Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Factotum in Fall

I woke up at 3 in the afternoon. My screenplay had been keeping me up late. Act three felt flat. Everything seemed sparse and random. The scenes were so extended that the narrative seemed lost. I wasn’t sure how to bring it all together.

Of main concern was my lead character’s suicide. I needed to find a trigger. His childhood was rough. His teenager years were chaotic, but nothing so bad that it seemed to warrant suicide. I needed something particularly fucked up that would make people believe—and more so to understand—his suicide. I was at a lost. It had been keeping me awake at nights. I noticed that time goes much slower when the sun is down. 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. can easily feel like a week. Conversely, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. flashes in a blink. However long time feels at night, it’s also emptier. That one night may feel like a week, but it feels like a week in a jail cell. That feeling helped. It’s how my script felt too. Maybe in this sprawling landscape of time I could find something in it that would help me see what’s needed to finish my story.

It wasn’t working, but I had finally gotten a decent idea that allowed me to sneak some sleep in. After rising off my couch, I went in my room and plopped down at the desk. The computer screen stared me down. It was blank. I was blank. I decided to leave.

I called my friend Timothy from school. He was a tall, lanky fellow writer with a messy plume of hair that a dean had suggested I talked too. Before being dean she ran the honors writing program. She felt his and my mind somehow meshed.

This was actually the first time I called to speak to him outside of campus. The conversation was stuttered. Timothy was, “socially awkward,” as he put it. Yet, his patient searching for words and rigid energy were somehow charming. And if you were to look into my eyes you were more likely to see a distant cosmos than you were anything that resembled a personality. Our conversation had as much energy as drying cement. After, a few pauses and moments of confusion we agreed to meet up at a coffee house in the pseudo-avant-garde artist radical district of the city.

I took the train. Most of the time flashes of fear struck me in the gut when I leave my apartment. A lot of the times I hold my keys in my pocket like a weapon in case some tries to mug me. Then it slowly dawns on me that I’m paranoid and I forget about it.

People are simulacrums of what I read in books or see on television; I’ve realized that I spend so much time absorbed into myself that I’ve created a world that doesn’t truly exist.

It’s wandering around the city that always awakens me. People on the street surprise me. The way people act, the places that are dangerous, the things that are beautiful, people’s ideas, their insecurities, their courtesies are all distorted on my map. It is as if I have a felt tip marker that I am using to trace a picture from memory on a sheet of clear cellophane. Then when I place it on top of the real picture the lines and shapes don’t match up. My eyes too—the clear cellophane gel of my eyes imbued by the projections of my mind look out onto the world and see the distortions the difference in line. Today wasn’t so bad. The train ride was peaceful. My thoughts had eaten up most of the time it took to get there. When I arrived I scuttled away from the station. Paranoid or not there are some shady people lurching around that place.

Before heading in to the coffee house, I opted for a bookstore a few doors down. It was a pleasant independent place with a lot of used books. They even have a section for counter-culture. I breezed through its shelves. Charles Bukowski. Lots of him. I imagined that this had to be just about everything he had ever written. Realizing, I had never read anything he had written I decided it was time to start. His reputation had always enticed my interest. Dark, brutal, and morose was right up my library isle.

I chose a novel—Factotum. It seemed appropriate to my cause. With my purchase in hand I headed back to the bookstore. Timothy had already shown up. He was sitting penitently at a sidewalk table. If it wasn’t for his threadbare sweaters and second-hand pants scribbled with marker he’d look like conservative librarian—the black rimmed glasses and bowtie type. He was prim, but not stern. His presence on that chair reminded me of an origami crane—tautly defined, but easily crushed.

We spoke briefly. He knew the area more. A Thai café had opened up recently. It appealed to his vegan diet. Up the road a few block we marched off towards it. Almost the entire building was a window. It was like going inside a display case. Everything was sanitized. Perfect and crisp. It felt like a display case. The deco was very posh. The easy listening music in the speakers squashed most of my appetite.

Our waiter was dainty. He had a slim build, topped with delicate Asian features and feminine cheek bones that pointed to his small obsidian eyes. His hair was flat and shiny. I always wondered what would have happened if Charlie Chaplin and a porcelain doll had had a child. Again, the conversation did not come easy. It picked up speed like a bowling ball rolling uphill—looks like it might go somewhere but after a brief struggle comes down twice as fast.

“What’d you buy?”

“Bukowski’s book Factotum.”

Timothy picked the book up. “I haven’t read this one. Post Office was good.” He scrutinized the cover for a few moments before flipping to a random page.

