This is me. Self-portrait.
Pointless Venture. There's not intended to be any irony in that, honestly. To put anything out in the vast wasteland of the internet is something of a futile effort, yet it's so easy and the possibility of an equally vast readership lingers. No one ever got anywhere by not trying, despite what Bukowski might tell us. I'll use my mentioning of the King of Creeps to segue into a discussion of my literary history.
I graduated Ball State University in 2009, completing a college career that spanned four universities, several changed majors, and five and a half years. I ended up with a BA in English, that most derided of degrees. How often is someone impressed when you tell them you have an English degree? Never. They are never impressed, especially after they find out you didn't earn a teaching certification, and that's because people think it's a stupid major. There's no money guaranteed to English majors, no jobs necessarily waiting because it's a broad degree that lacks specialization. People think you earned an English degree because you were unfocused and lazy in college. Well, in my case, there's certainly some truth to that. But I always possessed the desire to become an author of fiction. I was one of those kids that roamed around the woods, head down, absorbed in the creation of ridiculous stories that I'd act out while climbing through old barns, brandishing heavy sticks. We express experience through stories; we attempt to tell one another about our own lonely lives. The desire to create worlds, as well as the need to communicate, are why I want to be a writer.
This is me in college.
I did short stories and poetry in college, but I didn't try to write a novel until I quit my first post-graduation job at Pet Smart, where I worked as a dog trainer. It was a sales job, and to say that I wasn't suited for the work would be an understatement. I wanted to write about the post-college ennui many experience, and my efforts produced Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, a surreal tale that follows a family of three brothers as they try to manage their dysfunctional lives, as well as prevent the destruction of their familial home by a race of presumably malicious gophers. Yeah, it didn't get published, as you might expect. It's kind of out there, and a little amateur, and I'm probably not the best writer of query letters. I plan on revising it in the future, and maybe I'll share it. Maybe I'll upload the whole damn thing.
Black Box is my current book, and I just started editing it. Why give a proper summary when I can just mention some of the things it involves? Black Box features: a video game company called Huerto; a literal succubus; a cantankerous old apple farmer and his deformed side-kick named The Goon; a sixty-year old boy/man who was transformed into a Sasquatch because of his inability to control his carnal desires; a pompadour wearing, gun-toting prepper hipster wannabe; a reality program called People Watching People Watching People; and a quest from God. Sounds a little interesting, right?
You'll find the first chapter of Black Box below. This is just from the first draft, so things will probably change. Regardless, enjoy.
I sat in the parking lot with a can of lukewarm beer and a snickers bar and waited for Art Howard to emerge from the monolithic black building that towered before me. Inside the car it was hot, and I could already feel the perspiration sliding down my sides from my armpits, each bead leaving one long wet trickle. My window was cracked just a tad because I didn’t want any one of Huerto’s nearly one-hundred employees to notice their Vice President of Operations drinking in his rusty old Grand AM at two-thirty in the afternoon. The air conditioner’s compressor had burned out some time last summer, and I had never gotten around to getting it fixed. Rodrico, my boss, often asked why I didn’t buy a new car. “Memories,” I told him. “This car helps me reminisce about times long past. High school girlfriends. Hills overlooking valleys. Fumbling hands and misplaced contraceptives. You understand?” He would just shrug and laugh and go back to whatever nonsense he was busying himself with. The truth was I didn’t have any particularly special memories about times had in my old Grand AM. I just found it hard to throw things away.
The snickers bar was melting in my hand. Chocolate and caramel oozed down my fingers, leaving peanuts and wafer exposed and looking like the scat of some herbivorous mammal. I rewrapped the uneaten bar up and tossed it into the console, where it was destined to be forgotten and later rediscovered after having transformed into an amorphous mass. The heat was getting to me, making me malodorous and dehydrated, and I let it. I sipped my beer and leaned back into my worn seat. Looking westward past the obsidian edifice one can see the rearmost vestiges of the Rodrico Family Fruit Farm. For miles the orchard stretched, ending eventually within the city limits of Hillsdale. The old trees were in my view, with trunks as big as a man and branches that reached out like the limbs of ogres, twisted relics that had grown nearly wild with age and neglect. A desire to climb those ancient boughs seized me, but I remembered the beer in my hand. It wasn’t drinking itself.
