Creative Writing from Epigraphs #1

I’ve been reading a book on writers and alcoholism called The Trip to Echo Spring by Olivia Liang. At the end of the book, she cites the various letters, stories, and poems from which she borrowed, and the lines in isolation are fantastic jumping-off places. These may just be one-offs or they may become longer pieces. Here goes the first one.

From Raymond Carver’s “The Art of Fiction No. 76″ in the Paris Review: “By the time I got inside the store…”

By the time I got inside the store, I was already soaked through with sweat. God, it wasn’t even eight o’clock in the morning and the humidity was enough to strangle me; it was like breathing and moving through a sodden blanket.. At least the store had the AC on full blast, but even that wasn’t enough. I made a beeline for the frozen food section, opened one of the doors, and stuck my head in.

To my left, I caught a glimpse of a mortified-looking woman who grabbed a bag of frozen peas and hurried quickly away. I stuck my face on some corn, which incidentally was on sale. I couldn’t think about food, even if I didn’t feel like my body was on fire (though I felt myself returning to normal the longer I stayed inside the door. I wanted to climb in and nestle myself among the vegetables and fall asleep for a while.

After a few minutes, I felt a tap on my shoulder. With a groan, I pulled myself out of the freezer and let the door close. It made a comforting, soft sound as it did so. I opened it and let it close again.

“Sir, can I ask what you’re doing?” said the voice belonging to the finger that tapped my shoulder. I looked at his fuzzy reflection in the door. It was a kid, no more than nineteen or twenty. I opened the door one final time and grabbed a new bag of corn. The one that had cradled my head was a bit thawed.

The corn pressed firmly to my forehead, I turned and replied, “I’m contemplating supper, which may or may not include corn. This is how I decide. I become one with the food. Sometimes that takes a few minutes, sometimes longer. The answer always comes, though. I find myself drawn to corn these days, and your store stocks a particularly good brand. Bravo.”

I had absolutely no idea what I was saying. I opened my mouth and words flopped out, which had been mostly the norm for the last week or two. I could control it every now and again, but not that day.

“Uh,” said the kid, visibly nervous. He picked at a rather nasty scar on his chin. Skateboarding accident or something more benign? More sinister? A fight with his girlfriend carried a bit too far, ending with her snatching a dagger from hip and slicing him? How on Earth did she come to possess a dagger? the more rational but decidedly passenger-seat self asked. A fair question.

“I’m going to have to call a manager because you can’t just stay with half your body in the freezer,” the kid said, or something along those lines. He looked ready to vomit, and I didn’t want that, because then I’d vomit, if not from the smell then out of guilt and obligation.

“No, I feel better now,” I said. “I believe I’ll take this packet of corn and”–I opened my favorite new door and grabbed the partially-thawed bag–”this one because it’s rather used and soggy with my sweat. I can’t imagine anyone would want this. Right?”

“Right,” the kid said. “Okay, have a nice day, sir.”

“You’re a credit to your job and your generation,” I said, feeling suddenly warm (not hot, mind you) and infused with benevolence not only for the teenager but all of humankind. I dug into my pocket and produced a ten-dollar bill. “For your troubles.”

The boy glanced around and licked his lips. “We’re not supposed to take tips,” he said. “Besides, I didn’t do anything.”

“Don’t be ridiculous, you did plenty. You single-handedly saved me from freezing to death, or at the least, frostbite on my face. Could’ve taken my nose, and I like my nose, My ex-wife said it was my best feature, which I presume is why she once tried to smash it with a hammer.”

“Right,” the kid said, nodding and snatching the ten from my hand. He looked around again. “Hey, you want to get fucked up later?”

I nodded. “Absolutely. I’m Alan, by the way. I would normally know your name at this point, but you don’t have a name tag. You’re violating some rule, I’m sure.”

“Left it at home. It doesn’t matter, anyway, my manager’s clueless.”

“As many managers are.”

“I’m Troy. I get off at four. You gonna swing back by, or what?”

“Unless something strange happens, which isn’t out of the realm of possibility, I’ll be here at four, at which point we’ll proceed with the getting fucked up.”

Troy offered me an unsure smile, still sizing me up. I couldn’t blame him. For all he knew, I was some pervert who’d rape him, cut his throat, and dump him in the woods. But that’s not my thing.

I didn’t have a thing except doing insane amount of drugs and drinking like I wanted instant alcohol poisoning. That, and I was really lonely.

