My park bench

vincealongi via Creative Commons

The park across the street from the pharmacy was one of those forced development deals; some EconDev deputy’s idea of a compromise. They worked with city planners in some kind of baseball card version of SimCity: I’ll trade you one tiny strip of grass and anemic tree line for six strip malls and a parking structure in our historic downtown, that kind of thing. Ken sat on his bench in the miserable little park and stared at the building, sneering at the painted facade the color of vomited hot dogs, and counted customers.

The padding of his buttocks had worn thin, like a pair of pants he couldn’t bear to throw out and so had weathered away any once-held utility. The bones of his hips ground against the painted slats—green, of course—and he hated everything. His tricycle was parked nearby underneath a shadeless tree, too newly planted to even stand on its own without the support of wooden crutches and rubber lashes. There were no leaves to keep the chrome handlebars from heating in the glare, there was no security provided by the flimsy chain lock (manufacturer’s provided combination: 1-2-3-4). The vehicle was plodding and uncomfortable to ride but beloved for its single provision: freedom.

Ken settled a curving pipe between his long mustaches and lit it with a match. His customer count reached 75 and he checked his watch while the hot summer wind threatened the light of his pipe. Eight forty-nine and Tim’s Discount Pharmacy had been open for under an hour, currently averaging more than one customer per minute.

There came a clarity with old age, a stripping down of mental tartar, revealing the inconsequentiality of sports, politics, news cycles, social engagement, and leisure. It rendered each of them vaporous and easily waved away with a gnarled hand. What remained was the fleeting bliss of family, the inevitability of oblivion, and the sweet allure of perceived injustice. It was this last that brought Ken to the park each day for the past two months, counting customers, tabulating data and biding time.

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sinister

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book podcast I listen to recently held a conversation stemming from Claire Messud’s recent statement in a Publisher’s Weekly interview:

If you’re reading to find friends [in fictional characters], you’re in deep trouble. We read to find life, in all its possibilities. The relevant question isn’t ‘is this a potential friend for me?’ but ‘is this character alive?'”

The question boils down to likable characters, which brought to mind a mini-debate I had with a friend on Twitter some months ago wherein it was declared that there are enough books containing likable protagonists that there is no cause for reading about unlikable ones.

I think the problem I had with the podcast debate and even some of the online debate around the Claire Messud quote has been confusing character with protagonist and character flaws with character construct. I think most people would be hard pressed to say they don’t want to read a book that contains any unlikable characters: antagonists, for example are regularly despicable. As far as I know, this isn’t controversial in the least.

The other thing is people seem to be conflating the idea of flawed characters and unpleasant characters with unlikable. Any character worth their salt will have flaws. Certainly some of these are more palatable than others, but without flaws characters are flat and uninteresting (moreover, unbelievable; see Mary Sue). The term “flawed character” is misleading then in the context of this discussion. What I think Ms. Messud and Publisher’s Weekly interviewer Annasue McCleave Wilson are talking about are unpleasant characters, or those whose flaws are sufficient to hold them at arm’s length from the reader.

Even the term “unlikable” is somewhat misleading because, and I think this strikes to the heart of Ms. Messud’s point, there are characters who hold reader’s affection at bay but remain fascinating who often get a pass even by those in the “I don’t read books about unlikable characters” camp. I, too, have decried books for containing unlikable characters but for me this is shorthand (and one I ought to rethink for clarity) for “characters who begin, end or remain throughout dull; lacking in fascination.” In this case the critique is that the characters are not written well, rather than somehow failing to conform to a subjective qualification based around what kind of real life person I would enjoy spending time with. So long as a character and the challenges they face continue to be intriguing, how relatable or pleasant they seem becomes a moot point.

The core of this is that I worry about readers who discard or avoid books because their protagonists aren’t entirely pleasant. This is especially true when principal characters start off prickly or detestable. The axis of a good story is change and growth, so I wonder what kinds of stories these readers limit themselves to if they discard a book based on the main character’s origin point? What challenges can books possibly offer readers if every point of view comes from some variant of Andy Taylor? As Ms. Massoud says, where in this is the life?

Tutto Italia

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I met my husband on my eighth wedding anniversary. He likes to tease me that I even procrastinated on my seven year itch. David, my ex, had taken me down to Florida for a few days of alone time, not a full week. He could never stand to be away from the office very long.

When I first saw Gregory, we were crowded into a tiny Italian restaurant with about six tables total. Greg was there with a date and you could tell right away that the date wasn’t going well; most of what I remember about her are the four cocktails she drank before they got a table. David and Greg struck up a conversation. David was always good at breaking the ice, getting to know people everywhere he went. He was awful at maintaining friendships, but he could make like he was best buddies with a guy he’d run into ten minutes earlier.

Greg was from The City, down to visit family who had arranged his ill-fated date, and we lived in Jersey at the time. It was coincidental but not uncommon to run into a fellow New Yorker this far south, but it got a little funny when Greg mentioned he was staying at the same Hilton we were, just a floor down from us.

