Rejected Story Ideas, Part 7

Housebot

I was sitting on a bench outside the funeral home crying when Housebot rolled out and sat down beside me. I didn’t know that he could be out in the rain. He put his big metal arm around me.

“My condolences, Jeremy,” Housebot said.

I sat up straight and felt defensive.

“Can you even feel emotion?” I said.

“I can express human sentiments via prior observations,” Housebot said. “I know you must be sad right now.”

“Gee, thanks,” I said. “How could you tell?”

The rain continued falling and I didn’t care. Somehow Housebot knew enough not to say anything more while we sat. We liked Housebot. He could do all sorts of amazing things, but there was an underlying resentment towards him, probably because dad had spent so much time working on Housebot instead of spending time with us, going through I don’t know how many versions. There was dad’s Master’s thesis Hosuebot, and the many subsequent revisions, and then the dissertation Housebot.

Mom walked out of the funeral home.

“Jeremy, let’s go,” she said.

We got into the car. I sat in the front seat with Housebot, who was driving, while mom sat in back. She looked out the window at the rain and I couldn’t see if she was crying. Thinking back now, probably she wasn’t, but at the time I was too sheepish to look back or to say anything. I sat by Housebot silently the whole ride home.

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 6

 

The Fall

Three days before third grade graduation I was swinging on the monkey bars playing the ground is lava with my best friend Nick.

“Stand back, orcs!” I said, kicking my legs as if to ward off our invisible foes.

“Not orcs. Remember we said they were wolves now,” Nick said.

“Right sorry. Stand back wolves. I am Thor god of Thunder!”

“And I am jedi master Obi Wan Kenobi,” Nick said. “Dude behind you. Use your thunder!”

      P-chew, p-chew, p-chew!

The wolves had princesses in their teeth and also snapped at our heels while we went back and forth on the rungs. Falling down onto the recycled chunks of rubber tire mulch would mean immediate and certain death. We were trying to outlast one another and hang on longer than the other one could.

“Your hands are slipping,” I said.

“No they’re not,” Nick said.

But our little boy arms could only hang so long.

Meanwhile as we dangled a girl was approaching our side of the playground. Christina Hendricks. Last week she had broken her arm during a game of soccer. Now she looked intent and determined as if she’d worked up something specific to say, and was walking slightly hobbled to one side as she bore the weight of a new blue cast.

“Want to sign my cast?” she said.

We pretended not to notice her.

“Hello, I know you can hear me,” she said.

“We’re playing,” we said.

“It’ll only take a minute,” she said.

“No,” we said.

“Please.”

“I say away she-wolf! Do not mess with Thor god of Thunder or there may be dire consequences. From my right hand come forth bolts of lightning and from my left—”

“Hoowah!”

There was a hard and fast tug on my legs and I found myself on the ground tangled in a heap of my own limbs. Certain death. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” Christina said. “I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry.” She had jumped up, grabbed onto my waste, and pulled me to the ground.

I sat up genuinely confused. Most of the playground too had gathered around to see what had happened. The best I could think to do was to say something smart and mean to make Christina feel bad for what she’d done, or go straight away and tell a teacher, but before I could say or do anything, she leaned down and kissed me on the corner of my mouth. Half on the cheek and half on the lips. The kids around us gasped. I gasped. She gasped.

“Ugh!” I said, making a show of wiping away the kiss.

My confusion had reached its boiling point. I ostentasiously lowered my head and sighed, signaling defeat and pity and a kind of dutiful gradeschool revulsion. But this was for the crowd. It was all I could come up with in the moment. Secretly, actually, I didn’t feel revulsion. The first part of the one-two punch, being pulled down from the monkey bars, had in those brief seconds pissed me off, yes, but the kiss, um, well, I was feeling pretty ambiguous about that and the bruises forming on my elbows and the rubber mulch in my pants didn’t seem so important now. The kiss itself had actually felt nice but I wasn’t going to let on about that.

Christina also seemed surprised by what she’d done. She put her hand over her mouth, her eyes got big, and she ran away. Hobbling again.

After all this Nick was still hanging from the monkey bars. “Pretty sure this means I win,” he said.

This was the story of my first kiss.

The kiss was a mild controversy at school for the next few days. There were rumors and copycat scenarios and teasing. Whenever Christina was going to pass me in the hall she would turn and walk the other way. I never figured out what she thought or felt about this kiss but if given the chance I’m not sure I would have known how to ask anyway. And quickly all was being forgotten because third grade was ending. There wasn’t much time to think about it.

The buses were pulling away at the end of the last day of school. It was a bright afternoon. Outside the front doors kids were in disorganized groups saying goodbye for the summer and streaming away onto the buses.

From Quora: “Is it bad if I never open up about my feelings?”

It depends on what you mean by ‘bad,’ and ‘never.’ If by bad you mean bad for those around you—family, friends, etc.—probably it’s not great if you never express your feelings. How else will they be able to know where you’re at? And what about you? If you really never express your feelings, how do you know where you’re at?

You will hear a lot of cliches in regards to the expression of feeling/emotions. Self-helpy stuff will say you only have great things to gain from opening up. It’s true that there is much to gain from being vulnerable, but like anything of value it also comes with a cost.

Many people hide their emotions because they’re afraid to face what they really mean. Maybe you feel something and don’t know how to handle it so you bury it, you may be afraid of what somebody might think or feel about what you think or feel, or maybe the words just aren’t there to express what you mean. It can sometimes seem easier to simplify everything and just ignore what you think and feel and instead socially coast on what seems acceptable or safe or hide behind some other affectation.

I honestly believe many people live their entire lives like this.

But consider what could happen if you really confronted what was going on in your head. There would be much to gain and much to lose. Once you confront what you are and let that be known, you will lose everything false that went before it. Every mask you hid behind. Every pretense. Every lie. Gone. Truth is like fire. It will burn the dead wood off. You have to be ready for that.

But oh the rewards!

You can be who you really are for once.

I would recommend taking small steps. Pay attention to your thoughts for a few days. Take notes, mental notes, whatever. After going that for a little bit go out of your way to express one small thing to someone, maybe a loved one, or a trusted person. It doesn’t have to be anything grandiose. It could be about anything. What you thought/felt about a movie or a conversation. See how it goes. Pay attention to what you’re thinking and feeling while you’re sharing. You might feel a little nervous. That’s okay.

Keep doing this in small ways until you’re comfortable maybe trying it on bigger things. Eventually, if you get acclimated to this, you may eventually say something/do something that pisses someone off or hurts them. Another cost. It will happen. Own up to who you are without being a jerk. Have an idea of the best version of yourself to keep pushing for. Try to love others well, etc. Once you pay attention to what’s going on in you, you can pay attention to what’s going on in others and help them too. You may lose friends but you will certainly gain them too.