Ransom

There’s such a danger in romanticizing alcohol. I did it for many years, thinking I was part of a long, if not particularly proud or healthy, tradition of tortured artists, writers, and musicians who relied on drink to encourage the Muse to alight our shoulder and whisper words of inspiration. Well, by damn, I’m sober, and I’m writing more than I did when I was an active alcoholic. So take that, Muse. 

The following poem proves that I’m still working through my relationship with alcohol. It’s fair to say the egoism displayed boldly in the words is mine. It’s not pretty, but there’s no sense in hiding it. 

Ransom

The texture of his pain is unique,
or so he think, the fabric of his tongue
a mute pink as he listens for the teakettle
of tears he keeps on the stove.

At night, he dissembles and tries
a disappearing act, but he’s fresh
out of assistants — he left the last one
on a roadside outside Akron

where she thumbed a diesel down
that road her all the way
to a four-month meth habit
and scars she’ll carry to the grave.

Fuck ‘em he tells every reflection
and there are plenty because
he’s ordered the cosmos
to mirror himself, every heartache

turned to dying stars, promises
into the inklings of a galaxies,
and the rest dark matter,
unknowable, theoretical.

He adopted a black hole
earlier this year and named
it after her and pretended
it absorbed everything

holding light itself captive
and demanding a ransom
even God balked at,
saying, “Come on, be reasonable,”

the devil in his shadowy accolades,
horn-laden and cinder-weary,
siding with the Almighty
(and not for the first time).

Back on remote, nearly forgotten Earth,
drinks are poured down golden throats,
life quickens, heart hammer in time
with the slam of shot glasses

and our beloved hero–
Byronic in his own foggy eyes,
endless in his curved depth–
reaches for another glass

because there is never, ever enough.

The World’s Biggest Baby Comes Home

When I woke up on July 4, the phrase “The World’s Biggest Comes Home” ran through my head for most of the day. Here’s the result. Hopefully, there’s more to the story.

The World’s Biggest Baby Comes Home

“You weren’t the world’s biggest baby, you know,” Mom said as I typed the words above. “Just do a little a research before you go and write things like that. Otherwise, people might believe it.”

“It’s more dramatic,” I said, hoping she’d get bored and go away. “Besides, I don’t care what people believe or don’t believe.”

“Well, you should. You’re in a position of power and they’re not.”

I turned my specially designed, ergonomically correct swivel chair to face the woman labored with for nearly three days before doctors cut me out of her…or so she had me believe until I discovered that I was, of course, delivered via a C-section. For years, Mom held the fake labor story of my head, reminding me of the pain and the screams and the sheer horror of my enormous head splitting her open as I entered the outside world. “I was clinically dead at one point,” she would tell me. “I never saw a white light or anything, just emptiness. And then the doctors brought me back so I could love you and be your mother.”

And lie to me, I added to myself. It turns out that I’m a good liar, too.

“As much as I would like to be in a position of power,” I told Mom, “we both know that I’m not. I’m just a writer who’s lucky enough that a few people read his work.”

“You were famous before you were a writer,” Mom said, pulling up a smaller chair and sitting beside me. It looked like my writing session was going to be hijacked for a while. “That’s why people read you, sweetie. Or it’s why they started to read you and then they discovered you weren’t a complete hack.”

“You’re too kind,” I muttered and turned back to the computer, my large fingers hovering over the giant keyboard with letters the size of ice cubes. I could never write with her in the room.

“Are you sticking with that title?” Mom asked. “Its not like you left for very long, and you’ve been back for two months.”

“I was gone for ten years!” I exclaimed. “Ten. That constitutes a coming-home to most people. And I needed some time to process everything.”

Mom made a clucking noise with her tongue like she always did when she disagreed with me. “Process. Process what? So you went into the big wide world like the Pokey Little Puppy. It’s not headline news or anything.”

“Do you even read my blog, Mom?” I asked, doubting she’d changed her track record.
“Occasionally,” Mom said and sniffed, another dead giveaway that she was lying. She read my blog at the beginning but said it made her highly uncomfortable. I don’t hold anything back from my readers, and I’m sure there are a few entries that made my mother’s skin crawl.

I know she read my first book, Baby Fat to Muscle Mania, an intentionally weird send-up of the professional body building world of which I was briefly a part. One critic called it “magical realism on steroids” while another pronounced me the hideous love child of Franz Kafka and Karen Russell. My mother, a former English teacher and hard to impress as ever, said my sentences could use a little more variety.

