The parties were duly and legally married in Snowflake, NY, on December 25, 2017, by a wise old twinkly-eyed gray-bearded man who may or may not have been Santa Claus, who is nevertheless and regardless of whether said agent may or may not be Santa Claus duly authorized by the state of New York to perform marriages.Read More
He stayed on the sidewalk and finished a cigarette. The blinds in the living room were drawn and he could see the television’s flicker through the cheap plastic. Across the street, a little pit bull barked and jumped at a fence. The dim bump of music and voices tinkled down from some front porch or backyard further into the neighborhood. A car slowed and then sped up as it moved down the street, and he felt like an idiot all over again. I am a fucking grown-up, he thought. A teacher. What the hell am I doing?Read More
I have received the following letters from High Inquisitor Dolores Umbridge and Chief Associate Henchmen Gregory Goyle recommending your dismissal as Head Assistant Henchman of the Inquisitorial Squad and Draco Malfoy's Gang. I have accepted their recommendation and you are hereby terminated and removed from office, effective immediately.Read More
I wrote this for an anthology that my friend Amber Sparks was putting together called Their Peculiar Ambitions, which was composed of one flash fiction story for each of the US presidents. I got Grover Cleveland, which turned out to be pretty great after my father, who is a historian, filled me in on the whole deal with Cleveland marrying his ward — his ward! — who was his dead friend’s daughter. Nice one, Cleveland.
“Would you put that goddam thing down,” Cleveland says. “We have a bit of a crisis on our hands, my dear.” Frances gives him the look, finishes whatever she is pecking into her phone, and slips it into her waistband. He catches a glimmer of skin, bronzed and taught. Jesus, she is young, he thinks. Sometimes he wonders if all of them – Fox News, CNN, Politico, MSNBC, Limbaugh, Maddow, the Senate, the House, his own advisors standing right here in front of him – are right.
It’s like Woody told him, though: the only thing that matters is that they love one another. Everybody else be damned.
I am the President of the United States, he thinks. And the only person in the universe who understands what I’m going through is Woody Fucking Allen.
“Oh, a crisis,” Frances says. “But you’re so good at those, dear. So much practice.” She stomps out and Cleveland watches Carville’s assistant watch her ass bouncing back and forth in the yoga pants. She is young. She is young and that is the point. She is young and the daughter of his dearly departed friend Folsom and she used to be his ward and that is the reason Carville is here in the first place, why the whole communications staff, their assistants, and the special crisis communications people have been desperately flailing to control the 48 hour news cycle for the past 144 hours.
And in the middle of it all, this oasis: watching Carville’s assistant watching Frances’ ass. The look on the poor kid’s face. This is why Cleveland got into politics in the first place, Erie then Buffalo and now this. One man against another. One victor. Cleveland.
“Wait,” Carville says. He squints. “She wasn’t just tweeting, was she? Tell me she ain’t on Twitter. Tell me she don’t have an unauthorized account!” He puts a hand on the assistant’s shoulder and the boy winces. Cleveland almost feels sorry for the kid. In five years, he’ll be teaching political science in some backwater liberal arts college. It will be better for him. This is how it works, survival of the fittest, straight up Darwin. This is why Cleveland is sitting behind the desk and the rest of them are scurrying around in front of it.
Carville turns. “Jesus Christ Grover I told you we need to take that phone from her.”
“Have you seen a woman her age without a phone in the past five years?” he says. “Might as well try to take away her knees, or her neck.”
He licks at the thing in his mouth. He needs to tell somebody. It is growing. It hurts. He sits down, pretends to read the briefing papers. Carville’s phone rings and he wanders away. The rest of them, various aides and heads of something or other, and Carville’s people, and the crisis communications people with their spiky hair and futuristic glasses, all play with their phones. It is an entire generation of people who play with phones the way his father’s generation smoked: as a pastime, a nervous tick, a serious endeavor. What he would like to do is take the helicopter out to Camp David. Shoot something. Grill a steak. Have a beer, or five, or a dozen. What he has to do is sit here in this room and listen to these people tell him that something called “hash tag child bride” is trending on something called Twitter.
“You couldn’t just find some nice, full grown woman to marry, huh?” Carville says. “A movie actor or a singer? That soccer player made that goal and waved her shirt around? Sheryl fucking Crow? It had to be your own…it had to be her?”
Cleveland stands, leans over his desk. He takes his time. Carville folds his arms over his chest. The assistants and consultants stop their texting. “We are in love, Jim. She is of age. Now she is my wife. We’ve been around this before.” He sits down. “Now can we please get on with the business of running this country.”
