Wednesday, June 10, 2015

Writer's Block: Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere

I'm currently editing my fourth novel, Apophenia, in preparation to have another run at literary success, so I thought I'd share the first chapter of my first novel, Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere, which remains unpublished. Looking back, it's obviously a first work: there is too much florid language, the plot's a mess, and the premise is bizarre. It's about a family of deadbeat brothers who find their derelict house under attack from a race of sentient gophers. Try selling that to a literary agent. Maybe some day I'll rewrite it. It's connected to Black Box, sharing some of the same characters such as Art Howard, Mitch Singer, and Maria the succubus. Here's the first chapter.

Chapter One: (Subsisting) for the Weekend
The gophers were trying to kill us. 
            Every day the earth beneath our home became more and more unstable due to the never-ending efforts of the rodents below us. Tireless and determined, these furry monsters wove a complex subterranean labyrinth with the sole purpose of undermining the structural foundation of our home. We didn't know why they hated us. Perhaps our easy living and petty ambitions offended these industrious creatures. Maybe they decided that our bungalow deserved to be swallowed up by the earth. They probably could've put its materials to good use. 
            Our house was falling apart and we didn't know how to care for it. Ever since Dad left for Alaska, German concubine in tow, we'd been stuck in an existential funk, caught in the netherworld between adolescence and adulthood, generally unsure of what to do or where to go or how exactly one goes about making a decision. We surfed, we hovered, we floated. We let time take care of progression. We washed our hands of it.
When and how we became aware of the gophers and their deplorable endeavors, I can’t recall, but I do remember the start of one particular weekend. It was around one or two in the afternoon, and I was lying on my belly peering down into a deep depression, the great field that lies behind our house, prepping my twenty-two caliber rifle. The gopher mounds before me looked like the vertebra of some subterranean horror, the backbone of something huge and vicious and lurking. At any moment one of the evil offenders would likely pop his ugly mug out of the ground, and I'd say hello with a twitch of the finger and a slight pop and then go collect the splattered remnants of his being, another figure added to the tally.
            Our house rested on a hillside behind a vast graveyard that stretched into the distance for at least a mile, creating an ever-gloomy horizon of headstones and sepulchral monuments, blackened angels worn by wind and rain. Maybe the constant addition of corpses had softened the ground, making it easier for the gophers to move in. I could imagine them digging right through a decomposing coffin, effortlessly displacing dirt enriched by ancient flesh and bone-matter. Grisly animals, these gophers. 
            I reached into the cooler next to me, popped open a High-Life, and took a swig. Maybe today will be the day. I'd been looking for a particular gopher, a real regal-looking animal, well, as far as any rodent can really appear kingly. I'd never personally seen him, but both Art and Gary swore he existed. He was about as big as a medium-sized dog, they claimed, with fur all black and matted like melted coal. He surfaced like a whale, crashing through the top soil and displacing earth everywhere. Art said he was the head-honcho, chief of all terrestrial operations. If I bagged him, it was over, this escalating conflict, and humanity triumphed over gopher-kind. 
            My brothers were potheads and drunks, although to dwell too much on their perpetual inebriation would be risking hypocrisy, for I was no straight-edger, that’s for sure. Art was a pretty-boy security guard at a local business, a thin little man with perpetually greased hair like some tough from a fifties’ flick. Gary was one of those guys you’d see hanging out in front of the shittiest dive in town, looking like he might have hepatitis or something worse. He was lightly built as well, and covered in tattoos and piercings. He rarely showered, and as a result usually smelled like the unwashed underside of a rotting pig.  He was almost never employed.
            Something surfaced in my sights and I snapped to attention, steadying my rifle and taking aim at the dark diminutive dot before me. I fired and the shape jerked violently, a little spray of blood emitting in an arc from it as it collapsed. Already I could tell that it wasn’t the King, for it was too small, too average a gopher, likely a tunneler or some menial servant, the rodent equivalent of your Blue-Collar Joe.  
