Seriously…

I’ve never posted back to back like this before, but something’s been on my mind, so I’m breaking the fourth wall, just for a moment.  I received this email from a writer friend in reference to a recent post, “Anatomy of a Lengthy Rejection Letter”:

i read the blog about the rejection letter. i just hope it doesn’t piss off other agents. first rejection letter is like a badge of honor, right? that’s the beginning of every good success story. i’m not saying don’t blog about it, i’m just saying that in blog-type the tone of that blog is unclear. you like him, you love him, and there’s some sarcasm in there – are you throwing him under the bus or praising him or…?

Okay, first of all, it’s not my first rejection letter, but it is the longest and definitely the sweetest.  So if I may, let me ask you, dear reader, for a favor.  If you would, scroll back a couple of posts to the one in question, give it a read (or a reread), and ask yourself: is there really any ambiguity about the tone?  Certainly it’s cheeky, but it’s clearly appreciative, no?  There is sarcasm, sure, but is there any doubt that it’s meant to satirize an aspiring writer’s neurotic inclinations and not the publishing industry at large?  I mean, should I be scared of having posted this?  Because if so, I think that’s the kiss of death.  I think to begin censoring myself over what anyone important (as if anyone important is actually reading these posts!) might think would be, for me, an unprincipled corruption of the artistic  process.  In some small way it would mean that I’ve sold out before I’ve even begun.  And how goddamn sad would that be?

The agent that sent that letter went above and beyond.  I don’t think there’s a shred of doubt that I applaud his efforts—not only his looking at my work, but the manner in which he rejected me: with his actual thoughts detailed in a personalized way.  I mean, this guy—like any agent—is busy.

So please, do me this favor.  Give it a looksee, and, if you would, comment here at this post.  If you leave a comment and you live here in Western Mass, I’ll take you out somewhere.  We’ll get a drink, at least one.  I don’t care if you’re a boy or a girl 🙂

Thanks,

Jimmy

Slow Hemorrhage of the Soul

When I arrived in Los Angeles, one of the first things I noticed was the near-constant presence of cocaine, and its ubiquity had nothing to do with any sort of subculture.  It was at all the grungy after parties, of course, but it was also at the wine and cheese gatherings, the ones that start at six.  Put on a collared shirt, bring a bottle of Bordeaux, kiss the hostess on the cheek, do some coke.  People who would be considered “grownups” back east were using cocaine openly in LA.  I hadn’t done it in eight or nine years, and what I remembered was juvenile and sketchy: people winking and pee dancing off to the bathroom.  But now it was out in the open, and more like a tango: tension and slinking, staccato speech patterns, syncopated dialogue.  I’d be chatting up a girl, cutting up lines casually, the number determining the length of the dance, the girl following my lead.  I’d better offer him a smoke, get into the rhythm of his jokes, or he’ll whirl off with the coke.

Within the fierce social-climbing jungle that is the LA party scene, cocaine is more than just an accoutrement.  It’s bait.  You can lure with it, build a party around it.  People will stay so long as you don’t run out.  You can’t buy charm, wit, affability, handsomeness or intellect, but you can find a delivery dealer.  But there’s an unintended consequence, one that’s slower and somewhat more insidious than the obvious health and legal concerns: you become an asshole.  How affable I was to begin with is questionable, but over time my motivation to be polite diminished considerably.  Why polish your manners when you can just pull out your bag?

I became an unapologetic cokehead.  And everyone knew it.  After all, that was the point.  If you needed a bump, you came to me.  It was my contribution, the least I could do.  I was glomming onto a scene that far exceeded anything I could’ve imagined.  Everyone had been around long enough to have acquired connections.  If we wanted to go to a certain club, we got on the list.  Having never bypassed a velvet rope in my life, I fell quickly into the flow of entitlement.  And the timing!  Bands I’d loved growing up—Sex Pistols, Bauhaus, Pixies—were reuniting and gigging in LA.  I was backstage at the Fonda when Echo and the Bunnymen were about to go on.  The show was delayed because Ian McCulloch was characteristically drunk and missing (“Same ol’ fuggin’ coont,” muttered one of the roadies).  No ardent Smiths fan ever expects to encounter Morrissey, so when I saw him at the El Rey it was like a dream.  That impossibly close shave, the hair, the hurt.  I wanted to touch him, if only to freak him out, but he was flanked by bodyguards.  I saw Circle Jerks, Buzzcocks.  I got in everywhere, easily, and always had the run of the place.

Then there were those grungy after parties.  We may’ve begun the evening in the inner sanctum, getting high with the opening act and watching the headliner in style, but by dawn we’d be at a gutted loft space downtown, scraping our vials and scrounging for douched beers and leftover pussy.  Fine dining, VIP-lounging, dive bar slumming, house party crashing—it was all part of this adult-but-not limbo we swam in: an oblivion linked, inextricably, to cocaine.  I always had coke on me and it would’ve been foolish to pretend that I didn’t.  My friends were the hip ones.  I was a mere tenant among them.  If one of the boys wanted a bump, what was I going to say?  Sorry, can’t spare one.  Thanks, though, for getting me in everywhere and getting me laid all the time.