Here’s a C.S. Lewis quote, for kicks:

To love at all is to be vulnerable. Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully round with hobbies and little luxuries; avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.

Good luck, friend.

Dan

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Rejected Story Ideas, Part 5

Something Greater than Nothing

A kitchen fire at the hospital on 3rd and Elm caught on quickly, so quickly that by the time it was put out it had burned through every room in the cancer ward, killing those patients, all except one at the very end of the hallway. Room 111. Mandy Carrigan, age 25, terminal colon cancer patient and now also victim of burns which were as equally life-threatening as her cancer. When the fire department had found and rescued Mandy, the flames had engulfed most of her room but had mysteriously halted just short of overtaking the side of the room where her bed was, as if the fire had decided to stop. Some have hypothesized that a water main break managed to slow the progress of the fire, giving the firemen time to reach Mandy’s room before it was obliterated. Others have said that it was a miracle from God. But in either case, when the firemen did reach Mandy’s room they found her out of her bed, torn from tubes which administered her chemotherapy, huddled in the corner. The firemen weren’t surprised by this. But Mandy’s doctors, those who were intimately familiar with her case history, were shocked. They argued amongst each other about whether or not even the most life threatening situation could provide the human body with enough adrenaline to accomplish what Mandy had, given her weakened state.

Mandy’s case wasn’t hopeful before the fire. Not even close. Chemotherapy had been more a symbolic gesture insisted upon by Mandy herself, even with warnings that it would decrease the quality of whatever short span of life she had left. And not only that. She also refused the pain killers her doctors recommended, taking only those that wouldn’t effect her decision-making such as ibuprofen, which was pretty negligible for someone in her position, because she was afraid that the stronger options would delude her mind.

But after the fire Mandy’s case was compounded by the the burns and damage done to her lungs from inhaling large amounts of smoke. She was being treated now around the clock by oncologists and world class burn specialists at a hospital in a different city, which was possible in part because of the money donated by the previous hospital and mounting public support for Mandy and her story. There were many national news reports but none showed pictures or videos because the images were so shocking that no managing editor or director could stomach to put them in print or on air, and ultimately none felt that showing them would sell more newspapers or clicks or views, anyway.

As a matter of course her doctors began giving her those strong pain medicines she had previously refused. That was the only way they could treat her in the beginning stages. But as time wore on, in her most lucid moments, Mandy clearly indicated that she didn’t want them. She typed on a small computer pad by her bedside with her one hand that could move only slightly. No pain meds. Her parents begged her to stay on them. The doctors too. But she typed it so many times, and even mounted her thoughts on the basis of a lawsuit against the hospital for failing to follow her wishes for her own medical care. At that, the doctors complied and took her off.

Mandy’s father and mother were very distressed. Before the pain meds completely wore off, they asked her why she didn’t want them, pleading with her to consider a different course. Why not accept just a little relief? Mandy gave the same answer she always did. Her mind was about all the had left, she said, and she didn’t want it tampered with even if that meant release from physical pain. She would navigate forward as best she could without them.

Mandy couldn’t type much after the meds. She gave yes or no answers to questions in the form of “n” or “y,” and even that at times seemed like more pain than she could handle. Her parents found that the trick was to get the temperature and humidity of the room just right, to allow the perfect conditions for Mandy to lay perfectly still by keeping her feeding tubes and life support out of the way, and to keep mental stimulus the focus of waking hours with television, audiobooks, and one-way conversation. If all this was done perfectly Mandy could sometimes avoid complete agony. This phase of her treatment was so bad that her father attempted to conspire with one doctor to sneak pain medicine into her drip, but when Mandy began to feel the effects and gain the ability to type more lengthy passages again, she told her father that if he didn’t stop the pain meds she would disown him as her father and bring charges against him. She ended her text string to him with get behind me, satan.

Mandy lasted longer than her doctors thought she would, and even became a private point of annoyance amongst them, since it was only a matter of time before her cancer would overtake her body, and all would end as it was originally planned. Many resources went into keeping her alive. And her parents too couldn’t stand to see their daughter suffer. That was the most painful thing. They couldn’t understand, month after month, why their daughter kept holding on when it would have been so much easier to let go, and they knew better than to ask her and force her to move her delicate fingers to craft a response.

One evening her parents came into her room and told her what they were going to do. They were going to tell the doctors that Mandy herself was requesting to be removed from life support. They couldn’t take watching their daughter suffer anymore. Not like this. In reponse Mandy was trying to lay very still as tears ran down her cheeks. It was very hard for her to type, but she managed pls no, almost passing out from the exhaustion of that one phrase. Her mother began weeping bitterly. It could not get any worse. She kissed Mandy on one very small portion of her typing hand which had been unburned, the one spot of original skin, and left the room for Richard to do the rest. Richard said he was very sorry but this was in everyone’s best interest. The suffering was too much. He then kissed her hand too and left the room.

The doctors were relieved when Richard and Barbara said that Mandy wanted finally to be taken off life support, and together they let out a collective sigh. They all felt like they had been through something together. Something horrible that none of them would ever forget. True, Mandy’s parents felt a sense of guilt for having lied their way to this solution and for ending Mandy’s life prematurely. But if they hadn’t intervened, how long would she have suffered? Surely they had lessened her overall pain. So even they began to feel a sense of relief after it had been done.

Most people had forgotten the news story, so when the report came out about Mandy’s death, it was a small one which only covered the necessary details. She’d decided to be taken off life support and who could blame her for that? The doctors interviewed said that Mandy had a peculiar and borderline supernatural will to live. Almost like a medieval saint or something. And her parents said they had no idea before Mandy was sick that this thing, this resilience, was anywhere inside of her.

While the doctors were unhooking everything from Mandy they pretended not to notice she was typing on her little computer screen. They knew what was happening. They’d treated Mandy a long time and didn’t believe for a second that she’d authorized it. None of them looked at what she typed. They unhooked her, pumped her full of drugs and eventually, days later, she died. Finally, one doctor thought, I can go back to my regular life and regular patients without news cameras and hassle and barbaric martyrdom. Although her mother knew Mandy must have typed something and made the mistake of looking at what it might be. Mandy’s last words were numbers.

1 > 0

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This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!

On Saturday April 28, 2018 comedian Michelle Wolf delievered the annual stand-up comedy routine for the White House Correspondents’ Dinner.

