Tag Archives: literary fiction

Your Search for the Best Writing Software/Smartphone App is Dumb (and so are you)

I disbelieve, and therefore strongly resent, the assertion that I or anybody else could write better or more easily with a computer than with a pencil.

–Wendell Berry, “Why I am NOT Going to Be Buying A                                                                 Computer.” New England Review. 1987.

When your editor asks you to write everything on a typewriter for a week, say no. Run, do not walk, to the nearest exit. And don’t look back.

–Cory Blair, “My Torturous Week of Writing Only on a                                                                Typewriter.” American Journalism Review. October 29, 2014.

While I doubt Mr. Blair has ever read Mr. Berry’s timeless (and several times reprinted) essay, his attitude certainly suggests he might come across it by accident and roll his eyes.

This animosity between the worlds of typewriter and computer is what I hope to splice myself into today. You see, I live in a world between Cory Blair and Wendell Berry. I was raised on an electric typewriter. Then I was raised on a word processor (with a typewriter function and a yellow/black screen). And then we got a computer. As an adult, I have written several stories on typewriters–some of them rough drafts of eventually published pieces. Some of them just drunken hammerings.

I love the computer. I love the typewriter.

Cory Blair is an idiot for trying to use the typewriter as a computer, for thinking that the laptop of today is used exactly as typewriters were used prior to the rise of the personal computer–of placing our take-it-everywhere mentality on a time-continuum, ad-infinitum, meaning before the typewriter we hauled printing presses and jars of ink and blocks of paper and pieces of charcoal and sticks of dried clay and rolls of sheepskin to their time-appropriate gathering places–cafes, train stations, hitching posts, swamps, etc. He seems to think, somehow, we were dumber sixty years ago. You can see this thought appear on his face in a photograph that accompanies the article. He stands in a hallway, hauling the 40-pound typewriter behind him on a luggage cart. Like a moron.

Now, Wendell Berry, on the other hand (at least the Wendell Berry from 1987), is also an idiot. In his now-historic essay, he preaches of the typewriter as an almost divine creation, something bestowed upon him that, magically, consumed no natural resources during its production. Never mind the hundreds of tiny arms and pivots, all methodically punched out by an assembly line machine producing thousands of identical typewriters in a factory consuming 1.21 gigawatts of electricity per annum, driven from the factory via highway and interstate in a pre-smog-conscious world, packaged in crisp, fresh cardboard straight from the forest. Never mind that the 19th Century device revolutionized record keeping and document making much as the computer did for the 20th Century. And does it matter that Berry’s railing against corporatism and consumerism was stamped out on a machine made in 1956, just a year before Royal Typewriters would manufacture its 10-millionth typewriter? Does it matter that Royal is now Royal Consumer Information Products, Inc., a company that still produces boring office products with the Royal name stamped on it? Yes, I can thank Google for this systematic debunking of one of America’s great sentimentalist grandfather authors–but you know? I could do it without Google, too. And without a computer.

In addition to being brought up using typewriters and word processors and computers whose most awesome feature was MS-DOS, I also grew up using real-life card catalogs and performing real-life library research for written assignments. For crying out loud, I used colored pencils to highlight photocopies of book excerpts. The computer (and its ever-increasing access to scholarly sources), dear new writer, allows me to do all this research far more efficiently, effectively, and get closer to a finished product faster than at any point in my writing history.

So you, dear new writer, are also stupid if you ask me my opinion on the best writing software or application for your computer or smartphone. When I discuss writing with other writers (which I really, truly despise doing, but do so out of courtesy when I hear the words–“Oh, Joseph is a writer, you should talk to him about writing“) it is guaranteed that I will be asked what software I use to write. Word, you dolts. I use Microsoft Word. 2007, 2010, 2013? Uh, I guess. I never thought about what software I used, except that every so often the features on the ribbon change places, and sometimes I long for the simplicity of Office 97. If you don’t have Word, OpenOffice Writer is pretty much the exact same thing.

Now, I’m not saying you’re an idiot for having a preference–if you take nothing away from this rant, take that at least–and in fact what I’m saying hasn’t been said yet. After stammering my way through my answer, I always get the protest-as-clarification–“No, no, I mean what writing program do you use to format your writing and block out distractions?”

OH! My mistake! Microsoft Word. Whatever version is on whatever computer I use. That’s what I use. Word.

“NO! Focuswriter? Storyweaver? Dramatica? WriteitNow? WritewayPro? PowerStructure? Powerwriter? Contour? Writer’s Blocks? Master Writer? Storybase?”

Like you’re asking Mickey Mantle just how he got to be so damn good. What’s your secret? Because you want to have all the same advantages I have. I know, I know, because my name is one you’ve never heard and yet someone just told you I was a writer and you think maybe they know what they’re talking about.

The question doesn’t have to be directed at me. It can be anyone asking a writer for advice. But the advice is inherently garbage, because it doesn’t matter. And you shouldn’t be so worried about software specifically for writers. Don’t you own books? Real life books on a shelf over your writing space that you can reach up and refer to when you need to? Because thumbing through Gray’s Anatomy is way more satisfying than Googling “those awesome looking bones below your neck.” And can’t you format your own Word document like a big kid? And can’t you refer to an actual book for spacing and formatting guides–like, say, Guide to Style? Shouldn’t you be more worried about what written content you prefer to pull inspiration from rather than what computer program you’re going to use to hack your way through a mental catalog of tepid literary ideas?

