratch her.  I blew hardish—a gust strong enough, I’d say, to extinguish a few birthday candles.  Or to disperse dandelion spores.  Lydia didn’t react, so I asked if she was okay.  Without looking back, she flashed a thumbs-up.  I figured I had a window, so I quickly unbuckled my belt and pushed my jeans halfway down my thighs.  Her feet were together, so I just moved in and began sliding my cock up and down the crack of her ass.  I wanted to be sure that she was aware of what was about to happen, so, once fully hard, I poked her and made moaning noises.  (Assuming the permissibility of this seemed safe enough.  It occurred to me later how confounding an objection would’ve been.  Wait, what’re you doing? I’m not that type of girl!)

We partied into the morning.  I was high, and eager to press on, but we were running low on beer and cigs, so I asked Lydia to sit tight while I run to the store.  I’d been in this situation often enough to know how easily the spark can die, so I blazed to the 7/11 on Silver Lake Blvd and Effie.  By the time I returned, Lydia was out front, smacking Huff’s window with an open palm.  I could hardly believe it.  How, this time, had I not left the more lasting impression?

Anatomy of a Lengthy Rejection Letter

Dear James,

Thanks for sending me your manuscript – and for your kind words about [I name dropped, sue me]. I like what you’ve got here, but the market for drug memoirs is really shitty right now. The editors I know and trust most just aren’t looking for almost any kind of memoir like they used to, and drug stories have always been tough (perhaps strangely, much much tougher than alcohol stories). Despite that, I kept reading because you’ve got a good voice and some nice perspective. I’m sorry to say I can’t take it on because of the publishing industry, not because of your work. I hope you find an enthusiastic agent who loves your work and doesn’t share my reservations about the current market. Thanks for giving me the chance. If this doesn’t find a home and you have anything else down the line, feel free to get back in touch.

 

Wow.  Okay.  Where do I begin?  For starters, all one ever expects is a form letter.  So right off the bat, this guy is awesome.  I wish I could prove that this is genuine—which, in itself, is ludicrous on several levels, beginning with why would it matter?  Like anyone is reading this.  (Since learning how to check my “stats,” I’ve become obsessed with doing so, and I am getting some traffic, but nobody ever comments, ever.)  Also, why the hell would I fabricate a phony rejection letter?  Is it even possible for a writer to be that desperate for material?  And finally, there probably is a way to prove that I cut and pasted from my inbox, but I don’t know these things.  I don’t right click much.

I must keep things in perspective.  There are whole workshops devoted solely to getting agents to look at your manuscript—a hurdle I seem to have cleared, finally, so I’m certainly not going to whine.  Querying is just about the most amorphous, nebulous, subjective thing ever.  Right now I feel like the cute guy from out of town, crashing on his cute friend’s couch.  I seem interesting.

Okay, back to the letter.  Let’s take it line by line, shall we?

1. “Thank you for sending me the manuscript.”

–That’s rich: he’s thanking me.  I’m leaving him anonymous, not because I think it’d be wrong to mention his name, but because who he is doesn’t matter.  He’s big, with big-name clients, and he accepts queries in the form of a letter and, mind-bogglingly, the full manuscript itself.  Attached.  That’s right.  He’ll open attachments.  He’s not even picky.  You can send him a PDF, .doc, .docx, whatever.  There’s literally no reason not to query this guy—barring human decency, which is the real reason why I’m leaving him anonymous.  I simply won’t contribute to the deluge of shitty manuscripts that surely jam up his inbox.  Based on his letter alone, I respect this guy way too much.

2. “I like what you’ve got here, but the market for drug memoirs is really shitty right now.”