I doubt Mom made it past the title of my second book, The World’s Biggest Baby Looks for Love (In All The Wrong Places), which outsold the first book and catapulted me into the lower echelons of fame. I exaggerated my sexual exploits in the book, just as I exaggerate my claim as the world’s biggest baby, which itself is a play on words. I can complain like few others can and be quite immature, but my persona lets those traits gush like an uncapped fire hydrant. People like it, I suppose–mostly young guys, as it turns out–or I wouldn’t still be writing and selling books or racking up impressive daily hits on my blog.

“…so in the future, if you could leave your Aunt Edith out of the picture, I’d appreciate it,” Mom was saying. I blinked back to the present moment, and to be safe, I just agreed. It’s what she usually wants anyway.

When I was born on December 10, 1973, the local newspaper ran a picture of my exhausted-looking mother with what appeared to be a baby sumo wrestler in her arms. The headline read “World’s Biggest Baby Born Here!”

The editor of the News & Dispatch, located in my less-than-noteworthy hometown of Clayrock, Alabama, was a drunk and idiotic man named Hiram Jensen who never bothered with pesky things like fact-checking. The more outrageous the story, the better it was. News of an eighteen pound baby born in the wee hours at Nathan T. Hucker Hospital grabbed his bleary-eyed attention and he ran with it. Did anyone on staff bother to even look for information about the world’s biggest babies? Of course not. Had they simply flipped through a dog-eared copy of the latest Guinness Book of Records at the library, they would have known that and saved themselves and the paper a lot of embarrassment

For the record, the world’s largest baby was born in Spain in 1955, weighing 22 pounds and seven ounces. I weighed eighteen pounds and seven ounces, which I’ll grant you is rather on the large side. But the world’s biggest baby is a stretch, but Hiram and his paper stuck by its claim even when people showed him evidence to the contrary. “Where’s this Spanish baby now?” he crowed at the local news crew gathered outside the newspaper’s office. “He’s all grown up, I imagine. I’d like confirmation from him or his mother. Then I’ll run a retraction.”

Of course, no one cared enough to try to track down the Spanish man in question, and the matter was eventually dropped. Hiram drank until he had a massive stroke, entered a coma, and died a week later. The impact of his story on my life, however, remained very much alive. I was always a big kid, and other children and more than a handful of adults still called me the world’s biggest baby, and then Big Baby, and then Baby Carl. If someone really wanted to get my attention–say, a teacher calling roll on the first day of class–she would proclaim without the tiniest hint of shame, “Big Baby Carl Preston Junior, are you present?”

I’d slowly raise my large arm and stare at the teacher, stone-faced. The other kids giggled but they did so quietly, because they all knew I could crush their heads between my hands if I wanted to. I was six feet tall in sixth grade, and by the time I reached high school, I’d shot up to six feet three inches. I topped out at nearly seven feet (six feet and eleven and three-quarter inch, to be exact) when Mom measured me for my nineteenth birthday. I weigh today nearly what I weighed then, 297 pounds. I began working out when I went to college, though I never played any sports. Coaches constantly pestered me to join their teams…soccer, baseball, football, basketball, track, it didn’t matter. They saw was a giant boy who could bring back trophies for them.

All I wanted to do was when I was young was read, though, and that’s what I did. The first book that grabbed my imagination and wouldn’t let it go was To Kill a Mockingbird. I’ve probably read it twenty times. Harper Lee’s words were what made me want to become a writer.

I continued reading through college and tried my hand at writing stories. I turned out to be a pretty decent writer, which thrilled me. I switched my major to English, despite my mother’s dire warnings that I would just become a teacher and doom myself to a miserable existence of grading papers, dealing with horrible kids and parents, and ultimately working myself into an early grave.

That didn’t happen, though. I’ve never taught a day in my life, and I’ve been lucky enough to mostly live off my writing. When I was big into competitive bodybuilding, I wrote Baby Fat to Muscle Mania and, for the first time, acknowledged the dubious claim to fame conferred to me upon my birth by Hiram Jensen: I claimed to be the world’s biggest baby.

The statement is technically true. For at least a few seconds or minutes on December 10, I was the world’s biggest baby, just as for a few seconds, every baby is the youngest person on the planet. A few seconds later, that’s no longer the case. And for all I know, a twenty-seven pound ogre-child could have been born in hut in Sri Lanka on December 10 and there was no one to document the event

No parent in Alabama or the South in general stepped forward to challenge the claim until a year later, after all the silliness with the newspaper and Hiram had died down and Nancy Nickel of Birmingham gave birth to a nineteen pound, thirteen ounce baby girl named Helen. Baby Helen’s picture was splashed all across newspapers and one paper (not the News & Dispatch, it should be noted) even ran Helen’s picture next to mine and said “Big Baby Carl Preston Junior Dethroned!”