The search, the struggle to find the perfect writing software that turns off distractions, that helps with formatting, that helps you build characters and stories and plots, is really just you putting off your due diligence as a writer. It is a huge distraction in itself. If you devoted your anxious energy to reading for pleasure–to exploring the depths of your curiosity through the written word–rather than to nitpick the pros and cons of every writing program available for $49.99, you might just realize that you’re the best writing program. You can make up your own rules, you can do anything you want on paper (or, uh, screen). But you have to be generating words to do so, and it doesn’t matter how the words come out.

So, when you ask for writing advice–is that the best you can do? You have the opportunity to ask anything, anything at all of a fellow writer (however well-known or not) and the only detail that matters to you is what the author has downloaded? Are you, dear new writer, a complete imbecile? If that is truly the only curiosity you can muster about craft, there is no software available for you that can help.

The effect of technology on the written word is one of efficiency, and that is aimed specifically at the act of writing itself, not on tasks associated with writing such as formatting, character and plot development, and editing. My take on technology and literature is that we, as writers, will naturally gravitate toward a system where we are most efficient and effective. For me, the computer (and Word) allows me to type at the speed at which I think. I don’t know what the next innovation in the written word will be, but I’m sure my sentiments will echo Mark Twain’s as he reflected on his first typewriter:

…I will now claim–until dispossessed–that I was the first person in the world to apply the typewriter to literature…The early machine was full of caprices, full of defects–devilish ones. It had as many immoralities as the machine of today has virtues. After a year or two I found that it was degrading my character, so I thought I would give it to Howells…He took it home to Boston, and my morals began to improve, but his have never recovered.

–“The First Writing Machines,” Hartford, March 10 1875.

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Lucky Jack

White’s heart beat through his fingertips, I felt something heavy in my chest like a fist, but instead of sinking in, it was filling up, and when I breathed I didn’t strain my lungs, like when you sniff mash and it feels like a cheese grater tore open your chest and lungs, I was flooded with air.

Lucky Jack first appeared in Happy, Issue 20

Sheriff knew where Daddy’s still was for the black mold on the tree trunks and the limestone in the creek bed.  You could smell the mash like baking bread from the highway.  Sheriff poured the mash, bloated dead raccoons and all, into the creek and took the tub and the Ford radiator and gave Daddy the twenty-five hundred dollar fine he never paid.

That night, I was in the hall when Daddy come in the kitchen through the back door.  He picked up the enamel pot and smelled the white beans, then tossed them on the floor.

Ma stared at him, her cheeks red and her eyes dry, “Ain’t bought store beans in my life.”  She wet a dishrag in the sink, her splotchy hands shaking.

Daddy hopped around on one foot unlacing his snow-covered boots and tossed them in the corner, dripping with mud.  Then he spit on the baseboard’s flaking paint, nearly slipping on the pine floor in his sock feet.

Ma swirled the icy rag in the bean puddle.  “You ruined the last of our canned beans,” she said, staring at him.

I left to hide in my room, on my bed, trying to breathe without wheezing.  Without letting my chest rise.  I lay in the dark for ten minutes, clutching the quilt and listening to my father pry up the floor planks to get the jugs.  My lungs felt like they were in a vice and I started wheezing.  His cracked palms scratched my door and I gasped but the air was stuck like ice in my mouth.  There was a gaping hole in my chest where all the air fell through.

His white liquor voice slipped in my room through the dark, “Put on your boots,” he said, “we’re going to the Lucky Jack.  See Roy.”

I laced my boots carefully in the dark, I fed the laces slowly, I thought if I took long enough my father would forget he asked me for help, but he didn’t.  When I saw his shadow in the doorframe, I hurried on my double knot and left the laces uneven.  I was glad he didn’t have the strop.

Daddy hitched me up like a donkey with leather belt and shoulder straps to the garden cart with dry rotting tires, half-sunk in brown snow.   I gripped the freezing aluminum hoop in front of my chest and stared at my boots as my father loaded the cart with bottles of liquor, the plywood bottom sagging, nearly scraping the icy ground.  I wanted to lean down and retie my shoe, the inside laces uneven by an inch or more.  I wanted my shoes to be perfect.  Like mornings when you wake up early enough to see the road before anyone’s run it over, making sheets of muddy ice and uglying up the ditches.

Daddy lit a cigarette, “Go on,” he said through his teeth, then I heard him open a beer bottle.  I strained for a foothold but the cart wouldn’t budge.  Daddy grabbed the cart with his red cracked hand and shoved, “When I want to get moving I ain’t got time for you to cry about it!  Move!”  His breath was like motor oil.  I fell to my knee and thought the cart was going to crush me before I could stand, but I scrambled up and got to tugging the cart faster than I should have.  “You’ll wear out quick,” Daddy said.  I didn’t want him coming after me, so I slowed and blew big white clouds in front of my face.

The snow started when we got to the Broad River bridge, a dried up line of limestone and rickety concrete slab with no guardrails, about a quarter of a mile from the house.  Wind come through the trees and knocked ice from the branches, Daddy ducked and I heard his tongue clicking on the neck of his bottle.  The wind got caught in the ridges of my ear and made noise like a waterfall.  My neck, my wrists, the tips of my ears disappeared one after the other.  I felt my toes leaving, though I still felt the plastic end of my shoelaces unevenly tapping the sides of my boots.  I closed my eyes and pressed my boot through the snow and into the mud, the rubber tread sinking without grabbing.  My lungs burned and I heard my father stumbling behind.  The snow came harder and I couldn’t see, the flakes hit my lashes and glued my eyes shut.  I wiped and twisted my head to the woods, saw only white frenzy against the tree trunks.  An engine gunned up the road and Daddy called something to me, but I couldn’t hear for the waterfall in my ears and the uneven clicking of my shoelaces.  My chest was in a knot, I saw the breath leaving my mouth and hanging over the road, but it felt like I wasn’t breathing.  I moved over for the green truck to pass as people I didn’t know stared at me with their bright pink faces against the drippy, foggy windows.  I heard Daddy yell again.

