East Pittsburgh Downlow
The Next Story
The next story is very good. Pretty good, at least. It’s also a grandma story. Working-class kids, raised by two working parents, love their grandmas. Told from the third person, the story bounces from character to character, each one passing details forward about the grandma’s condition, how she wants to commit suicide so she can be in heaven with her son who has recently died of cancer. The pain of losing a child, an adult child, fills the pages. The student, who is nineteen or twenty, writes years beyond her age. She knows details of careers she couldn’t have possibly worked. She knows wallpaper prints and knickknacks in the house from years before she was alive. So much is happening and holding together until the narrative reaches the grandmother who, instead of revealing the real truth, the truth of self, walks into the barn and says, “Honey, I’m coming home,” then blows her head off with a pistol. Ka-blewy! The bullet goes into one ear and out the other, blood and brains forming a temporary skidmark in the air before falling down on grandma’s dress. It’s graphic and gross and unnecessary but, in defense of the student, probably essential in an early draft and probably a lot of fun to write. It’s movie stuff, death and glory, when a light lunch and a can of Pepsi would do.
But at least it’s something we can discuss in class and learn from.
I say, “Well, comments. Anyone.”
Up until the gunshot, this was the best story we’ve had in weeks, save Megan’s story, which is the best story we’ve had ever, which should be published, which should be the basis for some indie film starring Casey Affleck and Helen Mirren and some pop singer who wants to change her reputation and gain grit by acting in a roughed-up movie.
“I’m digging the old lady,” someone says.
“Me too,” I say. “The old lady’s a great character. Her desire to be with her son, that she’s missing him, sets the whole narrative in motion.”
The student looks at me like I’m speaking French.
I may be.
I still struggle with the language of workshop. As an undergraduate, I took a lot of poetry courses and most of them were taught by the same guy, an old white dude who only looked at poems through the prism of form. We counted syllables. We counted stresses. Occasionally, we discussed content but only in its relationship to form which, to me as an adult and a teacher, seems to be reversed, that form should be discussed in terms of how it delivers content. I mean, form is a bucket. What material that bucket is made from and how it’s shaped and what size it is are only important details once we know what goes inside, water or paint or gasoline. I use that metaphor in class and the students nod like they understand but somewhere in my brain I hear my poetry teacher, a man who never published a book and who treated college like an extension of high school, of junior high even, where certain things were not discussed, meaning content, meaning the world, meaning the world was rude, the world was gross, it was sex and money and shame, and my poetry teacher rings a bell in my ear until my hearing opens like a scared flower and he says, “One must elevate the diction to have higher thoughts.”
Maybe that’s why I liked my welding classes.
The language served the course, the career.
It was useful.
Either way, whether I sound like a welder teaching a college class or a man unwantingly educated on the significance of iambic pentameter to the oral tradition, I try to be clear and useful in my comments. I try not to dominate the workshop because the students do better when I follow, when I ask questions about their comments, about where their ideas come from, which is usually from Stephen King books and Quentin Tarantino films and, sadly, video games.
I don’t want to elevate the diction.
I want to be a blowtorch.
Megan says, “First, I really love this. My only questions is, and I get that this is a story about suicide, why does the grandmother kill herself?”
Did I say I love Megan?
Her intelligence is only matched by her kindness.
I want to respond, to echo.
But I keep waiting.
What I want to say next is, “Does a character this close to death need to die?” meaning: she doesn’t need to die. Her grief is already there. Every move she makes links us to the loss of her adult son. No need for the pistol. You can have a pistol or a machine gun in literature but they should appear proportionally to your own life. Represent the world you exist in, not the one you see on TV. Not all of us are robbers. Not all of us are cops with fancy mirrored sunglasses. Some of us have been around gun owners our whole lives but never touched a bullet.
Brandon, who comes to class stoned and mean and who sometimes drinks malt liquor by his car in the parking lot and who is not a kid but a young man, says, “I fucking loved it when she blew her brains out.” He makes a motion like he’s pulling a truck horn, fist clenched, arm up, elbow swinging. He says, “Get to that faster.”
This is not the comment I hoped for.
Brandon is seldom the student I hope for.