For those of you lucky enough to be unaware of the tradition, the White House Correspondents’ Dinner is an annual event designed to raise funds for scholarships in journalism, put on by the WHCA (White House Correspondent’s Association).

The central event of the night is the comedy roast.

It’s what you would expect it to be. A dinner with journalists, celebrities, and politicians—an unholy trinity of sorts—where apparently important things are supposed to be expressed, “truth spoken to power,” and all that, from people with a little less power, or just a different kind of power, than those they are supposedly “roasting.”

And just as every other non-event in 2018, Michelle Wolf’s recent comedy roast has drawn much attention and comment from just about everyone. Even the WHCA, who issued this statement:

4-30-2018 3-07-46 PM

Here you go. Watch and make up your own mind.

Now this is an important moment to stop and take stock, because what is about to unfold is a very proto-typical moment in current day pseudo-controversy.

Here are the typical steps:

  1. Somebody famous says something (celebrity, journalist, politician) usually with a note of exaggeration or of an inflammatory character, to promote something they are selling or a piece of entertainment that has recently been released, or a piece of journalism, or a piece of legislation. Controversy is key. Without it, nobody will watch.
  2. The media react to the inflammatory thing—usually on some supposed moral grounds, although they never clearly state exactly what moral grounds these are beyond very vague political positions. The key here is two camps are defined. Either for or against.
  3. A bunch of articles come out with some words in them and randomly pasted tweets from celebrities and journalists.

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4. Now that you know what the famous & rich people think, I, the supposed journalist doing some very deep digging into a very important issue, will give you my two cents about who is right and who is tanking Western civilization as we speak. I have to choose either for or against

a. If I am a super smart snooty journalist I will create one or two issues of sub-points in which I still take a side but with subtlety and many confusing statistics with the help of Nate Silver, and a brief history of the Roman Empire.

5. But first there must be a very juicy and headline-worthy title. I cannot simply release this very content-rich article without click bait, so:

a. Michelle Wolf, Female Comedian, Eviscerates Elites at WHCD & Donates All Revenues Attributed to Increased Viewership of Upcoming Netflix Special to Starved Orphans in North Korea.

b. Supposedly Feminist Comedian Mocks WHPS’s Eye shadow!

c. A Very Woke & Lovely Comedian Single-Handedly Tears Down White Male Patriarchy & Conservative Media Hegemony, at the Same Time!

d. This Woman’s Monologue was SO Outrageous that I Threw Up!

e. Media Elites’ Heads are so Far up Own Asses, Trump sure to Win Second Term

f. If You Didn’t Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck.

g. If You Did Like Michelle Wolf’s Monologue, You Suck

6. Also before article posts, ads must be placed in and around the article so that a certain percentage of people click the ad and buy the product advertised (baby wipes, beer, Pop Tarts, etc). The money from these people goes to the company that makes baby wipes, beer, etc. whose shareholders decide what % of that money should go back to these same media companies in the form of advertising dollars so the media companies can pay writers like me to write even more articles for you to look at with very important information that is very pertinent to your life alongside very subtle ads for these same products, and so on and so on. (This includes mentions within the article itself to entertainers with development deals with Disney or any other big media company that also owns one or multiple news stations).

7. Article posts. Hopefully millions upon millions click it. Doesn’t matter what their opinion is, only that a certain % click on that ad or subscribe to the publication (ha!)

8. Now begins the counter-article phase whereby articles about the original articles, normally called think pieces, or spicy hot takes, react to the reaction, in hopes of getting some bottom feeder secondary clicks. (Also known as leeches). Many sources are cited in these style articles and usually there is a narrative or a very artsy form mean to inculcate a certain intellectualism and cultured flair.

9. Rinse and repeat. Depending on how controversial a given event is, steps 1-8 could happen up to 7 times.

10. Eventually interest is lost and focuses on another burning issue.

It’s important to highlight this 10 step backdrop it’s the subtext for every instance of reportage in the modern world. Without understanding this dynamic you might make the unfortunate mistake that a) any of these people actually care about you and/or your opinion or b) that these events are reported in an earnest search for truth.

Here’s the real kicker: people are promoted within these organizations if you, reader, viewer, etc. look at what they produce. All you have to do is change the channel or click their article, and bear witness to advertisements. It doesn’t matter what you think or feel. It’s not a new model, but one that has become so totalizing and omnipresent that it would be a mistake to pretend that Michelle Wolf, or anybody else, is just some regular funny person walking in off the street. Their checks come from Viacom, Bertelsmann, Comcast, 21st Century Fox, etc. The people who give us the news (the supposed “watchdog” of American politics) are the same people that entertain us, and this co-mingling of frivolity and fact should be unsettling since the terminus of this obscene logic has led to Donald Trump. No wonder the media react in a more or less unanimous fashion to the Trump phenomenon. Trump did not come from some wheat field in the Midwest. He came from Manhattan where all these people milk their own udders.

Michelle Wolf herself says it better than I ever could, at the very end of her set:

I think what no one in this room wants to admit is that Trump has helped all of you. He couldn’t sell steaks, or Vodka, or water, or college, or ties, or Eric [pause for laughs]… But he has helped you. He’s helped you sell your papers and your books and your TV. You helped create this monster and now you’re profiting off of him…

If you want to see the most lightweight cream puffy White House Correspondent’s Dinner comedy routines, watch all eight under President Obama. Jeez. Then there were even more celebrities in attendance. Clooney, Spielberg, and even Trump himself. You’ve probably already forgotten about them—as they are articles of a bygone era, part of the wasteland we leave behind of opinions once dearly held, and then lost as new opinions are manufactured and shoved down our throats like Twinkies, for which it seems we have a hearty appetite.

Rejected Story Ideas, Part 3

Unfinished story:

Moon Town

‘Places, everyone!’ the Mayor of Moon Town said to the people in the crowded deli.

‘Rolling,’ Cameraman 1 said.

The Mayor leaned one elbow on the counter and made an inviting gesture to Camera 1.

‘On quiet evenings here in Moon Town it’s customary to head on down to the delicatessen for some Moon Town fine dining. Say there, Arnie. What’s on the menu tonight?’

‘Freeze dried protein paste,’ Arnie said.

‘Gee whiz, sounds good. Can I have a taste?’

‘Sure, Mayor.’

Arnie reached under the counter and brought out a prepared dish with tiny cubes of the paste and a garnish on the side. Normally the paste was eaten from a packet.

The Mayor ate a cube.

‘Mmm. This is really good, Arnie.’

‘Perfect,’ Cameraman 2 said. ‘Let’s cut straight to boy and Mayor casually sitting at counter.’