Daddy was in the ditch behind me, his leg twisted, his brown coveralls soaked in mud.  We were almost at the Lucky Jack.

“Want to ride in the cart?”  I asked, shifting my chest in the leather straps.

Daddy tossed his broken bottle into the woods and wiped the mud and snow off his pants.  He limped to the cart and sat on a crate, his legs dangling off, scraping the snow in the road.  I could see through the hole in his pants his knee was swelling, but the store was just up the road, past the curve with the sinkhole.

Lucky Jack was up a hill, so I let go the cart and sat on the frozen aluminum to rest a minute, my father snoring on the crates.  The snow covered my cheek and did not melt.  I lay my head down and thought I could lean over and retie my shoes, but I had no hands, I had no feet, my head was going, too.  I shut my eyes and tried to wiggle my fingers, but they were like slugs.  The leather straps moaned as I lay down, stretching them too far.

I woke up in the small back room of the Lucky Jack.  Roy had put me on a cot in my underwear, my hair was wet and the electric floor heater was buzzing at full blast, the coils blazing orange against the wood paneling.  There was a tray of Twinkies and muffins, cups of coffee, water, and a straw dispenser full of jerky.  I had fingers and feet again, one of my toes was gone forever, black like a shadow, a silhouette reminder.

Long underwear in a plastic bag was piled in Roy’s leather office chair, the calendar over his desk still turned to October.  I put on the long johns and rolled the sleeves and legs up so I wasn’t stomping them all over Roy’s floor and getting them dirty.  He never mopped.  People could die in the aisles and burst pickle jars all over and he’d just throw down a layer of sawdust over the bodies and vinegar.  Probably still sell the pickles, too.

I ate a Twinkie and the filling was hot from the electric heater.  Everything was hot and stuffy, I felt like I was choking on a pillow in my sleep.  I thought I was going to be sick.  I forced all the food down my throat with a mouthful of coffee.  Someone knocked on the door, then it opened and I saw the hazy eyes of The Murderer like I always saw whenever me and Daddy come to sell Roy his liquor.  The Murderer walked in the backroom holding a carving knife and a chunk of white ash.

The Murderer wasn’t much taller than me.  His beard and hair was white, his eyes glazed over with something like milk, but the rest of him was wrinkly charcoal.  I didn’t know if he could see me, but I squatted behind the cot in my long johns, holding the coffee mug like a weapon.

“Roy told me check on you if you come around,” he stuck his carving knife in the doorframe, put the white ash in the chest pocket of his shirt.  His fingernails were bright pink like his palms, both smooth, warm looking.

The Murderer’s head cocked back, he stared at the ceiling.  “Not much of a talker, is you?”

His voice cracked with half a laugh.  I wanted him to talk more, to hear the walls shake.

“Want a grouse?  I’m carving a grouse for anyone who wants it,” he sounded like a radio show.  Like his voice transmitted miles away and came out his mouth.

“No thanks,” I said, putting the coffee mug on the table by the jar of jerky.

“Your name Holiday?” he asked.

“Yessir.”

“Holiday, your Daddy like to froze to death.”  He let a low whistle.  “You was dead, too, I swear.  Roy come hollering for help.  Is a goddam shame the only help you got is a coot what can’t see,” his laughter punctured the wood paneling in the room, I stood, I could smell the Murderer’s sweat despite the snow, sweet and stale.  “I rolled your Daddy up in that busted cart of yours, like to froze my hands off.”

“Daddy all right?”

“Daddy living.  Daddy ain’t all right.  Roy took Daddy to the vet down the road.  Come on up front, we got to wait on the plow,” he turned on his heel and run his shoulder into the doorframe, then danced around it, his arm sliding against the wall, turning off the light and leaving me in the dark.

I took a handful of jerky and a couple of Twinkies up front to where the Murderer was sitting behind the counter on the stool Roy made out of old GM wheels.  I handed him what food I had.

The Murderer waved his hands over the aisles of the Lucky Jack.  “I got the whole buffet,” he laughed.  “Keep it.”

I put the food by the register and hoisted myself on the counter, on top of the laminated cigarette logos.  The parking lot, the gas pumps, even our cart were all covered in snow, white like the Murderer’s beard.  I stared at the whitewash, and where the whitewash had worn away, there was few skeletal trees.

“We’s to be here a long while,” he told me.  “Plow’s got better places to be than the Lucky Jack.”

The Murderer took off his fur-lined coat, his flannel shirt buttoned to his wrists.  He took a cigar from the display behind him and bit off the plastic wrapping.  He lit the cigar with a display lighter by the register.

He took a long draw from the cigar and blew into the ceiling, it smelled like cherries.  The Murderer clamped the cigar in his teeth and unbuttoned his sleeve at the wrist, then folded it up into a neat rectangle at his elbow.  I stared at the tar-black tattoo while he smoked and stared out the window into the whitewash lot.  He hummed an Easter hymn.  Just hummed it over and over, up and down, up and down, the knot on his throat sliding.  I almost felt gold sunshine sitting in the Lucky Jack, like Easter, hiding from the cold wind in the hot sun by the cedar post cross draped in purple cotton.  I traced his tattoo in the in the air by his arm, tried to follow it up his sleeve, tried to imagine how the rest of it looked on his body, whether there were pictures or not.

Still outlining the tattoo, I nodded off a minute and poked the Murderer in the forearm, right on his tattoo.  I didn’t know if it hurt to touch them.  I pulled my hand back and jumped off the counter.

