“Some of these stories are closer to my own life than others are, but not one of them is as close as people seem to think.” Alice Murno, from the intro to Moons of Jupiter

"Talent hits a target no one else can hit; genius hits a target no one else can see." Arthur Schopenhauer

“Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, ‘Purgatory.’ Show me where it says ‘relics, monks, nuns.’ Show me where it says ‘Pope.’” –Thomas Cromwell imagines asking Thomas More—Wolf Hall by Hilary Mantel

My favorite posts to get started: The Self-Righteousness Instinct, Sabbath Says, Encounters, Inc., and What Makes "Wolf Hall" so Great?.

Monday, May 30, 2011

From the Opening of "The Music Box Routine": My Soon-to-be-Completed Novel

            “There’s a rule for the whole place. No Dogs. Where the hell would they go? There are little scraps of yard here and there. If people had dogs, the yards would fill up with shit in a couple hours. There’s the neighborhood down the road—it could be coming from there. The barking. But I swear it’s closer than that. Do people let their dogs run loose in the cemetery across the street?”

            I had anticipated that Will would go through a period of intense guilt after what he’d done to Stacy—after what we’d done. So, I thought, this is the form it will take, a dog barking so incessantly it keeps him awake at all hours. His eyes were bloodshot and frantically darting around his apartment. “I went to Walmart and bought a fucking pellet gun so I can shoot the damn thing. But I’ve never even seen it. And I’m like, ‘What the hell am I doing? I love dogs. I can’t shoot the dog because his owners are fucking retarded.’ I guess I should shoot the owners.”

            I was sitting on his couch watching him move back and forth between the two windows overlooking the parking lot. “Where the hell is the damn thing? I swear if you wait a while, we’ll hear it.” I’d been over to Will’s apartment three times in the last two days. I’d never heard a dog barking. “And then there’re all the cats. They must hang out around the dumpster out back. Goddamn. Have you ever heard the sounds cats make when they’re defending their territory?”

            “I don’t think that’s what you’re hearing.”
            He turned and glared at me as if he’d forgotten I was even there, or as if he was afraid I was about to deliver more bad news. “What do you mean?”

           “Cats make terrible sounds when they’re mating. The females have a membrane sealing off their uterus. The males actually have spines on their dicks so they can tear through it.”

            His face twisted into a dual expression of fear and disgust. “Jesus Christ man, where the fuck do you learn this stuff?” I’d learned it from Laura. But I didn’t tell him that. I just sat there in silence. It occurred to me that if something bad happened to him, if he suffered some misfortune or injury that could be chalked up to karma, he’d feel better; he wouldn’t have to go around waiting for it to happen. Was there some way I could punish him? Better it be at my hands, in my control, than in his.
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            If you had asked me a year before it all went down—or a few months even—I would have told you I didn’t have it in me. By the time I got the call from Will, though, I’d been wracking my brain for weeks trying to come up with a way to deal with Stacy, to get her to finally leave him alone. Will’s been my closest friend since he was Billy and we were both in second grade. I knew he was in trouble. I knew things had gone way beyond the point where you have everyone sit down together and talk it out like rational adults. I was scared for him. Someday one of your best friends is going to ask you to do something and you’re going to have a decision to make. The way I did it was to tell myself it was necessary, that it had come to this, and then I did my best not to give it another moment’s thought. I just did what my friend asked me to do.

            “Is it possible to change the date on a package I mail,” was what he asked me first, “so that it says I mailed it yesterday—or two or three days ago?”

            My mind was pulled in all directions, toward figuring out what had him so spooked—I’d never heard that sound in his voice, like someone was pinching his neck as he spoke—toward coming up with some sort of advice or word of encouragement, toward all the practical considerations like when would it be time to involve the police, and now toward how I could hack the scanner at work to print a label with the wrong date.

            “I’m not completely sure,” I told him, “but there are a few things I can try. And if they don’t work I can ask Max if he knows a way to do it. What’s going on Will?”

            “I’m going to Indie to get something for Stacy. I’ll be by your apartment tonight. I need to have it delivered tomorrow and say clearly on it somewhere that I mailed it yesterday or two days ago.” He went silent after saying this, but I sensed he was wrestling with whether he should tell me more, so I didn’t come out with all the questions I had.

          Finally I said, “It’s not a bomb is it?”

          “Not the kind you’re thinking of. But it is something that might end this whole thing. Can you do it?”

           “Bring it tonight when you get back and I’ll do my best.”

            I heard the sounds of the highway over the rise separating it from his apartment building. He has to go out on his balcony to get any bars on his phone so that highway is always yawning and roaring in the background when I talk to him. He must’ve called from his apartment. When I found out what Stacy had done, the mystery of why Will sounded like he did was cleared up—I started marveling instead at how he sounded as calm as he did. He must’ve called me just after it happened.
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            Will met Stacy at what turned out to be the peak of our youthful carousing. We were going out to one of our favorite four or five bars two or three nights a week, and we nearly invariably ended up at one of three all-night cafes with a group of women we’d just met. I will probably still mine that swath of time for happy memories when I’m an old man—then again, in light of what’s been happening, I might not. You could divide Will’s and my clubbing phase into two very dissimilar periods. In the first, we did what young men traditionally do: go out, get excessively drunk, stumble around haphazardly, and on occasion come across women who are single and enjoying the same phase of their lives. The second came after a guy I knew from college started researching what he initially believed was a small online community of guys whose members spanned all the big cities in the country.

            Anton had been a journalism major and we had met in an upper level anthropology course. Though I had majored in anthropology, we both played around with the idea of science writing as a possible career and we kept in touch after graduating, exchanging articles and getting practice pitching ideas to each other. The group of guys he discovered online was trying to systematize the process of meeting a woman and starting a relationship with her. They all went out, plied their methods, and reported successes and failures on their posts. What emerged was a surprisingly regular sequence, and surprisingly effective techniques for helping it along. I had the same initial response to hearing about all this as you’re probably having now: first, they’re probably exaggerating their successes because it can’t possibly work as well as they’re making out; second, it must be based on deception—a series of tricks—so it’s immoral; and third, there’s just something outlandishly cynical about trying to master the recipe for a phenomenon most people delight in for its spontaneity. But it’s nothing like what you might think at first.

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