“Here’s what we do,” Carville says. “The President and…Koppel? A woman? The President and Katie Couric. One hour. Get everything out in the open. Humanize him again.”
Now they are humanizing him. He is a man who has married the woman he loves and this will require humanizing in the form of Katie Couric.
Frances comes back in. “Kim is such a bitch,” she says.
“Tell me you are not in a Twitter feud with Kim Kardashian,” Carville says.
Frances stops, looks at him. “Who are you?” she says.
Carville takes the phone out of her hand and throws it to Cleveland. “This is the first step,” he says. “I won’t bullshit you. We have a lot of other work to do here. But this will help.”
Cleveland turns the phone over in his hand. It is pink. Solid. What I should do, Cleveland thinks, is break the thing, smash it to pieces. Or stuff it down Carville’s throat, shut him up for good. If he gave the thing to Carville’s assistant, he thinks, the boy’s first instinct would be to smell it. Cleveland tongues at the thing in his mouth. He needs to see the doctor, the dentist. But there are two wars on. The economy is a house of cards. Europe is collapsing. His approval rating is in single digits.
Frances smiles and for a second all Cleveland knows is her eyes. He can see it all in there – the pain, the resolve, the spirit. He can see her father in there. Folsom. She is beautiful and clever and twenty-one and she is his dead friend’s daughter and she is his wife. Cleveland hands her the phone.
Here’s a thing that I wrote that nobody seems to want to publish. And that’s cool. It might be a little funny, especially if you have kids, and your brain is kind of mushy from reading, say, Thomas and the Magic Railroad every night for a year or two. In any case, I thought I’d just post it here.
“Were we all supposed to have pictures? I know this is only the second week of workshop, but, I mean, nobody else had pictures, right? Mine doesn’t have any pictures. It could, though, I guess. I guess maybe it would be better with some pictures?”
“I loved the way you set up the basic dichotomy of capitalism here. I mean, on one side we have this little employee, and you definitely go out of your way to mention a lot of times how small he is, that he feels tiny, that even compared with other workers, you know, he still feels small, and that totally worked for me. And the other workers, they’re like a bunch of tools. Like that Gordon. I mean, what a douchebag? But again, his douchey-ness totally worked for me, and it told me a lot about Thomas, that he just takes it, day after day after day. And then the corporate side of things — Sir Topham Hatt and Mr. Conductor. I love what you did with those characters. It’s right out of Kafka or, like, a Saunders story. On the one side, this guy who calls himself Sir and looks almost exactly like Dick Cheney…”
“Can we talk about that for a minute? I think you might have to tone that down a little bit, the way his mouth is kind of crooked and smirking all the time. He was like the Jon Stewart imitation of Dick Cheney or something. It was the one thing in the graphic part of this that was just kind of like over the top for me. It took me out of the story.”
“I thought the train was…never mind.”
“So the corporate thing. There’s the Topham Hatt/Dick Cheney character, who is just like totally evil, but also just kind of the looming presence…”
“Like the eyes of Dr. T.J. Whatshisname. From Gatsby.”
“He is totally that kind of character, yeah. But then the other corporate representative, the one dude who the workers actually come into contact with, the one who is supposed to be driving this whole train (pun intended), is this ineffectual wimp who can only move from place to place in a shower of magic gold dust. So in order for this dude to even move, like to get from one place to the other — and hello, he’s supposed to be in charge of the railroad, which last time I checked was there pretty much only to move things from one place to another — he has to waste all this gold dust, so he’s literally just puffing money into the air. It’s just a brilliant portrayal of the gears of capitalism.”
“Isn’t the train supposed to be a cock?”
“To me, it felt like a great adventure story, a real page turner. I didn’t think we were doing genre stuff in this workshop, actually…But still, if you take it for what it is, then I thought, nice stuff Britt. Tight. Well executed. If we’re doing genre work, that is. And I didn’t think we were, but…”
“I thought the bad guy kind of dominated this story. I mean, Diesel is just such a bad ass. And nice move, naming him Diesel. I mean, he might as well have been named Big Oil, right? Or Boris Badinov, you know, if this was a cold war thing and not a train action adventure kind of experimental thing.”
“Did anybody else wonder who is driving these trains? There are, like, conductors, and in some of the pictures they seemed to be sitting where you’d sit to drive a train. But then the trains themselves seemed to have the ability to decide where they were going and what they were doing…”
“I just think it’s something to think about. You know? I mean, are these trains driving or being driven? I know it’s not a realist work, but still, I think in the universe of the story, you still have to be consistent, right?”