C’mon.

The Lydia Story

Lydia was the quintessential hipsterette: pretty, edgy, hedonistic, volatile.  One night at my place she made an announcement.  “Who wants to see me clap with my ass?”  She then moved to the far wall so that everyone could see and turned her back, hiked her skirt, dropped her panties, and began bouncing on the balls of her feet.  And voila!  Her buttocks smacked together rhythmically.  Loudly.  It was at once ridiculous, impressive, and stupefying.  We all applauded, adding irony.

Lydia never missed a party.  She’d be in my lap one night, Huff’s the next.  You wouldn’t have guessed that she was Skot’s girlfriend.  Couples were always tricky.  I supplied many, and sometimes they’d place orders together, sometimes separately, and when they’d do it separately, I was expected to keep mum, which was standard procedure; there was no need for anyone to know anyone else’s habits.  But often, one of the two would begin asking me, for whatever reason, to ignore the other.  I’d politely explain that I wouldn’t do that, and that it wasn’t a money issue.  To ask that of me was overstepping, I’d argue, and groundless.  They had to agree.  But breakups were trickier.  He takes his friends, she takes hers, but who keeps the drug dealer?  Answer: both, separately.  And people just had to accept that.  I couldn’t be expected to choose sides.  (I’m just now realizing that although I had gay customers, I never had gay couples.  Weird.)

Skot and Lydia’s breakup was messy.  There were rumors of a physical altercation, which didn’t surprise anyone.  Skot had once slapped a woman publicly and because he couldn’t deny it, he’d occasionally thread his mea culpa into conversation, just to ensure that his spin would reach everyone eventually.  And Lydia was, well, Lydia.  Whatever happened, she went straight to bed with Huff, my downstairs neighbor and good friend.  Why him? I wondered.

Huff and I had always competed amiably.  I had the cash and the little empire, but he had a bohemian charm I just couldn’t feign.  He played guitar, knew his way around a mixing board.  He was an artist, and therefore more soulful.  Lydia had been flirty with us both from day one.  And now Huff was feeling invaded by her.  “She keeps texting,” he said.

“Just ignore her.”

“I am, but how long can I keep it up?”

He had a point, I thought.  With cell phones, we’re all fucked.

Then Lydia called in the middle of the night.  She’d never been over alone, so I didn’t know what to expect.  I applied some deodorant, moved my hair around.  When she arrived we hugged and kissed as usual.  I sat her on the couch, got her a beer.  She bought a bag and began tamping it.  “Save it,” I said, taking a seat next to her.  I poured out plenty for us both

She was trying to be her peppy self, but I could see that she was distraught.  “I don’t know what’s happening,” she said, “he’s not answering my texts, he won’t see me.  What am I supposed to do?”  I wondered who she was talking about at first, and then I realized that it didn’t matter.  Skot and Huff were interchangeable now, and Lydia was flummoxed.  How, within days, had both men slipped through her nail-bitten fingers?

I consoled her breezily on the motives of men.  She seemed intrigued, even though I was basically just offering fish-in-the-sea platitudes.  I was probably more flattered by her attention than she was by mine.  The conversation turned to cocaine, specifically its long-term effects—a subject on which I was presumed to be omniscient.  I told her not to worry.  “Look at Stevie Nicks and Mick Fleetwood,” I said.  “They were major cokeheads for many years.  And now they’re fine.  Eventually you quit, and any damage reverses itself.”  This was my pat answer.  I’d deploy it occasionally, citing Fleetwood Mac because they’d supposedly ripped a shit-ton of blow and were old now and clearly not dead.  While on the subject, I mentioned the classic Stevie Nicks rumor: that she’d corrupted her nasal passages to the point where her assistant had to blow the coke up her ass.  Lydia finished her line, swiped her nose, and turned to me.  “Do you wanna blow coke up my ass?”

It was easily the least expected, most thrilling question ever asked of me.  (And I realize how sad that is.)  I choked out an affirmative.  Lydia then peeled her stockings and underwear down to her ankles, turned over on the couch, hiked her skirt, and parted her cheeks.  I was supposed to be preparing, I realized, so I quickly grabbed a full baggie and jammed in a straw.  I would blow from the other end, obviously, but I was besieged by unknowns.  How deep do I go?  How hard do I blow?  How much is enough?  How much is too much?  She was waiting, I realized, and the situation was clearly time-sensitive.