‘Come here, Tim,’ the Mayor said. A wide-eyed kid came forward through the crowd of extras. The Mayor helped him up onto the stool beside him at the counter. ‘Just like we practiced.’

‘Okay,’ Tim said.

‘Rolling.’

‘Moon Town is exciting. Don’t you think, Tim?’

Tim sat up straight.

‘Yes, Mayor.’

‘I don’t know about you, Tim, but I like taking long walks and watching the earthrise. What’s your favorite thing about Moon Town?’

‘I like moon rocks.’

‘Good man! I’m glad you mentioned moon rocks because I think our viewers would like to know that the moon rocks we harvest here in Moon Town are available at a major retailer near them.’ The camera panned and zoomed onto the Mayor’s face, who then puffed on a cigar. ‘And now a word from our sponsors.’

‘…And cut! Really great, guys,’ Cameraman 1 said. ‘We’ve got what we need for this scene.’

‘Delightful,’ the Mayor said. ‘Now get back to work everyone.’

 

 

Rejected Story Ideas, Part 2

 

7, 39, 43

A group of special ops is sent to a remote desert town thought to house a dangerous group of terrorists. The town in question has already been bombed and is reduced to ash, but recent intelligence indicates that many terror cells are housed underground and all precautions are being taken to ensure that this particular group of terrorists is neutralized. Under the command of Squad Leader, the team lines up behind an embankment of rocks and gets into position.

The group is going through the shambles of the clearly primitive (and yet once vibrant) village when one particular solider, Thirty Nine, notices a single building which mysteriously has been completely untouched. A warehouse containing rows of bright & shiny red Toyota Land Cruisers. Having seen cars like this in old movies, Thirty Nine stops to appreciate the old-fashioned vehicles with rubber tires and combustion engines.

“Drop your weapons,” a voice says from behind.

Around two dozen terrorists surround the special ops with aimed weapons, easily outnumbering them.

“Drop them now.”

Thirty Nine and the others drop their weapons. The terrorists quickly rip off their helmets, deprogram the distress signals, and lead them at gunpoint to an encampment with torches and a wooden fence with sharp posts. The camp looks as though it has been quickly built within a craggy space of rocks unobservable from the air. There are small huts scattered throughout and a small tower in the middle of the camp. The ops are taken to the huts in groups of three and stripped. In Thirty Nine’s hut are also Seven and Forty Three. They are tied to the walls with old ropes and left hanging. They’re tied tight so their limbs turn swollen and purple.

Two days go by, and none of the guards and/or terrorists come into the hut. The men discuss their predicament but know also that they are most likely being recorded or observed in some way. They’ve learned how to move slightly and shift their weight to accommodate the uncomfortable position of hanging from a wall.

One the third day one terrorist comes into the hut with a knife. The men don’t flinch as he walks around the hut holding the knife in clear view. He stops at Thirty Nine and grabs his testicles and says, “Are you afraid I will cut these off? It would be very painful, no? A man’s worst nightmare. Trust me, they are a useless appendage to you now.” But then, as if he had just suddenly and for no reason changed his mind, the man turns to Seven and makes a swift gesture as though he’s about to cut, and he does; the terrorist cuts Seven’s right arm free from the rope, and Seven lets out a sigh because the blood is now free again on that side of his body and he wasn’t stabbed. The terrorist then very casually walks out of the hut.

“What was that about?” Seven says.

“I don’t know,” Thirty Nine says.

Seven begins trying to untie his other restraints, perhaps to his credit, but the ropes are tied in knots not to be undone by human hands.

“I can’t.”

“Don’t waste your energy.”

Once Seven finally does give up he has a hard time concealing his superiority of circumstance, letting out sighs of relief and speaking as if he’s better suited to free the group now that he has one hand free. But this, of course, is an illusion. He’s no closer to freeing them than he was before. Seven’s free hand only makes the inevitable more comfortable for him. He overcompensates against this newly formed gulf between him and the group by seeming to have a renewed concern for contemplating escape strategies.

“I could swing now to get my arm out the door.”

“Don’t waste your energy,” Thirty Nine says.

On the fourth day another man comes into the hut with a bowl of water and a knife. Without a word he sets the bowl down and with the knife cuts free one hand of Forty Three. Before Forty Three can even let out a sigh, Seven is already drinking the water. “Share,” Thirty Nine says. But Seven isn’t slowing down. Forty Three tries to stop him but it’s too late. Seven finishes the bowl and begins to tussle with Forty Three. And Forty Three manages to get a pretty good grip on Seven’s throat and begins choking him.

“Stop,” Thirty Nine says. “This is what they want. They’re going to kill us anyway.” A group of men gathers at the hut’s entrance and watches Seven die. His body hangs limp on the wall and his one free hand dangles like a marionette’s. And the men go laughingly to the tower and come back with another bowl of water, and then cut Thirty Nine’s right arm free and set the water down again. “Let’s do this the right way.” Thirty Nine nods and allows Forty Three to take the bowl first. He drinks exactly half and puts it back in the middle of the floor. Thirty Nine drinks the rest.

The onlooking men make disappointed gestures and leave the hut.

“You shouldn’t have done that.”

“I know.”

“They’re trying to get inside us.”

“What does it matter if we die?”

“We could escape.”

Neither of them sleep that night. Seven’s body begins to stink. With one free hand Thirty Nine turns his body and looks out the thatched roof. The stars are bright, the only light besides the few torches in the camp. Thirty Nine thinks back and realizes he never learned the constellations. They’re not so great, he thinks. They’re just there in the sky like clouds. It would be all over soon and doesn’t matter. Forty Three leans over to Thirty Nine.

“Kill me.”

“What?”

“Strangle me. It’s dark and won’t be on camera. I can’t take it anymore.”

“There could still be a way out.”

“We’ve tried all day. There’s no way out.”

In the morning they bring another bowl of water and a small piece of bread on a tin plate. Thirty Nine and Forty Three are salivating, but Forty Three isn’t looking so good. The men stand in the doorway.

“You take it.” Forty Three’s voice was hardly audible.

“Let’s do halves like before.” The men pay close attention to the dealing. They look to Forty Three for his reply.

“No. You take it and I’ll take whatever they bring next time.” Thirty Nine hesitates, unsure of what Forty Three means by this. Some of the men notice this and looked to Forty Three for his reply. Some didn’t and instead maintained their study of Thirty Nine. “Take it!” Forty Three’s shrill yell pierces the air. The men laugh. Spit runs down his chin. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to cause a scene so he drinks the water and eats the bread. And the men leave with some mixed sense of satisfaction.