“Don’t you ever do nothing like that,” he said to the white.

“Sorry,” I said, heading to the back room and the cot and the tray of stuffy food.

“Inking up your body’s just about the lowest thing a man can do.”

I stopped.

“Just about,” he said, picking tobacco off his lip, then puffing on the cigar.

“What’s the lowest?”  I asked.

“Doing something that deserves inking,” he said, exhaling.  “Come back here.”

I turned and hoisted myself onto the counter.

The Murderer raised his sleeve past the elbow, just below the shoulder, where the tattoo stopped.  He put the cigar in his mouth, “Back when the sheriff thought he knew something—he don’t know nothing, if you ever talk to him a second you’ll see he don’t—he give the inmates marks.”

“And that’s yours?”

“That’s mine,” he said through the cigar.

“What’s it mean?”  I asked.

“Boy don’t read?”

“Huh?”

The Murderer ran his finger over the thin, curvy ink, over the leaves and vines and birds wrapping his arm with fingerlike feathers.  He inhaled the cigar, “Cal ‘White’ Wright: Wife killer, Incarcerated June 16, 1963 by Sheriff Hiram Polk,” he sighed.  “Folk call me White.”

“It’s pretty, White.”

“Had to make it presentable for church.  Sheriff never thought maybe God don’t like tattoos.  I thought maybe God would prefer them with a bunch of ornamental crap,” he blew cherry cigar smoke above us.  White looked like a shadow evaporating.

I opened a stick of jerky and tore off a piece to put in my mouth.  White stared out into the snow and finished the cigar.  He spit on the end and dropped it in the mint-green pail below his stool.  Daddy always rubbed his cigarette butts between his palms.

“You killed your own wife?”  I asked.

“Been so long ago,” White said, “I don’t know what I done.”

“White?”  I asked.

White turned until he thought he was looking at me, “Holiday.”

“Want to see my mark?”

White laughed, “Ask the blind coot does he want to see your mark.”

I pulled my shirt to my chest with one hand and took hold of White’s hand with the other.  I put his soft, pink palm on my chest, in the dent Daddy made when I was a crying baby.  White’s heart beat through his fingertips, I felt something heavy in my chest like a fist, but instead of sinking in, it was filling up, and when I breathed I didn’t strain my lungs, like when you sniff mash and it feels like a cheese grater tore open your chest and lungs, I was flooded with air.  White’s eyes rolled around like dice in his head, seeing the dent with his hand.

When I woke, the sky was dark and the snow kept coming, I was curled on the counter by the register, a shirt under my head, wrapped in White’s fur-lined coat.  I smelled pee.  White was on the stool breathing heavily.  In the dark I only saw his watery eyes reflecting the white outside.  He looked dead but for his eyes twitching every couple of seconds.  There was a scraping sound, and I could tell in the dark he was carving the grouse again.

We sat at the blue dark counter, wind lifting the rolled steel roof and clapping the layers back together.  The wall heater glowed orange, sunk into the paneled wall, not buzzing like the other, just lighting our corner of the store in neon.  All the creases were black.  We looked like tigers in the dark.

I peed myself while I was asleep, I handed White his coat.  “Sorry if it’s wet,” I said.

He took the coat from me in the dark and handed me another plastic pack of long johns.  “Go change,” he said, not angry, not tired.

I hopped around in the back room like Daddy taking off his boots.  I bumped into the tray and knocked the rest of the muffins and jerky to the floor.  I peeled off the cold wet underwear and threw them in the trashcan by Roy’s desk, my feet freezing on the tile floor.  As I pulled on the fresh long johns, I fell onto the cot and a spring snapped and cut my shin enough to leave a red streak on the underwear.  I felt my pants on the back of the leather chair, they were dry and warm so I put them on, then stuffed the leftover food into my pockets.  I heard the bell on the door ring, a wet shuffling of boots on linoleum and a high pitched voice I knew was Roy.  Everything was muffled, I opened the door and saw Roy and another shadow standing in front of the counter.

“Holiday up?”  Roy asked.

“He in the back room changing,” White said.  “He had an accident.”

“Boy always reeks like piss, you ain’t need give him something else to pee all over,” Daddy’s voice rose from the dark.

“It’s all right,” Roy said.  “Long johns is on the house.”

“Holiday!”  Daddy shouted.  “Come out here, you ain’t changing,” he shouted at me, then told Roy, “He ain’t changing.  Nope.  He’s standing there listening to us.”

I opened the door and walked over to White, lit like a tiger on his stool.

“Come here, Hol,” Daddy said.  I didn’t move.  “I said to come to your Daddy.”

“He been drinking?”  White asked.

“Had to do something for the pain,” Roy shrugged.

“I said get the hell over here, Hol!” Daddy shouted.  His voice shook the cellophane wrappers lining the aisles in the store.

“We’re going to take a nap,” Roy said.  “We going to lay you down and you going to sleep.”

White grabbed me by the back of the shirt and pulled me between him and the wall.  Roy led Daddy into the back room with the cot and turned on the light.

Daddy turned around to face me, to yell.  In the light, I saw his hands and parts of his face were black like asphalt, like my one toe, and his skin was red and chapped.  He’d been through Hell, burned by heat so hot it was ice, by ice so cold it was fire.  Daddy thrust his black hands out, “He’s my goddamned boy, Holiday you my goddamned boy!”  He lunged forward and Roy grabbed for him, “You went to sleep you son of a bitch!  You left me to freeze to death.”  Daddy tried to grab my throat but his hands were dead, his black fists drove into my neck and body but they were limp.  His fight was dead.