I could see the humidity rising up from the asphalt, and I clutched my head and rolled the window down further. It was a huge parking lot, and I estimated that only about a fifth of it was ever used. A sensible explanation for the size of the parking lot was only one of many answers I desired regarding Huerto. For instance, why was the building leaning westward like a sharp and rectangular tower of
? Was there a reason
for it looking like the mad architectural project of a Soviet engineer
concerned with maximizing the menace in utilitarian design? What sorts of
oddities were contained in its subterranean bowels, inaccessible even to me?
Why was there a skyscraper rising up above the farm fields of a dilapidated Pisa village? Indiana
I chugged my insipid beer and breathed a long tired sigh. I reached back behind me and grabbed another and popped the tab. Any minute now they’d be swiping their time cards and pouring out, heading for their cars, most going toward
They were computer engineers, computer programmers, computer scientists,
artists, animators, writers, psychology majors, game testers, human-resources
personnel, security, and Larry Stevens, the most unqualified, besides perhaps
Art, of the bunch. I wondered what was going on over at the orchard, which was
still operated by Sam Pasteur, an old rival of Rod’s father who was finally
bought out and coerced. Technically, the Rodrico Family Fruit Farm fell under
my authority as VP of Operations; yet Rodrico let old Pasteur run the business.
He was an incomparably shrewd man; I once had to listen to him give a twenty
minute monologue on the glories of purchasing worn slacks from Goodwill. Since
then I’d stayed away, although every so often I ventured out into the older
parts of the farm to see if I could find any antique apples among the weeds and
brambles, and every once in a while I’d see the Goon, as he was known,
Pasteur’s chief man, a townie in his twenties who always wore baggy pants and a
checkered shirt with a Reds hat and an impish grin on his asymmetrical face.
I’d give him a stern look and he’d look at me with a bizarre expression on his inexplicably
pale visage, and after a while he’d light a cigarette and go scurrying away in
that odd half limp of his. I never knew what the Goon was doing out in the
abandoned recesses of the orchard or why Pasteur had chosen to make him the
face of the business at farmers’ markets. But I let the old man run the farm
his way. As long as it paid for itself, I was happy, and so was Rodrico. Kentucky
The exodus began, and I saw that Art was among the first to emerge. He was a fairly recent hire, an addition to the company after a strange occurrence on his nearby property threatened the security of Huerto, or so Rodrico ensured me. I heard from an associate of Dr. Niles Frasier’s that when he arrived, Art and his brothers were watching vapidly as their house sank into the earth, while a disproportionate number of gophers scurried amongst the rubble. For some reason, Rodrico wanted the property, so a sale was negotiated. The other two brothers wanted cash, while Art desired a job. He was given a janitorial position, but after taking a liking to him I promoted him to game tester, where he thrived. After only a year he was the chief tester of the Game, Huerto’s main product and claim to fame. I like him because he was an incorrigible drunk, and also because his girlfriend Maria was the most attractive female I’d ever encountered.
I examined him as he walked toward his car. A short, skinny man with a youthful face and black, greasy hair combed back in a pompadour. He was looking at his phone, doubtlessly texting that gorgeous woman of his. I rolled my window down further and called out to him.
“Hey, Art. Come here.” I said in a hoarse whisper, my chin resting on window. Sweat leaked down my face in great flowing streams.
“Louie!” He veered course and removed a cigarette from between his right ear and lit it as he walked. He was wearing a white t-shirt that said in red letters “what is life but the Game?” I had given him that shirt. I gave every new employee that shirt.
“Hey boss, what’s up?” His cigarette dangled right next to my window and fumigated my car’s interior. “Getting out early, eh? One of the privileges of the job, right?”
“Let’s go down to the Angry Bear and have a couple after work brews. My treat.”
“Looks like you’re starting early.” He pointed to the can in my hand. “Don’t mind if I do.”
“Get in the car first. But put out that cigarette.”