Thirty Nine then gets a strong hand to the face and then another. “How could you?” he says. Thirty Nine is trying to shield himself from the blows.

“You put me in a spot. We can’t argue in front of them.”

“I didn’t think you’d actually do it.”

Thirty Nine socks Forty Three in the trachea and he vomits nothing.

“We can’t let it come to this. This is what they want.”

“We’re both dying regardless of what they want.”

By next morning Forty Three is barely hanging on, and Thirty Nine isn’t doing much better. Their heads are hanging as blood is locating itself in uncomfortable parts of their bodies; their lips are cracked; their thoughts are cracked. It seemed like the end. But then a smell lifts them out of the daze. The sweet smell of dinner rolls and hot meat.

The men walk in issuing orders. They have a steak dinner on a tray and big canteens of water.

“You can have this meal but you must pay. Whichever of you gives us the eye of the other man can have the food.”

Thirty Nine looks at Forty Three who is looking at the food.

“We’ll split it,” Thirty Nine says.

“That’s not how it works,” the men say.

Forty Three lunges at Thirty Nine, tearing at his face. Thirty Nine does what he can, grabs Forty Three’s neck, and still Forty Three is flailing. But Thirty Nine has a bit more strength left. He looks at Forty Three pleadingly but he won’t make contact. He looks wherever his arms are going, pulling Thirty Nine’s hair & neck. Right before Forty Three dies he looks at Thirty Nine. His eyes say something like thank you and then go vacant. The men in the doorway are hollering and having a good time.

“Good job, solider,” they say. “Do you want this food?”

“Yes.”

“We need the eye.”

“…”

“That’s the deal.”

Forty Three’s dead body hangs on the wall. Thirty Nine doesn’t want to do it. Not with these men watching. He takes Forty Three’s chin and notices his dark eyes. Then he puts the head back down and digs into the socket which is much drier than he expected. There is a little sound and it seemed like it wouldn’t come out but, with a little effort, it did. It dangles from his face by its nerve. Thirty Nine pulls it free with a snap and throws it at the feet of the men. One of them picks it up and put it in his pocket.

“You’ve earned this,” they say. The men raucously applaud and put the plate of food before Thirty Nine and he eats it.

“You’re coming with us,” they say and untie him from the wall and carry him out into the sun, to the tower in the middle of the camp.

The tower is a wooden thing like the huts but bigger. The tower is empty inside, a hollow room with a metal platform on the ground that begins to sink like an elevator into the sand, taking the men into an underground chamber. Everything was total dark and Thirty Nine wonders how they’ve acquired a steak since, to his knowledge, there aen’t any cows in this part of the world.

They took him to a room with a woman sitting on a cot. She’s wearing a tight-fitting military uniform decorated with many badges. She leans forward with her elbows on her knees and looks at the wall. The men leave, closing the door, and she motions for Thirty Nine to sit on the cot opposite her. He sits down and sees that she’s young and beautiful.

“What do you think of all this?” she says.

“I don’t know.”

“Do you know why you’re here?”

“No.”

“Do you know what your people have done to us?”

“No.”

“Of course not.” She takes a small controller from her breast pocket and presses a button. The wall across us lights up with images, terrible images of scorched people running in the streets and buildings collapsing in onto themselves. Huge ships are dropping the fire. Thirty Nine recognizes the ships as his own. (He’s never seen the attacks from this angle before.) Large plumes of smoke wade through the streets like chess pieces, in frame after frame, and there were limbless bodies squirming through the streets and scorched babies. “Quite something,” she says.

“We were hitting terrorist sites. Terrorists from your country bombed us first. That’s what started this. It was retaliation.”

“Those mothers and their children do look like a threat to national security, don’t they?” She clicks on the screen again. It’s a video of Forty Three choking Seven. “Yes, your people seem to know a lot about retaliation. I could play the one of you killing him? That one. Forty Three.” She motions.

“No,” Thirty Nine says.

“You think I’m pretty cruel, don’t you?”

“I haven’t thought about it.”

“Of course you have. The Thirty Nine model is temperamental.”

“My name is Thirty Nine.”

“That’s not your name, son. That’s your model. Names are for people. You’re a standard issue, military grade, very life-like thing meant to resemble a person. But you’re not a person.”

“I am a person.”

“Regardless of what you think you are, you’re going to be terminated. If you were human we’d call that execution. The good thing is you’re built with fake flesh, fake blood, so it will still be a very good show. We like that type of thing here, watching it on TV. Keeps the morale up.” She leans closer to Thirty Nine and grabs his chin. Her breath smells like motor oil and her blonde hair reflects the harsh fluorescent lights. “Do you know who you’re talking to, soldier?”

“Your face looks familiar,” he says through squished lips, pinched by the grip under her leather gloves. She stands up. Her crotch was level with his face.

“The President of the United States of America.”

 

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Rejected Story Ideas

I like to write fiction, and have a huge stockpile – binders full! – of really bad stories.

A lot of you guys are writers. You know how it goes. You work on something and then it runs itself into the ground and it never sees the light of day. This is a tragic situation. Only 1% of writing ever makes it into a final draft. And what happens to the rest? It gets thrown away. A lot of good stuff that doesn’t quite fit into the final form has to be cut. Or a premise is developed and it never goes anywhere.

So this is the first – and perhaps last – installment of Rejected Story Ideas. Stuff from my binders that I’ve never been able to get off the ground.

__

The Professor Trilogy

1

Some scientific entrepreneur—let’s say Elon Musk—finds way of reviving body of FDR within days of 2020 Presidential Race in which Donald Trump is running for re-election. Zombie FDR wins in landslide.

2

Sociologist/professor develops algorithm & test for determining citizens’ fitness to vote. Rules out dumb voters vs. smart voters. Part IQ test, implicit bias test, sensitivity test, etc. Professor is world-renowned researcher. Gives TedTalks, writes best-selling books, is public intellectual of highest order; very witty and likable and good-looking. Work reviewed by many in media as ‘that which will save our civilization,’ etc. Research into political upheavals and human motivation ‘will add to 21st century era of technical and political crises a note of humanity and tenderness.’

In latter stages of development, professor excitedly makes a much covered & talked about presentation to his local government authorities about new findings and voter test. Unexpectedly government eagerly adopts findings & test, and immediately writes as mandate into local voting laws. Now all citizens must take test to vote. Mayor praises professor as guardian of humanist values & unimpeachable genius. Ensuing media coverage reaches boiling point. Begins national conversation re voting rights and government sovereignty. Is freedom dead in America? is one headline. New voting test now weeds out bottom feeders another reads. Professor receives many letters of commendation from well-known figureheads such as celebrities & business people & heads of State, as well as a few crazed death threats on Twitter from people with fewer than 50 followers.

