Saturday, May 23, 2020

The Space between Atoms 2

There’s a certain freedom in being obscure.  Like with the murder.  Her name might’ve been Danielle.  That’s what she said, but then again, sex was seldom a matter of being honest.  Terah had met her in the classroom and although he knew the trope was tired—he’d been a writer—he’d also been a professor.  He’d known the subtle pressure of constantly refreshing populations of young coeds.  And hiring someone as an adjunct was an invitation to become a drifter.
He wasn’t a predator.  He was just weak.  Besides, grandfathers on both sides had been teachers that’d married their students.  It’d been common in those days, and what made some time-honored family traditions illegal?  Shouldn’t that itself be illegal?  As long as both parties are mature and willing.  Such thoughts kept him company on the long January walk.
Once out of the poisonous orbit of New York City, New Jersey was a pretty state.  Here in the west it was hilly and almost rural.  He was far enough inland now that snow accumulation could regularly take place.  That was good because abandoned human shelters couldn’t be counted on, and snow was actually a great insulator.  Nature could play cruel tricks on mammals that had shed their hair.  Terah knew that layers would keep you warm.  If too warm, your base layer would be wet and that gave you a chill.  To get that layer off, though, you had to strip down which was the last thing you wanted to do, so that you could replace it.  Wicking technology had, of course, made this less of a problem for the affluent, but for guys on the run working with materials at hand was the order of the day.  Walking like this, thinking of Danielle, he’d overheat.
Hunterdon County had quite a few abandoned structures.  Suckered into voting Republican, these people suffered under the policies that increased their taxes while reducing their benefits.  This led to abandoned places, but to use them properly took time.  You had to scope them out, make sure nobody else was up to your game.  Drifters are loyal to no country.  They pledge allegiance to survival.  Terah’s path to drifterhood started with a misspent youth earning a Ph.D.
He worried that younger adjuncts might not understand that when he had started his degree it was when there were promises of jobs, unlike today when anyone entering a doctoral program was either a fool or exceptionally arrogant.  No, back in the 1980s there’d been genuine fear that there wouldn’t be enough professors, and that was a lack unimaginable in academia.  Promising students like young Mr. Economy were urged, practically begged, to take up the call.  The payoff for all those years of study would be comfort and prestige.  Like recruiting posters during war time, his bearded, pipe-smoking profs made it sound magical.  The recession of the 1990s laid the axe at the root of the academia-nut tree, however.  All of those promised jobs vanished in a way David Copperfield could only envy.
Terah Economy, Ph.D., had landed one of the surviving posts, however.  It was at a third-rate school that granted degrees simply for vital signs after four years of lectures, but it was still better than working for a living.  And since Dr. Economy had specialized in religion, he knew better than to be unappreciative of table scraps.  Even the dogs get those.  Breck University seldom made the list of places to advance one’s career.  Although he had no way of measuring it—statistics could be made to lie—faculty hooking up with coeds seemed approved practice there.  Guys singleminded enough to get through doctoral programs often tended to be inept in relationships.  Life was a series of tradeoffs.
Yet now in the icy January breeze whistling through the Delaware Water Gap and up through the woods of the famed Appalachian Trail, clarity permeated his body with the wind.  He’d been set up.  Holders of any advanced degrees (from any school but Harvard), were now an endangered species.  Breck couldn’t afford to keep faculty in non-essential chairs, and when the music stopped Terah had found all the seats taken.
Danielle, though, stayed with him.  Those years as an adjunct in New Jersey had been tricky.  First of all, finding housing in the reach of mere mortals was difficult.  Thankfully Danielle had been smart enough to major in chemistry and the pharmaceutical giants rewarded their own.  To contribute to their joint bank account, Terah had to do a bit of driving.  Adjunct professors were only allowed two courses per semester, otherwise they’d qualify for benefits—something that had to be avoided at all costs.  You didn’t want people thinking there were actual professorships available.  Two courses at Rutgers, another two at Montclair State, and two more at TCNJ meant he earned less than a janitor at any of them, but they did okay with Danielle’s salary.  That’s why it made no sense to accuse him of murder.  Academics were naive, but even they understood the danger of sawing branches on the trunk side of the tree from where you sat.
In retrospect, he should probably have stayed and reported it.  They didn’t teach you how to handle such things in grad school.  And emotions still worked, even with the rational left hemisphere thrumming as it outgrew the creative right.  He’d simply panicked.  Like all frightened animals, he fled.
His logic worked like this: as a professional he was totally obscure.  Nobody knew his name or his work.  How would anyone be able to find such a cipher if he were on the run?  If they couldn’t find him settled, then mobile he’d vanish.  It was only after he set out on foot—cars were too easily traced—that he’d reasoned it out.  Although he’d published, nobody really had any interest in his specific research areas.  They were too busy in their own esoteric subjects.  Now that there was a body on the floor, however, suddenly Terah Economy was “a person of interest.”  A twenty-first century Herostratus.  Someone who’d do anything for his fifteen seconds.  And since he knew Herostratus’ name, it must’ve worked in his case.  Maybe he’d done it after all.
The gloomy weather had played with his mind sufficiently to cast a villain’s cape before the face of any possible reality.  Hunger gnawed at him the way it always did between dumpsters behind civilized shopping plazas that housed fast-food venders.  He felt lightheaded, out of touch with the dwindling certainties of New Jersey.  That’s why he doubted it when he saw a castle through the naked trees on the Pennsylvania side of the Delaware.

