Who is in your hall?

Everyone has a Hall of Heroes. Even if you don’t like the word “hero” or choose to downplay the significance of respected figures in your life, we all have them. This private pantheon, when reflected upon, can teach us a lot about ourselves. I borrow the phrase, Hall of Heroes, from Sam Keen’s book Fire in the Belly: On Being a Man, a book I read in my early 20′s.

I have thought a lot about my own private Hall over the years, noticing certain figures bow and drop out to be replaced by others. When I studied literature in college, D.H. Lawrence stood front and center in my Hall. I had read his novels, essays, poems, short stories (many masterpieces) and about his fiery defiance of conformist British society. The sheer quantity of brilliant literary work he produced in a tuberculosis-shortened lifetime left me in wonder. Lawrence is still in the premise somewhere but I don’t read him much anymore.

If you had to pick just one to write about, as I will do below, who would you choose? As an exercise, when you reflect on the people you esteem most highly, limit yourself to living ones. Such a self-imposed restriction will weed out some of the more obvious choices like Louis Armstrong, Gandhi, and Helen Keller. For kicks, I gave myself a further limitation: the living person can not be one whom I have met.

As a way of introducing my choice, I will relate the story about a former “Esteemed” one of mine. Flannery O’Connor, beyond a doubt, had a genius for fiction writing. She died in 1964 and the general assessment of her writing only grew greater over time. But for me reading her was always a tense, guarded experience. Sentence after sentence of perfect, vivid, and wicked prose led you wanting more. Sooner or later you would get to the end of the story and the trap would be sprung, forcing the character (and us readers looking on) to confront the Certainties: God, Jesus, and all of the Christian rigamarole. After struggling with her a bit and reading a letter she wrote in 1955, I’d decided I’d had enough and showed her the door. Here she is in that letter:


I was once, five or six years ago, taken by some friends to have dinner with Mary McCarthy and her husband, Mr. Broadwater. . . . She departed the Church at the age of 15 and is a Big Intellectual. We went at eight and at one, I hadn’t opened my mouth once, there being nothing for me in such company to say. The people who took me were Robert Lowell and his now wife, Elizabeth Hardwick. Having me there was like having a dog present who had been trained to say a few words but overcome with inadequacy had forgotten them. Well, toward morning the conversation turned on the Eucharist, which I, being the Catholic, was obviously supposed to defend. Mrs. Broadwater said when she was a child and received the Host, she thought of it as the Holy Ghost, He being the “most portable” person of the Trinity; now she thought of it as a symbol and implied that it was a pretty good one. I then said, in a very shaky voice, “Well, if it’s a symbol, to hell with it.” That was all the defense I was capable of but I realize now that this is all I will ever be able to say about it, outside of a story, except that it is the center of existence for me; all the rest is expendable.

It took me a while to work out why her words angered me so much. Looking beyond the specific example of the Eucharist in her letter, I saw that it was a move applied commonly in ANY discussion of biblical interpretation, miracles, and events in the gospels. Accept the literal interpretation, or to hell with it. Since I’d never been a devout Christian (maybe some other kind?), why should I care what those people think? Christianity is a dying duck anyway, right? So just forget about it and get along with life? To put it simply, I don’t like the alternatives. And anyone who desires a more just world should hope that a properly harnessed Christianity will pull a lot of weight in bringing about justice here and now rather than focusing on pie-in-the-sky salvation.

When I started reading John Dominic Crossan, I knew I’d found what I’d been looking for. I’d begun with Jesus: A Revolutionary Biography. Here was a historical account of Jesus that stressed the life he’d lived rather than just the way he died. Furthermore, Crossan made no demands upon my intelligence to accept as literal facts the miracles of the gospel: no womb-to-tomb mumbo jumbo because no virgin birth and no flesh-and-blood resurrection of Jesus’ body. His stark conclusion is as follows: the Roman Empire crucified thousands and more likely hundreds of thousands, so where is the archeological evidence of people taking dead loved ones down from the cross and burying them? The number of cases is infinitesimal. Why? Rome didn’t want the bodies taken down! A crucifixion was like an act of state terrorism, a bloody billboard which warned onlookers, “Do not do what this person did.” And so the bodies on their crosses hung there until consumed by wild dogs and scavenger birds. No tomb. So no need to debate if the resurrection of Jesus was literal or metaphorical.