We pulled out of the parking lot and passed the orchard, heading down the pothole ridden road toward Hillsdale. We passed soybean and corn fields and groves of thin ancient trees as the road wound its way around a hill. Little shanties stood by the road, with ruined machines and plastic furniture littering their rotted porches. We passed trailers, as well as nice houses with horse pastures and man-made ponds. Deer signs were everywhere. Art chucked his beer can out of the window, aiming for a carcass that lay swollen on the shoulder.
“Next time throw it in the back.” I told him. “We recycle around here.”
“You’ll get a ticket for an open container.”
“I’ll get a ticket for drinking and driving.”
He shrugged and popped open another beer. I watched him chug it down out of the corner of my eye. There weren’t many people who could drink like him.
“You ever seen Robocop?” he said after finishing.
“Of course. I love Verhoeven’s work, although Total Recall is probably his best.”
“If Hillsdale were a bigger city, it would look like
in Robocop.” Detroit
had that reputation for a while. Didn’t there used to be a Ford factory around
“Yeah. I’m the only local working at Huerto, aren’t I?” He took a gulp of a fresh beer.
“Well, I think maybe one of the security staff is from Hillsdale.”
“Humm,” he said, easing back into his seat.
“Where does Maria work? Does she need a job? You know you can ask me.”
“No, she’s doing fine,” he said. He sipped his beer until we reached the bar.
The Angry Bear was located on the main strip, right at the end facing the river. Hillsdale had a nice main street full of old brick buildings, although many of the businesses were hanging by a thread. After the closure of the Ford factory, many had thought that the town would vanish. However, a riverboat casino had moved in, and soon the roads were clogged with compulsive gamblers and the elderly. Much of the town became employed through the boat, but soon afterwards gambling was legalized in
The boat announced its intentions to move, and the town had settled into a
steady depression ever since. Ohio
We parked in front of the bar and as we exited I took a moment to look at the river. The current was moving fast, and I noticed several huge limbs floating down the
that could capsize a boat. Perhaps one
would crash through the hull of the casino. Such an occurrence would lessen
some of the antipathy local residents felt toward Huerto. Besides Rodrico and
Art, I was the only employee who had frequented any of the native shops. We had
done little for the town, said most folks, and the fact that Rodrico was a
native son had soured many people to our company. I didn’t care. I had my
little apartment on the edge of the city limits, which meant that I was
technically a local resident. Hillsdale was my home as well, so any
antagonistic feelings toward me were completely unjustified, as far as I was
We walked through the door and into the empty bar. There were a few pinball tables near the entrance; the bar was located against the left wall while much of the floor consisted of cheap plastic tables and space for dancing. There was a stage, although I made sure never to come here when there was a band. Gordy Weaver had a sorry knack for booking the worst groups possible.
He was at the bar when we entered; a good-looking man with a round, smooth face that always seemed to shine beneath the soft lighting like the waxed surface of a car. Polo shirts were his uniform; he always paired a polo with a pair of oversized pants and some white sneakers. Gordy was loud and broke things constantly. Every pool stick in the bar had suffered his wrath.
“What’s happening Cap ‘n?” said Art. Gordy smiled his huge grin and extended a hand.
“Not much, bros. Shootin’ the shit and vise versa. How you doing, Louie?”
“Same old, same old, I guess. Get me a beer, damn it. Something better than the High Life I’ve been drinking in my car.”
“How ‘bout a Yuengling? Nobody around here drinks it, but I like it.”
“Sure Gordon, get me one of those.” We sat down on the stools.
“How’s business?” I asked him.
“Shit, I get an old buckeye bastard every once in a while, but mostly it’s slow. What do I care?” He poured himself a glass. “I get to drink beer all day.”
“You making your payment?”
“Yeah mostly, although you owe me for those tires,” he said to Art.
“Talk to him, he pays me.”
I gave Gordy a raised eyebrow and smiled. “Why don’t you call Maria? We’d like to enjoy her company.”
“Why do you guys always assume she’s available?” said Art rather sullenly.
“Because she always is.”