His forehead grows a huge pimple like a pumpkin I’d like to pop with my fist, not that I can see much of his face, his hair long and greasy but somehow bald on top. All he talks about are comic books and sci-fi novels, which the right person could make charming but which Brandon makes sound like imminent doom, like he personally fingers the button to all our deaths. He once said, “Science fiction is intelligent fiction because the worlds are imagined,” the undercurrent being that what I taught was not intelligent, so I said, “Every world is imagined,” because it was true and because I dislike sci-fi novels and I usually dislike adults who love sci-fi novels. Brandon is at least thirty, maybe older. He has not returned to college to find a new way to make a living or to enlighten himself. He attends college habitually, a class or two a year, mostly to bully his professors and talk about his own artistic merits between shifts at the grocery store where he manages the produce section. On the first day of class he said, “I’m writing a fantasy trilogy based on a British TV show no one in America knows about,” then, before I could respond, he asked, “Can we smoke?” I said, “Here? In the classroom?” He said, “Yeah.” I said, “No, you cannot smoke in the classroom.” After class I asked around and everyone, all my colleagues and the janitors and the women in the cafeteria, knew Brandon and disliked him and found him disruptive but harmless, except maybe not harmless, maybe a serial killer, maybe a guy who skins people in his basement and eats their lungs, except not, except maybe.
Right now Brandon says, “More killing. I mean it. The grandmother could easily take out the family before she takes out herself.”
I do what I always do when Brandon mentions killing: I look at his hand and verify it is not a pistol then I look at his backpack and make sure it is not a bomb.
Welding would be a good job for Brandon.
Welders would tell him to shut the fuck up.
Brandon says, “I see you looking at me, Mr. Professor. I can talk about violence. Marquis De Sade. What about that? He was violent. I know my shit. Tell me to stop.”
I have not read more than twenty pages of the Marquis De Sade but I can throw down.
I say, “I’m willing to bet you can’t name one book by Marquis De Sade,” but I say it calm, almost joking, having fun.
Brandon says, “I can.”
I say, “Okay.”
“Sure, if you want.”
He says, “I saw the movie.”
“Me too,” I say, which is true and I own a couple De Sade books but the prose is as purple as an eggplant. Twenty pages and I’m bored and a little grossed out.
Brandon says, “I read that one book about buttfucking.”
The class makes a collective sound for: gross.
Megan says, “How old are you?”
I say, “Brandon, why don’t you take a cigarette break while the rest of us talk about the excellent parts of this story where brains are not getting blown out.”
Brandon says, “It won’t affect my grade if I leave for a cigarette?”
I say, “It may actually help your grade.”
He says, “Cool,” and walks out, leaving his backpack but fishing a hard pack of Marlboro Lights from his front shirt pocket.
Megan looks at me and tries not to laugh.
I nod at her, two people locked in an attic but planning our escape.
Hours from now, at two o’clock, when the bar is closing, I’ll make sure I tip her fifty percent. She’ll give me more free drinks than she should.
Right now Brandon closes the door behind him.
Someone else in the class says, “That dude scares me.”
“Let’s not be afraid,” I say. “Let’s talk about the good stuff in this story.”
The girl who wrote the story, who is barely five feet tall and sometimes wears her waitress uniform to class because she is often coming from or going to her shift, says, “I didn’t know how to end it. That’s why I did the stupid thing with the gun.”
Near the beginning of the semester Brandon asked me to read his newest and greatest novel, a mystery. I stood there, bugged-eyed and shocked, thinking of excuses. The hallway near my office bustled with students strolling to class. Brandon stepped uncomfortably close.
“Personal space,” I said, and stepped back.
Brandon stepped closer.
I stepped back.
“Don’t do that again,” I said. “It’s not necessary for us to be that close.”
He said, “I stopped by at office hours yesterday.”
“I didn’t have office hours yesterday but nice try.”
“Maybe it was the day before.”
I did not want to read a novel written by a student who I disliked, who the entire campus disliked, a space intruder whose artistic intellect consistently rolled in at low tide with the garbage shows and dead fish books, but I also hate feeling neglectful. I remember being young and desperate for writerly attention so I mumbled about being extremely busy this semester and stuttered about tutoring a woman from the basketball team who really showed some promise as a writer then I stuck a finger in my ear and twisted it around like my brain needed to be cleaned or at least prodded. The community college doesn’t have a basketball team.
