Thursday, January 19, 2006

parallel section for 'arson'

Ok, so, this story is in many pieces, and I know we're not supposed to post incomplete things but bringing it all together is totally beyond me right now. All you need to know is that the narrator remains the same as before, but we are now a year or two in the future.


In a book I read once, a couple years ago, I learned that anything that can be thought of particles can be thought of as waves, and anything of waves as particles. I also learned that things were either waves or particles in the first place; I sort of knew that about particles, since everything is made of smaller things, but I’d never thought about it that much, or at least not enough to come to that conclusion. This was a nonfiction book so I learned all these things in a very direct way and they stuck with me.
I’m in the Organic Produce Market out on Terrace, closer to downtown than where I live. This is where I work, at one of the registers. OPM, as the employees affectionately know it both for quick speech and because it’s fun to say “I work at opium,” is a sort of high-end organic foods place, in that it’s laid out like a regular grocery store and is almost as large. I’m leaning against the check-out counter at my register, the one I prefer – right in front of the big automatic sliding doors, where you get the most sunlight. It’s a Saturday, midafternoon, and not a damn thing is going on. Carlos is helping some oldish woman find sprouts. Pete’s doing whatever it is Pete does in the office upstairs, and Rachel hasn’t come in yet. At my register, I lean my elbows on the cool fake wood of the counter, balling one fist and holding it in my other hand, resting my chin on both, legs apart behind me, prison-rape style. My apron, maroon-colored, is hanging loose from my neck because I’ve untied it. Pete makes us all wear pants and polo shirts; it’s too hot for the apron to be all on top of me, too. I have ten black polo shirts for this purpose. I’m staring at the wall, quite a ways away, five more registers between me and it and four behind. I scratch my chin idly. I’m thinking it’s a wave day.
Carlos comes sauntering back to the front with the old woman. He’s Hispanic but unusually dark, like maybe there’s some Indian in him; I’ve never asked. I incline my head slightly towards him and he does the same for me, a bit of worker solidarity. Otherwise I follow them both with my eyes only; I’m comfortable. Carlos is, too. He’s got a saunter to his walk always, but it’s more pronounced today, with nothing to do but think about what things are made of and occasionally hunt down vegetables. He likes the woman in the sort of affable way he has of liking people. He smiles at her as she chatters on about how nasty she’s found out most produce is from the internet and her son who’s a farmer up in Virginia and she’s just oh so disgusted with the state of things as basic as fruits and vegetables today and how she’s so glad there’s a place she can come to get safer foods &c. &c. Carlos just nodding all the way along as they finally come up to a register two up from mine, stopping the nodding only to shoot me a quick wink, an isn’t this lady hilarious sort of thing, and I smile wanly to indicate that I’m on the same page. He rings her up quickly (she’s only buying the sprouts and some curry powder) but she stays awhile after he’s returned her credit card, chatting about her son’s good work up north. Carlos’s answers are almost all monosyllables, but she’s still got the impression he appreciates her conversation so she keeps going, which is good because he does. When it’s not busy like this, when it’s just me and Carlos, sometimes I get time to wonder at how Carlos is able to put forth this sort of idea of himself as a friendly person and good listener, without needing to do anything besides mumble “yeah” or “oh.”
After the woman leaves, Carlos ushers his saunter my way, the usual half-grin flickering at his mouth like something inevitable. He comes around the front of the register facing me and hops up onto the counter, legs swinging off the ground, bumping his Converses into the paneling. Shoes are one thing we aren’t required to wear a certain way. I have not worn anything but flip-flops in three years.
Carlos is a big guy, short but still with a sense of bigness about him. Very broad shoulders, I guess, though I’ve never really understood why it is some people seem to take up more space in an abstract sort of way than others. He’s wearing a dark green polo shirt and loose jeans that are more fashionable than the plain khaki pants I have. His eyes are very dark brown and tend to blend with the pupils, contributing to the overall impression of too-darkness, I’ve always thought. His hair is black, too, but he keeps it buzzed. All this I take in as routine, and Carlos speaks.
“So you up for tonight or what, man?” He speaks just like he walks, and with no accent. He’s lived in North Carolina all his life, just like me.
Carlos is talking about a party he’s throwing with a friend out of the city a ways, out in cow-country and even getting on toward the Sandhills. The way he was laying it out to me before the farmer’s mother came in, the friend is house-sitting for his grandparents (the friend’s, not Carlos’s), and is looking to throw a decent-sized party. It’s supposed to be a very top-notch farmhouse, with a barn and all that, and a lot of fields and farm kind of things, and this guy really just wants to fill it with as many people as possible. To that end he has stocked a “plethora of kegs,” in Carlos’s words, Carlos riffing off of that movie with Chevy Chase and making fun of his own lack of accent at the same time in the clever way he can do sometimes.
Seeing that it is time for discussion I abandon my prostrate position, which is only good for very slow kinds of thinking, and jump up onto my own counter, though I elect to sit cross-legged rather than let my legs dangle. As I jump I talk.
“I dunno,” I say, staying carefully noncommittal, since I really don’t know. “It’s pretty far away, right? And I don’t even know this guy, or anything…” I’m trying to appear frank and sincerely concerned by these things.
“Nah, man. Look, you can ride with me, I finally got a stereo for the camino, it’s bad ass. It’s like a thirty minute drive, tops.”
“But I’ve never even met this guy. What the hell is his name? I don’t even know what the guy’s name is, or – ”
“Maybe I didn’t convey very well how many people will be there, homeboy. A shitload. A metric fucking shitload. It ain’t gonna matter one way or the other. And even if it did, he’s a friend of mine, he’s not gonna kick out my friend.”
This all makes sense, I know, so I don’t say anything. Really, I just don’t want to go because Carlos is 25, a solid five years older than me, and I don’t really know many of his friends. Sometimes Carlos and I hang out after work at his grungy townhouse that’s just up against downtown, drinking tequila and shooting the breeze, and I’ve met some of them that way, but still, this seems like a real affair. A real planned-thing. But Carlos is adamant, and I have to admit I’m buoyed by his determination to get me to this party. Eventually I agree, and it’s worked out that he’ll pick me up at my place after he grabs a six pack and we’ll eat on the way.