In response to the viral articles & national media attention, professor & newly hired public relations manager concoct event to ease polarized tensions and news coverage. Also, PR guy adds, this will be a way for the professor to show himself as an upstanding and generally nice guy and not in any way above his own critiques of society & public life. The event is a press conference to be held at town city hall in which professor will be the first local citizen re-registering to vote using own test. Cameras are rolling as the professor fills out test on iPad and questions are projected onto a jumbo-screen & Facebook Livestream; questions like: If an elderly lady is clearly seen to be unknowingly wandering into oncoming traffic, how likely are to lend a helping hand and guide her to safety? Check: Very Likely, Likely, Neutral, Unlikely, Very Unlikely. Now if the lady is a member of a minority group? The press conference is relatively quiet and even respectful as those in attendance are marking this as a kind of historic & symbolic event, not to mention highly publicized. The professor answers the last question and rises to his feet smiling. Cameras are popping and there is a general bustling as the jumbo-screen is to reveal the professor’s voting score 1-100 (100 being the highest possible score & anything below 50 being a failing grade). The lab assistant is clicking through a few preliminary screens with infographics displaying specific voting traits, Conservative vs. Liberal, Authoritarian vs. Libertarian, Intelligence profile, & Compassion vs. Self-Interest Index. The lab assistant is sweating profusely with shaky hands probably because she is young and on national TV.

But then she clicks through to display the final score and immediately there is uneasiness and slight laughter. The professor’s score is 48 therefore disqualifying him from registering to vote. The professor laughs and the journalists laugh. Very funny, Samantha, the professor says. Now put the real score up. Samantha has a look on her face that is a mixture of panic and wincing fear. That is the real score, she says. Haha, okay. Sam we get the joke really this isn’t the time. Samantha looks at the professor and hands him her iPad. The professor looks at the score, scrolling through pages, & refreshes it a few times, and thinks, Sure enough, and looks up at the crowd which by now are going absolutely bananas, on the phone with their editors & producers, already breaking the story. The guy standing at the voting registry counter with the big pair of scissors lowers them from the red ribbon with a confused look on his face. Microphones are shoved to the professor’s face. How does it feel, Doctor, to be ruled out by our own test? And so the professor becomes the first citizen ruled out… by his own algorithm.

3

The newly elected Zombie FDR adopts the professor’s test at the National level via Federal mandate—one of the most unprecedented uses of Presidential power in United States history—sparking widespread protest. Now the now infamous test is required to vote in any of the states.

The once-lauded professor, now a shamed public figure, has resigned from his teaching & research position at UC Berkeley and is living in exile at an undisclosed location. One foggy evening at a bar in this undisclosed location, as the professor drunkenly hangs his head over a 7th glass of beer, he is approached by a shadowy figure who hands him a slip of paper inviting him to join a shadow organization that is attempting a coup against the U.S. government. They want to stage a cyber attack on the professor’s now ubiquitous voting software which they believe Zombie FDR is manipulating in his favor in the 2024 Presidential primaries. Let me be, the professor slurs. I’m afraid I can’t do that, the shadowy figure says, sticking a syringe in the professor’s leg. The professor faints. The shadowy figure catches him in his arms, and says casually to the bartender, Looks like my friend here’s passed out.

When the professor wakes up he is in a shadowy room with a dripping pipe somewhere echoing while he sits on a fold-up chair under a single hot light with his hands tied behind his back. The shadowy figure sits across from him with one leg folded over the other, puffing on a cigar. The figure pulls down his hood so that his face is now visible to the drowsy & drugged professor who is slowly regaining consciousness. The professor cannot believe what he is seeing. Zombie Abraham Lincoln. Just as stately and magnanimous as you would imagine, but with flayed and rotting flesh much worse than Zombie FDR. And there is still a gaping hole in his head.

We need your help, Zombie Lincoln says.

I can’t, the professor says.

Now is the time to right your wrongs, Zombie Lincoln says.

But what were my wrongs, exactly? How could I fail my own test? the professor says.

You didn’t fail your own test, Zombie Lincoln says.

What? the professor says.

We had one lad working on that one for a while, a real techie. Hacked the software and manipulated your score, Zombie Lincoln says.

Fuck, the professor says.

Took a lot of work to get that one exactly right, Zombie Lincoln says.

But—but—

Now is the time to right your wrongs.

 

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The Fork in the Road at the End of Looking Down Your Nose

Many cite The Beatles’ first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show in 1964 as the symbolic birth of popular music.

In the decades since the 1950s & 1960s popular music has become almost too big and varied to write about. How to sum up the careers of The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Whitney Houston, Justin Bieber? Impossible. Each artist uniquely emerged in stylistic and market contexts defined by forces which greatly supersede mere personal talent. There are many talented musicians in the world, but only a few who can also embody a culture and reach a mass audience.

This makes the history of popular music remarkable to study. Just a little over half a century and we have gone from The Beatles to Kendrick Lamar with many decades of amazing music in between.

It was with this sort of doe-eyed plucky optimism that I approached my teenage brother-in-law one day and asked what sort of music the kids were listening to these days because, as a twenty-something old fart, I had been out of the loop for a while, listening to a lot of my old favorites, and was curious what new terrain there was to explore.

This is what he played for me:

 

Congratulations. You’ve been introduced to ‘mumble rap.’

Now, I consider myself to be a broad-minded person but… this was horrible music. Never before had I been repelled by something so mainstream and popular.

This moment was what I now call the fork in the road at the end of looking down my nose.

I hated this music, so I had two options:

1) accept that the pop music industry had left me behind and be ok with that 2) or try and argue that the pop music industry was now irreversibly dumb and this music was proof of the death of a once beautiful and vibrant creative industry.

In the moment with my brother-in-law I picked something like a compromise between these two options, trying to hide my absolute disgust while casually offering up other rappers I thought he could relate to that I considered better i.e. Kendrick Lamar.

That was the end of that conversation.

Reflecting back on this moment was slightly horrific because deep down I had to admit: I was becoming that old person who always annoyed me when I was a kid, picking at the younger kids’ music and recommending they listen to the ‘real’ stuff/the classics that really had the magic, etc. Ew. How did this happen?

Were these old farts right all along? Was the music I listened to as a kid really this bad to their ears? Maybe.

This is of course only a crisis if you’re a big music fan, and I had to admit to myself that, yes, music was this important to me. I believe in the transformative power of music. There have been many nights where an album lifted me out of a depression, accompanied me during a rough breakup, or made the drive to school more uplifting. For all the flack pop culture catches from high-brow critics, I had to admit that pop music has been a constant companion to me, and I wanted to understand it moving forward, but I also didn’t want to give up on what has really touched me in the past.