Tomorrow is Easter Sunday. The real debate, according to Crossan, should be how we can bring about a just world and how to live as Jesus lived. In other words, how do we get with the program?

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Reread It? Why?

Mitch Hedberg was a funny guy. One of his jokes is an ideal way to introduce today’s topic. Here’s Mitch:

I wrote a script and gave it to a guy who reads scripts. And he read it and said he really likes it, but he thinks I need to rewrite it. I said, “Fuck that, I’ll just make a photocopy.”

A good reader might ask, “Why would any good reader ever reread a book? Books are not like TV shows and candy bars; it takes effort and time to consume them. There are innumerable authors and titles. If I go back and reread some of them I’m wasting time pouring over familiar territory instead of exploring new lands. Besides, I’m a good reader: I paid close attention to detail and got all I could hope to get the first go-round.”

An even better reader might concede the point and admit that rereading could be worthwhile for a few reasons. People change, and any changing of the reader will bring a new perspective to the novel or story. A second or third engagement with a prized text, over time, could reveal things about one’s self that previously were hidden from view. To this kind of sophisticated reader, a book acts like a funky mirror. Furthermore, the issue of taste and appreciation comes into play. Aspects of the story (tone of voice, jokes, metaphors) that you found delicious in the first reading might taste as good or better with repeated readings.

A third kind of reader, let’s call them super-sophisticated readers, has everything the first two kinds have but more: a curiosity, an openness, a willingness to be puzzled. I borrow the term “super-sophisticated” from Vladimir Nabokov who used it in another one of his favorite contexts: chess problems (see his autobiography Speak, Memory, p. 290-292). The analogy of chess problem composer-solver to fiction writer-reader is summarized succinctly in Brian Boyd’s 2011 book, Stalking Nabokov (p. 3-4).

Luckily for us, we have a short and superb example of literary fiction in which to illuminate this kind of writer-to-reader relationship. I’m talking about Nabokov’s short story, “The Vane Sisters.” It would defeat the whole purpose to talk further about this story unless you’ve read it, so click here to dive in. If you’ve read it but still don’t know what is meant above by “puzzlement” and the need for rereading, read “The Vane Sisters” again before continuing to the end of this blog.

Quiz time: is this a ghost story or a teasing near-ghost story? From the narrator’s perspective, looking around his room and through every nook of his recent dream, the conclusion must be negative since everything is “vague… illusive, lost.” There simply are no signs of dead Cynthia Vane. The good-basic reader gets the thrill of mystery and then closes the book to take up other pursuits. The sophisticated reader, coming to the last paragraph, pauses at “acrostics”. She looks up its meaning online or in her favorite, fat dictionary which had been snoozing under a sweater. She thinks, wait a minute, I saw something like that midway through the story, and scrolls up to find that sentence at the end of section 4:

“And I wish I could recollect that novel or short story (by some contemporary writer, I believe) in which, unknown to its author, the first letters of the words in its last paragraph formed, as deciphered by Cynthia, a message from his dead mother.”

She sees the word “acrostics” as referring to that passage, showing cooky Cynthia projecting messages from Beyond onto the patterns of details in everyday life. She “connects the dots” between related points in the narrative but doesn’t follow the lead or even recognize it as such.

But here the super-sophisticated reader has an ah-ha moment. A hunch, hurriedly followed to the last paragraph again. Then we find it. A magic launch pad which takes us up and up into the higher dimensions of the story. The details early in the narrative, which Nabokov so deftly paints to add a glimmering significance to this day of Spring thaw, are now seen with a heightened consciousness. Writing that piece in 1951, Nabokov will never again be so straightforward in tipping off his readers about the puzzle he’s designed for those who are willing to take another look. As he admitted in the Notes section to his Stories, “This particular trick can be tried only once in a thousand years of fiction.”

Suppose you composed an intricate gem for your readers, and you know one go-round wouldn’t be enough for them to get it. How might you signal to Whom It May Concern that another trip through might be rewarding? Well, you might employ other tricks, like a sudden change in narrative voice from third-person to first, or perhaps an address to the audience at large, as in the final pages of Pale Fire when the narrator gives these lines: “Well, folks, I guess many in this fine hall are as hungry and thirsty as me, and I’d better stop, folks, right here. ”

Heck, one might even change genre to aid the wayfaring reader. Sign posts come in all shapes and sizes!