I didn’t get much of an impression of Greg then. David did the majority of the talking, converting me into a conversational barnacle, just along for the ride. He had a way of talking for me, saying things like, “Did you watch the game on Sunday? We did. We just about lost it when Folk missed that field goal!” He’d say “we” like I had been right alongside him, wearing my team jersey and spilling beernuts in agitation when the team lost. David’s narrative excluded how I spent the afternoon doing laundry upstairs, looking up recipes on the computer, and fixing the kids a snack. Game time was always David Time, and I tried to play the doting wife, coming down every thirty minutes or so to bring him a fresh beer and see if he wanted any chips. He’d smile and pinch my butt in a distracted but affectionate way. Everything he ever did carried the implied suffix, “little lady.”

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Leave only tracks

Sarah Elizabeth Simpson via Creative Commons

The mist is thick in the pre-dawn gloom, and the commuters on the platform at the train station are huddled into overcoats and thick hats, wishing it were still Christmas. The depth of winter has yet to arrive; by the standards of the month to come today’s chill is moderate. But by the standards of the long Indian summer recently past, it is frigid and the workforce waiting for their diesel powered railcar avoid each other’s gaze, each locked in introspective longing for the warmth of their homes and beds.

Within these clusters of non-interacting, space-sharing humans, there is a peculiar silence that permeates gathering locations with shared purpose but no shared engagement. It is a silence typified by a buzz of accepted background noise: Car tires rumbling over the tracks at the edge of the station; hollow chatter from ticket machines stamping dates and times onto counterfeit-proof sheets of pre-paid cardboard; indignant wails from ravens engaged in a dangerous dance with stray cats over a discarded bag of fast food scraps. But there are few conversations, few droopy-eyed attendants who wish to unwrap the scarves from their mouths to exchange pleasantries with strangers.

The cry that escapes the suburbanite-approved pseudo-silence commands immediate attention. Through the bluish fog that obscures the tracks as they curve away from the line of sight, a repeated phrase echoes:

“Help! Help!”

Again: “Help!” It is a woman’s voice.

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Rejection NoticeYesterday afternoon I received my first official publication rejection for my short story, The Bookseller. I got the reply email on my phone and after I read its short, two sentence notification, I turned to my wife and said, “I just got my first rejection!” She looked at me with a crooked eyebrow.

“You seem happy about that.”

“I am!”

“Why would you be happy about that,” she asked.

“Because I didn’t expect to get accepted on the first try. I’m sure to get tons of rejections. But now I got the first one out of the way!”

It would be a lie if I said I was one hundred percent ecstatic about this, although the explanation I provided to Nik was honest and I was genuinely happy. I expected nothing more, that’s the truth. But there’s no way you can attempt something and not think, “Well… maybe.” Rejection was only very probable, not guaranteed. The principal uplifting thing I found about receiving the notice was that it didn’t, in fact, crush my soul and make me never want to write again.

The most disappointing aspect of the rejection was that it didn’t come with any feedback. I think the journal I submitted to may have specifically said they weren’t able to provide any, but the against-odds outcome I think I was hoping for was not a few hundred bucks and a publication credit but an editor breaking policy and emailing me some harsh advice such as, “Don’t you dare ever waste my time with magical realism again.” Or something.

In any case, that milestone is out of the way and I responded by simultaneously submitting that same story to a handful of other high-profile outlets. I’ve still got more hope for feedback than for publication, but part of that—with this story at least—is that I’m aiming very high (either pro-rate pay or high prestige). In my opinion it’s the best I’ve written so I feel I owe it to that story to take extra risks with it.

Coffee love!

dcadenas via Creative Commons

I need to quit this job, Charlie thought again, checking another day off her mental calendar where this concept had risen to consciousness. Two years of thinking the same thing each day still had not spurred her into any concrete action, such as rewriting her resume or opening a job search website. She smiled sweetly at the plump woman on the other side of the counter, protective hand rested on her inflated belly, the trademark of pregnancy everywhere. “Please have a seat, Dr. Kline will be with you shortly,” Charlie told her.

Receptioning for an Obstetrician/Gynecologist was a terrible job for someone recovering from a hysterectomy, especially for someone whose biological alarm clock had been blaring for three years prior to the diagnosis. She bit her tongue to keep the lump in her throat from swelling and tapped a few lines of data entry into her desk computer, trying to stop herself from hating Mrs. Gouli for nothing more than possessing a uterus that could hold a gestating child. Mrs. Gouli hadn’t given her cancer.

Charlie was cancer-free, now. In private, she darkly joked that she was baby-cancer-free. None of her friends thought the joke was funny. They tried to be supportive; in many ways they had been her salvation through the last five years. First, the breakup with Patrick—she mentally filled in the spit that her circle of friends had decided the name required as punctuation: Patrick-ptah!, every time—then the diagnosis. Endless nights of weeping into telephones and onto reassuring shoulders had proven those of her close circle who were in it with her for the long haul: Jan, Darla, Tim, and Vivy.

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