Grinding

The revision of The Land Without Mosquitos is not going as well as I’d hoped. In the fall, I submitted the first three chapters for review by the local writers group I’ve joined, yet after nearly three months of work on chapter four I don’t feel I’m any closer to being finished. I’d hoped to submit for this month’s meeting (we meet the second Saturday of each month), but by the end of January I knew I wasn’t ready.

Part of the problem is that I’m introducing a character who didn’t appear in any of the earlier drafts, and that character will be the catalyst for a subplot that’s also new to the narrative. For those reasons, I don’t want to give in and submit what I have in its current state; this character and his story are important, and demand a proper introduction. No sense in creating a mess that I’ll have to salvage later.

I’ll play the role of reviewer this Saturday (there’s some good work done by this group), then push on with chapter four. Submissions are due two weeks before the meeting, so that gives me three weekends, with one being extended for the Presidents Day holiday. Think I should get out of the house, escape from domestic distractions; go to a coffeehouse, perhaps, or a library. Spend three, four hours just writing; repeat if necessary. Whatever it takes to grind out that chapter, craft something I’m proud to have critiqued by my peers.

Meetups and Mosquitos

Back in spring, I began attending the monthly meetings of a local writer’s Meetup, and since that time have submitted the first three chapters of The Land Without Mosquitos for review. The response so far has been, shall we say, interesting — my fellow writers find the story a bit bizarre (which they should), but they find the characters interesting, appreciate my style, and have stayed invested in the story. A few critiques will likely influence my next revision of the novel:

  • After reading the first chapter (where Jane “discovers” the mysterious object in her apartment), my readers didn’t know what to make of Jane’s confusion; they understood she was looking at an iPhone, but couldn’t understand her lack of recognition. In discussing this response, we agreed that identifying the novel’s genre could be helpful; if readers know the novel is about an alternate reality, they would be more likely to accept Jane’s confusion. Up to that point I hadn’t known how to classify my work — it had both science fiction and fantasy elements, but I didn’t feel it fit neatly into either category — but when I said it was “Alternate Reality Fiction” (is that really a genre?), my reviewers seemed a bit more at ease with Jane’s behavior.
  • Jane’s friends and co-workers respond far too calmly to her wild story. Her boss, Gary, is particularly far too conciliatory; in the words of one reviewer, “this guy needs a backbone.” Gary will play a central role in chapter four, and I’m eager to experiment with making him less patient with Jane.
  • There’s too many passages that describe Jane’s confusion over an object that is familiar to the reader. One suggestion that I’m eager to follow through with is to transform those passages into dialogue — have Jane point to an object, ask “What’s that?”, and then reply with amazement at the response.

That’s just a sample of the response I’ve received so far. I’m actually quite pleased with the feedback I’ve received, and plan to submit the entire novel for the group’s review.

About that ending…

In yesterday’s conclusion to the untitled story I began several weeks ago, I employed a literary device that’s become the fictional equivalent of an exhausted field — the surprise ending, where I reveal the narrator as a gay woman. At the risk of self-indulgence, I’d like to explain how that ending came to me.

A week into the story, I had introduced most of my characters: Murph, Darci, Lenora, even the mysterious Stephanie (or as much about her as I’d reveal in the story). Each character, and the role they’d play in developing the story, were clear to me. Except, though, for the narrator, the central character in more ways than one. (One of my inspirations for this story is Melville’s “Bartleby, the Scrivener: A Story of Wall-street,” a first-person story where we learn more about the anonymous narrator than we do about the title character.) I hadn’t given my narrator sufficient attention, as I simply assumed he was a late-twenties male (which, not coincidentally, was exactly who I was when the idea for this story first came to me many years ago). If you followed the story from the first post, you would have seen this assumption revealed in several passages where the narrator’s gender was specifically referenced; the most obvious was at the start of the basketball game, where I had the narrator refer to his “guy instincts.”