            Oh well. I trotted down to where the body lay. I slipped on a leather working glove and gently picked up the gopher corpse by its ragged vestigial tail. Would it be appropriate to say a few words? What sort of religion could this troglodyte have? I had never said anything before to mark the passage of a gopher from one world to the next, so why start now? Perhaps the King would get a word of reverence from me. This beast, however, had no soul. 
            I tossed its mortal remains into the fire pit. Its bones accompanied the charred skeletons of beer cans of various brands, whatever was on sale, as well as taco wrappings and cigarette packaging. Bits of the weekly trash were often sentenced to die in the fire pit, that which didn’t accumulate in the corners of our house. This was where we had our heathen dances, our drunken scrapes, where we held services for gods unknown. 
There was a flimsy structure next to the fire pit that Gary affectionately called “the rape shack.” As far as I knew, nothing that grotesque had taken place in its innards, although I was sure he’d fornicated with under-age girls or burned-out milfs many times inside the building. Gary either went premature or way past it; only clueless teenagers or desperate trailer-trash was interested in a guy with four lip rings.
            I entered the skuzzy shack. An old cat hair-covered futon in the right corner, stained and stinking; a mini-fridge in the left, still sputtering on like myself, past its college expiration date. My shoes stuck to the floor, which had a molasses-like covering of gum, soda, spilt beer, and bodily fluids. On the wall opposite the door was a great piece of poster-board covered in tallies, to which I added my latest kill. Up to fifty already, eh? That meant it was time for a celebration. 
            I sat down on the futon and lit my congratulatory cigarette. Light spewed in from the cracks between the walls and illuminated my cloudy fumes. It had been awhile since I’d had one; we were all trying to quit, even Gary. Pot was better for you, he argued, and plus you got more bang for your buck. I didn't disagree. Whenever I smoked, the next day my lungs felt crippled and heavy, like poor wheezing black bags of filth. I flicked the ash into a large plastic bucket and wondered how long it would be before the whole shack went up in flames.
            It was my day off, and I resolved to get something constructive done besides killing gophers. I was an amateur musician and songwriter with a degree in musical composition, but I couldn’t figure out what to do with my education. I lacked the credentials to teach (I didn’t have the patience either) and gigging opportunities were limited in my hometown. The Cincinnati scene was small and cliquish, although I hadn’t tried particularly hard to break into it. Ever since graduation I'd been trying to get a band together with little success, meeting with flunkies who could barely play a guitar as well as savants too idiotic to realize that nobody wanted to hear twelve minutes of modal noodling. So I sat around recording demo after demo, building up a stack of unpublished work that so far only a handful had heard. Every time I wrote a song I felt productive, like things might eventually go my way if only I kept on trucking through the slow, worn mechanized grind of daily life. Writing was the source of what optimism I had.
            I didn't feel like writing or playing, however. I felt like blowing the day on stupid pursuits, such as watching a House marathon on USA or playing video games. Our X-Box got a lot of work, although not always by us; Art had a friend named Trent who came over about every day even when he wasn't around just to play our console. I decided to enter the house to see if he was around. If he wasn't, I'd get into the Game. If he was, well, then I'd get out the guitar and the notebook and try to add another song to my dusty catalogue. 
            A stranger coming into our living room was transported back to the 70's; our carpet was an ugly turquoise color that hasn’t existed since then, and our d├ęcor was made up of pieces our grandmother picked out back when Archie Bunker was a cultural figure. A picture of old Grandma rested on the mantle, all strict eyes unwavering and wiry white hair. She lived to be ninety, a taut, bony dictator who demanded absolute adherence to her rules. She held the house together and without her presence, Dad couldn’t stick around any longer.
            Our house was dark and had a general subsurface feel, like we were living in a mine shaft or something. The ceilings were low and there weren’t many windows and the blinds were always drawn, like we were vampires who’d turn to ash if we encountered the light during sleep. It was cramped and confined, like the gopher tunnels below us. As I walked through the living room with its faux-wood plating and rustic country sofa, I could almost feel Grandma sitting there watching her soap operas. This was her command post where she issued orders with a bellow or a shriek. 