I packed the straw about half an inch deep and inserted it carefully, so as not to scratch her.  I blew hardish—a gust strong enough, I’d say, to extinguish a few birthday candles.  Or to disperse dandelion spores.  Lydia didn’t react, so I asked if she was okay.  Without looking back, she flashed a thumbs-up.  I figured I had a window, so I quickly unbuckled my belt and pushed my jeans halfway down my thighs.  Her feet were together, so I just moved in and began sliding my cock up and down the crack of her ass.  I wanted to be sure that she was aware of what was about to happen, so, once fully hard, I poked her and made moaning noises.  (Assuming the permissibility of this seemed safe enough.  It occurred to me later how confounding an objection would’ve been.  Wait, what’re you doing? I’m not that type of girl!)

We partied into the morning.  I was high, and eager to press on, but we were running low on beer and cigs, so I asked Lydia to sit tight while I run to the store.  I’d been in this situation often enough to know how easily the spark can die, so I blazed to the 7/11 on Silver Lake Blvd and Effie.  By the time I returned, Lydia was out front, smacking Huff’s window with an open palm.  I could hardly believe it.  How, this time, had I not left the more lasting impression?

Anatomy of a Lengthy Rejection Letter

Dear James,

Thanks for sending me your manuscript – and for your kind words about [I name dropped, sue me]. I like what you’ve got here, but the market for drug memoirs is really shitty right now. The editors I know and trust most just aren’t looking for almost any kind of memoir like they used to, and drug stories have always been tough (perhaps strangely, much much tougher than alcohol stories). Despite that, I kept reading because you’ve got a good voice and some nice perspective. I’m sorry to say I can’t take it on because of the publishing industry, not because of your work. I hope you find an enthusiastic agent who loves your work and doesn’t share my reservations about the current market. Thanks for giving me the chance. If this doesn’t find a home and you have anything else down the line, feel free to get back in touch.

 

Wow.  Okay.  Where do I begin?  For starters, all one ever expects is a form letter.  So right off the bat, this guy is awesome.  I wish I could prove that this is genuine—which, in itself, is ludicrous on several levels, beginning with why would it matter?  Like anyone is reading this.  (Since learning how to check my “stats,” I’ve become obsessed with doing so, and I am getting some traffic, but nobody ever comments, ever.)  Also, why the hell would I fabricate a phony rejection letter?  Is it even possible for a writer to be that desperate for material?  And finally, there probably is a way to prove that I cut and pasted from my inbox, but I don’t know these things.  I don’t right click much.

I must keep things in perspective.  There are whole workshops devoted solely to getting agents to look at your manuscript—a hurdle I seem to have cleared, finally, so I’m certainly not going to whine.  Querying is just about the most amorphous, nebulous, subjective thing ever.  Right now I feel like the cute guy from out of town, crashing on his cute friend’s couch.  I seem interesting.

Okay, back to the letter.  Let’s take it line by line, shall we?

1. “Thank you for sending me the manuscript.”

–That’s rich: he’s thanking me.  I’m leaving him anonymous, not because I think it’d be wrong to mention his name, but because who he is doesn’t matter.  He’s big, with big-name clients, and he accepts queries in the form of a letter and, mind-bogglingly, the full manuscript itself.  Attached.  That’s right.  He’ll open attachments.  He’s not even picky.  You can send him a PDF, .doc, .docx, whatever.  There’s literally no reason not to query this guy—barring human decency, which is the real reason why I’m leaving him anonymous.  I simply won’t contribute to the deluge of shitty manuscripts that surely jam up his inbox.  Based on his letter alone, I respect this guy way too much.

2. “I like what you’ve got here, but the market for drug memoirs is really shitty right now.”

–Shit, man.  I could chew on this one for a while.  He “likes” what I’ve got, which, I suppose, implies that he didn’t “love” it, but more on that later.  The market for drug memoirs is really shitty right now?  First of all, he could’ve said that the market was “down,” or “poor,” or “weak,” or “has fallen off,” or whatever polite, euphemistic terminology.  He called the market “shitty,” and I like that.  It’s very no BS.  But the meat of it—that my particular subject matter isn’t selling right now—is somewhat disheartening.  No, let me rephrase that.  It’s annoying.  First of all, doesn’t it always seem that way?  I mean, was there ever a time when publishing execs were saying, “This is awesome, you know, because vampire love triangles are really hot right now.”  Or, “Wow, fan fiction involving S&M with Americans using British slang and a narrator whose favorite expression is ‘holy crap’—jeez, that’ll sell millions.”  Nobody knows what makes a hit.  Nobody.  And I understand that, from a marketing standpoint, my project would be pigeonholed as a “drug memoir.”  And that sucks.  Because my book isn’t about drugs.  Or drug dealing.  At all.

