Saturday, February 28, 2009

Doomed Novel Excerpts

Got caught short-handed at the end of a short month -- trying to maintain that "three a month" pace for this thing. I have a few ideas for pieces, but I'd rather let them incubate in that writerly way, because they don't feel right just yet.

In the meantime, I've gone back to that doomed novel from my late 20s that I've excerpted once before (a short piece about a guy obssessed with his lawn) and came up with a few other passages that hit me right. This whole thing was a mess. Just little tidbits and recollections, shaded over and "fictionalized" from my life, applied to a canned story about a guy burying his father ... years before I actually participated in the actual event. In short, I had no idea what I was writing about. And even at the age of 28 or 29, surely didn't have the emotional depth to pull it off, or grasp the "big picture" element of death in our lives.

But people I grew up with will surely recognize elements of our reality in the mix. Especially the reality of growing up in the 70s in rural America. That's how the "first novel" often works. The writer plays fast-and-loose with his own life, changes a few names, a few situations, and tries to get that down on paper. In my case, I was simply lacking that "big picture" sense. Plenty of little flashes, but it never added up to a convincing story. Don't think I'm novelist. I tried, but my writing mind just doesn't seem to work that way. It works this way. Enjoy!


I may not mention it too much, but our television set was on day and night. Our father came up during the Depression, at which time there was only radio, and the old people in his life used to lecture him on the evils of listening too much. These were the kind of people who rode to church on horses and wiped their asses in the outhouse with tree leaves. So our father learned to resent their pious lectures and dove straight into radio, and the music on it.

Naturally, when television came along, that was like jets replacing biplanes. By the time George and I came along, the TV set became some strange mix between talking furniture and an altar. Our father would get up around six and turn it on. We would get up around seven for school and sit with him to watch the end of Sunrise Semester and the morning news. Our mother would be up by eight to send us all off. After we left, she would watch morning game shows as she cleaned the house and afternoon soap operas between laundry loads. George and I would get home around four to catch all the sitcom reruns we had stamped on our psyches. After dinner, which we would eat in the dining room with the television still on the living room, our father would sit down for the evening news. Sometimes there’d be a brief respite before prime time, but usually the television stayed on until eight, when all the shows came on, which would take us up to eleven. The day would end with the nightly news, and television generally went off around eleven-thirty. After he retired, the set stayed on until at least midnight, although it was turned on around eight in the morning.

Long before any drug-induced paranoia, George thought Big Brother was watching us through the TV set. It made sense to him -- the damn thing was always on, and it wasn’t only our house. Every house we had ever been in as kids had a blaring TV set. Sometimes you had to shout to be heard. And the set itself seemed unnatural. George would watch the tubes glowing in the back as the TV set turned on, and the fading of the screen at night to a single white dot unnerved him. He had me convinced that someone was in there watching us. Once in the junkyard, we found an old shell from a burned-out floor model Zenith, and George crawled inside to where the screen used to be. He started pretending he was a cheesy weatherman, but then he stared at me like he was Dracula. He scared me so much I ran away.

Our father used to lecture us about how much we watched, but in the long run, he watched far more than we did. I think “watch” is a relative term when it comes to television. Sometimes it held our interest, but most times it was left on. Once, to see what would happen, George turned off Hee Haw while my father was reading over his tax forms. He seemed engrossed in his paper work. We sat there and stared at the wall for a few moments until our father asked George to turn the set back on.

“But you weren’t even watching, Dad,” George said.

“Sure, I was.”

“If you were watching,” George went on, “what did Buck Owens say after Minnie Pearl stuck him in the can with a pitch fork?”

I knew it was “I got the point, darlin’, I got the point,” but our father looked at the blank screen.

“I don’t know, George. All right. So my attention’s divided here. I am watching it here and there. Roy Clark did the “Pickin’ and A Grinnin’” bit a few minutes ago. Right?”

“Right,” George said.

“So turn it back on. If you want to change the channel, say so.”

Our father went back to his taxes. George turned on a rerun of Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert, with special guests Deep Purple, because he knew Lawrence Welk was right around the corner.

I thought about burying the TV set with our father, but it wouldn’t have fit into the coffin. He liked it big, floor model, sitting on the far side of the living room wall. He warned us not to sit too close, that we’d get radiation poisoning and our eyes would go bad, but it didn’t seem like a few feet would make that much of a difference. When our father wasn’t around, George liked to get right up on it, so all he could see was the colored dots. He said he could feel the warmth from the tubes and the electricity on his cheeks. And it brought him face to face with the man inside the set. George said he knew he was in there, and that people acknowledged it all the time by talking to the set, as if it were a family member. It scared me, but it filled George with apprehension.