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How often — and how much — should we write?

I would have thought that one of us would have a done a post on writing pace but a search through the archives doesn’t turn anything up that’s directly related. (Correct if I’m wrong here, fellas.) Unless I’m overlooking something it does seem odd that we haven’t discussed this point yet as it is rather important. And very personal, which is the thrust I’ll take in the musings that follow.

I have often heard and been told that a writer needs to be at it daily, the focus being not so much on quality or your satisfaction with what’s been put down, but rather on reaching your goal of X words per day. In a blog post to this effect, James Thayer lists a number of authors who wrote fast or slow and what their daily production rates were. As the post indicates, Thayer takes it for granted that a writer needs to write everyday, though his focus is solely on writing novels and that may inform his perspective more than anything as an extended narrative is an altogether different beast from other kinds of compositions. (Not all of the famous writers whose output he covers in the post were novelists, but most of them were (or are) and Thayer himself is a novelist and teaches novel writing.)

My own thoughts on the matter are that while setting goals and deadlines are of course very helpful, forcing yourself to achieve X words per day is an unnecessary stressor and more likely to lead to the necessity for heavy editing later than to anything else. I can see the advantages of establishing a daily habit, particularly if you’re writing a novel or a similarly long piece that has at its core fictional characters who need to have life breathed into them and reified out of the abstract notions they germinated from. Even in such a case though, setting a mandatory daily word target strikes me as being a bit contrived. What is the point of locking yourself in a room and ignoring the people in your life for the X number of hours that it takes you to write Y words? Just to be able to emptily pat yourself on the back as you finish, knowing full well that nearly all of what you’ve just added to your work in progress will be deleted and/or completely rewritten later?

A project has its own life, as well it should, and as writers we know how quickly we can become obsessed with what we’re working on and how it becomes a major part of our lives during the time it takes us to go from initial idea to finished product. That’s part of who we are as people, it’s how we tick and is much more of an asset than a detriment. That doesn’t mean, however, that we have to artificially inflate the process into a deformity of the shape that it naturally takes. To my mind, spending time on a project is spending time on a project. If I happen to not write a single word in a day but have outlined an additional aspect of what I’m working on, turned over in my mind a troubling point to its conclusion, or even simply sketched out in greater detail some of the nuances that have come to form foundational features of the greater whole, I find that to be a day well spent. And a day of progress towards my goal.

But that is, of course, just me, and there are many writers who swear by a daily count as the only way they can work. This is where a writer must know herself: how do you work best and what do you need to keep at something? Do you need a (externally) set deadline? Do you need an uncompromising daily goal? What will push you towards completion? The experience of the process is perhaps the only way a writer can really learn what they need to write, and to get to that point a daily target may be necessary. Once you’ve reached that point of self-knowledge though, don’t feel bound to the gimmicks that got you there — unless they’re still what you need.

Next week, Nick Cody on the burgeoning North Korean banana farming cottage industry.

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Men of Principle: One

My occasional posts before our summer break will be about characters that I have, at some point in my murky past, connected with in one way or another. They could be from literature, film, or TV and I’ll try to examine them grouped by an overriding theme. The first theme (as you can see from the blog title) is Men of Principle, and the first character is Lt. Martin Castillo, played by Edward James Olmos, in the 80s TV show Miami Vice.

Other than Castillo, I’d bristle at the idea of placing any man sporting such a luxuriant moustache on any kind of favourites list. However, Castillo without his bristles would be like snow in Coconut Grove (and I’m talking about real snow not the kind ejected from light aircraft en route from Cartagena.)

And then there’s the suits. Except for the odd occasion, Castillo always wears a black two-button number with a white shirt and pencil-thin black tie. This is in the Miami heat, in the mid-eighties, while Crockett and Tubbs parade in Hugo Boss double-breasted pastels. In a world of tropical decadence, Castillo’s style is steady and unflashy yet (unwittingly) timeless.

This might well be libellous, but I’m convinced that Castillo’s style of dress is the blueprint for the characters in Reservoir Dogs (Tarantino was a huge Vice fan). I support this claim by drawing your attention to the Miami Vice minor character Ralph Pink (who’s even referred to as ‘Mr Pink’) in the Season 3 episode, Walk-Alone. Ralph Pink wasn’t played by Steve Buscemi; you’d have to wait a couple more episodes to see him guest (in Season Three’s, El Viejo). But, to avoid unwanted litigation, any similarities are probably just one of Nick’s Level 1 Coincidences.