3. “The editors I know and trust most just aren’t looking for almost any kind of memoir like they used to, and drug stories have always been tough…”

–This sentence, as is, is flabby, but that’s totally unimportant.  It’s basically a reiteration of the previous line, but he really seems to want me to understand why he won’t take me on a client, and I find that endearing, truly.  I’m somewhat torn about the “editors I know and trust” part.  I get knowing them, but to an unpublished writer, any editor willing to buy the manuscript sounds good.  Besides, everyone knows that editors don’t really edit anymore, so what’s an “untrustworthy” one going to do?  Acquire my manuscript unscrupulously?  I know I’m just being silly about this, but again, it speaks to where I’m at.  When, eventually, the market shifts and memoirs are (once again) all the rage, perhaps then I’ll understand what it means to avoid a disreputable editor.  And as far as “drug stories have always been tough”—again, ugh.  If you were to go through my book and substitute “chocolate” for “cocaine,” you’d have virtually the same story: a conflicted candy salesman (with a bit of a sweet tooth himself) who yearns to find meaning in his life.  To make sense out of the chaos.  To be loved.  It’s the age-old tale.  The one that sells.  Again and again.

4. “Despite that, I kept reading because you have a good voice and some nice perspective.”

–Very flattering indeed.  But it’s like filet mignon that’s slightly overcooked.  Or a new lover whose sensibilities turned out to be almost as you’d imagined.  I suppose I wish the adjectives were stronger.  I’d have preferred “great” voice and “searing” perspective, but I’ll take “good” and “nice.”  They’re way better than nothing.  And of course I’d have preferred “unputdownable” to “kept reading,” but I’m quibbling now, aren’t I?

5. “I’m sorry to say I can’t take it on because of the publishing industry, not because of your work.”

–This guy is still going.  He seems genuinely concerned that I’ll take his rejection personally—which, of course, I do.

6. “I hope you find an enthusiastic agent who loves your work and doesn’t share my reservations about the current market.”

–He sort of sounds like he’s breaking up with me now, and not only that, he sounds genuinely remorseful.  If you look at the previous line, it sounds a lot like “It’s not you, it’s me”—which, clichéd as it is, isn’t so far-fetched.  When breaking up, I always use some twist on that line, and I always mean it.  Because it’s always my fault.  Now, with this line (line 6), he’s using his own variation on “You deserve someone better”—which, personally, I’ve never used.  Because I doubt I could choke those words out with a straight face.

7. “Thanks for giving me the chance.”

–Again, this guy kills me.  Nicest.  Agent.  Ever.

 8. “If this doesn’t find a home and you have anything else down the line, feel free to get back in touch.”

–Honestly, I wish this one were clearer.  He seems to be saying that if I do find an agent for my manuscript, then that guy (or girl) will be my agent forevermore, thus I’d have no need to contact him ever again.  Conversely, if no agent agrees to rep my current manuscript, then I should contact him again—provided I’ve written an entirely new manuscript.  The completion of which will probably surpass ANYONE’S ability to remember me, let alone this particular agent.

Which is probably a good thing.  Because what would I say?  Remember me—I’m the guy who queried you years ago about his “drug memoir.”  But never mind that.  I’ve got a novel now, a good one.  I wrote it for THE MARKET, so it’s soulless as hell, but it involves a divorced vampire who travels to three different continents tying people up…

*Author’s Note: As much as I like this piece, I’ve been a bit paranoid about it ever since a writer friend described the tone of it as “unclear.”  For the record, it IS an actual letter, and these are like my id thoughts based on it.  It’s meant to be fun and satirical and I have no beef with this particular agent, agents in general, or the publishing industry at large.  Rejection is a big part of the gig for all of us, and we all gotta pay the rent.  But we gotta smile, too, right? 🙂

Just in Case You’re an Agent with my “ms” on Your Desk…

…I promise, this is by no means a where-are-we-with-this-thing-because-I’m-dying-here message.  Or anything.  Do take your time.  I’m rather enjoying this limbo, actually.  Not only is it preferable to rejection, it’s comforting in the sense that I can (for now) bask in this phase of (meager) accomplishment.  What I’d have given a year ago for a pitch letter that yielded results.  And the year before that, a manuscript that actually worked.  And the year before that, an acceptance from a literary journal.  And the year before that, a workshop session that didn’t leave me feeling like the victim of a Central Park mugging.  Being a writer, I realize, requires patience.  It’s nothing if not a constant, relentless renegotiation of what it means to succeed.  (See, do I really need “constant” and “relentless” there in that sentence?  Certainly redundant, plus adjectives are always risky, so probably not.  Point being, I grapple with this shit.)

“I just want the opportunity to be rejected based on my work.”  It wasn’t that long ago that I was saying this to my editor.  Because when you’re at my level, an agent requesting to see your manuscript is sort of a big deal.  It’s like when Gordon Gekko finally agrees to meet with Bud Fox.  Well, life all comes down to a few moments.  This is one of them.  It’s like the literary equivalent of that.

So you’d think I’d be unreservedly prepared for when that coveted “send me the manuscript” request appears in my inbox.  And I am, basically.  I’ve been over those pages so many times.  (Like, you have no idea.)  But each time I send them out, guess what I do immediately afterward?  I go to my sent box.  Because as many times as I’ve seen them, I’ve never seen them the way this particular agent is going to see them.  And guess what?  I always find something.  Some little gaffe.  Something that I desperately wish I could go back and undo.