I remember in the summers, we’d walk home in the night after playing hide and seek with the gang, and in every home, through the open windows we could see blue lights glowing on the living room walls. We could hear the canned laughter and amplified commercials. Sometimes, if it was a popular show, like All in the Family, we could hear the same sound coming from different houses, leaking a strange, distant echo into the quiet streets. George wouldn’t let me talk, and we’d walk around for a long time, listening and looking. With the summer heat and the wind blowing through the trees, it was enough to scare me more than the basement and attic rolled into one. Once, George found some empty Coke cans behind a bush, and he crushed them onto the bottoms of his sneakers, as did I, and they gave our steps a slow, metallic sound. We went around all night pretending we were robots roaming the streets of our town after the A bomb had dropped. George liked that feeling.


Last Saturday, I passed by one of those huge front loaders digging dirt out of the ground. I barely caught it from the corner of my eye, the enormous shovel plunging into the hillside, its long arm straining then pulling back a load of black soil. I could barely see it because at least twenty men had pulled their cars and pick-up trucks over to watch. At first, I thought it was an accident, then I realized that a tribal right was going on, the viewing of working men, by other working men, as they operated heavy machinery.

It made me wistful, because I knew my father, especially after he retired, would have been one of those men pulled over. It took me even further back, and I pictured George and I as kids standing next to our father as he watched. I looked bored but tolerant. George looked like he was willing the shovel to burst into flames, all to the tune of some hideous Black Sabbath dirge.


George and I could attest to that, because for years we were his unwilling Saturday morning servants. And like a pool table where all the balls roll to one end, our house and cars gave testament to the fact that he didn't know what the hell he was doing. Showers that leaked, doors that swung open with a ghostly whine, toilets that had to be flushed three times, cars installed with manual chokes that popped out and shot flames from the tail pipe -- it was like we lived in a funhouse. Every turn of a handle was an adventure. The more he worked on things, the more he seemed to screw them up. Sometimes I think he did it on purpose so he could portray himself as a Mr. Fix-It when they broke down for real. Most of the men who worked for him were mechanical geniuses, if nothing else, the kind of men who'd turn on a car, listen to it, and tell you exactly what was wrong. Being around machinery, our father had to pick up a little mechanical ability, but he wasn't a natural.

And it chagrined George and me to have him nail us some time on Saturday morning, usually right after one of us sat down with a bowl of cereal or maybe a book. Both of us read a lot, and our father used to say, "How about leaving that book for awhile and helping me with the car."

It wasn't really a question, more of a healthy suggestion. This was a year-round thing, and it could be a huge pain in the ass to trudge out in the snow to hold a screwdriver in the carburetor while our father fiddled endlessly with the intake valve. I hated it, but at least I kept an open mind and picked up a few things as we went along.

George profoundly resented it, mainly because he didn't feel comfortable rebelling in this situation. Our father would often drop a comment on how lazy kids were these days, and every time, George would argue back that every generation said that about kids. So when our father came looking for help on Saturday, he reluctantly went along instead of losing face.

George was a great fan of paperback celebrity biographies, especially for rock stars. Invariably, he'd be laid out on the sofa, nice and cozy, reading a book about The Beatles or The Stones, maybe a blanket or a comforter wrapped around him, when our father would trudge in, shake the snow from his boots and make George an offer he couldn't refuse. Neither of us would ever answer. Our father assumed our silence meant "no problem, Dad" and walked right out, sure that one or both of us would be out in a few minutes. And we would, calling him names like "asshole" and "motherfucker" in our heads, but never to his face. George would say the same thing to me every time.

"Asshole, doesn't he know I'm getting to the best part of the book?"

"What part is that?" I'd ask, acknowledging one of his pet names for me.

"That part in the middle right before the picture section, where they're starting to get famous and turn into jaded creeps."

"I guess if you get famous, you can skip right to the middle and make that page one of your story," I'd answer. I had to give him reason for then farting on my head, otherwise he'd do it for no reason at all. The funny part was I knew exactly what he was talking about -- every book I ever read growing up George had read first. Those damn books were all the same, with the celebrities at the same point in their careers near the picture section. Mick and Keith’s first big drug bust. John crying out for attention in songs like “I’m a Loser” and “Help.” Dylan all strung out and drifting, mere months before the near-fatal motorcycle crash. Despite the constant similarities, we read them cover to cover every time.

So George would throw on his clothes to go out and hold a monkey wrench or keep his foot on the gas pedal for half an hour. It wasn’t so much the work itself as the idea that we had no say in the matter. Through this involuntary labor, George grew to despise anything mechanical. He associated it with a thug redneck mentality, that you had to be a man to fix things, and you were a sissy if you couldn’t. The experience itself could have been a lot worse. Our father simply did what he had to do and excused us, whereas some fathers would berate their sons when things didn’t go right, as they rarely do in these matters.


