The Struggling Humorist thought maybe he should take some time off and visit all of his ex-lovers. Those trips seemed to guarantee adventure, insight, some necessary cosmic jostling. And there was nothing here holding him back. His barista crush was pregnant. His files and porno passwords were in the cloud. He could crowdsource the travel expenses, jack up his SSRI dosage, dissolve those nagging shreds of desire and bask in the pure, cold regret. Finally the garage door opened and there was Maguire, smiling like goddamn.
I used to think workshops were a good place to meet women, due to insights possibly gleaned through their work, but because MY stuff usually follows a thinly veiled version of myself stumbling through a series of worst-case, self-inflicted scenarios, nothing ever really panned out, romantically.
The beginnings of my literary feud with novelist Miles Klee:
My ultimate goal is to get a producer credit on the Oscar-winning adaptation of my first novel. I used to want to star in it but now I don’t even want a crack at the screenplay. As to why I won’t achieve this modest goal…well, I like to think I’m at the mercy of larger forces outside my control. The economy, doltish gatekeepers, contractions in the industry, Gordon’s vodka. Plus did you know you can watch movie previews online these days? That right there sucks up a good 60% of my available writing time. Other forces outside my control include tube sites, anxiety, mild gout, fear of success.
We’re halfway through another range. Borders beckon. Lo says she wished the mountains were actually white. She says the hills in Hollywood, the Hollywood Hills, were just that, nothing more and nothing less. The bus driver glares into his long mirror. Behind us another new couple—very new, best Lo and I can figure they met cute at our most recent Roy Rodgers layover—are discussing the benefits of crossbow ownership. I mention something about a cabin on a clear lake, a rhubarb patch, a rope swing, but Lo says she’s more of a bungalow kind of gal. Maybe a chalet, she says, bunching my wrinkled Oxford into a cushion against the sunny, thrumming window.
“No permit for a crossbow.”
There used to be a man in these mountains, a profile etched into stone by the wind and rain. He was a reassuring presence, a flattering mirror. He was there for hundreds of years, maybe even eons. Then one day his features crumbled into a rockslide. Now he’s a man with no face, the mountainside’s a busted skull. Lo says I’m her flattering mirror.
I ask Lo if she ever felt like she was born at the wrong time. We’ve got industries and natural wonders collapsing all over the place. Just a generation ago if your novel featured a frank depiction of masturabtion or mentioned an IUD you’d land the cover of Life.
The couple behind us, suddenly all whispers and tin foil crinkles, retreat to the sloshing chemical commode. Our phones are useless. Motorcoach wifi’s a joke. Scroll, bounce, buffer.
Lo says soon we will miss these days. Lo says the Water Wars are coming. Lo says Dasani is good for brushing teeth but she doesn’t like the taste. Lo says stock up, buy stock.
I say “Water Wars” will be a good show.
Lo says for a while there her agent was pushing for a dystopian YA thing—a lava-filled crack down the center of the Grove, a Hamptons hideaway battered by a super storm—but Lo says positivity is the bedrock of her brand. I say popular culture is trying to tell us something, something we already know but can’t yet accept. Someday man’s face will crumble. I say I could do without a few other cultural by-products of the recession: Oscar winners loaning their gravel-toned gravitas to Korean cars and insurance providers, Emmy winners shilling for low-rent usurers, the recent rash of pop folk jug blowers.
Hey! says Lo.
I’m too cheap to gamble and, perhaps unfairly, I consider myself an unlucky person. Not so much unlucky in life—I enjoy a supportive network of family and friends, I’m tall—so much as ignored by larger forces. Markets, magic, whatever. And I’m not really zoned for windfalls, so I don’t feel the need to tempt fate, even if I am generally my own crooked dealer. This complete lack of desire is a puzzling vacancy, like waking up to a lost tooth and rubbing the fresh gap with your tongue. I’ve never encountered another vice I didn’t immediately wield manically in an attempt to hack away at some core loneliness. A breakthrough: Others feel about gambling the way I do mind-altering chemicals.
The most popular tweet of all time in the history of Twitter.