Rachel steps through the doors right at six, bringing in with her the last bits of sun and the beginnings of another perfect spring night. Rachel is always on time, and Pete loves her for this. Carlos just plain loves her.
She smiles at me as she walks past to the little “Employees Only” closet, where she stows a purse and some sort of paper bag. Rachel is by no means beautiful, but she has a sort of elegant nature about her that makes her presence distinctive. She comes over and stakes out the same place Carlos had been sitting a few hours earlier, walking slowly but covering a disconcerting amount of distance. She is very tall, especially for a woman. Preparing for an awkward social engagement, I put down the magazine I’ve been thumbing through, and am suddenly amused at the idea that this little spot is my office, and that Rachel is a client. I smile at this, hoping it will help an effortful, brief conversation go down smoothly. I grope for something to say.
“What’s in the bag?” Lame. Rachel is delighted, though.
“Oh, it’s a vase for my mom. It’s her birthday tomorrow, so I went down to Seagrove, she really likes the pottery they do down there.”
How to respond to this?
“Oh.” Excellent. Behind Rachel, I see Carlos leaving his register and walking toward us, trying to maintain saunter but failing now that he’s all worked up, running a hand uselessly through what hair he has. Rachel drives Carlos wild, and she is the only person I have ever seen who can penetrate his thick outer layer of coolness. She doesn’t ever express much interest in him, but I suspect that in some way this does not really bother Carlos. In any case, it’s a good situation for me, since it allows me to maintain a minimum of conversation with Rachel, who has always unnerved me. I don’t know what it is. Her eyes are set slightly too far apart to be considered average, and this gives her a vaguely insectile appearance, but smart insectile, like a praying mantis or something. Somehow I doubt that’s the only reason, but it is at least something I can sink my mental neuroses into.
Carlos is upon us now, already excitedly talking to Rachel about something he heard on the radio the other day, and to her credit her smile falters only for a split second before she regains balance and humors her odd, short coworker. I take the opportunity to slip over to the same employee closet, where I hang up my apron. Rachel and Pete will work the nightshift alone, as the schedule dictates for Saturday. As I’m shutting the door, I hear Carlos launching into his party description, complete with the “plethora” line, and inviting Rachel to come along, and gee, she’d love to come, Carlos, but only it’s her Mom’s birthday tomorrow, and she’s going to make her breakfast and give her this beautiful vase and there’s no way she could be out so late.
“Homeboy!” Carlos is calling to me as I turn from the closet. “Don’t you think Rachel could use a night out?” I can tell it’s a lost cause, and so can Carlos, but he’s trying to smooth it out anyway. I do my best to pitch in.
“Aw, come on, birthdays are important, too. And for her own mother! You want to keep her from her own mother?”
Carlos does an impression of sheepishness which ends up looking sort of like a sad clown face, with the lip turned down too much; I don’t guess he’s much acquainted with the emotion.
“Yeah, I suppose you’ve got a point.” He starts walking to the closet, untying the back of his apron and flicking it over his head in a single motion. Rachel busies herself at a register, unlocking the terminal and setting up for the few customers in the store. As Carlos and I are heading towards the door, Pete emerges from the office just above our heads, over the front entrance, and comes down the stairs, which arrive at the ground floor right where we’re standing, to one side of the closet. Pete has joke that he tells sometimes, that with a Peter and a Paul (me) working at OPM, Rachel really should change her name to Mary to complete the set. From a kindly old manager who has run the OPM since his family came into it decades ago, it would be sort of cute. From Pete, who’s in his early thirties and just sort of a greaseball, it’s somehow unsettling. Anyway, I don’t want to hear the joke, so I walk out of the doors quickly, Carlos shouting something to Rachel hastily over his shoulder and following me out into the bruised purple of the shopping center at night.