Eventually Brandon pushed aside his greasy bangs and said, “You get paid to read my novels. My tuition pays your salary.”
“Actually,” I said, “I get paid to teach writing. It’s on the syllabus. What I want to read from students outside of class is my choice. Your tuition pays for the soda machine by the cafeteria. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t go directly to my salary.”
He said, “Look, it’s a page long.”
I said, “What?” and brightened. “What’s a page long? Your list of complaints?”
He said, “My novel. It’s one page. All my novels are one page. I call them compressions. My compressions are sarcastic compressions of genre fiction.”
“Like you write one-page science fiction novels?”
“No. I do not consider science fiction a type of genre fiction. I consider science fiction the future of literature. Genre fiction includes mysteries, police procedurals, and romance novels, to name but a few. Sniper books.”
I said, “So you have a one-page mystery novel you’d like me to read?”
He sighed and shook his head at my idiocy and said, “I have a satiric compression based on the detective genre, also known as noir, that I expect you to read.”
“Sure,” I said. “I can read a page, no problem.”
Brandon pulled out the page.
I took it.
It was less than a page, more like a couple of big paragraphs.
I said, “I’ll get this back to you by our next class.”
He said, “You’ll get it back to me now?” in a question, not aggressive but still demanding, still kicking at the door of my job.
“No,” I said, “I’m not going to read while you wait, even if this thing is a page long. I’m not McDonalds and this isn’t fast food.”
“Until we meet again,” Brandon said, and started to walk away before turning around to ask, “You do know what satire is?”
“I think I can figure it out,” I said, and stepped into my office and locked the door.
I looked at the page.
This was a while ago but it’s still worth sharing.
Brandon’s novel, in its entirety, without criticism, is as follows:
Detective Dickwad and the Hollywood Caper
My name is Detective Dickwad. I hate the cops. Cops hate me. My fees are negotiable and I drink too much. I once shot a man in the anus for all the wrong reasons.
It’s pretty hard to tell the good from the bad here in the City of Angels. Hookers, movie stars, debutantes, Matt Damon—they all look the fucking same. I’m tracking them all. When I catch them, I’m going to find out what the fuck’s up with the missing jewels. I’m going to find out what’s up with the murdered teenaged girls. I’m going to find out what’s up with the dude in the basement who keeps pretending his penis is a vagina and singing Culture Club songs. I’m going to smoke a cigarette, flick it to the wind, and find out why the fuck Morgan Freeman acts in so many bad thrillers with Ashley Judd. Ashley Judd can’t act but is related to Wynona Judd. I’m gonna find out why Wynona Judd is fat as fuck and sings horrible country songs with her sick mom who has hepatitis C from (I’m assuming) sharing dirty needles with those Jesus-loving retards in Nashville who write all those songs about God and big asses and burned-out Chevy trucks. I’m about to kill those fuckers when I solve this shit.
Take last week: I had to sit on Nic Cage’s face. I saw him on the cover of People magazine. I knew he was a suspect. I sat on that half-bald head, put my gun to his temple, and said, “Goddamn it, why do you suck in so many movies?” I slapped Nic Cage a good one, really cuffed him with my pistola, then asked, “Why are you trying to be an action star when it’s so obvious that you’re a pansy?” I kept the questions coming. I asked him, “Why do you think an Elvis impression is appropriate in every movie you do?” Nic cage said, “I don’t know,” but maybe that was just the sound of my bullet going through the other side of his head.
As for the Judds and Morgan Freeman, I’m on to you people.
—An American Compression by Brandon Holmes
I have a copy of the story in my desk drawer, the main one where I keep my paperclips and pens. The original I returned to Brandon but I see the copy every time I need a pen and it reminds me to be safe. I read Brandon’s name and I remember there are other, better students. I see the title and I understand my luck, that Brandon’s half-page novel could have been longer than a half-page, that it could have been a real novel with hundreds of pages. Did I say it reminds me to be safe? I know bad writing is usually bad writing but I also know the story could be a fantasy or a metaphor or a plan of action written in code and I could be either Morgan Freeman or, possibly, Ashley Judd or her sister or her mom, the Hep C junkie.
I hope I’m not Nic Cage.
No one wants to be Nic Cage.