He pounded the hole in my chest with his dead hands and I gasped for air, he was punching the air out of my body.  Trying to suck the air back in was like eating through a straw.  A stream of white light flooded the Lucky Jack, and I saw my father’s petrified face, and above that I saw White’s dangling beard, and between the two was White’s fist, clutching the carving knife buried inside Daddy’s chest.  White pushed Daddy off my body and left him gasping on the linoleum.  The lights faded out and I heard the diesel of the plow chugging in the parking lot, as it turned in the lot, the interior of the store lit again.

In the light, I looked at my shirt to see if Daddy’s hands stained my white shirt like charcoal.

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Photons

He tilted the opening into the light and saw a gray chunk of brain tissue in slurry of crushed skull and blood.  He took the helmet home, hidden under his coat as he hurried back to the theater, up the tiled stair, holding onto the slick, black-stained banister and skipping every other step on the way up to his apartment.

Photons first appeared in Happy, issue 19

“It’s twenty brad for the moving picture show.”

“Pardon?”

“Twenty brad.  Picture show.  You’re here for the picture show, right?”

“Across town it isn’t but ten brad.  You’re sure it’s twenty?”

Little sparkling caviar eyes popped behind the Plexiglas window, “Two weeks ago it was twenty brad, two years ago it was twenty brad, and two and twenty years ago it was twenty brad.  The price for the moving picture show has been and always will be twenty brad!”

“Across town…”

“Either here or across town, it’s all twenty brad!”

Under neon overglow of humming signs (green, yellow, red and white, like onions and peppers spreading sweated-Mediterranean-vegetable lightglo around adjacent buildings, the digitized marquee scrolling through times and dates with red LED bulbs flashing on and off splotches of ketchupglo, and below it the white plastic sign with black lettering, surrounded by the rectangular boundary of clear glass orbs with flashing orange filaments fearing and chasing each other, blinkblinkblink all around the sign in light polluted night sky), the young man in heavy brown overcoat and bandaged fingers mumbled something inaudible and fished around his coat pocket until he spilled a pile of imperfectly oblong brads onto the counter.  He spread them out in the tray and felt the blood rushing to his raw fingertips, it oozed a single glinting drop from beneath the bandages.  “Should be about twenty, won’t need a ticket, thanks,” he said, smiling with crooked bastard teeth, the ticket-man thought.  The patron wiped the dot of blood from his dirty bandage in the stainless steel tray.  He hurried past the ticket box and into the door to his right, letting out a slight laugh, his smoke-white breath was stolen away in the velvet sheet night by the scientific theory that warm air rises.

After the man of bandaged fingers had entered the theater (the smell of sodium dichloro-s-triazintrione and artificial butter greeting him), another man stepped up to the ticket booth and put a stiff, shellacked human hand in the tray.  Again, caviar eyes popped behind Plexiglas and the shrill voice called through the metal slits, “We can’t make change for that!  Read the sign!”  He pointed to his relative right, and the man opposite the window deciphered the sign beside him, there were little green circles around brads, digs, and thumbs, and one large, red circle with a broad line through a hand.  He blushed and removed the petrified hand and tossed in a glistening finger.

“Terribly sorry, haven’t been out in so long, forgot.”

“Wouldn’t be caught dead carrying around so much anyway, what are you thinking?”  The tray rattled out a pile of wan brads.

Poor ticket-man, he sat in his booth with tiny space heater and divvied the brads to digs, digs to thumbs, but no thumbs to hands, and definitely no hands for anything.  When the movie had started, he sat bundled in the cramped ticket office and listened to the orchestras playing on the radio, softly, so only he could hear the group of men trapped in the little tin box.  He rubbed the plastic nametag on his auburn lapel with pudgy, grease covered fingers, twirling the slick, round ends over the sharp edges where it read, “LARRY.”  Instruments came to crescendo in the little booth, and the image of the young man in the brown coat and bandaged fingers appeared on the back of Larry’s eyelids.  He cringed, brought the knuckle of his thumb to his mouth, and bit hard, trying to block out the incredible pain that was now flooding his body due to the sight of the young man with the bandaged fingers.

So many years ago, before the cold box with Plexiglas window and brad trays, before orchestras written by dead men were brought to life in tinny tone in metal box to bring a delusional sense of peace and happiness to his life, Larry had turned twenty-one on October 15, and the giant trees looming over the asphalt of his parents’ street let leaves drift downward in an eddy of rich yellows and dead browns, red streaks carving into flat space and spinning down to shrinking blades of thin verdant growth, almost that the shrill singing from within Larry’s childhood home had frightened them from their spiny branches and had sent them on their trip.

Larry’s cake was the shape of a beer bottle.

They sang the song whose tune and sincerity had long been lost on the American people, but the cacophonous blaze of twittering vocal chords still warmed the muscles in Larry’s face that afternoon, and when they had finished, his candles were blown out and the mint-green beer bottle was sliced and served, accordingly, with mugs of Celebrator.  A present was dropped in front of him, plaid satin paper crinkling under heft of the object.  Twenty pounds, at least, hidden inside cardboard walls and tacky festive wrapping.  The exciting moment of the night was that when Larry opened the box containing a re-furbished typewriter-as-novelty.  He had wanted one for so long, had read about them in microfiched magazines and familiarized himself with their wide use so long ago, almost as popular as computers.  He had built a knowledge in his head so vast, so intense, that the campiness of the gift was overshadowed by the surreal presence of the machine in his existence.  In minutes, he had the keys blasting on paper.  His first sentence:  Happy Birhtday to me!