Here’s a list of what I’ve found, so far:

1. “He was as aspiring restaurateur, and to him waiting tables was just paying dues.” (p. 10)

Obviously, that “as” should be an “an.”  What kills me is how many times I must’ve seen that typo without seeing it, you know?  I hate these oversights, not because I feel like I’ll be rejected based on them, but because I feel like I’ll be pitied based on them.  Luckily, I think the version with this gaffe went out only once.  Maybe twice.  I prefer not to think about it too much.

2. “There’s a scene in Pulp Fiction where the dealer, played by Eric Stolz…”(p. 43)

That’s Eric Stoltz, with a “t,” and it’s only due to the weirdness of his name that I forgive myself mildly, because Microsoft Word puts that squiggly red line under it no matter how you spell it.

3. There was a paragraph at the bottom of page 59 that I had broken up, inexplicably, into three paragraphs.  It’s one of those things that you look at and think, Now why the fuck would I do that?  And the only thing I can think is that I must have, at some point, adhered blindly to a margin note.  My editor, God love her, is awesome.  But she was always on me about letting the dialogue “breathe,” and in this particular case, I do quote a character twice, but it’s only that one character, hence the standard indentation guidelines don’t apply, which made the text appear unnecessarily emphatic.

4. The last sentence on page 188—”I put her in bed and unlaced my shoes”—was, as it appears here: without the period.  This irked the shit out of me for a couple of reasons.  Firstly, the period wasn’t always missing.  The jettison most likely occurred during my “page break” phase, when formatting concerns were verging on the unreasonable.  (Oh jeez, what if I cut and paste and the text becomes all gobbledygook?  What then?)  Also, this sentence represents a watershed moment, one in which my protagonist (ahem, me) finally and ultimately realizes his capacity for empathy.  His very soul.  He is REDEEMED.  It’s just about the last place I’d want a reader to be distracted by anything, let alone a missing period.

So, dear agent, if you’re reading this, and I’m sure you’re not (because why would you be?), then please excuse me—not only for the gaffes but for this neurosis.  The obsessiveness.  The downright silliness.  Of me.  If you sign me, I promise not to drown you in the minutiae.  I’ll be professional, mindful of the task at hand.  I’ll take notes, answer emails.  Meet deadlines.  I won’t be what they call “high maintenance”—I swear.

And this whole diatribe—do disregard it.  Please judge me based on the work, and the work alone.  And again, take your time.

But not too much 🙂

Does that Make Me a Bad Person?

Maus was an exotic-looking beauty with chestnut skin and a pixie haircut that clung to her wobbly head.  I met her through Huff, a friend who’d vouched for her.  Whenever she’d stop by, she’d run straight to the bathroom.  The moment she’d see me, actually.  I didn’t think much of it at first, but then I realized what was happening.  She was associating me psychologically—and by extension, physiologically—with my product: a diuretic despite the baby laxative.  I’d become a stimulus—a walking Pavlovian trigger with Maus as my first salivating dog.

Maus lived just a few blocks east and we became friends.  I was in the process of breaking up and I confided my predicament.  “I can’t kick Carrie out,” I said, “that’d be kinda mean.”  Maus happened to be in a similar spot.  She’d broken up with her boyfriend, Jazz, a musician who was currently touring.  She suggested that I move in with her for a while.  “I think it’d be good for us both,” she said.  “We could bond over our issues.”  I wondered if she was being allusive, but it sounded fun regardless.  I told Carrie I’d be crashing with a friend.  “So you can get your bearings,” I said.  It felt close enough to the truth.

We had a party the first night.  People kept trickling in, all of them empty-handed.  I considered that tacky, but Angelinos are a bit scruffier; plus they all worked till two, so one can’t really hit the store.  I’d gone ahead and bought extra booze and I was pouring out party coke as well, which was becoming habitual for me.  I figured I was investing in people.  But really, I just wanted to please them.

A girl named Jeannie showed up at four or five in the morning.  She had that skater girl look: Vans, skinny jeans, spaghetti top.  She was thin and tatted up all over.  I wanted her immediately.

The party lasted through the morning and into the afternoon.  Things were winding down, but I’d somehow managed to charm Jeannie, and draw her into an adventure.  Wearing sunglasses and clutching road beers, we staggered into the street like drunken vampires.  After a brief search for my car, we took an ill-advised drive to the Roosevelt Hotel.  I had a Viagra pill on me, 100mg, so I broke it as evenly as I could and popped half right there at the front desk.  Some crumbly bits fell onto the marble, so I dabbed them with my finger and put them on my tongue.  They were bitter.  The lighting was harsh, and check-in seemed to take forever, but by the time we got to the room and hit the mini bar, I had a Duraflame in my pants.

I awoke parched and disoriented, eyelids fluttering, tongue pasty.  Light was pouring in from a series of windows to my left.  Jeannie was lying next to me, snoring.  It could’ve been any day of the week.  I called the front desk.  “We need late check-out.”