“I want to build off that, actually. Because I think I read this the same way. It’s experimental. The universe of the story is a word universe, where images kind of coexist with narrative, and if you look at it a little deeper, you’re like, dude, there’s no way that this is as simple as it seems. It’s like some kind of image collage thing fairy tale mashup thing, a non linear sensory exploration of the intersection between commerce and fairy tale.”
“But Britt is asking a lot of the reader, though, if that’s what he’s trying for. I think it’s awesome, but that kind of work is not for everybody.”
“I’d think about sending this to the Fairy Tale Review. Or Colorado Review maybe. Indiana Review publishes a lot of experimental stuff. Fence.”
“Going back to the Diesel thing, I thought that problem was that he just kind of dominates the story. I mean, he’s such a compelling character, but I don’t know if you actually want him to be as awesome as he is. I found myself wondering less about Thomas, who I thought, for what it’s worth, was just a little stock. His motivation as kind of obvious for me. The little big man.”
“That’s the danger, right, if you have a story with a good guy who’s just like all good, and a bad guy wh just all bad? Nobody changes. There’s no growth.”
“Are we sure the train doesn’t represent a cock? Because there’s like this mysterious dangerous tunnel that he’s not sure he can go into it, that, like, all the other trains talk about in these legendary terms, and then he kind of magically slides into it. And then he meets this train named Lady? Lady! Come on. I thought it couldn’t be more obvious. There was all this stuff about him being so small, smaller than the other engines, blah blah blah. I got like halfway through and I was like, Britt, dude, you better just get over it, you know. Motion of the ocean.”
“Britt — you’re not allowed to talk yet. Let’s let Thomas and the Magic Railroad talk for you, okay?”
“So the Train is definitely a cock, then?”
“Yeah. Definitely a cock.”
This is a piece I wrote for an anthology my friend Amber Sparks was editing, called Their Peculiar Ambitions, which was comprised of one flash fiction piece for each of the US Presidents. The book was supposed to come out on Dark Sky Books, which was the same publisher that was supposed to publish my second story collection. They tanked. Oh well. Here’s the Grover Cleveland story anyway.
The boy is walking toward him. He is eight, rotund but confident, with the plain features that Cleveland knows will turn distinguished in middle age, then comical past fifty. By then, if the boy has it, though, it won’t matter at all. Oscar hands him the rifle and Cleveland chambers another shell. The boy is quiet, confident, comfortable in his own skin. Exactly how Cleveland remembers himself at that age. “Nice shooting,” Cleveland says. “Well done, son.” He rumples the boy’s hair, kneels down and looks him in the eye.
“Mr. President.” He recognizes the voice. No. Not yet.
Maria sits by a window, the newborn at her breast. She smiles, nods to him in that way she had, affectionate and sarcastic at once. She is the only woman he has ever known who can say “fuck you” with such affection that you’d fall in love with her. How many times did that happen? Cleveland and Folsom, at least. They were both in love with her, in their own ways. In the end, which one was the father? Did it matter?
He leans over, kisses her perfect mouth. He kisses the infant’s head. He smells like talcum and fresh laundry. He smells perfect. It is a son. His son. His son Oscar, named after his best friend in the entire world.
“Mr. President! Grover!” That voice again. He feels he is rising up out of something. There is a swaying. He is on a boat. He remembers that. The yacht. A surgery. A secret. His mouth.
This feeling, the dreamy floating way his head is right now, in the ether. Even as he is recognizing it, his mind, always orderly, is starting to assemble facts. But he is losing the image of Maria, the boy.
“Grover!” the voice says.
He does not want to do this. Not yet. Not yet.
He pictures Folsom. It was all for Oscar. The truest friend he ever had, the only one who really understood.
“Mr. President!” The voice again.
He forces everything out of his mind – the financial crisis and the Sherman Silver Purchase Act and Stevenson and Frances. He tries to let his mind drift, catch the current of the ether and float away again. He knows all too well what has really happened with the boy: Maria’s troubles with the bottle, the orphanage, the kidnapping, and then the trouble with money, and finally the adoption. He set most of it into motion himself. And yet here he is, his mouth raging with pain, surgeons waiting, the country teetering on the brink of disaster, and he is rocking in ether dreams and his subconscious reaches out for … Oscar?