When his face was warm with alcohol and his nose a bit red, and his mind drumming away into sleep, they came for him.  His parents were in the doorway, watching in slow motion through all the commotion with sad, dawdling eyes as the men in heavy black outfits wrestled him from his bed and tied his arms behind him, then lead him away into the back of a van that smelled of moldy paper.  A bee stung his arm and he fell asleep; the final sound of the night was his head bumping the glass.

He woke up to a room of himself.  Dozens of young men like him were stuck in one large concrete container.  Cement on the walls and on the floor and the ceiling, and just one door.  It was metal and had no knobs, windows, or visible hinges.  Four fluorescent lights made the room glow dirty gray, black in the corners, pale sick green all around the perimeter.  Humming boxes above with putrid fluorescence forced Larry to see that the smell of the place emanated from feces smeared on the wall, a makeshift prophecy of digested fruit and cereal which, scrawled almost illegibly, read, “Honor decks the turf that wraps their clay.”  Larry was sick in the floor drain and a random stream of urine washed away his vomit.  It flowed pale yellow over the embellishments in the metal drain, running in and out of tiny pores and crevasses filled with olive carpet moss over brass grate, piss river whispered secret echoed drips from dark of slotted cover to say that the golden stream was being taken to flow away from this miserable place forever.  He was sick again.

The young men were being taken out and brought in by twos.  So many boys, all looked to be twenty-one, Larry thought it doubtful to be taken out and replaced anytime soon.  Minutes lingered on in the constancy of sick light on porous concrete, and Larry felt he hadn’t been awake but a few seconds when the door opened and a voice broadcast though electric current fizzled from a speaker unseen, “Watson, Darrell; Williams, Larry!”  Larry steadied himself to his feet, attempting to find firm footing through the grime of unknown wastes beneath him, which coated the shining concrete.  He made his way through the crowd, his bare, clammy chest popping against the exposed shoulders of other young men with no faces worth looking at, and met up with whom he assumed to be Darrell Watson.  His hair was cut short, causing Larry to fear the possibility for himself, so he laid a hand on his head.  Bristles of stunted hair stroked the palm of his hand with its back and forth movement.  Before he could fully hang his head with a completed sense of despondency, black gloves came out of the doorway and grabbed the necks of both Larry and Darrel and they disappeared into darkness.  They felt only the dragging and winding of their feet along miles of moist, gritty concrete.

It all happened so quickly; Larry had only time to let the tears fall, he’d no time for weeping or sobbing.  His hands were stuck in small metal boxes with leather straps over his fingers and a Plexiglas window on the top.  The boxes were fixed in front of his face so he could see his fingernails, and then he heard a door open, footsteps, a loud metallic clatter and there was a nice looking man standing in front of him wearing a happy yellow and lavender tie.  In his hand was a thin, rounded piece of metal about eight inches in length and a half an inch in width.  He read to Larry information being projected from a box in the ceiling to the wall behind him.

“Your name is still Larry Williams and you will be employed at Big-Starz Tri-Plex in Danvers.  You are overweight, disgruntled, and generally untidy,” he paused, looked the perfectly fit young man in the face and said, “You’ll adapt.”  The man with the happy tie stabbed the metal instrument under the fingernail of Larry’s right index finger.  Twigs of flowing pain, flashing like electricity, shot through his arm and he tasted something like iron in his mouth, he had bit his tongue, and now felt the syrup of life invading his taste buds.  Blood poured slow and steady into the box as the fingernail was left to sway from the flesh.  “The process through which you are going is normal.  Your fingernails will be collected and then sent to the Department of Treasury, where they will be cleaned, painted, embossed, and shellacked so that they may become brads.”  He jabbed the instrument under the nail of the middle finger.  Larry’s tears carved terrible rivers like he had seen where beavers built their homes, but no beaver could build dams, not there in flesh, only burn and rot in the pain of their damless existence.  His head was trying to twist away, but it was blocked by metal strips on either side of his ears, only his eyes could look away.  The pain did not dissolve, and Larry found his eyes rolling back in front of him, focusing on the small metal boxes, looking through the Plexiglas like he had looked through television screens and he wondered if he was really feeling that cold rushing pain.  He watched as the little nails held onto the cuticles and crept slowly back to torn, hemorrhaging flesh.  “If you ever decide to break the law, you will go to jail and all of your fingers will be removed, shipped to the Department of Treasury, dried, embossed and tagged, shellacked and will then be digs and thumbs.  When you retire, your hands will be removed and go through the same process.”  He stabbed and stabbed, continued undaunted, a joke from him: “Didn’t know you were worth so much, did you?”  The man with the happy tie laughed.  Endorphins were piling in Larry’s brain like shit on a lawn, and he laughed, too.  They were laughing together when the happy tie-man continued with straight countenance,  “Now you’re on your own.  You work at the theater until you’re fifty-three where you die of a heart attack.  You won’t be married, or have children.  You’ll be seeing about that in a minute.”  He jabbed under another nail, blood-creating lakes in the boxes.  Larry laughed, Yes!  Take them off!  Leave nothing!  “Any contact between you and your parents is forbidden.  They’ll be retired soon, anyway.  They both drown on vacation.  Hard to swim without hands.”  Happytieman laughed and laughed and disappeared into darkness from which he had originated.