Still not resolved.

But one way I’ve tried to move forward is to proactively search for common ground and find those spaces in popular music where there is overlap with music that is or has been moving to me in the past. The old stuff will always be there. But younger kids are having experiences I never had and are reacting to art that resonates with those experiences. Who am I to say that my experiences should supersede theirs? Or that the music I heard was any truer to my experience than their music is to theirs?

And I had to think maybe the music I liked as a kid wasn’t better by some objective standard. Maybe I had just been there as a young and impressionable kid to appreciate it. Perfect fodder for grand-scheme marketing campaigns. Maybe there was nothing special and sacred about those artists per se, and they were just one small piece of a larger tapestry that is beyond any one person’s ability to comprehend it, which twists and turns down unexpected paths.

Who knows.

I think can live with that interpretation.

So with that I leave you with what my little brother-in-law and I could agree on:

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How Reading Denis Johnson Can Make You a Better Writer

Denis Johnson died on May 24, 2017 at his home in Sea Ranch, California.

Johnson wrote poems, plays, short stories, novels, journalism, and screenplays. Taken together, it’s an astounding body of work. Every book he wrote is like nothing else you will ever read. His voice was unique and irreplaceable.

His three rules for writing were:

1) Write naked. That means to write what you would never say. 2) Write in blood. As if ink is so precious you can’t waste it. 3) Write in exile, as if you are never going to get home again, and you have to call back every detail.

Many people who have read Denis Johnson come to him by his most famous book, a collection of stories entitled Jesus’ Son.

Jesus’ Son is famous for a few reasons. First, it’s amazing. This is no guarantee you’ll personally like it, depending on your taste, but what is certain is that people will still be reading Jesus’ Son many years from now. And secondly, the subject matter of the stories is something very few have pulled off. Namely, the everyday condition of people at the bottom of society—junkies, losers, burnouts, etc. But Jesus’ Son isn’t a journalistic study from a disinterested ivy league alum or a hack beat poet. Denis Johnson himself struggled with drugs, alcohol, and immense personal struggle. That and the first person tense tinges the stories with a sense of direct experience. And apparently the literary world is filled with ambiguity about whether or not Jesus’ Son is straightforward autobiography. If that’s true, even if it’s only a little bit true, that would be quite alarming. As you will soon see…

Without laboring any further to try and explain Jesus’ Son to you, it’s probably best to look at the text itself.

One very short story in the collection is called “Dundun.” It’s as good a place as any to get a grasp of what Denis Johnson is able to do on the page, and more importantly to learn lessons about how to write a brilliant short story.

The beginning of “Dundun,”—

              I went out to the farmhouse where Dundun lived to get some pharmeceutical opium from him, but I was out of luck. 

             He greeted me as he was coming out into the front yard to go to the pump, wearing new cowboy boots and a leather vest, with his flannel shirt hanging out over his jeans. He was chewing on a piece of gum.

            “McInnes isn’t feeling too good today. I just shot him.”

            “You mean you killed him?”

            “I didn’t mean to.”

            “Is he really dead?”

            “No. He’s sitting down.”

            “But he’s alive.”

            “Oh, sure, he’s alive. He’s sitting down now in the back room.”

            Dundun went on over to the pump and started working the handle. 

There’s a lot to take in in this little chunk of text. Immediately we are aware (as we are for all of Jesus’ Son) that drugs are playing a central role and are likely a part of any conceptual gaps or confusion we may experience during the narrative. Many writers write about drugs. And many do it horribly because they use drugs as an excuse to jump all over the place or overuse dream images and hallucinations which only tends to disorient and bore the reader. Johnson, on the other hand, hasn’t overstepped any bounds. We are aware something horrible has happened. We see Dundun is apparently more out of touch than the narrator as he casually is working the water pump. But the narrator is immediately concerned and goes to investigate.

            I went around the house and in through the back. The room just through the back door smelled of dogs and babies. Beatle stood in the opposite doorway. She watched me come in. Leaning against the wall was Blue, smoking a cigarette and scratching her chin thoughtfully. Jack Hotel was over at an old desk, setting fire to a pipe the bowl of which was wrapped in tinfoil. 

            When they saw it was only me, the three of them resumed looking at McInnes, who sat on the couch all alone, with his left hand resting gently on his belly. 

            “Dundun shot him?” I asked.

            “Somebody shot somebody,” Hotel said.

            Dundun came in behind me carrying some water in a china cup and a bottle of beer and said to McInnes: “Here.”

            “I don’t want that,” McInnes said.

            “Okay. Well, here, then.” Dundun offered him the rest of the beer.

            “No thanks.”

            I was worried. “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

This additional scene-setting adds more uncertainty to the original situation. Not only has McInnes been shot, but he is among people who seem not to have noticed or who are at least fuzzy on the details. Johnson does this with one piece of dialouge. “Somebody shot somebody.” We get a broader sense of indifference and the influence of drugs. Also, we see Dundun is already developing as a character. The reason he was outside pumping water wasn’t for idle amusement, but to fetch water for McInnes. Meanwhile the narrator continues his concern, “Aren’t you taking him to the hospital or anything?”

            “Good idea,” Beatle said sarcastically.

            “We started to,” Hotel explained, “but we ran into the corner of the shed out there.”

            I looked out the side window. This was Tim Bishop’s farm. Tim Bishop’s Plymouth, I saw, which was a very nice old grey-and-red sedan, had sideswiped the shed and replaced one of the corner posts, so that the post lay on the ground and the car now help up the shed’s roof.

            “The front windshield is in millions of bits,” Hotel said.

            “How’d you end up way over there?”

            “Everything was completely out of hand,” Hotel said.

            “Where’s Tim, anyway?”

            “He’s not here,” Beatle said. 

            Hotel passed me the pipe. It was hashish, but it was pretty well burned up already.

            “How you doing?” Dundun asked McInnes.

            “I can feel it right here. It’s just stuck in the muscle.”

            Dundun said, “It’s not bad. The cap didn’t explode right, I think.”

            “It misfired.”

            “It misfired a little bit, yeah.”

            Hotel asked me, “Would you take him to the hospital in your car?”

            “Okay,” I said. 

Johnson complicates the effect of drugs by slowly revealing the failed attempts of the group to help McInnes. It’s not that they are hardened junkies bent on depravity and destruction; they simply can’t carry out the tasks they wish to, leading to their request of the narrator to drive McInnes to the hospital since he is the only one of them that is sober enough to do so. This is a nice subtle little element of realism.