This all started in Erie. Sheriff. And then Buffalo. Mayor. How could it wind up in a place like this, a secret surgery on a yacht steaming up Long Island Harbor? Grover the Good, that’s what they called him.
“Mr. President! Grover!”
His mouth. The pain coming on like sleep, overpowering and insistent. Everything hurts. The boat is swaying.
He tries to bring it back, the image of the boy, the smell of the infant. He pictures Folsom, Maria. But it’s not working. The ether is wearing off, his mind continuing to assemble facts, scenarios. He’s going to have to make a decision soon. Gold standard. Sherman Silver Purchase Act. The country is in financial crisis. People are struggling, hurting, and he is their President.
The boy. He is, what, twelve years old now?
Cleveland flutters his eyelids, holds up a single finger. He says, “wait.”
NOTE: This was originally written, I’m pretty sure, for the blog of the now long-departed Dark Sky Books. The book referenced below was going to be published by them, and then then didn’t exist anymore and it wasn’t. The book does, in fact, now exist, and was recently published, after a long, strange, infuriating and ultimately kind of awesome trip, by Dzanc Books. I wrote this a long time ago and recently rediscovered it on an old computer. The child referenced is now 11 and maintaining awesomeness.
Something’s at the edge of your mind, you don’t know what it is
Something you were hoping to find, but you’re not sure what it is
Then you hear the music and it all comes crystal clear
The music does the talking, says the things you want to hear
A few months back, I was on a music writing panel at the University of Illinois’ Early Spring Literary Festival. Most of the other panelists were “real” music writers, talking about the kinds of things real music writers talk about. There was a lot of worrying over Pitchfork. As the representative fiction writer, I spent most of the time nodding, or shaking my head ruefully at the thought of a 2.1 rating and all it implies in the current rock media landscape, and mentally preparing for a question that nobody wound up asking: “why the hell did you write a book of rock and roll short stories, then?”
The good thing about a bunch of guys in cowboy shirts and half-beards talking about Radiohead is that it gives you some much-needed space to think. So I played with the fancy buttons on my cowboy shirt, tugged at my half-beard, and thought about how my collection of rock and roll-tinged short fiction, “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” came to be.
The answer is simple. The answer is Triumph (whose wonderfully cheesy “Magic Power” is just sitting there waiting to be “Don’t Stop Believing”-ed, and which serves as a narrative structure of sorts for this post). The answer is Rush. Aldo Nova. Pink Floyd. AC/DC. The Alarm. Why the hell did I write a collection of rock and roll short stories? The embarrassing answer lies in the fact that when I was twelve, and fifteen, and twenty, and twenty eight — oh hell, straight up through the day I first met my own son a little over five years ago today, I wanted to be a rock star.
I’m young, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me
I’m young, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me
Five years ago, my wife and I were anxiously loitering around the international wing of Dulles Airport, awaiting the arrival of our son, Ben, four months old and soon to be literally just off the plane from Korea. We sat and we paced and we made jokes that fizzled into the stale airport air, and we tried to ignore the fact that we’d driven to the airport with an empty baby seat and would be driving home with a full one. Full of what, other than “black hair, brown eyes, ten pounds, cute and fine,” as the paperwork told us, we had no idea. Full of mystery, expectations, needs, desires. Terrifyingly overflowing with one life-size, life-long question mark.
There were other people with us: Lori’s sister Lisa, who was serving as videographer, and Leslie, our adoption counselor from Catholic Charities, the agency through which we’d navigated the stacks of paperwork, fingerprinting, medical exams, and all the other myriad indicators that, on paper at least, we were adequate candidates for parenthood. Lisa and Leslie were there but did their best to leave us alone with our witless banter and nervous tics. It was a feeling more than strange: in a few hours/minutes/seconds, our entire lives were going to change. It was probably as close as I’ll ever get to knowing what it’s like to be an Olympic athlete, or a prizefighter, or a soldier.
Lori squirmed and smiled and tried to act like she knew everything was going to be okay. She was probably thinking about diapers and formula, pre-school applications and college funds. She was probably thinking that she was entering into a permanent and profoundly important partnership with a guy who in his secret heart of hearts still wanted to be Bruce Springsteen. A guy who, given the fact that he was near forty, couldn’t play a guitar or carry a note, and was, in fact, a regular workaday DC nine-to-fiver, might be just smart enough to make allowances in that moronic heart of hearts and concede that it was possibly too late to become Springsteen, that was okay — it was really okay– to aim a little lower, to finally come to grips with reality and aspire to something more achievable, more tangible, something more along the lines of Steve Van Zandt.