“I sat around in the bus station for a while but the people depressed me,” he read aloud. Timothy broke into a contained laughter. “That’s awesome.” That was perfect I thought. I know the feeling first hand from my excursions on buses around the country. But more than that—he meant life. This sojourn is one nasty smelly bus stop. It’s a boring stop between nothing and nowhere. And the people are depressing.

The food arrived. My beef steak strips were buried in a mess of vegetation. I felt like crocodile hunting in marsh. Adorning the plate was a large silver spoon. The purpose for its existence escaped me. I set it aside.

“I actually went in looking to buy The Tunnel.”

“William Gass has amazing prose. The way he describes the inconsequential elements of scenery is amazing.”

“Yeah, Gass was kinda’ fucked up.”

“Maybe that’s why he doesn’t use plots.”

I chuckled. “Possibly, I enjoy that sort of linguistic tapestry. It’s like eating cake icing with my eyes.”


“That’s my problem with the script right now. It started out with a thread, but now it’s extended in so many directions. The whole damn thing is disjointed.”

“I know what you mean. I find myself there often.”

“Do you have any new projects?”

“Just some short, short stories, not like short-short, but short.”


“Well not flash fiction, but nothing substantial, I don’t know I can’t talk too much about something until it’s finished.”

“How come?”

“I feel as if I can’t write it once I’ve said it. I did it—it’s gone—it’s lost some vital essence so there’s no point in writing it.”

“That makes sense, but hold on I need another soda.”

“Oh they don’t have refills here.”


“Yeah no refills on soda.”

“What in the fucking middle ages is that about?”

“The whole area has changed. They’re catering to a more upscale crowd. Watch the streets you’ll see a tie every ten feet as compared to every ten months back in the day.”

“Good god, does everything and everywhere have to have a pleasant shopping potential for these fucks.”

“The other day I tried crossing the street in slow traffic. Some guy rolled down his window and started calling me a faggot. Nice car. Nice suit. That would have never happened five years ago.”

“I hate that one place up the street. Pineapple Mountain—the douche bags make you order French fries as a side dish when you get a hamburger. That’s immoral.”

“It’d be like a Thai place charging you for your rice.”

“What this rice costs money.”

“No, I was joking by analogy.”


“You done?”


“Me too.”

We paid the check. There was no real plan. He had to meet a girl at seven, which left three hours. Nothing else had been discussed. We simply walked around until he saw someone go into the coffee shop where we met.

“I have to talk to him,” he informed me. We went inside. The guy he talked to was tall and lanky like him. He too had a fig of scruffy hair on top. While the chatted I ordered an iced cinnamon coffee. I heard stuttering. This guy talked just as forced as Timothy. It was like watching a mirror have a conversation. They were done talking before my coffee arrived. We were back on the sidewalk heading towards the used record store.

Some young artistic types had flocked on the ledge of a parking garage’s roof. Their noses were scarred with fresh paper cuts having just left the delusional melodies of a Kerouac novel. “Hey down there,” they screamed, “come on up.” I looked up, slightly blinded by the bleeding colors amuck in the sky. The sunset tickled their silhouettes. My feet had already decided for me stepping away in the opposite direction.

Timothy decided otherwise. He yanked me aside. “I’m going to go take a closer look. Don’t make any noise and give me away. I want to make sure they’re cool enough before I allow them my presence.” He was a smart-ass more than he was pretentious, but the line was blurred. Even so, his gentle demeanor diffused what ego he did have. I paused in the stairwell. Part of me has always been afraid of jumping into a social setting with any degree of spontaneity. People scared me—another result of the delusions stemming from my solitude. I always imagine them ridiculing me for trying to join their world. Deep down it was the isolation itself projecting fears into my mind so that it could continue to live.

Part of me just hated people. They are disappointing. During those footsteps that carry you closer to a new person, one’s mind floods with adventure. This might be my future wife. This is that guy who will join me for a motorcycle adventure that begins and ends in Prague. Inevitably they turn out to be some idiot waiting around for the same mythic person to come into their life. “Why do we always look for others to save us,” I thought. Maybe my character was doomed for the same reason.

While Timothy ran his reconnaissance mission I rested against the banister. The gray paint was chipping off the rail. It reminded me of my dandruff. Sooner or later everything flakes off and dies. I took a big gasping suck of my coffee. A cool, cinnamon river careened down my throat. “Such a simple pleasure,” I mused, “Perhaps I’m not complicated at all. The nuances of Berkeley’s metaphysics have never brought me delight. Whenever I do understand something, whether him or another member of the old dead man dais it feels more like completing a marathon—fulfilling but utterly pointless.”

Drinking coffee, in all its splendid forms, was more akin to listening to a song. It just felt damn good.