            Right through the kitchen was our room. I could hear Trent playing and my heart sank. My creative juices just weren’t flowing, and I was really in the mood for some post-apocalyptic role-playing or whatever else the Game wished me to see.
The Game was a massively multiplayer role-playing first-person shooter strategy game, or MMRPFPSSG for, um, short. It was the first of its kind, an amalgamation of different virtual entertainment trends designed to replace and surpass all other titles by virtue of its sprawling scope. It offered you whatever you wanted. You could delve into a Tolkien-inspired world of elves and orcs, siding with various factions, creating your own character, steering them toward the good or bad path. You could log into the competitive multiplayer component and frag others as a marine or a terrorist. You could become a general of an ancient alien civilization, building your fortress, amassing your troops, and eventually decimating your enemies. If you desired, you could build your own worlds and combine them with the work of others, although this component was restricted to the PC version. There was nothing you couldn’t do in the Game, and it was always being added to, the experience never ended, since there was no way to complete something that seemingly resisted the effects of entropy. It sucked up time and energy and funds, although the monthly subscription was pretty cheap, considering the infinite amount of gameplay offered.   
            I knocked on the door and entered. A nasty decrepit sofa rested against the far wall next to a nasty decrepit chair. Relics of my college days, now stained and stinking. Their mottled appearance, combined with their bright orange color, discouraged lengthy periods of sitting. There was a bunk bed in the corner; Gary usually slept on the couch. His many articles of black clothing were scattered about in filthy piles. A bookshelf of games and fantasy novels in the corner opposite the bed; dragon figurines and action figures also. Facing the sofa was the centerpiece of the room, the television. It rested on a little podium with the X-Box beneath it. Games were everywhere. Cracked and shattered casings lay mixed with black clothing and garbage. Other than the X-Box, there wasn't a single respected item in the room.
            Trent was sitting fish-eyed on the couch. He was a pale kid with elongated limbs and a perpetually curved spine who always wore a tiny white t-shirt riddled with holes and a baggy pair of high-water jeans. His red Chuck Taylors were gummy with dirt, yet somehow they never left any tracks on the carpet. It was like they were a magnet for filth. Once they got a hold of something dirty, they didn't let go.
I stared at the white-faced amphibious cave dweller. His eyes stayed on the TV screen, gaming controller gripped loosely in his hands. 
            “Hey,” I muttered. 
            “Hey,” he croaked back. 
            “Did you come over to hang out with Art?” 
            “I guess.” 
            “Well, he's not getting home till around eight.” 
            “All right.” 
            “It's three o'clock.” 
            I stared at him for a good minute, hoping he'd get the point. His large aquatic orbs never left the screen. 
            I sighed and sat down next to him. I didn't feel comfortable forcing this interloper from the room. He was an odd little man, an unpredictable creature quite possibly capable of violence. I imagined waking up to him standing over me with a knife, white-faced and wearing a stony expression of doom. Better to just be friendly to him. 
            “So what are you playing?” 
            “The Game.” 
            I watched his avatar move about. The game world was in the first person perspective; all you could see of his character was a pair of camouflaged arms holding an M4 carbine. Trent was playing the competitive multiplayer mode, which meant he was looking for other Internet players to shoot. I loved shooting things as much as the next delinquent, but I could never get into the more plausible arenas of the Game. Stomping around as a marine in Afghanistan wasn't exotic enough. Too close to reality. 
            “I was hoping to play.” 
            “Give me a sec. I need a couple more kills for the achievement.” 
            The Game  awarded achievements for specific actions. I think Trent craved this kind of thing. The rewards system kept him coming back. Well, that and the graphic brilliance that accompanied every violent action. Red pixels showering a concrete wall, fresh from the head of a disposed villain. The swiftness of a knife kill, the sound of a body hitting the floor. The perfect rat-a-tat-tat of a machine gun. It was a well-made piece of entertainment. 
            “You know this is my X-Box. And my house.” 
            “I'm almost done.” 
            “You're making me wait for my own X-Box?” 