Regardless, I ran with the title, and even with the advent of the Internet, people still buy the gimmick. I’ve gone to car dealerships and been used as entertainment, with people lined up to have their picture taken with the world’s biggest baby. I did one ten years ago in 2005 for Tom Meyer’s Chevrolet in Anniston. 2005! You’d think people wouldn’t care about such a cheap trick as bringing in a large man to hawk cars, but came they did. A lot of them were old, and they remembered me from the newspapers. “Damn, son,” one man said, “you went and became the world’s largest man!”

Correction: the world’s largest man is Sultan Kösen, a Turkish man who stands at eight feet three inches. The day the man spoke to me at the car dealership, the world’s largest man was an eight foot 8.95 inch man from China named Xi Shun.

Fact checking isn’t something I encourage or discourage in my readers, by the way. The information is out there, should they wish to counter anything I write, but I do my best to keep them entertained enough so they don’t have a reason to. Also, I’ve always declared my writing to be a combination of fact and fiction so as to avoid a public laceration like the one Oprah delivered to James Frey after the news broke that parts of his incredible and moving book, A Million Little Pieces, were fabricated.

I’ve fabricated entire years of my life and committed them to print and the virtual world, and no one’s called for my giant head on a platter. And yet my mother is concerned about my reputation and probably the state of my immortal soul, which I admit doesn’t rank terribly high on my list of priorities right now.

The Faster You Die, the Faster You’ll Get to the Sunshine State

I tried this first as a story, but that fell flat. As a poem, it works a little better.

The Faster You Die, The Faster You’ll Get to the Sunshine State

Over eggs and hash browns
and the baleful eye of Karen,
the waitress with the bad leg
who looks hot in the right light
and if I’ve been been drinking enough,

I hatched a plan to get my ass
back to Florida, back to the jungle heat
and octogenarians on display,
roaming from bus to buffet,
and the endless stream of wide-eyed

and wide-mouth kids hellbent
on the Magic Kingdom or Harry Potter
or whatever the fuck they’ve dreamed up
now in that crazy-ass state
where I got clean once–

and only once–

back in 1992, saying no more
to the lines of coke and vodka shots,
to the blacked-out nights and blurry days,
to the missed connections and late-night
sob-fests in the arms of a Haitian woman

who smelled like honeysuckle
and sweat, whose eyes rolled
back in her head when she shot up
and she called out the names
of pagan gods, summoning them

to the party that never ended,
that seemed to snake forever
into the night, time slowing down
to a jot of its former self,
the seconds and minutes glued together.

I’m far from clean now, Jackie,
and that’s just fine by me,
and I know you’ll greet me
with a beer and a promise

that we’ll start tomorrow
on that clean, broad highway,
hand in hand with the spirit of the universe.
Until then, I’m going to drive
and kill myself, mile by blistering mile.

Day 730: Two Years Today

Robert Crisp:

Wonderful post that encouraged (and highly amused) me on the eve of my six months of sobriety.

Originally posted on Off-Dry:

Written on day 730 but not posted till day 740 cause, well, a girl gets busy.

I put aside the classy, glamorous, life-and-ambition-and-joy-sucking white wine two years ago today. Crazy, right? I don’t spend nearly as much time thinking about my drinking days as I used to, but with this date approaching I have been thinking of what those early days of sobriety were like–all that I didn’t, couldn’t know because I’d never been there before. If Today Me could have given Sober Newbie Me a glimpse into the future, here are some of the things I would have told myself:

  • You think right now that being sober is a condition you’ll learn to tolerate–that you’ll make your peace with it as a safer but also somehow lesser way to live. But you’re going to end up loving it. Seriously. It will turn out that clarity is your ideal and happiest state of…

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Forgetting Your Name

My biological father left my mother and brother when I was around four, and I haven’t had contact with him since. I’ve looked for him off and on since I was eighteen with no luck, but now I think it’s best that I haven’t located him. I’m still early in sobriety, and I’m not prepared for what I might find. My father could be a man who wants nothing to do with me, and I don’t know how I would handle that rejection. If we meet, we do, and if we don’t, that’s fine. I’ve forgiven my father for leaving us, and that’s the most important. 

Still, it was quite strange the other night when, for a few seconds, I couldn’t recall my father’s name.

Last night, I couldn’t remember your name —
neither the first nor the last, both were gone,
a former paradise turned instant desert.

I searched for a moment amid the ruin,
turning over scorched rocks and kicking
down pitiful stubs of brittle trees

until I realized there was no need.
Names pass like air through clouds
with no regard to the shifts below,

so I was content to let yours vanish,
content to fortify myself with water
and wander the sands as long I wished.