The best of those places was the junkyard. There was something to be said for field after desolate field of briar patches, junked cars and hornet’s nests, sliced through with craggy dirt roads leading nowhere. We would have loved to go at night, but they closed at sundown and kept guard dogs. Our father would rummage around old cars to find inexpensive parts. The trouble was getting checked out. These parts had no price tags, so it was up to the owner, a toothless old creep named Hugo, to determine the price. Actually, it was up to Hugo and his obese son, who didn’t seem to have a name. He was this strange guy somewhere in his 30’s who dressed like a vampire killer in one of those cheesy Hammer horror films from England -- a round black hat with a full brim, pegged black pants, white shirt unbuttoned to show his voluminous chest hair, pointy-toed shoes, long, thin side burns, and a cheap cigar. Sometimes he even wore a cape -- George said a bullwhip and a huge gold crucifix would have completed the picture. These two would haggle over the right price in some vague Eastern European language, and inevitably it was too much. I think my father hated these guys, but even their inflated price was cheaper than buying the part new.

At least the junkyard had a run-down element of fun about it. The worst were the hardware and auto parts stores. They had that smell of clean metal and rubber. The hardware store was more metallic smelling, due to the large number of nuts, bolts, screws and the like. The automotive store had more of a plastic/rubber smell, maybe because of the tires and different belts and hoses.

Either way, they both attracted the same clientele -- mechanics. I knew some engineers in college who had a mechanical background and used it as a foundation to build more knowledge on the structure of machines. The guys in these stores had only the foundation -- the house had burned down, if they knew how to build one in the first place. Their whole world seemed to revolve around cars. People who didn’t know about cars were idiots -- if they were men and didn’t know, then surely they were gay and clearly took home economics instead of shop in anticipation of their alternative lifestyle.

I hated those fucking places, and I know George felt like a caged animal in hardware stores. The minutes crawled by on those Saturday morning trips, and in my memory, it was always raining. I’d bet everything I own this is the underlying reason George got into computers, because he knew morons of the kind we encountered in hardware stores would be left behind in the computer revolution. It was his way of saying, “I’m a man, and I’m making more than any three of you put together.” We couldn’t understand how grown men got off by making kids feel small. It especially stung because we knew that when these men were our age, they were the dolts who dropped out in the sixth grade then went on to get their 14-year-old girlfriends pregnant. There’s nothing worse for a kid than having an adult dumber than he is insulting him and getting away with it.

The king of the mechanics was this guy named Elroy who worked at Black Diamond Hardware. We knew this because of his name tag, which he wore outside of work, too. It said, "Elroy, King of the Mechanics." There was a caricature of a Monopoly board king brandishing a wrench underneath the words. He didn't own the place, probably made about $2.00 and hour or so as the manager. No one would know this to walk in the store and encounter this bald old man with a booming voice. He was one of those guys who chain smoked and weighed 98 pounds. Elroy never laughed. If he thought something was funny, his left eye would twitch. I don't think I can really describe the man any better than saying John Wayne Gacey would have felt unnerved in his presence. Naturally, he knew where every wing nut and linoleum sample was, knew the price of every product, and whether the customer wanted it or not. He was right, too, although no man wanted to be made to look incompetent (i.e., effeminate) in a hardware store. So the atmosphere of one upmanship was a given with Elroy on the job. The customers were joking, but they were serious.

Elroy liked our father because Elroy's son had served in the infantry in Korea, too. He never mentioned what had happened to his son, but George often said he was probably living somewhere in women's clothes and whispering lines like, "I have always depended on the kindness of strangers" in the mirror. George and I represented maybe the first generation in America never to have to fight in any war or be drafted, so naturally we were on the outside with guys like Elroy. We couldn't ride the old man's coat tails when it came to service to God and country, no sir. Ungrateful little bastards, smoking pot and worshipping faggot rock singers while our fathers died in foreign lands. That was more than an attitude. Those were actual words Elroy would use with us when our father went off to find the right size paint brush. It was like something out of a Billy Jack movie. I've often wondered about the psychotic Norman Rockwell mutations I knew as a child. I don't seem to know any people like that now, and I'm getting old enough.

If we had looked under our beds at night in anticipation of seeing a troll or demon, we would have seen Elroy, winking joylessly and calling us faggots and communists while spitting tobacco juice into a dixie cup. The man was irrational fear made real. George said he couldn't care less if Elroy wore a gold crown with twenty servants bearing him in a carriage and blasting trumpets -- so long as he didn't have any contact with him. It wasn't so much that the man was frightening as that his presence immediately made us want to leave. Everything we were, he wasn't, and we knew he had the shit end of the stick. He inspired anxious pity -- a strange combination of emotions neither of us knew how to handle.

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