            “I’m coming, too,” Dundun said.

            “Have you got any of the opium left?” I asked him.

            “No,” he said. “That was a birthday present. I used it all up.”

            “When’s your birthday?” I asked him.

            “Today.”

            “You shouldn’t have used it all up before you birthday, then,” I told him angrily. 

            But I was happy about this chance to be of use. I wanted to be the one who saw it through and got McInnes to the doctor without a wreck. People would talk about it, and I hoped I would be liked. 

            In the car were Dundun, McInnes, and myself. 

            This was Dundun’s twenty-first birthday. I’d met him in the Johnson County facility during the only few days I’d ever spent in jail, around the time of my eighteenth Thanksgiving. I was the older of us by a month or two. As for McInnes, he’d been around forever, and in fact, I, myself, was married to one of his old girlfriends. 

            We took off as fast as I could go without bouncing the shooting victim around too heavily. 

            Dundun said, “What about the brakes? You get them working?”

            “The emergency brake does. That’s enough.”

            “What about the radio?” Dundun punched the button, and the radio came on making an emission like a meat grinder.

            He turned it off and then on, and now it burbled like a machine that polishes stones all night.

            “How about you?” I aksed McInnes. “Are you comfortable?”

            “What do you think?” McInnes said.

The narrator’s desire for drugs is again reasserted, connecting it to the beginning of the story, but the complication of this motive provides him an opportunity to “be liked.” It’s telling that this is a worthy trade off in the eyes of the narrator. To me, this is why all of the stories in Jesus’ Son are relatable to the non-drug user. Johnson’s real subject matter isn’t drugs so much as the motivation for taking drugs, i.e. a lack of human connection and a desire to feel that connection, or at least to feel the feelings that tend to accompany that connection. And we will see this logic build a climax which could be interpreted as bizarre if this underlying condition isn’t held in mind.

             It was a long straight road through dry fields as far as a person could see. You’d think the sky didn’t have any air in it, and the earth was made of paper. Rather than moving, we were just getting smaller and smaller.

            What can be said about those fields? There were blackbirds circling above their own shadows, and beneath them the cows stood around smelling one another’s butts. Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say. 

            “We’ll never get off this road,” I said.

            “What a lousy birthday,” Dundun said. 

            McInnes was white and sick, holding himself tenderly. I’d seen him like that once or twice even when he hadn’t been shot. He had a bad case of hepatitis that often gave him a lot of pain. 

            “Do you promise not to tell them anything?” Dundun was talking to McInnes.

            “I don’t think he hears you,” I said.

            “Tell them it was an accident, okay?”

            McInnes said nothing for a long moment. Finally he said, “Okay.”

            “Promise?” Dundun said. 

            But McInnes said nothing. Because he was dead. 

If we reverse engineer this section, we can find many surprising things. First, we have obviously reached the level of tragedy. McInnes is dead and the worst has been realized. But we also see, just before this revelation, an admission of guilt from Dundun. “Tell them it was an accident, okay?” Dundun’s main concern is to establish a refutable innocence, to cover his own ass, and McInnes’ last words reveal he’s willing to play along for Dundun’s sake, even as he dies. “Okay.”

What at first seems like an overly poetic two paragraphs describing the fields around them becomes an understandable reflection on the part of the narrator, who knows what’s coming in advance, to try and find physical significance and beauty foreshadowing the moment McInnes dies. What are moments like this supposed to be like? Are there signs? The narrator wants to find significance, but seems to recognize that moments like this are just like any others. Death is normal and banal. “Dundun spat his gum out the window while digging in his shirt pocket for his Winstons. He lit a Winston with a match. That was all there was to say.”

            Dundun looked at me with tears in his eyes. “What do you say?”

            “What do you mean, what do I say? Do you think I’m here because I know all about this stuff?”

            “He’s dead.”

            “All right. I know he’s dead.”

            “Throw him out of the car.”

            “Damn right throw him out of the car,” I said. “I’m not taking him anywhere now.”

            For a moment I fell asleep, right while I was driving. I had a dream in which I was trying to tell someone something any they kept interrupting, a dream about frustration.

            “I’m glad he’s dead,” I told Dundun. “He’s the one who started everybody calling me Fuckhead.”

            Dundun said, “Don’t let it get you down.”

            We whizzed along down through the skeleton remnants of Iowa. 

            “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” Dundun said. 

            Glaciers had crushed this region in the time before history. There’d been a drought for years, and a bronze fog of dust stood over the plains. The soybean crop was dead again, and the failed, wilted cornstalks were laid out on the ground like rows of underthings. Most of the farmers didn’t even plant anymore. All the false visions had been erased. It felt like the moment before the Savior comes. And the Savior did come, but we had to wait a long time.

            Dundun tortured Jack Hotel at the lake outside of Denver. He did this to get information about a stolen item, a stereo belonging to Dundun’s girlfriend, or perhaps to his sister. Later, Dundun beat a man almost to death with a tire iron right on the street in Austin, Texas, for which he’ll someday also have to answer, but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.

            Will you believe me when I tell you there was kindness in his heart? His left hand didn’t know what his right hand was doing. It was only that certain important connections had been burned through. If I opened up your head and ran a hot soldering iron around in your brain, I might turn you into something like that. 

We’re reminded, almost surprisingly, that this is a story about Dundun. The ending reveals that this episode is the first of many heinous acts committed, and it’s retelling is perhaps an attempt by the narrator to remember back to when it all first went wrong for Dundun. When the first domino fell.

Although the two characters seem to show almost complete indifference when McInnes dies, clearly the narrator sees some significance in the death. Otherwise he wouldn’t invoke “the time before history,” and “the moment before the Savior comes,” in his closing description. These spiritual symbols are woven into the physical landscape and the bleakness of the Midwest, placing Johnson in a long tradition of American writers.

When the Savior does come it’s in the form of Dundun’s eventual fate… “but now he is, I think, in the state prison in Colorado.”

Dundun gets what he deserves and yet the narrator is trying to plead his case until the end. Yes, he shot a guy. But we are asked partially to consider the role of drug usage, which, the author implies through metaphor, isn’t as voluntary as it may seem. And at the beginning of the story Dundun’s fetching McInnes water then offering to go along to the hospital with the narrator shows that, at least at first, he’s not all bad. But then it happens. And the tragedy of Dundun is allowing oneself to be trapped by one’s own fate, and to turn into something one wasn’t before. “I wouldn’t mind working as a hit man,” he says. And that’s one brutal metamorphosis.

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