It seemed like a good time to pull out the Bukowski. I wondered if I’d have the same luck as Timothy did turning to a random quote. Fate took over. “For each Joan of Arc there is a Hitler perched at the other end of the teeter-totter,” enough to make me chuckle, but not so full of the revelation I felt from Timothy’s find. I gave it another shot. “How’d you like a blow job?” Yes. But, I didn’t need Bukowski to tell me that.

I gave it another flip. “People don’t need love. What they need is success in one form or another. It can be love but it needn’t be.” Finally I found one. So much for fate. Though, how I arrived at it wasn’t important. I had arrived at it. That sentence cut through the thickets of Hallmark garbage and right down to a brutal truth about this world—about people. It’s appeasement we need—not sublimity. Timothy bounced back down the stairs. “Nah, they looked fucking stupid.”

We moved on. Success. I needed to succeed with my screenplay. That would give me my love. Maybe that’s it. Not only did my character never find love. He never found success. “What can trigger him realizing that,” I wondered, “what makes someone realize they are a total failure.”

Store policy dictated that I had to leave my bag at the counter. Timothy wandered off while I waited to check my book with a clerk. The people in the store were a mixture of caricatures and mavericks. There were those who went their own way. These people had their own style. They emitted a vibe. Then there were the shadows. The people tired of being themselves trying to emulate the others. I’m not sure where I was.

Timothy was his own. He had the presence of a black hole. Not in some angst or gothic sense, either. He was not a void of light, but a hub. Everything that came within the reach of his preceptors was pulled into his mind. It was fondled, examined, analyzed, and loved before being spit back out through the filter of his unique dimension just as black holes swallow the light from one side of the universe and shoot it out on the other side—recycling the illumination for a parallel world. That’s him. His subsequent musings were a quaff amalgam of aristocracy and anti-establishment bedlam. It was the new demeanor of elegance in our hybrid world.

I couldn’t decide about myself so I started buying. Whatever looked different or sounded obscure fell prey to my credit card. Perhaps I could find inspiration in a world to which I’ve never traveled. Maybe I could figure out what my character longed for thus seeing what he does have and how that corrodes him from the inside out. In truth I grew tired with the entire project; I wanted to just throw it away and start over. Listlessness overcame me. My eyes dulled. When we left the store I had adopted an air of sedation. Timothy noticed but didn’t say anything except that he wanted to carouse the comic book store.

Graphic novels as they’re often called are not my thing. The art work is incredible, but I never could click with their world. I felt alienated in the pages of their dimension. Perhaps my character felt the world to be a comic book and him an uninterested reader. As Timothy chatted with a clerk about water-color art I plopped onto a couch the store had in a reading area. It gave me the chance to people watch. The window was tinted by the gleam of a neon sign. I felt like I was in an aquarium.

There was an intersection outside the window. People walked up then stopped. They waited. Traffic went. It stopped. It waited. They bounced back and forth as if dancing some mechanical ballet. I fashioned myself standing atop a high rise looking down—seeing it all as beautiful patterns of movement. You go. You stop. Life moves in irregular pulses. It’s never static. I decided to truly kill my character. The project had run out of energy.

It felt like time to go home. Timothy walked with me back to the train. Sunset had fallen like a dying fire leaving only piles of soot across the entire sky.

“I’m killing the project,” I said.


“I’ve barely slept all week. I can’t find a trigger. I give up. There’s no justifiable reason why he’d kill himself—nothing to explain it.”

“Maybe that’s why he kills himself.”

“What do you mean?”

“There’s no meaning in anything. It’s just a bunch of unexplainable events—his life included. Maybe he just says fuck it simply to say fuck it.”

I felt undressed. We said our goodbyes and I boarded the train. Sitting in my chair I noticed that the night was heavy. I couldn’t see anything except blackness outside the window. It was as if they were painted. The train barreled ahead.

I glanced around at the people sharing this ride home. Some of them looked beaten. They were exhausted after a day of work at some temporary, shit job. Nobody wanted to be where they were all day, but they had no choice. Poor bastards were too tired to even enjoy the fact they were going home. Myself included.

I finished the screenplay that night. In the end my problem wasn’t finding a trigger for my character’s suicide; it was figuring out what sparked his salvation. The one was a true fiction—a myth. There is no one, divine saving moment. It bounces around. Sometimes you’re happy. Sometimes you’re not. There is no total failure. People always have a few good moments. Sometimes it doesn’t even take a major failure to ruin one’s life or a lot of them. It could just be a simple fuck up that you can’t see beyond for whatever reason. Sometimes people just kill themselves. Period. Sooner or later everything flakes off and dies.

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