Blood and Sugar

I’m not a dark person…well, let me amend that. I’m a person given to all manner of thoughts and feelings, some of which could be taken as dark. A lot of the darker thoughts simmer under the surface, I suppose, brewing away in the stew of my unconscious. Invariably, my characters play out these thoughts, urges, and words against a gloomy tableau. I’m not worried by what comes out of a writing session, though it be hairy, scary, and full of venom and vengeance (conversely, I’d be terrified if characters skipped across the screen and blew rainbows out of their asses while singing mindlessly about how happy they were).

Thus we come to tonight’s short installment I call Blood and Sugar.

“So what are we celebrating tonight?” Claire asked, cutting into the cake and licking icing from the knife. The blade sliced sweetly into her tongue. Blood and sugar turned out to be a kick-ass combination.

Bey sighed. He wanted to share everything with Claire, but he didn’t trust her completely yet. He trusted her enough to fall asleep beside her without fear he’d wake up with his throat slit or a bullet lodged in his brain (if he woke up at all), but he couldn’t tell her the real reason for the cake and the candles and the tidied-up apartment. Instead, he told her a half-truth:, “I’m celebrating a promotion at work. I got salesman of the quarter.”

“Oh, very good,” Claire said and applauded lightly. “Enough bullshit, Bey. You don’t care about your work anymore than I do.”

It’s true, he didn’t. At least, he would have cared if his cover job was real: copy machine salesman. Everyone else bought, but Bey would have actually been disappointed if Claire had continued believing his story. He doubted she ever believed it, but she played the game.

They ate cake in silence for a while before Claire said, “So you’re not going to tell me what you really do?”

Bey shook his head. “No. But I didn’t get a promotion at work. At least, of a sort, and that calls for a celebration.”

“Okay, I get that. But you don’t strike me as a I’m-going-to-celebrate-with-cake kind of guy.”

“No? Then what kind?”

Claire took a delicate bite. “You seem more the have-a-few-drinks-then-fuck-a-girl’s-brains-out kind of guy. But I don’t see any drinks around.”

“And you won’t. I’m in recovery.”

Claire laughed. Bey loved her laugh; it was rich and pure and didn’t contain a trace of the malice that ran like an icy current through his blood. “I’m serious,” he said. “I’ve been clean for five years. That’s why you’ve never seen me drink or use.”

“God, I hate the term ‘use,’” Claire groaned. “It’s all that AA and NA speak. My brother was a drug-addict. He’d stop periodically, but it was a losing battle. He ended up jumping off a bridge.”

An image of Claire’s brother–tall, thin, smiling radiantly, head full of dark, Byronic curls–flashed through her mind, but she quickly extinguished it. What good did it do to think about Kurt? Not one fucking bit of good, her father would have said. Her father, who died less than a year after Kurt. Massive heart-attack, his body fueled and primed from years of bad eating and high stress. Her mother was still around, somewhere.

Claire refocused on the present. Bey was saying something about a poet who had jumped off a bridge. “What?” she asked. She looked down at the cake. It might as well have been maggot-infested road kill.

“John Berryman threw himself off bridge in Minneapolis because he couldn’t stay sober,” Bey said.

“I’m sure there was more to it than that,” Claire replied and moved her chair back. “I’m sorry, but I need to leave. I hate to ruin your celebration, whatever it’s for.”

Bey stood, too. “I understand, and it’s okay. I have some stuff to take care of, anyway.”

Claire studied the man before her. He was undeniably handsome and was certainly mysterious, but he was just too inaccessible. “Just to be clear,” she said, “with or without the drink, are you the fuck-a-girls-brains-out kind of guy?”

Bey smiled. “Not really, no.”

“I suspected as much.” Bey was good in bed, but that was it: just good. There weren’t any sparks, no animal-level need. Claire needed that, at least sometimes.

“It’s turns out I may have misjudged you, as well,” Bey said, shrugging.

“So is this it, then?” Claire asked. She felt a void open inside her and she knew she wouldn’t be able to close it until someone else stumbled into her path. Maybe somebody with a little less mystery than–

That was the last coherent thought she had. She looked down and saw the cake knife sticking out her chest, and she felt warm blood coarse down her body. She looked at Bey, but he shrank away from her view. Soon, he was a speck on a darkening horizon, and then he wasn’t even that. And neither was she.

Bey withdrew the knife and licked it. Blood and sugar combined to form a not unpleasant combination, he thought. He’d have to try it again.