He was wheeled away into another room and was given a shot in the spine.  His legs disappeared and a lady came in and sat in front of him with a small pair of scissors and a bucket.  Larry’s boxes flowed blood in the bucket as they were removed and the raw flesh was cleaned with alcohol, a sheet of ice struck his face and lasted one dying second, then grew warm and his cheeks were heavy with pain and pumping blood.  Again!  Again!  With blue latex gloves, she grasped his hands and removed all ten nails with the small scissors.  Then, delicately, she wrapped the fingertips in gauze and tape and Larry almost laughed when she gave the bandaged digits a cheerful tap before she stood.  She left with the nails in a bag and another woman entered.  Larry smiled when he saw her.  She took off his pants and underwear and he was upset he couldn’t feel anything down there.  A Plexiglas shield was placed over his lap, then a knife appeared in her hand and tears exploded from the dam in his eyes.  Tiny metal blade ripped through his scrotum and then with her other hand, just as fast, the wound was cauterized with a little red laser, the Plexiglas was stained with little dots of blood and charred flesh.  The smell of burning tissue filled the room, and this time, Larry’s tears were falling from vanity rather than pain.

He was put on a plane that night, in a wheelchair, and flown to Danvers.  An old woman showed him his apartment above the movie theater, which at that time had just installed the digital marquee above the big white sign with yellow bulbs that chased each other at night around the rectangle entrapping movie titles in lasso of light and pattern, and here, too, he would cry, but this time it was from the cold and loneliness, and the longing for the innocent happiness from what felt like so long ago when he was eating beer-bottle cake and the leaves on his street had been so beautiful in their decay.  Larry seized the woman by the arm, her loose, fatty flesh almost melted in his hands, the fingertips of which were still very sore, and he knew he was holding her by the bone and marrow.  “Excuse me?”

“Yes, dear?”

“Can I drink?”

“I beg your pardon?”  Her voice was crackly and sweet, reminded him of his grandmother, she sat in a chair that rose up and down with a little black remote control; she had always worn a dingy white dress with gray-blue flowers blooming across her breast for eternity.

“Can I go drink?  Go to bars?”

“Son, that’s up to you and your conscience, God willing you have one.  Lord knows there’s enough as young as you don’t have God in ‘em ‘tall, let alone that voice of reason upstairs that say ‘Good’ or ‘Bad.’  You do what you like, but use your head about it.”  She waved her hand in front of both their faces, adding, “Oh, your boxes are in the bedroom.  And you start downstairs at seven in the evening.  Tonight.”  She left, but the smell of corroded linen lingered.

Her words rang sarcastic sweetness, “Whatever you’d like.”  He’d thought of a jazzman improvising on stage.

Larry left to have a Grölsch, but he wound up drinking right through his shift at the theater.  It didn’t matter.  Years later, there he would be, and he knew it, on time in the cold Plexiglas box with the radio playing beautiful things.  Time catches up with everything, he thought, it moves as fast as light and we are in it, experiencing it is inevitable.

A few summers before, the owners of the restaurant across the street decided to give the building a new façade.  Trucks and dumpsters were parked outside for weeks, then the scaffolding went up and on it they kept a constant supply of dark red bricks, but all Larry could think, looking across the gutters and the slick tar street from the Plexiglas window to the sign of “Maggie’s,” was, I hope they tightened all the bolts.

There was a short man who ran back and forth in front of the construction site everyday, shoveling gravel and picking up debris.  All the days Larry watched him, the little man never stepped inside the Port-A-John, just ran around it all day until he left for the day.  Larry’s days had become consumed with waiting for the Hispanic man to use the bathroom.

Larry had flicked his tongue at the roof of his mouth while watching the Hispanic man run around, and had wondered what brain tissue tasted like.  He knew well the metallic taste of blood, and he’d known the salty taste of scabs from when he was a child.  Perhaps something like that, he’d mused.

Customers became upset in Larry’s obsessed weeks of watching the Hispanic man run around, ignoring the essential elements that made him a ticket-man.  A day came that found Larry busy watching the Hispanic man run from the cab of a dump truck across the front of the building, he sprinted frantically with his hands at the seat of his pants.  Larry was sure this was his moment.  Blue plastic door swung open and clapped against the outside of the Port-A-John, then slammed shut and the little green square by the handle turned over to red, and Larry was going to time the man with the clock by the register.

An older gentleman yelled for Larry to take his dig and give him his ticket.  Larry snatched the shellacked digit and printed out the movie tickets, not looking at the man through the Plexiglas, still staring at the large blue plastic outhouse.  When Larry watched monster movies, the fake monsters used to roar like metal being distorted.  He knew then that the sounds were identical, for the scaffolding collapsed on itself, falling to the right enough to roar with bending metal and snap and shoot off bolts to land itself and its brick payload directly on the Port-A-John.  A mist of blue formaldehyde and red plasma sprayed onto the street and sidewalk, and dust evaporated to heaven and drifted away to the roofs of buildings.  The Hispanic man’s bright yellow hardhat skittered down the street through the wreckage and stopped under a parked car.  Larry turned his attention back to his customers, he handed back to a patron ten brads.

When Larry’s shift had finished that night, he’d tied the electric cord around the radio and had ventured out into the street, the scaffolding still in a wreck around the Port-A-John, and buttoned up his coat to his neck to fend off the quick, biting wind.  Under the sedan, with dull orange spots from streetlight in the paint, Larry found the bright yellow hardhat, though up close it was scratched and chipped with many discolorations.  He tilted the opening into the light and saw a gray chunk of brain tissue in slurry of crushed skull and blood.  He took the helmet home, hidden under his coat as he hurried back to the theater, up the tiled stair, holding onto the slick, black-stained banister and skipping every other step on the way up to his apartment.