She would have been right. At that same time, I sat in my own haze and thought:
“I’m never going to be the lead guitarist of a rock and roll band. Shit. I’m never going to headline the 9:30 Club. Fuck! I’ll never write that damn novel. How do you do that diaper thing again? I’m never even going to be in a regionally popular southern rock band. Oh man. I’ll never write another story. What if I drop him? I’ll never even be in a cover band. A bar band. Goddamit. What do babies eat, again? I’ll never write another word. I will probably never even learn to play the guitar.”
All of the sudden, it hit me, as sure and solid as a brick wall: I’m really, really never going to be a rock star.
She climbs into the bed, she pulls the covers overhead
And she turns her little radio on
She’s had a rotten day, so she hopes the DJ’s
Gonna play her favorite song
It makes her feel much better, brings her closer to her dreams
A little magic power makes it better than it seems
Well, she is a he. His favorite song on some days is “Stay Positive” by the Hold Steady. On others, it’s the theme from Thomas the Tank Engine. Either one does seem to bring him closer to his dreams, which have much to do, on all days, with trains and shouting. He is Ben, a healthy, happy, funny, sweet little boy, our boy, and of course I can’t imagine life without him (fought off the urge to write that blog post – you’re welcome). Of course the first couple of days were terrible, the first months were difficult, and life is dramatically different — in all kinds of ways — than it was when we were driving around with that empty carseat.
It won’t surprise you to find out that I never did become a rock star (shit!), but I did manage to keep on writing. Somewhere along the line I realized that I had written nearly a dozen stories that involved rock and roll in some way. There was also, as a friend remarked, “a lot of father/son shit” happening in these stories. I kept going and these same things kept on coming up: rock and roll, fathers and sons, guys who were scared shitless about having kids, sons whose fathers were absent in one way or another. KISS. Hey — I already told you I’m not a real music writer.
As the whole “Triumph song as framing device” has already indicated, I’m sure, I’m not a terribly complicated person, either. Even my dreams tend to be overly simplistic, of the “steering a car without a steering wheel” variety. So “If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” is, in a very direct and immediate way, a product of everything that was going through my mind as we sat in that airport, waiting for a tiny, helpless child, like Foreman waiting in the wings for Ali.
You’re thinking it over, but you just can’t sort it out
Do you want someone to tell you what they think it’s all about
Are you the one and only who’s sad and lonely, you’re reaching for the top
Well the music keeps you going and it’s never gonna stop
It’s never gonna stop
It’s never gonna, never gonna, never gonna, never gonna stop
“If I Knew the Way, I Would Take You Home” is full of men who are old enough to be confronting hard truths, but young enough that they haven’t yet abandoned all those stupid childhood dreams. Or, at least, not for good. They scrape and worry, drink too much, run with the wrong crowd, dress like Gene Simmons and sneak whiskey into Wiggles concerts. They are alternately penned in and lost without their families. They really want to fucking rock, to say fuck it and have just a few rounds more, but they need to pay the Discover bill or buy enough groceries to last the week. Sometimes they do the right thing. Sometimes they don’t. Mostly they want to, at least.
The world is full of compromise, the infinite red tape
But the music’s got the magic, it’s your one chance for escape
Turn me on, turn me up, it’s your turn to dream
A little magic power makes it better than it seems
Oh man, Triumph just fucking nailed it, didn’t they? After all, most of us don’t turn out to be Gene Simmons, Kanye West, or even Triumph’s own Rik Emmett. The interesting part is what happens when we get to that crossroads between how we thought it was going happen when we were twelve — when we really believed in the magic power of Triumph or AC/DC or Duran Duran — and how it all actually went down.
I’m young now, I’m wild now, I want to be free
I’ve got the magic power of the music in me
I’m young now, I’m wild, and I’m free
I’ve got the magic power of the music
I’ve got the music in me
This book is dedicated in part to my son, Ben. I hope that won’t freak him out. I hope it won’t piss him off, when he’s old enough to read these stories about fumbling fathers and directionless sons. I hope his KISS period is shorter than his Led Zeppelin period. I hope someday he’ll be Bruce Springsteen, if that’s what he wants to be. If that doesn’t happen, I hope he’ll find his own peace with his childhood dreams (currently, that would mean becoming a train conductor, or possibly an actual train) and his grown-up situation. I hope in his own way, whatever that may be, he fucking rocks. I think he will.