Castillo enters the show in the sixth episode (to replace Lou Rodriguez as lieutenant). When he first arrives at Metro-Dade OCB, his detectives don’t notice him. To get their attention he whistles, one of those loud football coach blasts of the top teeth and lower lip (amplified, perhaps, through that hairy caterpillar). This sets up his laconic, gruff tone immediately. No niceties, no smiles, just: “I’m your new boss.” Olmos (the actor), in a great example of building character, told the producers to clear Castillo’s desk of everything except his phone, no clutter, no keepsakes, just an empty desk. On the surface, it’s just simple characterization in keeping with his terse, no-nonsense character. Yet I see his desk as the desk of a fanatic: a fanatic who has chosen to erase all traces of his troubled past; his private office is his cell, that leather couch a bed of nails.

Castillo is mysterious and his sense of justice cosmic. This mystery has its roots in his past as a Southeast Asian DEA agent. ‘Comic book’ elements of the show utilise his backstory in ways such as his ability to decipher the Thai calligraphy of a serial killer, handling a Japanese katana, or, finding himself without his magnum .44 or .357 (could his handguns be any other calibre than cannon?), pulling some aikido in close combat. Quieter, more reflective moments, find him sitting, Zen-like, in his office, brooding about a case in the darkness. Living in Asia myself, I see something of the intangible way this continent affects foreigners in Castillo, although my experiences don’t include a kaleidoscope of interagency deceit and political skulduggery in the Golden Triangle (working at a Korean university is far more sinister). Like Castillo, Asia must be in my blood.

In the Season 1 episode, Golden Triangle Part II, Castillo’s Thai wife (who he’d presumed dead) arrives in Miami. He finds out (from her) that she’s married someone else and has a child with her new husband. Castillo has never remarried remaining devoted to her memory. As he hugs her, Castillo grins — for her, that she’s happy. This is one of the few times that he smiles throughout the entire series. This smile is a great altruistic moment. Yet it is a moment that, like all great altruism, contains personal torment. Castillo’s reaction rings true. This character could not have reacted in any other way. Characters are what characters do and Castillo does the right thing.

Regrettably, for me at least, it’s time to leave Miami and, alas, the eighties. And what better way to check-out than with a few words from the man himself (and with Castillo it’s never more than a few words).

In the Season Three episode Shadow in the Dark, Crockett, driven half-crazy by the pursuit of an elusive cat burglar, remonstrates about the suspect they’ve pulled off the street, labelling him a “copycat with a totally different feel”. Crockett, now pacing Castillo’s darkened office, has lost his cool, burned out from the case, his judgement shot.

“Orders came from downtown,” Castillo says. “No more.” (If his voice box were a gearbox then the timbre is stuck between neutral and reverse)
“But he’s still out there,” Crockett says.
(Insert long pause and Castillo’s famous staredown)
“It’s over,” says Castillo.

Next week, Andrew Oberg locks himself in a flotation tank with Ayn Rand’s mind.

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Posted in Thoughts on Tap | Tagged , , | 4 Comments

Coincidence Noted

Capture and Release is the name of the game. I am referring to the topic of coincidences that I wrote about in an earlier post here. Not just any coincidences but those that bear on the most meaningful aspects of our lives. Books are a big part of my life, especially those of Vladimir Nabokov, so for a stretch of time he was seldom far from my mind.

That blog was written almost three years ago in Seoul when I was looking back to my time in Taiwan, a time of strange coincidences that I was convinced were signs from beyond, signs of a “higher power” rewarding my attentiveness and beckoning my inquisitive mind. Then I came to my senses and realized the odd incidences and happenings were just delightful accidents and not the designs of anyone or anything. Better to capture these fluttering appearances on a bit of notebook paper and release them, I’d concluded, drawing no conclusions whatsoever from them about one’s life, meaning, or mission.