–Shit, man.  I could chew on this one for a while.  He “likes” what I’ve got, which, I suppose, implies that he didn’t “love” it, but more on that later.  The market for drug memoirs is really shitty right now?  First of all, he could’ve said that the market was “down,” or ”poor,” or “weak,” or “has fallen off,” or whatever polite, euphemistic terminology.  He called the market “shitty,” and I like that.  It’s very no BS.  But the meat of it—that my particular subject matter isn’t selling right now—is somewhat disheartening.  No, let me rephrase that.  It’s annoying.  First of all, doesn’t it always seem that way?  I mean, was there ever a time when publishing execs were saying, “This is awesome, you know, because vampire love triangles are really hot right now.”  Or, “Wow, fan fiction involving S&M with Americans using British slang and a narrator whose favorite expression is ‘holy crap’—jeez, that’ll sell millions.”  Nobody knows what makes a hit.  Nobody.  And I understand that, from a marketing standpoint, my project would be pigeonholed as a “drug memoir.”  And that sucks.  Because my book isn’t about drugs.  Or drug dealing.  At all.

3. “The editors I know and trust most just aren’t looking for almost any kind of memoir like they used to, and drug stories have always been tough…”

–This sentence, as is, is flabby, but that’s totally unimportant.  It’s basically a reiteration of the previous line, but he really seems to want me to understand why he won’t take me on a client, and I find that endearing, truly.  I’m somewhat torn about the “editors I know and trust” part.  I get knowing them, but to an unpublished writer, any editor willing to buy the manuscript sounds good.  Besides, everyone knows that editors don’t really edit anymore, so what’s an “untrustworthy” one going to do?  Acquire my manuscript unscrupulously?  I know I’m just being silly about this, but again, it speaks to where I’m at.  When, eventually, the market shifts and memoirs are (once again) all the rage, perhaps then I’ll understand what it means to avoid a disreputable editor.  And as far as “drug stories have always been tough”—again, ugh.  If you were to go through my book and substitute “chocolate” for “cocaine,” you’d have virtually the same story: a conflicted candy salesman (with a bit of a sweet tooth himself) who yearns to find meaning in his life.  To make sense out of the chaos.  To be loved.  It’s the age-old tale.  The one that sells.  Again and again.

4. “Despite that, I kept reading because you have a good voice and some nice perspective.”

–Very flattering indeed.  But it’s like filet mignon that’s slightly overcooked.  Or a new lover whose sensibilities turned out to be almost as you’d imagined.  I suppose I wish the adjectives were stronger.  I’d have preferred “great” voice and “searing” perspective, but I’ll take “good” and “nice.”  They’re way better than nothing.  And of course I’d have preferred “unputdownable” to “kept reading,” but I’m quibbling now, aren’t I?

5. “I’m sorry to say I can’t take it on because of the publishing industry, not because of your work.”

–This guy is still going.  He seems genuinely concerned that I’ll take his rejection personally—which, of course, I do.

6. “I hope you find an enthusiastic agent who loves your work and doesn’t share my reservations about the current market.”

–He sort of sounds like he’s breaking up with me now, and not only that, he sounds genuinely remorseful.  If you look at the previous line, it sounds a lot like ”It’s not you, it’s me”—which, clichéd as it is, isn’t so far-fetched.  When breaking up, I always use some twist on that line, and I always mean it.  Because it’s always my fault.  Now, with this line (line 6), he’s using his own variation on “You deserve someone better”—which, personally, I’ve never used.  Because I doubt I could choke those words out with a straight face.

7. “Thanks for giving me the chance.”

–Again, this guy kills me.  Nicest.  Agent.  Ever.

 8. “If this doesn’t find a home and you have anything else down the line, feel free to get back in touch.”

–Honestly, I wish this one were clearer.  He seems to be saying that if I do find an agent for my manuscript, then that guy (or girl) will be my agent forevermore, thus I’d have no need to contact him ever again.  Conversely, if no agent agrees to rep my current manuscript, then I should contact him again—provided I’ve written an entirely new manuscript.  The completion of which will probably surpass ANYONE’S ability to remember me, let alone this particular agent.