We stumbled sleepily through the lobby and out the front door.  I asked Jeannie where she lived.  “Near Melrose and Western,” she said.

I fidgeted with the radio as we drove.  I hadn’t given much thought as to how I’d explain myself to women.  I hadn’t anticipated needing to, being that I had a girlfriend when I started.  But what did I think—that my relationship with Carrie would outlast my dealing?  I knew myself well enough to know the improbability of that.

So, how best to explain?  Most dealers have some other gig, some suitable identity.  Something one can call oneself, even if it’s bullshit.

I waited till I pulled into her driveway.  I put the Geo in park and turned to her.  “Listen, Jeannie, I’d like to see you again, but there’s something you ought to know.  I make a good living, but I don’t exactly operate inside the law.”

I actually said this.  And in the ensuing silence, I began reevaluating my life.

If this is how it’s going to be….  If no woman will ever want me this way….

But then Jeannie put her hand on mine.  “I get it.  It’s cool.  It doesn’t bother me.”

I was relieved immeasurably.  Had she balked, I don’t know what I’d have said.  How I’d have handled that.  But she made it easy.  “I’ll call you,” I said.

When I got home, Maus was snoring on the couch.  I stood there for a moment, gazing at her cherubic face.  She looked so peaceful.  I walked over and pushed the clingy bangs from her forehead and gave her a light kiss.  Without opening her eyes, she moaned a little and smiled.  I turned off my phone and went to bed.

Boy’s Regular

My whole life I’ve worried about the future.  Just a lingering sense, long before I became an outlaw, that somehow the tracks had been laid, the wheels set in motion.  That something was amiss, that things were going to go awry.  Terribly, terribly awry.  The first real rumblings of it, I think, can be traced back to 1995, the year I graduated college.

The general attitude among my peers was that the four-year degree had lost its relevance.  The only one who seemed optimistic was Geoff, one of my roommates that final semester.  He had one of those bulletproof jaw-lines and he made no apologies for his ancestors having arrived via the Mayflower.  Shortly before we went our separate ways, he cornered me drunkenly in our kitchen.  “Listen to me,” he said, “you know my deck is stacked.  All I have to do is show up.  It won’t be so easy for you.  It’s a rat race out there.”  An ice cube popped in his Dewars.  He polished it off, dumped the glass in the sink.  Then he gripped me by the lapels of the blazer I was wearing—the one I was borrowing from him—and drew me close.  “You have to know people,” he said.

I winced.  His boozy breath was one thing, but I was tiring of the news.  By senior year this was requisite keg party conversation: the necessity of knowing people.  If, like Geoff, you were fortunate enough to have been born into royalty, then you were set.  Otherwise you’d better be out there making “contacts.”  It seemed a bit crass to me: sidling up to people on the off chance that they may be of use at some point.  I was content to wing it.  Something was bound to happen.

I’d always been neurotic when it came to unknowns.  Now my existence was open-ended, and I went into a state of unobservable panic.  I began to hear strange murmurings.  Something about a “station in life” and then something more particular-sounding called a “skill set.”  These concepts barely resonated with me.  I was raised to believe I’d go to college; there was never any doubt about that.  But now that I could no longer call myself a student, I realized something worrisome: I’d reached a point where I was expected to know things.  Not just people, but intangibles, like the direction of my future.

I didn’t really want to work, but not working wasn’t an option.  Money was one thing, but I was concerned about perception; women in bars had begun making job-related inquiries.  Having white-knuckled my way through various summer gigs—warehouse temp, parking lot attendant, dishwasher—I was conditioned to believe that employment was at best a necessary nuisance.  Those who claimed to enjoy their jobs were posing, I decided, unwilling to acknowledge that they were settling.

I bought the Globe on a Sunday and pulled the classifieds.  Part of me wanted to find a match, but mainly I just wanted to feel as though I’d tried—and here the ads helped.  They all required experience in one capacity or another.  And skills.  Organizational.  Analytical.  Interpersonal.  One wanted a strong command of something called the SCRUM process.  I looked it up.  It’s not even an acronym, proving I knew even less than I thought I did.  Still, I felt I should keep trying.  One caption read FOUR POSITIONS LEFT and I skipped over it because I figured (hoped) I was too late.  Only four positions, why bother reaching for the phone?  But there it was again, the following Sunday.  The body was terse: Looking for honest, hardworking, positive, upbeat, and energized individuals to join our team.  People skills a must.  I didn’t exactly fit the profile.  But below that, in bold, were the buzz words: no exp nec, we will train.  I dialed, a peppy-sounding girl answered.  Within moments I was booked for an interview with this company, FJ Associates.

I arrived on time and submitted my full name to the girl at the front.  She smiled toothily and motioned to the waiting area, where I took a seat among several other hopefuls.  The guys were all wearing suits, two of which included vests.  The girls: some variation on the pantsuit.  My pastiche—polka dotted tie, blue blazer with gold buttons, tan khakis—diminished me immediately.  Pearl Jam was pumping from a nearby boom box.  ONCE upon a time I could CONTROL myself.  Overlapping, muted conversations could be heard from behind drywall partitions.