That story is updated here. Two months ago I traveled to Thailand and while waiting for a connecting flight in Bangkok I did something I almost never do at an airport. I bought two books. As a matter of habit, either because I usually bring with me all the books I intend to read on a trip, or because the selection in airport bookstores is too limited (to put it charitably), I walk past such shops with an arrogant, disinterested air. This time proved to be the exception. So, a bit about these two books and then an account of the unfolding coincidences relating to them.
The first was a Richard Dawkins popular science book titled, The Magic of Reality. I noted while reading this excellent little book that Dawkins cautions the reader about seeing anything supernatural in the appearance of coincidences. The other one was by Maria Konnikova, Mastermind: How to Think Like Sherlock Holmes.
To start, here are some weak, low-level coincidences related to those books. I’m giving you the weak stuff first so that you’ll know I don’t get bowled over by every little one that comes along.
Level 1
1. Maria Konnikova writes for the New Yorker, the only magazine I read, about topics related to psychology.
Before my trip to Thailand I read a few interesting articles by her and kept a memory of her name.
2. My dull winter intensive class (pass/fail) needed a reprieve from our daily grind, so I told the students we could spend our final 3-hour Friday class watching a movie. English with Korean subtitles was fine. Students were then directed to discuss a good selection for our class.
Students chose season 1 of the BBC’s newish series “Sherlock.”
3. Another mild, but nice coincidence was that my textbook from last semester contained a decent story with reading, listening, and speaking activities related to an abridged Sherlock Holmes story.  We used that in class on Thursday.
4. Before leaving for vacation I look up a Konnikova bibliography online and see she has written a new book related to cognitive science and Sherlock Holmes. I thought, clever title– master your mind, like him, the mastermind.
5. At a tiny airport bookstore in Bangkok, Mastermind sits on the shelf.
So far, we have tickling bits of coincidence. But then things get weirder.
Level 2
6. I read the Dawkins book first and am a bit startled when he mentions the author of Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle, who was duped by a hoax referred to as the Cottingley Fairies affair.  Some girls painted images of fairies, then photographed them using props, and convinced many in Britain that the photos and fairies were real.
Dawkins’ point: even sharp, skeptical minds like Conan Doyle’s could be fooled into believing supernatural nonsense.
7. As I am reading Mastermind I notice that Konnikova also mentions the same affair.
Spooky, but not very strong, yet.
Level 3
A few minutes later, I made this discovery. The respective Indexes showed that both books mentioned the same affair ON THE SAME PAGE NUMBER.  I read back through them both and saw it was true.
These are the kinds of coincidences I take delight in noticing. The key point is to notice and then let them flutter away, drawing no conclusions.  Life can be alive with strange coincidences. Note them, get a kick, and then get on with life until the next one flutters by. In this world, a person could go insane trying to convince oneself that invisible forces, and specifically supernatural ones, were playing peek-a-boo with us from another dimension. But in the world of fiction, it can always be another story. The most spine-tingling experience you can have is when you read a novel like Pale Fire and realize the first layer of narrative has camouflaged a design so intricately woven into the text that forces from beyond have indeed been winking, calling, and flirting with not only the characters in that story, but the reader herself. To get that thrill, you’ll have to read Pale Fire accompanied with Brian Boyd’s masterful work of criticism, Nabokov’s Pale Fire: The Magic of Artistic Discovery.
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Posted in Thoughts on Tap | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

The joys of writing?

For the past two years I’ve been focusing on academic writing, both out of personal interest and also because it’s what hiring committees want to see in their applicants. I enjoy the process of reading widely, taking notes, reflecting on, and deeply interacting with the texts, and then organizing it all together into a new whole and presenting whatever you have or haven’t come up with based on all that you’ve learned. (I will also admit to enjoying gathering hard data and running statistical analyses on them, but don’t tell the other Drugstorers about that.) I find that side of the working world I inhabit very rewarding.

There is the other side though, the “publish or perish” side that says all of us fancy office inhabiting guys had better get something into an academic journal every year, and the more the better. This is especially important for the untenured (me!) as we have very little job stability and our best chance of getting anywhere in this crazy arena is through publications. Or so I’ve been told anyway. Your average journal only publishes three or four issues a year, and so you can imagine how intense the competition is to get space in one, particularly as the top journals will only accept 5-10% of the submissions they receive. And 10% would be quite high, by the way. It’s a demanding path to tread, and in my tentative steps down it so far I’ve had some successes and more failures. Strikes and gutters, as The Dude would say. What I find most difficult — or perhaps tedious is a better way to describe it — is doing the formatting each time you submit a piece somewhere. Every journal has their own preferred style of emphasizing text, punctuation, doing quotations, reference style, footnotes or endnotes, etc. etc. etc. It burns your eyes and bores holes in your brain going through the details as you lean over your keyboard and dissolve into your monitor.