Saturday, May 16, 2020

The Space between Atoms

The cruel beauty of winter settled like frozen ashes on the ruined church.  There was something obscene about seeing faith exposed in such a naked state—once warmly felt and capable of erecting soaring cathedrals now reduced to failing to pay the mortgage on a relatively modest chapel in a small town until some squatter’s fire claimed it.  The half-hearted efforts of the weary Stanton Station fire-fighting volunteers left it smoldering on Epiphany.
Terah Economy kept far from the scene, knowing it wouldn’t be difficult to trace the conflagration’s origin.  He’d never burn down a church intentionally.  His former career had been precariously canted in that direction, like a tallship in a typhoon.  Being homeless in Stanton Station was easier than it had been in New York City.  The handouts could be better in Midtown, and even for educated derelicts like himself the homeless shelters seemed less appealing than an appliance box over a subway vent on Broadway.  The cops occasionally had to clear him out.  Just doing their jobs.  Jobs.  That was the problem.
The very concept of a job—something useful to contribute—didn’t account for people with his background.  
Right now the immediate problem was where to spend his sleeping hours in Stanton Station.  Ironically the town had no transportation station of any kind.  When Terah had set out on his long hike here, threadbare backpack over threadbare army surplus coat, he vaguely had in mind Newark Penn Station.  In former days when he had to wait in the grand, marble foyer for a train to DC or Boston he’d watch the police removing the homeless onto the February streets after allowing them a night in out of the cold.  Although he felt sorry for them, there was nothing Terah could do.  He’d started walking west because the memory of that stately foyer appealed to his sense of place.  Little did he anticipate that he’d be living in an abandoned sanctuary.
He hadn’t been here long enough for the Stationers to know him.  To begin to call him names like “Crazy Joe,” or “Indian Mike.”  His own graceful ineptitude led to the fire.  He’d only been a Boy Scout long enough to learn to build a fire, but not long enough to learn proper banking techniques.  He’d reached that stage of life when you seem to forget how to sleep, at least at proper hours.  And as much as he liked the Station, he knew he’d have to move on west into Pennsylvania before anyone realized he’d been here.  Stanton felt like a tidy little town with craftsman houses and well-kept lawns.  They were still mowing with machines that looked and sounded like upside-down helicopters when he’d drifted in, unseen, back in September.  Quasi-nocturnal, he’d taken care of his homeless business between 2 a.m. and evening twilight.  He’d made it until late December before he needed small fires to keep warm.
By cutting his own hair and rummaging through the cast-off clothes at the Salvation Army donation box, he’d managed to look respectable enough to be seen in daylight, in small doses.  He washed off in the sandstone font—this had been an environmentally friendly Episcopal Church that had a couple of rain barrels left behind.  Painted by, he presumed, the kids of the congregation they had cartoon characters, one even had a name—a cat called “Hey Diddle-Diddle”—all over them.  Somehow All Saints seem to have abandoned the cause, though, because the church was clearly empty.  Water, both holy and secular, had been shut off at the main.  Candles by the thousands had been left in a storage cupboard, and just a couple could melt down frozen water even in January’s stifling chill.
Terah had discovered that the southeast Sunday School room down in the basement was the easiest to heat.  Although its southern windows were grimy, enough sun came through even in December to warm it up during the day.  Since it was the smallest room it required the least effort to insulate with abandoned Bibles and prayer books.  Paper, he knew, could be used for layers when a body had little of its own fat.  It stood to reason that making a brick wall of books would insulate the place.  The additional six inches off each wall also made the room one square foot less spacious, and thereby requiring less energy to heat.  He even imagined plastering those artificial walls of books and dropping the ceiling.  A tomb-like comfort accompanied the thought.
There was the messy business of sanitation, of course.  He knew about the piscina and its name suggested an alternative, natural function.  The more serious problem of excrement had to be handled more delicately.  You didn’t want it over your head, and the plumbing no longer worked.  There were plenty of Bibles with their Oxford-devised thin paper, so toilet paper wasn’t a problem, but solid waste management took some thinking.  Brownian motion, he knew, would take care of odors over the long term and locals would grow suspicious if he used the incense he’d found.  Somalian frankincense or Ethiopian myrrh mixed with yesterday’s processed pizza scraps would waft on the breeze in unwelcome ways.  The charcoal, however, tinged a bit with sodium nitrate—it had always reminded Terah of gunpowder in the sacristy—had natural filtering qualities.  Thank God for well-stocked high church ecclesiastical closets!  One briquette embossed with a crusader’s cross safely stopped the smell of judiciously spaced piles in the basement rooms.
If he’d believed in good luck, Terah would’ve considered this a solid example.  Episcopalians had money to burn, he knew, but he’d never dreamed he’d find such a well appointed facility in an abandoned church.  He could stay in All Saints, Stanton Station a good, long time before he’d have to move on.  But that January night.  It’d been so damned cold.  His insulated Sunday School room couldn’t prevent the shivering, even under layers of brocaded chasubles left hanging in all their sacerdotal glory from Advent’s purple through Pentecost’s red—the limited range of the church spectrum.  Brocade was heavy but feeling the chill so desperately, he thought he could chance a small fire, a source of heat in his own sleeping room.  Open flames led, though, to a fire more literal than Pentecostal, and now Terah knew he’d have to cross into Pennsylvania.  Probably a good thing, he mused, since it wouldn’t take forever for someone to discover the body he’d left in Somerset Hills.