I settled into a vacant seat.  The guy across from me made eye contact, so I raised my eyebrows to acknowledge him.  He looked away immediately, so I pretended to have been looking at a poster above his head: a surfer on his board, squatting inside the barrel of a perilous-looking wave.  RISK it said.  Below that: Fate loves the fearless.  Next to that, there was an Ansel Adams print: a single rose sitting on driftwood.  It was a black and white shot and the petals were gaping, unfurling.  I began thinking of a vagina, and the probability that I wouldn’t be seeing one for a while.

The door on the far wall flung open and a spindly-looking guy scurried out like a rodent set free.  A man appeared at the threshold.  “JAMES FERRY?” he shouted, some kind of European accent easily detectable from those three syllables.  I raised an arm, my voice cracked on “here.”  I cleared my throat while this man approached me.  “Mark,” he said, jutting out his hand.  He was beady-eyed and pointy-nosed with a close shave and a neat haircut clipped over protruding ears.  I shook his hand, followed him.

Mark’s office was stark and lifeless.  I took a seat across form him and he presented me with a laminated brochure that had the Yankees logo on it.  I got distracted by the price tag: $19.99; it made me think of an infomercial.  Then he began talking and his accent was so thick that I could only make out bits and pieces: Yankee Stadium, tickets, certificate, twenty bucks.  And he punctuated everything by saying MAKE SENSE?  I’d nod.

He produced another brochure, this one bearing the logo for TGI Friday’s.  I caught what I could: twenty bucks as well…restaurants…buy-one-get-one…MAKE SENSE?

I nodded.

He asked if I had any questions.  I didn’t but I knew that to be the death knell of the interview process, so I said, “Do you have a web-site?”  I was vaguely aware of these and that companies were now using them, whatever they were.

Mark stared at me vacantly.  “It’s under construction.”

The meeting ended abruptly.  Mark ushered me toward the door.  “Thank you James, we’ll call you if we need you.”

As I approached my mother’s Volvo, I caught my reflection in the window.  My hair was unruly in the wind and my stubble was more pronounced than I’d originally thought.  My tie was sloppily knotted, my shirt crinkled at the waist.  I looked down at the jacket I was wearing, the gaudy buttons, and thought of Mark.  Clean shaven, crisp-shirted.  He wasn’t handsome, but he owned that room.

I got home and cracked a beer, hit the couch.  I must have dozed off.  The next thing I knew, my mother was standing over me with the cordless.  “There’s a girl on the line for you, it sounds important.”  I took the receiver, said hello.  She asked if this was “James.”  I said yes.

“This is Katrina from FJ Associates.  Congratulations.  We’d like to have you back for a second-round interview.”

“You would?

I had two days.  I went straight to the Men’s Wearhouse and got fitted for a suit.  The guy assured me it’d be ready the next day, but I made him promise anyway.  From there I went to Supercuts.  The barber, Bruno, asked me what I wanted.  “Boy’s regular,” I told him.

Untitled

Carrie was bipolar.  I knew that before she moved in.  She kept various pills lying around, which I referred to collectively as her “no crazies.”

Take your no crazies today doll?

Yes daddy.

She liked that.

She kept her illness in check, but whenever she felt as though her meds were stifling her creativity, she’d simply go off them.  It got so I couldn’t tell the difference.  Occasionally she’d hop into her car without explanation and vanish.  We’d catch up in a day or two, no questions asked.  It was our pact: We were who we were.

I can’t remember why it ended, really.  Or rather, what excuse I offered; there was nothing in particular.  I do recall the night her eyes went wild.  She was on top, making brutal love to me, when she seized my throat and cried, “Will you take care of me?!”  The choking wasn’t new, but this certainly was.

I felt her grip tighten on my throat and my cock.  She wanted an answer.  I gasped out an affirmative.  It was only a syllable, and a labored one at that, but did I really have a choice?

 

Jelly for Juice

In jail, food is a big deal.  You know the quality isn’t going to be anywhere near good, but at least the chow line is predictable, reliable, and capable of breaking up what’s got to be the world’s most grueling monotony.  Very little actually happens when you’re locked up, which is why I’ll probably never write a jailhouse memoir.  But then, those memoires are still marinating, percolating…unpalatable but perhaps still brewing.  So never say never.

I recall my first meal.  I was still at the substation, en route to MCJ, when the call came over the loudspeaker: Line up for chow!  We filed into a hallway where a mix of deputies and trustees (inmates working off their time) began hollering at us to grab a sack lunch of what appeared to be an antiquated pallet jack.  “Keep moving,” they shouted, herding us down the hall.  There was a guy tossing what looked to be cartons of milk.  I was suddenly struck with that deep-seated fear of social blunder: being that kid who chokes, bungling the catch in front of coaches and cohorts alike.  Thankfully I caught one.  I looked at it.  It said Cranberry Cocktail Drink.