All of you writers out there know what I’m talking about, even if you have nothing to do with the academic side of it. So why do we do it? Sure, some of us have jobs that necessitate it, but even if I didn’t I’d still write. And read like a nutter. That’s probably the rub of it right there: reading. We all want to be read, and for whatever reason we have for producing these strings of consonants and vowels, we want them to be appreciated by others — preferably strangers. There are two ways to go about doing that, as we are all well aware. You can write safely or you can write with a bit of risk. Safe side writers produce what they know people already like and stick with the tried and true, more or less, though usually with a personal tweak or unique flair. More risky writers, and I think that this is probably the larger group by far, write straight out of the holes in their heads because they have something they wish to communicate, regardless of possible reception. (But probably still secretly hoping to be loved!) In the former group you’ll find desperate Justin Bieber fanzine writers like Paul j Rogers. In the latter you’ll find broken down, lonely little nerds like…

Oh my.

Next week, Nick Cody on his new toilet apparatus.

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Back in March

A big thanks to all the contributors to the last BPO, Space. There were some great essays and stories this time.

We’ll be back in mid-March with regular blogs, so be sure to stop by.

 

 

 

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No Contest by Nick Cody

The final piece in our By Prescription Only: Themed Writing short story and essay showcase on Space is from the only soda jerk who truly matters: Nick Cody. We hope you dig his tale and have dug the whole series. Keep coming back for more because we’ll keep pouring it out!

From the windswept tundra: The following story is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following works of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

No Contest by Nick Cody

Space had become a problem. There simply wasn’t enough room for all the entries piling up, the stream of shitty stories pouring in, flat in manila envelopes, or folded by idiots who had either ignored or failed to read the guidelines, the very clear guidelines for the 36th Annual Lowe Short Story Contest, hosted and judged by one Halford P. Goodreads.

Stacks of unread stories leaned Pisa-wise on the floor. Other piles grew in corrugated formations along the bookshelves and on his office desk. In the weeks leading up to the deadline elaborate columns of A4 paper, in Times New Roman, 12 point font, double spaced or DOA, curled around his desktop monitor, nearly encircling it. He cast a cold eye on these heaps. To him their layered forms resembled the erratic patterns of wind erosion on desert rock.

Tomorrow he planned to seize at random a couple of these encroaching stacks and throw the lot into a cardboard box and then mail it off to a colleague and fellow contest judge in upstate New York. That would be Jude Heade, Associate Professor of English Literature at Stoneybrook. Once he’d been recruited, Goodreads liked to call him Judge Jude. First, a word on why he was recruited in the first place, and then how Goodreads went about doing it…

To read the rest, click the button below to download the pdf

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Please Assemble by Paul j Rogers

Continuing with our By Prescription Only: Themed Writing short story and essay showcase on the theme of Space is a piece from another true soda jerk: Paul j Rogers. Paul is the World’s Biggest Fan of pre-egging incident Justin Bieber; we hope you enjoy his contribution here.

Opening bars of “Land of Hope and Glory”: The following story is entirely a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following works of fiction, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

Please Assemble by Paul j Rogers

The empty waiting room was all white, or all Wong, depending on how you look at it, and looking at it made me feel sick. This room, completely without furniture, was all white in terms of pigment — ivory floorboards, feta cheese walls. It was all Wong as it was the creation of those maddening deconstructivists Caspar & Wong, which, rather worryingly, was the only fact about this company my mind had retained, despite spending hours perusing their pretentious website. I probed my useless memory for more info, such as the number of employees or the current share price, yet the only information to materialise (in crisp Helvetica) was this: “Our deconstructivist headquarters, designed by Caspar & Wong, are located in the historic city centre within strides of the eco-friendly Park ’n’ Ride and a stone’s throw from the Organic Farmers’ Market. Throughout the day, the aroma of dark roast beans drifts along the wharf from Espresso Eva and invigorates all who rest in our office garden. For the team of dedicated professionals at Macfarlane Joseph, this building is much more than a workplace. It’s a lifestyle.”