Blogger sb said...

Early in 2005 you posted a story on Last Plane To Jakarta called "Letter to the Editor". One thing I've noticed about you Max is that you essentially write cold. You bring your words from a very sterile place. I think you probably do this to have better control over what you're writing, because along with coldness, your prose says Control.

"Letter to the Editor" had this very cold, austere tone. So does this piece, though it does warm up a bit more.

It's obviously a labor of love and probably (very laborous, labor-intensive, labor-heavy, have you) to write this prose.

The first part of this inspired dread. This part feels a little heavy. I think it might be both

1. You haven't figured out where you want this to go, or as you said, put the pieces together yet.

2. This style of prose is very controlled during exposition, with text book finesse and wintery elegance, but when transitioning to the action parts, the conversation parts, it gets a little top-heavy. It leaves the immaculate tone of the exposition and tries to abruptly charge into action/conversation segments.

"“I dunno,” I say, staying carefully noncommittal, since I really don’t know. “It’s pretty far away, right? And I don’t even know this guy, or anything…” I’m trying to appear frank and sincerely concerned by these things.
“Nah, man. Look, you can ride with me, I finally got a stereo for the camino, it’s bad ass. It’s like a thirty minute drive, tops.”
“But I’ve never even met this guy. What the hell is his name? I don’t even know what the guy’s name is, or – ”"

Because you've created such an austere tone these sequence read to this stranger's eyes a bit jarring.

Your choice of vocabulary, the tones that infuse the story remind me of Borges and in a sense my criticism can be discounted for I've always found Borges to have some of the same "things" (I'm not calling 'em problems). How can you transition from absolutes to the much less concrete, to action occuring - without starting a war between the concrete and the non-concrete. Without creating such a jarring transition that it sounds forced? Some might read it and be like, ah, that's tremendous! But it's a lot of work to suspend disbelief. If a story, indeed, is about making a reader suspend disbelief long enough to get REALLY CRAZY and DANCE THE JITTERBUG and leave them with a memorable sequence to think about, that might in some way leave a mark - the austere stylist must find a way to bring the story to the austerity, from a more normal opening, or another way of looking at it is "training" the reader at the beginning of the story by offering the less austere stuff and then later delivering the blow the mind elegance. You know, because especially these days when readers are much less assertive and up to the challenge of reading, sometimes you kinda gotta' take 'em by the hand and take them INTO the FUNHOUSE before you say, now I've got you here bitch and I'm going to freak you out and make you fall in love and make you fall out of love and colorize the black and white world. Let go of their hand and they'll do nothing but try to escape the maze y'know.
If you don't mind me askin' you in an MFA program?

5:09 PM  
Blogger Max said...

I always had a similar complaint with Borges. He is amazingly inventive and a solid writer, but I never felt like he very much believed in what he was writing; more like he was writing the story just to demonstrate that it could be done, like a math proof.

Death of Dr Martin was a purposeful imitation of that style, because I wanted to understand it, so I'm glad you picked up on that. It worries me that you see the same thing here, though. I think it may partially be the aftertaste that the Nabokov book has left me, so maybe I will just try reading something less removed; but can you point to any specific bits you think could be livened up?

6:42 PM  
Blogger sb said...

I'll give 'er my best shot.

After the beginning exposition during Carlos, the tone of which is very dry and scientific, we're in a grocery store. Before the action takes place there's all this wonderful description of the action taking place without the action taking place. I really got the Borges feeling here, as though you were working toward a distinct principal. I expected you to use Carlos without using he was an idea rather than a character.

As soon as the transition from narrative description to action takes place, there's a different mood. A more modern style of writing. Carlos becomes a character...

Carlos is talking about a party. He's slangy. "So you up for tonight or what, man?"

Then you put in a paragraph describing Carlos.

You are leading a bit. Your writing goes back to a bit more sunny vesrion of exposition as if Carlos's dialogue infused the paragraph. (I don't know if that is good or bad). But if your exposition suddenly seems in the Carlos's character it is another jarring switch from the tone of the beginning exposition. You might want to parcel that paragraph with sentences in different parts and group the dialogue together with little interference of your tone. Y'know what I mean? Give the characters more control, away from the elegant exposition.

“So you up for tonight or what, man?”

“I dunno,” I say, It’s pretty far away, right? And I don’t even know this guy, or anything…"

Without the break it reads a bit more naturally ---

Maybe the jarring tone would be reduced without so many breaks in and out of exposition?..

7:18 PM  
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10:09 PM  

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