At first, he was unsure, just stared at the little soup before him in now dull-yellow bowl.  It sat in its own glow for half an hour as Larry tried to figure out what exactly he was planning on doing with part of the poor Hispanic man’s brain.  Fuzz came out of the radio first, then Larry turned the dial a bit and a section of violas tromped in his room.  Yes, yes!  He thought, Now brass!  Yes!  Wind!  Percussion!  Yes!  The light bulb in the kitchen exploded blue when he turned it on, leaving black streaks of dead filament on the smoky white glass.  His hand searched blindly in the drawer and he dropped a ladle on his foot, danced a bit, but then rejoiced upon the discovery of a fork.  They were all at it, now, he thought.  Higher, higher, the voice in his head cried, Strings!  Strings!  Yes!  Larry’s feet pounded the meager carpet with thick heels marching across cheap brown carpet and he stood over the hardhat, fork in hand, and as the orchestra exploded he stabbed the purple and gray bit of brain (All together now!  Higher, Yes!  Octaves upon octaves!  To light speed, Percussion!  Faster than light itself, mass increasing infinitely the closer it comes.  Brass!) and forced it in his mouth.  Tofu, he thought, just like soy.  It bounced around his teeth and he heard the soft wrinkled sections collapsing on each other, he swallowed, the clump sliding down his throat slowly, felt the leftover bits in the back of his mouth and around his teeth.  His radio cut out, orchestra died and the sound was static noise of billions of plastic bags being rustled around the entire room.  Larry tasted Hispanic sweat and blood, brain and a sliver of skull, the walls shrieked with scattered noise.  His throat heaved into the helmet.  When he had finished, he wiped his mouth and searched his room through thousands of sheets of paper with the line: Happy Birthday to me! written at least once on all of them, and, eventually, found a blank sheet.  Larry clamped it in place in the typewriter and wrote:  When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose.  He tore off the sentence and placed the scrap of his own stolen makeshift prophecy in the helmet with his vomit and the Hispanic man’s brain.  Fluids soaked slowly into dried wood pulp and the ink began to melt away.  The radio came back on.  Captain Brahms, he had thought, Warp speed, we’ve photons to catch.

Larry stopped biting the knuckle of his thumb when he heard the rapping at his Plexiglas window.

“Two tickets, please,” the man smiled, his arm bent around a healthy blonde.  Larry’s left hand rubbed where his testicles should have been.

“Of course.  Forty brad.”

A thumb dropped into the tray.

“Right, here you are, four digs, ten brad, enjoy the show,” he remembered the way a young girl had laughed at the hair combed over his bald spot one night.  He patted his head, which he now kept shaved.  His belly folding over on itself was suddenly very apparent to him.  Used to be a runner, he thought.  How in the hell?

He saw the young man with bandaged fingers leaving the theater, fumbling with the buttons on his brown coat.  Larry left the box and grabbed him.

“I know what you think, kid, I know, I had to do the same damn thing.”

“And just what the hell are you talking about, you old porker?”

“Listen!”  Caviar eyes flashed gold and white in street lamps now, “You don’t want what they’ve given you, I know.  I know!  Where are you supposed to be?”

“Listen fatass…”

“Where is the man who doesn’t need a ticket supposed to be?” It was flat and loud in the street lined with brick buildings and solid blocks of prism light.

“Right here, ass, what’s it to you?”

“What do you mean right here?”  Their breath joined and made large cloud against twinkling night, and with the neon light shooting through, it resembled cotton candy.

“I’m a movie critic is what I mean I’m supposed to be here.”

The scaffolding fell in Larry’s brain, people like machines were being ordered, “Live” and “Die.”  And where they install you, put the bolts on your soul and tighten them enough so you can’t go anywhere, that’s where you stay, he thought, to rust, to corrode; to soak in rain water and dust particles floating through space fabric, to age in relentless surroundings that only fade in time but do not go away themselves, always being built back up and improved upon, but it is the machine to be replaced, to be taken out and a new one added, no better than the last, but new, fresh.  And wherever they put you, he knew, was uncontestable.  Millionaires pulled from a hat alongside coal miners and garbage men.  Movie critics and ticket-men.  Orchestra exploded in his brain.  Larry wrapped his fingers in his palm and swung sweaty meat through ice air, the young man’s face exploded blood from the eye, Percussion! but the edge of his hand took flight and connected with Larry’s nose, Strings! cracked cartilage and now they both bled.  Cold air filled Larry’s lungs, they burned, and he knelt down, sucking in air, the tempo lowered, began rebuilding intensity.  He felt a blow to the middle of his back and fell to his face, all that was left was the lonely drummer, boom, boom, then heard rubber-soled feet slapping asphalt away from him.  Larry lay in the street, which was aglow with blue, red, and orange from neon and extended streetlight, in the distance he saw the front of the movie theater, the clear bulbs flashing yellow light, chasing each other forever around the white face.  His cheek was freezing to the ground, but his chest burned and beat to the drum, his left arm felt like it was asleep.  Blood bubbles popped in his nostrils as he let his eyes twitch backwards into the soy of his brain.  He remembered the twigs, now thinking of them more like branches.  Now more like stumps, yes, the stumps of pain running through his arms from each finger, and the happy tie-man almost mocking him in his memory.   “Didn’t know you were worth so much, did you?” and it echoed like drummers and soloists and brass and rhythm.  Now, percussion, now!  His fingertips throbbed against the wet street, and he remembered bending over to tie his shoes so many years ago with the bandages, his digits feeling fat with the blood coursing in and out of distended flesh.  Larry’s tongue lolled like a slug onto the asphalt, tasting the dryness of metal, of earth, of soil, of flesh, it was all the same, the tar in the asphalt, time passing as quick as light, always beating the melodies of life in sprints and decaying all things into thick black paste, and it seemed that he really had been told thirty two years ago, “Lonely, untidy, fifty-three of a heart attack.”  A tiny river of blood ran into the side of his mouth and he tasted the iron-rich, life-giving, brackish fluid, a taste he’d become most attached to; a final bubble of blood like tom-blast exploded in his nostril.

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