Saturday, May 9, 2020

Novel Idea

I’ve been thinking that this blog could use a little attention.  My problem is—well, one of my problems—I lead a double life.  I write fiction under a pseudonym because my real nym is tied to a respectable job.  So it goes.

One of the solutions to my double life is that I could start putting some fiction on this blog.  Good idea or no?  I have a novel on which I’m working and it won’t likely find a publisher, so I could start pasting it here, in serial form.

On the other hand of my double life I have a nonfiction book under my nonfiction name that is currently due at the publisher’s.  I need to spend time on that too, and I have a job.  And the lawn isn’t going to mow itself.

So I’m thinking that instead of neglecting this poor, but truly loved, child of a blog, maybe I could feed it fiction.  That would at least keep it alive.  Right now it’s like a cactus, getting water only a few times a year.  Is that a mixed metaphor?  Can water be food?

When daily work life requires more than its allotted eight hours, trying to get noticed as a writer is tough.  It can be done, though.  I’ve been working away on this fun fiction (not fan fiction because I don’t get into that) for a while now and soon I may have enough to launch my plan.

Risky?  Yes.  Putting yourself out there always is.  But keeping myself in here hasn’t really been working exactly like a charm.  Or maybe it has and my charm has gone past its expiration date.  Whatever your interpretation, this is just a warning that this rusty Ford might just start running again.  All it will take is a bit of gas and maybe a trip to the garage.

If a new format begins to appear, you have been warned!

Sunday, April 12, 2020

Plague Writing

Publishers, in a time of plague and pandemic, have a difficult time.  People aren’t really interested in much else beyond the crisis of the moment.  Sometimes I wonder if it’s bad form to seek publication at a time such as this.

Fiction, I remind myself, is truer than fact.  And it’s a great release from the daily stresses of living amid COVID-19.  A friend of mine who’s an editor told me that novels are selling well.  Nonfiction not so much.

For the last several weeks I’ve heard nothing from the agents I queried all the way back in January.  Many of them are in New York City, the epicenter, it always seems, of American drama.  So many people living so close together.  How could they be thinking about fiction?

It’s the future.  Fiction, that is.  Those of us who indulge in speculative fiction know that it is a coping mechanism.  It teaches us how to handle “what if…?”  The coronavirus is a big “what if…?”  Like a monster or a demon it is invading our everyday reality.  We’re isolated.  We need fiction.

This kind of deep understanding provides verisimilitude to fiction.  In a recent rejection an agent told me I was a smart writer with a nice style.  My story, however, didn’t grab her.  It isn’t viral.

So now I’m thinking it may be time to turn again to the small presses.  I’ve queried over a hundred agents.  The small presses what to know what genre my book is.  That’s hard to answer when even I don’t know.  I read a lot and I’ve read nothing like it.  That’s why I wrote it.

Even if it were accepted today by some editor working remotely, it’s going to take some time to get to a press where people are physically able to work the printing and binding.  And that’s supposing it’s going to be not print on demand.

Last night I spoke to a New York Times bestselling author.  I’m related to him.  All he was interested in was how to get through this outbreak.  Me, I’m writing daily as if these were my last words.  And I’m still hoping they’ll be published.

Sunday, March 29, 2020

The Search

The search for an agent is entering its fourth month and I often wonder just what classics we’d have to live without if Herman Melville or Charlotte Bronte had received email after email saying “it just doesn’t have that ‘have to have’ feeling.”  We’d be literary beggars.