We assembled loosely down another, even narrower, walkway.  Immediately the bartering began.  Who want jelly fo-a juice?  Who want bread fo-dey apple?  It was hard to tell which items were the desired ones.  I tried to observe the transactions going on around me, to see if there was any racial component to them.  There didn’t seem to be.  Finally I yelled, “Anyone want a juice?  I’m lookin’ for cookies!”  I had no clue whether or not this was a suitable trade.  And I was suddenly very aware of how white I sounded.  I felt silly until a paisa approached me and said, “Hey man, how ’bout a banana for da juice?”  A banana sounded good, so I said sure.  Now I had two slices of bread, a packet of peanut butter, a packet of jelly, cookies, an apple, and a banana.  I decided I didn’t need all that, so I hollered for someone who might want my apple.  Someone shouted, “Yo down here!”  I made out a fuzzy figure waving down the hall (they’d taken my glasses).  I threw the apple, missing dismally and pegging a black guy in the leg.  I pumped a fist into the air.  “Sorry ’bout that bro!” I heard myself say.

How I survived that I have no idea.

 

What a Thing to be Known For

I dated a woman recently who refused to shave her vagina.  At all.  Okay, refused is a bit strong.  She simply wouldn’t do it—which didn’t bother me, really, but admittedly it made me feel nostalgic.  At forty, I’ve been dating now since the 80’s, and I recall those vaginas.  (I must’ve caught the tail end of the classic V, for it got progressively Mohawk-y over the years until succumbing to full-bore prepubescent bare.)  They weren’t a deal-breaker then and they’re hardly one now, but I did feel compelled to ask my much-younger partner—she was plenty legal, mind you, but still—how she’d arrived at her policy.  Initially, she tried to brush it off by way of laziness, but that didn’t seem altogether cogent.  (As a drug dealer, I dated some of the laziest women imaginable, but none of them that lazy.  If there are any fur burgers left in California, they’re probably all up north, near Oregon.  San Francisco maybe, but certainly not Los Angeles.)  So when she admitted that there was, in fact, a political component at play—that she wasn’t interested in conforming to such a silly societal standard—I found her stance admirable.  She was fighting the good fight.  Protesting with her pubes for all womankind.

I have my own quirky history with this phenomenon known as “manscaping.”  The first I’d heard of it was back around the year 2000, when the younger, hipper woman I was seeing suggested that I “trim that mess,” or something like that.  I was incredulous.

“Men don’t do that,” I said.

“Yes they do,” she argued.

I wasn’t buying it.

Years later I was at a checkout line, perusing a magazine, an interview with some supermodel I’d never heard of.  When asked about what she considered to be “attractive” qualities, her list included men who “kept things neat down there.”  I remembered my ex’s comment, and I was now curious, but not overly so.  I was a square, albeit legitimate, salesman at this time, slogging my way through a rigorous, seemingly never-ending management training program.  I never picked up a GQ or a Details.  I had no clue about fashion or pop culture.  It wasn’t until I moved to LA that I really began to run back down the hill.  I regressed so eagerly, in fact, so passionately, that it was more like a coming out: the newness and the freedom, the urgency and catharsis—none of which is conducing to pulling off the look.  I took my cues from Jon, my boyhood pal and seasoned hipster.  I asked him flat-out one day if he trimmed his pubic hair.  He looked at me like I’d asked him if food was edible.  “Dude,” he said, “you don’t shave your shit back!?”  I never felt so out of the loop.  Yes, Jon told me emphatically, men everywhere were doing this, it was a must, and I’d better get going.  “Plus,” he added, “it’ll make your cock look bigger.”  I could not have been more sold.  I ran right out and bought some clippers.

Years later, my drug business booming, all grooming habits had fallen by the wayside.  Why care, I figured.  There was seemingly nothing I could do, or not do, to hinder my popularity.  (Well, except getting caught of course, but that’s another story.)  I was running around my apartment all day, skinny and high, with my pants sagging and my pubes peeking out at the world.  Occasionally someone would point and laugh, but I didn’t think too much of it.

One day my friend Skot came by.  He was back in town after a brief tour with his band, 400 Blows.  “I met a guy in Texas who knew you,” he said.

“Oh?  Should I be concerned?”

“No, no, it’s nothing like that.  We were just hanging out after the show, doing lines, and he asks where I’m from.  I say LA, and he goes, ‘Oh yeah, do you buy your shit off the guy with the pubes?'”

“Please tell me you’re joking.”

“No, it’s true.”

“Well who was the guy?”

“I don’t know, some dude.”

So I was living in Los Angeles and word of my pubes had made its way all the way out to Texas.  So had word of my dealing, obviously, but somehow this registered as less of a concern.  Which, I suppose, speaks to where my priorities were at the time.