Ordinarily, Momma’s subdivision is a labyrinthine network of leafy streets, loops of smooth pavement shaded by old trees. That morning the pristine lawns were disheveled, mailboxes and lampposts splintered and shattered. Sunlight punched through a twisted canopy. Confronted with a downed oak, I walked the last half-mile while trying to pinpoint the source of a persistent, greasy hum.
In my memory those last days were all cloudless skies, clear as bottles. Hazy afternoons, nights filled with fiery ceremonies. Potions and powders, violence and drums. Liberated from the prying eyes of Monday morning, we propulsed from the doorways, sprinted through cornfields, burned textbooks on the beach, puffed grass in the arboretum, caught a ride with the janitor to the shady liquor store under the highway.
As fifth graders we fashioned fireworks from matchbooks, gasoline and cardboard. We biked to Dairy Queen and rode home with queasy guts. Sleepovers were hastily arranged. Allowances were pooled. Hideouts quickly became overpopulated. We drew up plans for a new encampment on a reservoir archipelago. We poured Skittles and coin collections into our bindles and hid them under our beds. We rode down stairwells in sleeping bags.
In middle school the bonfires began. We crawled through abandoned gravel pits and train yards. Eighth graders arrived on ATVs with pellet guns, brandy bottles and hairspray torches. Through the smoke we eyed the girls, squeezed onto a single log and twining their hair.
As freshmen we were granted access to the edges of a genuine graduation party. We watched the seniors mumble and sway as they made good on threats, bets and ultimatums. Girls cried on the porch. Boys smoked cigars between keg stands. Couples rolled across the trampoline. I remember being shocked by the dawn, wandering through the den, bodies everywhere, speakers hissing, cigarettes floating in drinks like dead goldfish.
On the last day of sophomore year I shaved my head in the secret bathroom behind the biology lab. At the beach we drank Coronas plugged with hard limes. We made a pyre of our Latin homework but even after soaking it in lighter fluid it wouldn’t ignite the way we had imagined it all year, with the dramatic flick of one damning cigarette.
At my new school the exodus occurred in stages. Seniors left for a week while we took exams and rifled through their rooms to see if they left anything interesting (clues, contraband) behind. We stashed valuables deep in dorm storage. Summer prescriptions were picked up at the infirmary and cashed in at the student center. Once the seniors returned for graduation—tanned, already too old, filled with apocryphal gossip—we were treated to other mysterious spectacles. One classmate, the type with a camera always slung at a sinister angle around his neck, was retrieved by a fleet of gleaming white Jaguars. They circled the campus like a string of Christmas lights.
We rode into the apex of our own Senior Week in a hastily rented limo through Jersey horse country. Local studs—ruddy, blond, clad in Purple label and neon loafers—clacked class rings against the bar set up in the garden. There was cocaine and digital penetration in the bathroom, silver trays of cranky MDMA in the butler’s pantry. The next morning we took the commuter back to the city, sheepish and sandy-eyed, cufflink-less, just in time for the Puerto Rican Day Parade.
In college we shook the bottle ever more fervently but soon the champagne fell flat. The last day rituals had lost their cliff-dive thrill and any celebration was reduced to a rinse, like taking a shower and putting on the same crusty clothes. We managed to summon the ruckus for a final fling in Ocean City. Evicted from a frenemy’s condo for leaving blood on the sheets, we met a cabbie-cum-drug dealer and took to a beehive of dingy hotel rooms. Dawn singed the curtains and found us huddled over unhinged vanities, rooting through the carpet and jabbing the lobby ATM.
Three years later, in the waning weeks of graduate school, I worked the door of the preeminent watering hole on the Student Strip, checking IDs, tossing unruly undergrads (including those in my own “ENWR 2600: Intro to Short Fiction”) and gathering garbage after last call. Just hours before graduation I dragged boulder-sized trash bags to the compactor in the parking lot. I heaved these monuments to jubilant excess into the putrid metal maw. The glass gave with a satisfying crunch. Back in my hovel I zapped a bed-time burrito.