The true irony of this is I know people who work in the publishing industry.  They say that someone with my background should be a no-brainer for an agent.  When I was a young man a friend accused me of writing too much like Melville.  “Nobody writes like that anymore,” he said.  His father-in-law was a writer.

Melville was friends with Nathaniel Hawthorne.  Their works are endlessly remade in a more modern idiom.  Electrum may look like gold, but it’s not the same.  Why not search for the real thing?

People learn how to do things from watching the masters.  While it may have been the glib Doc Savage and Dark Shadows pulps that led me to reading, I soon fell into the classics.  Edgar Allan Poe was the first, but after that I started to realize why classics were called classics.  I read them.

It was like learning to paint from Rembrandt.  But nobody paints like Rembrandt any more.  Those who do don’t sell.  I can write stream of consciousness material.  I have, in fact.  But I want my first published novel to explore deeper issues.

Recently I was reading about a legendary architect.  He was described as a troubled man, and as I read (note, I was reading a book about an architect!) I began to sync with his emotions.  He was a creator, experiencing what I do.  Yet he had a marketable skill.  People pay architects well.  Writers not so much.

I do read modern writing.  Much of it is okay.  Some of it even good.  But then I go back to the classics to see how it’s really done.  There’s a reason we’re still reading these authors centuries after they’re gone.  Only don’t try to write like that now.

My friend, who disappeared long ago, has a father-in-law who’s a published author.  I read his book.  It wasn’t that great.  “Write like that,” I was told.  Agents now tell me the same thing.  I want to lift my glass with Melville and ask him what he thinks.

Saturday, March 14, 2020

The Corner Bar

This is the feeling that keeps me writing.  The email that accepts a story for publication.

Although it might not seem like it, I’ve been writing fiction since about 1974.  Those first stories, scrawled on a school tablet, were my way of coping.  After my mother’s remarriage, a move, and a verbally abusive step-father came into the picture, I began writing.

My first published stories (which I don’t count) were in my high school newspaper.  I won a state-wide essay contest.  I’d been bitten by the bug.  For reasons I can’t go into here, I stopped submitting fiction until about 2006.

Now I’m trying to catch up.  Literary magazines have a backlog.  So do I.  A story I’d tried to publish a couple of times, “Friday before Senior Year,” has just been accepted by The Corner Bar.  I’m thrilled and pleased.

You see, I’ve been working on a continuation of that story.  Not the main character, but a secondary character who came to life after this story was finished.  Fiction’s adaptable in that way.  That particular story, according to my records, I first submitted in 2014.  Did I mention I have a backlog?

The funny thing about all of this is that literary magazines need material.  I’ve got material.  Trying to match them up is like an enormous puzzle.  You’d think that maybe if someone knew you were productive they’d come to your door.  But nobody’s watching.  That’s why I write existential horror.

What now with the coronavirus people are isolating themselves.  Welcome to my world.  This all started when my mother remarried.  In a new town where I didn’t know anyone I began to make friends with paper and pencil.  Some of those old stories, now yellow and brittle, are in my attic.

I sit each day with my head in my hands at work.  It lasts for hours and hours.  When it’s finally over I can write.  Or at least head to The Corner Bar.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Following Instructions

I have another blog.  That one, under my real name, has fewer readers than this one.  Unlike the piece you’re reading at the moment, this is an occasional note.  I post on the other blog daily.  Interestingly I’ve had publishing professionals tell me that’s what they like to see.  Funny.

Perhaps it doesn’t seem like much, but coming up with discrete, intelligent (I hope!) things to say every day, for over a decade, should demonstrate willingness to work hard.  When I started the other blog I had lots of followers.  Now I have few.

I know, I know!  If I were in your place I’d be saying, “Maybe your writing sucks.”  Maybe it does.  Maybe it doesn’t.  The point is without someone willing to help we all spin in obscurity.

Someone I know online recently published a book on a topic in which I also publish.  He has tons of followers.  I don’t.  He also has a university post and thus an institution behind him.  That’s the difference, I suspect.

The idea of being a voice crying in the wilderness is attractive.  To a point.  By my calculations I have spent tens of thousands of hours writing.  When pieces get published the editors gush over how good they are.  Then they disappear.

I’m pretty critical of myself.  Most writers are, I think.  (Critical of themselves, I mean, not critical of me, although they could be!)  We deal with rejection on a massive scale, all the while being told to believe in ourselves.  We must be made of rubber.

I’ve got about six stories out for consideration at the moment.  Several more are written and awaiting that rare week with two weekends in a row to get the time to send them out.  I’m not even allowed to tweet on work time.

Writing’s a tough business.  I spend far more money on books than I earn by publishing.  It would seem that this rusty wheel is bound to turn sometime.  On either blog will do.