“It’s a Friday, Art,” said Gordy. “Get in the spirit.”
A middle-aged townie with a considerable beer gut and a mullet sauntered in. He waved at Gordy and stopped at one of the pinball machines.
“Give me a second,” he said. “I got to take care of a client.”
“Do what you will,” I said. It was nice to be drinking cold beer. I looked around the place. Gordy hadn’t made any additions since I’d last been here. The walls were still littered with
sports memorabilia. There was a signed photo of Barry Larkin across from me,
next to a picture of Boomer Esiason. A shirtless Mark Wahlberg stared out from
behind the stage, arms flexed, eyes smoldering. It was the most provocative
piece of Gordy’s Marky-Mark collection, most of which was spread throughout the
bar. A newcomer wouldn’t notice a picture of a space jumpsuit clad Wahlberg from
Cincinnati ’s awful Planet
of the Apes movie if it was placed strategically between Pete Rose and Ken
Griffey. Nor would he or she think to look up to spy an enormous poster from M.
Night Shyamalan’s The Happening
located in the middle of the ceiling. And if one was relieving himself in the
restroom, he probably wouldn’t pay too much attention to the shape of the
urinal cake. If he did, he’d likely notice the cake’s uncanny resemblance to a
certain thespian from Burton . Boston
“How was testing today?” I asked Art. I’d been daydreaming a lot lately, letting the details of the job slip away from me.
“We need to revamp the achievement system. There are too many rewards for performing mindless, repetitive tasks. The Game starts to feel like a Skinner box after a while.”
“Well, operant conditioning is at the heart of The Game, and every piece of electronic entertainment like it. You’re right; we need to be better at hiding it. The Game will change in a big way soon, as I’m sure you’re aware.”
“So explain YETI to me.”
“Damn it, Art, be quiet.” Gordy was still talking to the man with the mullet.
“Gordy doesn’t listen to any of this stuff. He probably thinks we’re talking about Bigfoot.”
“You don’t think we’re being monitored?” I subtly nodded toward Gordy’s patron. “We don’t know who that is. He could work for a rival company. Or maybe the government is keeping tabs on their project. We simply don’t know, and for that reason I don’t want to hear you mentioning anything that’s classified. Understand?”
“Yeah, sure boss. I understand.” He looked down at his phone. “Maria is coming.”
“You don’t tell her anything, do you?”
“No, of course not. She doesn’t really get video games. I don’t think she understands what Huerto does. She’s behind the times in a lot of ways, really.”
“You don’t know what you have there, buddy.”
“Oh I think I do,” he replied quietly. I didn’t ask, but there was something peculiar about how he said it.
I sensed that there was much going on between Art and Maria that I remained unaware of, which increased the already troubling degree of fascination I had with my employee’s girlfriend. By herself, she was a remarkable woman, although I struggled to define exactly what it was about her that made her so attractive. She was beautiful, yes, with vast green eyes and a perfect oval face and legs that seemed to stretch into the horizon. Around her, my own eyes watered and goose bumps prickled my skin. She exerted that Je ne sais quoi feeling, something intangible and intoxicating, and I was a bit worried that Art would eventually find out just how obsessed I was. Gordy was in love with her as well, but he loved all women.
Gordy came back from conversing with the rotund gentleman, who was now engaged in a rather physical dance with the pinball machine.
“You look like you need another,” he said to me, vanishing behind the bar and emerging a second later with a dark purple bottle.
“I’m not halfway finished with this one…”
“Lilith’s Dark Delight. A fine specialty brew. Crafted deep down in the underworld by naked women and snakes.” He removed the tab and pushed the beer forward.
The label featured a beautiful nude woman intertwined in a loving embrace with a python. I recognized it immediately as a simple imitation of a famous painting done by the English artist John Collier. As I examined it I saw the original painting clearly in my mind (I had a reproduction hanging in my apartment). The woman was pale and curvy with long, wavy strawberry blonde hair, and she looked as though she enjoyed the serpent’s coils that seethed around her supple frame. Her eyes were closed and a smile was turning on the corners of her mouth. She seemed suddenly very familiar…
“Hey Louie, she’s not real, man. She’s just a picture. Isn’t it modeled after a White Snake album? Lovehunter?” Gordy was laughing and he reached out to smack Art on the shoulder. Art smiled with lidded eyes and lit a cigarette.