            “I've been working on this for days. I almost got it.” What was “it”? Probably a little box that popped up on screen that said           “Achievement earned! Made ten headshots while in the air!” 
            “Where do you work? You seem to be over here a lot.” 
            “I'm waiting for my position to open up again.” 
            “What did you do?” 
            “I was a stocker for Black Box.” 
            “When's the last time you worked?” 
            “Three months ago.”
            So what was Trent living on?  It was unlikely that he had any savings. Lately I'd noticed we went through cereal a little faster than normal. This little free loader was doubtlessly nibbling away on our snacks while playing my console, using up our electricity. I needed to talk to Art about this. It wasn't right that on my day off I couldn't play video games. 
            I noticed the headstock of my guitar sticking out of a pile of black clothing, dust caked around the golden pegs. I grabbed the twelve-string and saw that a string was broken. How long was it since I'd written a song? Judging by the dust, longer than I'd realized. 
            Why did I crave the Game? Often times, I'd find myself having little fun, yet I’d keep playing, perhaps just to get to the next experience level or to complete a new quest. Looking at Trent, sitting there with his long white hands growing sweaty, his face frozen with vacancy, I reached a conclusion. My behavior was pathological; I had an illness, some modern, new-age plague. We were the infected. Hit us ten times in the head and you'll earn an achievement. 
            “I need you to get off that X-Box. Now.” 
            “I need to play one more match.” 
            To hell with this. I decided to risk the possibility that Trent would react drastically to my taking control. I got up and turned off the X-Box.
            “What the fuck.” 
            “Get out of here. Go do something.” 
            He stared at me like Gollum; huge-eyed, waxen, fanatic. He seemed to hiss as his gaunt, ghastly frame rose from the couch. 
            “You're an asshole.” 
            With that final declaration, he tossed the controller to the ground. This was the greatest display of emotion I'd ever witnessed from Trent. I always joked with Art that he was barely a person. “He's never taken the time to develop his character,” I'd chuckle. “He's still stuck around level 10, with basic attributes.”
            I picked up the controller. It vibrated like a relic, some bewitched item uncovered from an ancient tomb. Still working, no cracks. I sighed and flipped the X-Box back on. 
I knew I was addicted and that the path to sobriety might be rough. I spied an unopened beer on the floor. It was warm but not skunked, and that was all a connoisseur like myself required.
            I got up and switched on the television. The loading screen for the Game popped up and I watched the electric blue whirls spell out “Huerto”, the studio’s logo. I watched them spiral and weave and come together perfectly with a nice sound effect, something similar to a spacecraft entering the atmosphere, a great whoosh that ended with a thunderous crack, sharp and snappy.
            It would start tomorrow. Everything would start tomorrow. 
            I'd done this a million times. Made plans and then put them off. Things might get done, but only in pieces and then only after countless starts and restarts. Despite my sour attitude, I had a fundamental optimism innate to my being. I could take a million failures because there was always tomorrow, bright and beckoning with false colors on the plastic horizon. I had never coped with this illogical element of my personality. It was a defense mechanism, I was sure. Probably evolved to prevent abject depression. So it kept me going at the price of attaining actual salvation and palpable change. 
            I faced an interesting dilemma, in real-life and in the Game. My character had started out a good guy, always helping people in side-quests while shunning the promise of greater rewards. The Game had a karma meter that judged the player's actions. At the moment my cowboy hat-wearing, duster donning lawman was on the positive side. However, it was fun to experiment. You could always sell out a tiny village to a clan of mutant vampires. 
            But how could I rationalize my actions? If a role-playing game was truly about role-playing a character, how could my honest gunslinger suddenly undergo a change of heart? Perhaps if one lived in the wasteland long enough, it seized control of your psyche. Maybe it stopped you and opened up your head and gave you a moral lobotomy; maybe it dug out your brains with a crude spoon, the kind of thing a caveman might carve out of old wood and leave jagged at the edges, fibers sticking out to splinter and become imbedded.
            I continued to play. Just a half-hour longer. Then I'd quit this and start on a song.

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