Still loitering by the doorway, my fingertips brushed the name badge they’d given me, smudging the first “R” in “Renner”. The badge (or pen) must’ve been faulty as the ink had easily had enough time to dry. Enraged, I rummaged for tissues to wipe my fingers, but, of course, there were none. What kind of room was this anyway? Not only did it lack furniture and natural light, it also had no straight lines to speak of, and whether this set-up was Wong’s idea of feng-shui or Caspar’s idea of a joke I couldn’t be sure. At my last place (before they laid waste to our department), the sales team had been shoehorned into indigo steel booths. Yet here, at Macfarlane Joseph, the successful candidate for regional sales manager would soon, no doubt, be drafting reports and planning targets from inside a carbon fibre egg. That might impress some people, but my only interest was the pay cheque, which, after all, had been my sole reason for sliding into such unfamiliar skin most mornings since leaving university. (How does a graduate of modern poetry end up in sales, anyway?)

Fingers stretched apart, bat-like, my heels cracked on wood towards the cloth shapes at the centre of this windowless white womb. From a pace or two away, it became clear that the objects were large containers, chrome frames with linen panels, giant minimalist laundry bins arranged in a row on the floor. ‘Please Assemble’ was printed on laminated cards taped to each fold-back lid. I folded back the centre one and inside the bin were brightly coloured plastic shapes — frames, with interlocking joints, axles and wheels, adult Lego. When I folded back the canvas lids adjacent, the contents of the other bins were similar. My eyes flicked across the walls, neck now craning to examine the ceiling. The interview had begun, then. I was being assessed, hidden cameras, or perhaps the hiring committee were observing through the skin of these Wong-shaped walls…

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Halfway Through Space to the Limits of Language by Vernon Burn

Next in our By Prescription Only: Themed Writing short story and essay showcase on the topic of Space is a piece by Vernon Burn. You may remember Vernon from our first BPO run on Privacy; his contribution to that series has proved to be one of our most popular stories. We hope you enjoy his latest work too.

Here’s something new: The following story is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, brands, media, events, etc. are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any views expressed within are those of the author solely and not necessarily those of Drugstore Books. Works cited are referenced and valid as of the time of publication. The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of various products referenced in the following composition, which have been used without permission. The publication/use of these trademarks is not authorized, associated with, or sponsored by the trademark owners. Some stories in this showcase contain adult themes, so reader caution is advised.

Halfway Through Space to the Limits of Language by Vernon Burn

A coiled rattlesnake thrashed its tail as the two men rode past.

“Ayh teyll you, this cunny better be good. Real fuckin’ good,” Mungo was saying for the umpteenth time. His horse neighed and nodded for emphasis.

He went on, “But ayh don’t in heyll know why they’d have this bordello in the middle of the stinkin’ desert. All ahm sayin’ is that fer yer sake, this better be the best goddam pussy ah ever did taste. Or there’ll be a reckonin’.”

The threat of violence was ever present and real with Mungo. He used it like other people used small talk and pleasant conversation. For him it was just another form of communication, an effective one. But even that smallish brain in that large, vicious body of his was starting to sense something was amiss, especially when the desert started to really heat up a few miles back.

With faked irritation, Jim said, “How many times do I have to tell you? This fuckin’ place is at a crossroads between the gold mines and the cities yonder. It’s in the middle of the fuckin’ desert, a’cause it has to be. You saw the train line they started buildin’, you numbnuts.” The dry throated voice he said it in was real enough.

Angered, as he so easily was, Mungo replied in a quiet way, bubbling with threat, “You better watch your goddamn words with me. Ah’ll smash yer head.” He punctuated this by spitting out a brown shot of sticky phlegm.

Jim acted a credible mix of apologetic and sullen, “I didn’t mean nuthin’ by it. I just don’t see why I have to keep tellin’ you what iz when it iz. You ain’t got no reason for disbelievin’.”

Their relationship after running in the same gang for a number of years was such that Jim’s pretence mollified the anger of the brute, who took to muttering under his breath with lots of “goddamns,” “pig’s messes” and “stoopid sunsabitches” thrown in about how he was sick and tired of rutting on and beating up the same small town whores night after night. He wanted something better. And he might as well get that before they robbed the place. But while he may have felt something was odd about their quest, he had no clear idea of what exactly. He still thought he held the club of fear over Jim’s head…

To read the rest, click the button below to download the pdf

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