“The man’s already imagining the pleasures that await him tonight,” I said.
“Whips and chains and leathery games,” said Gordy. “Is she going to make you wear the gimp suit?”
“She’s going to suspend me by the flesh of my back with hooks connected to ceiling chains,” said Art, with eyes closed and a visible shudder. “If I’m lucky she’ll let me down after a couple of hours.”
“Jesus, really?” Gordy and I exchanged looks. “Are you serious?”
“Guys. When am I ever serious?” His eyes were open now, and he gave us a cold stare before bursting into a chortle. Both Gordy and I cringed. Art laughed like the Joker.
The door opened and we all turned as Maria Delgado walked into the bar. She was wearing a pair of loose fitting jeans and one of Art’s shirts that had a little outline of the Grim Reaper holding a broom. Her hair was scattered about her shoulders, long and dark and unruly, and as she moved a tiny lock of it swung before her face like a pendulum. Despite her casual, expansive dress, I noticed the barest trace of her figure as she walked toward us, green eyes glittering with knowledge as though she could read the desires of my heart.
“Why are you guys looking at me like that?” she asked as she pulled up a stool next to me and slapped Gordy on the shoulder. “Barkeep, get me a beer.”
“Have one of these,” I told her, pointing at my Dark Delight.
She grabbed my beer and took a swig. “Not bad. Pretty hoppy. Oh, and I like the label. Does it look like me, Art? Although the hair’s the wrong color.” She smiled and I felt myself being drawn in like a man tottering on an abyss.
“Too much so,” he said, avoiding her eyes. He seemed melancholy suddenly, and I sensed something electric in the air. I looked at my hand lying on the bar and noticed that the hairs were standing up on it.
“We were just talking about Art’s sex life,” said Gordy with a mischievous grin.
“How he doing?” she said quietly.
“Well, he seems to have some complaints. Doesn’t like the rough trade, I guess.”
“You guys shouldn’t slap him around so much.” She took an enormous draught of beer. “He has a delicate frame.”
“You know, I don’t have a delicate frame,” I said while elevating my right eyebrow.
“You have a thuggish Neanderthal body, Louis,” replied Maria. “Your arms are as long as an ape’s.”
“Well that’s about the harshest rejection I’ve ever heard,” said Gordy before erupting with laughter. Art started to giggle and I shook my head at him.
“Art used to think I was a succubus. You don’t still think that, do you honey?”
“No, you’ve retired,” he said, eyes on his beer. “You guys want to come over tonight and watch People Watching People Watching People?”
“I thought we had an evening planned…” began Maria.
“We never have people over. I don’t want to live in isolation. What do you guys say?”
“It’s Friday night. I got to stay with the bar of course,” replied Gordy.
“What about you, Louie?”
“Well if you all have an evening planned and Gordy can’t come, I wouldn’t want to impose…”
“You can come over, Louie,” said Maria with a sigh. “Art wants a friend.”
“We need to swing back and get my car at work...”
“All right, sure. I love that show by the way.”
“I hate it,” said Maria before draining the last of her beer.
An hour later, we stumbled out of the Angry Bear, the three of us more than a little drunk. The sun was setting across the neighboring hills, spilling its pink and orange rays over the wavy waters of the
I thought suddenly of how Rodrico was always talking about the “Bosom of
Kentucky,” as he called those diminutive peaks. I stood there a minute admiring
the picturesque scene. I felt a new sense of ownership and of belonging as I
looked down at the muddied waters transformed, sparkling and glittering like
the product of a child’s art class.
Alone there on the bank, I was witnessing the town’s namesake while the
locals hid in their homes or drank themselves into oblivion like my friends.
You can own a thing, I thought, just by being the sole aesthete, the sole
devotee of its beauty. Maria laughed at that moment, and I heard Art go into
his hideous guffaw, so I turned and left the sun to shutter behind me. Ohio