Which is probably a good thing.  Because what would I say?  Remember me—I’m the guy who queried you years ago about his “drug memoir.”  But never mind that.  I’ve got a novel now, a good one.  I wrote it for THE MARKET, so it’s soulless as hell, but it involves a divorced vampire who travels to three different continents tying people up…    

Just in Case You’re an Agent with my “ms” on Your Desk…

…I promise, this is by no means a where-are-we-with-this-thing-because-I’m-dying-here message.  Or anything.  Do take your time.  I’m rather enjoying this limbo, actually.  Not only is it preferable to rejection, it’s comforting in the sense that I can (for now) bask in this phase of (meager) accomplishment.  What I’d have given a year ago for a pitch letter that yielded results.  And the year before that, a manuscript that actually worked.  And the year before that, an acceptance from a literary journal.  And the year before that, a workshop session that didn’t leave me feeling like the victim of a Central Park mugging.  Trying to be a writer, I realize, requires patience.  It’s nothing if not a constant, relentless renegotiation of what it means to succeed.  (See, do I really need “constant” and “relentless” there in that sentence?  Certainly redundant, plus adjectives are always risky, so probably not.  Point being, I grapple with this shit.)

“I just want the opportunity to be rejected based on my work.”  It wasn’t that long ago that I was saying this to my editor.  Because when you’re at my level, an agent requesting to see your manuscript is sort of a big deal.  It’s like when Gordon Gekko finally agrees to meet with Bud Fox.  Well, life all comes down to a few moments.  This is one of them.  It’s like the literary equivalent of that.

So you’d think I’d be unreservedly prepared for when that coveted “send me the manuscript” request appears in my inbox.  And I am, basically.  I’ve been over those pages so many times.  (Like, you have no idea.)  But each time I send them out, guess what I do immediately afterward?  I go to my sent box.  Because as many times as I’ve seen them, I’ve never seen them the way this particular agent is going to see them.  And guess what?  I always find something.  Some little gaffe.  Something that I desperately wish I could go back and undo.

Here’s a list of what I’ve found, so far:

1. “He was as aspiring restaurateur, and to him waiting tables was just paying dues.” (p. 10)

Obviously, that “as” should be an “an.”  What kills me is how many times I must’ve seen that typo without seeing it, you know?  I hate these oversights, not because I feel like I’ll be rejected based on them, but because I feel like I’ll be pitied based on them.  Luckily, I think the version with this gaffe went out only once.  Maybe twice.  I prefer not to think about it too much.

2. “There’s a scene in Pulp Fiction where the dealer, played by Eric Stolz…”(p. 43)

That’s Eric Stoltz, with a “t,” and it’s only due to the weirdness of his name that I forgive myself mildly, because Microsoft Word puts that squiggly red line under it no matter how you spell it.

3. There was a paragraph at the bottom of page 59 that I had broken up, inexplicably, into three paragraphs.  It’s one of those things that you look at and think, Now why the fuck would I do that?  And the only thing I can think is that I must have, at some point, adhered blindly to a margin note.  My editor, God love her, is awesome.  But she was always on me about letting the dialogue “breathe,” and in this particular case, I do quote a character twice, but it’s only that one character, hence the standard indentation guidelines don’t apply, which made the text appear unnecessarily emphatic.

4. The last sentence on page 188—”I put her in bed and unlaced my shoes”—was, as it appears here: without the period.  This irked the shit out of me for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the period wasn’t always missing.  The jettison most likely occurred during my “page break” phase, when formatting concerns were verging on the unreasonable.  (Oh jeez, what if I cut and paste and the text becomes all gobbledygook?  What then?)  Also, this sentence represents a watershed moment, one in which my protagonist (ahem, me) finally and ultimately realizes his capacity for empathy.  His very soul.  He is REDEEMED.  It’s just about the last place I’d want a reader to be distracted by anything, let alone a missing period.

So, dear agent, if you’re reading this, and I’m sure you’re not (because why would you be?), then please excuse me—not only for the gaffes but for this neurosis.  The obsessiveness.  The downright silliness.  Of me.  If you sign me, I promise not to drown you in the minutiae.  I’ll be professional, mindful of the task at hand.  I’ll take notes, answer emails.  Meet deadlines.  I won’t be what they call “high maintenance”—I swear.

And this whole diatribe—do disregard it.  Please judge me based on the work, and the work alone.  And again, take your time.

But not too much :)