It was the evening of that basketball post when the narrator’s identity really began to bother me. He was still a generic dude with no personality, and had no identifiable cause for his developing infatuation with Murph’s personal life. And as I continued thinking about this problem, I realized this was an easy trap to fall into with first-person narratives; the narrative voice makes observations about the people and places in the surrounding world, but can easily forget to look at himself. Or herself, as the case may be…

And that’s when it hit me. What if my narrator was a late-twenties woman? The idea intrigued me, so I began investigating how big a change this would make. I looked through my story up to that point, and while there were several of those gender-specific references, most could easily be edited (such as replacing “guy instincts” with “athletic instincts”). There was, though, one glaring exception: Darci. If I did make my narrator female, what would I do with the girlfriend? My narrator needed a love interest to help drive the curiosity about Murph; if I was updating earlier posts, one option was to change the gender of that interest, transform Darci into Darian. But something about that large-scale rewrite didn’t set well with me… And that’s when I began reconsidering the narrator’s sexuality. And the more I thought about the themes I was exploring in the story — the conflict between public and personal lives, the difference between friendship and intimacy, the quest for personal autonomy — the more I realized that having a homosexual narrator could help me explore these themes further. And that, my friends, is how the rest of the story played out as it did. 

The story’s first draft has finished, and I do plan to revise. The changes could be significant, and the twist at the end could very well go. But I’m almost certain to not change the narrator’s sexuality. Did I plan to make my narrator a lesbian when I started the story? Heck no; as I’ve explained, that decision was almost an accident. But am I happy with this accidental decision? Absolutely — because it was the right artistic choice.

If you’ve managed to read all the way through to here, I thank you for allowing me this self-indulgence. I’ll get back to the fiction, and specifically the novel, in a major way tomorrow.

Update

When I arrive at HR the following morning, Lenora shouts like she’s a PA announcer calling my name in the starting lineup. I smile, then walk over to her desk, and get right to business — “I need to update my W-4, and personal information.”

Lenora raises her eyebrows, then reaches for a folder in a vertical sorter on her desk. “Can I ask why?”

The moment has arrived, and I’m filled with a calm that pleases my soul. “I’m getting married.”

“Oh!” Lenora stops, her face filling with delight. “Linda, that’s great! Who’s the lucky guy?”

No more lying, no more hiding, no more worrying what the hell anybody thinks. “Her name is Darci. I’m a lesbian. Darci and I have been together five years, and we have an appointment at the county courthouse tomorrow to get our marriage license.”

To her credit, Lenora recovers immediately from her surprise; she doesn’t apologize for her assumption, but I decide not to make an issue of her reaction. As she hands me the forms I’ve required, I feel that same thrill of uncertainty I’d felt Saturday on entering Murph’s house, knowing I had crossed a line but not knowing what waited for me on the other side. And as I sit at a nearby desk and begin filling out the forms, I realize that Murph, somewhere in some distant office of that city to where he has moved, has probably filled out similar forms this week for the company where he now works. I wonder if he’s elected to withhold his personal information again, if he’s rebuilt the wall surrounding him. But then I shake my head, and tell myself not to care any longer. How Murph chooses to live his life is his own business; the life that Darci and I are fashioning together needs to be our sole concern.

[This is the end of the story I began back with The Smoking Insomniac on October 12. I still don’t have a title; since I plan on revising, I’ll wait for that effort before deciding on a name for this tale.]

Shaking the Funk

The weekend passes, with no calls from the police. After checking my email Monday morning, I go over to Murph’s office, and discover exactly what I had expected — nothing. As in, his office is entirely empty, aside from the furniture and the desk phone. I do detect the fragrance of his after shave, but even that is faint, like the smell of the ocean receding from a speeding car.

When I return to my desk, I go to the company intranet; not surprisingly, Murph’s profile is gone. For kicks, I do a search of his name, which returns dozens of hits. The memory of his presence hasn’t been scrubbed, but will over time fade into forgetfulness.

Yet that doesn’t necessarily mean my quest is at an end. I know, from the moving company’s message, the town where Murph is moving. It might take a few weeks for his name to appear on public registers, but he will eventually emerge from his transition phase. And if there is a Steph, and if he is married to her — will she emerge with him? Or will she remain in that annoyingly anonymous area of his life where she lived while Murph was here? And if she didn’t emerge, would I ever be able to find proof that she really existed? 

“You OK?” Darci’s question snaps me out of the contemplative funk that’s followed me from work, like a persistent panhandler. I smile at her, then reach across the table in my apartment’s kitchen and grasp her hand.

“Sorry, baby.” My words are genuine. “There’s this — guy at work, been bugging me a lot lately.”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Her smile is full of pity, the look a mother gives to support a bullied child.

“No, it’s not like that.” I pause, waiting for the right words this time before continuing. “He’s not doing anything to me, really. He’s just — ” realizing how weird the whole truth would sound, I settle for the significant portion — “he’s one of those guys who’s so hard to read, it’s hard to know whether to believe anything he says.”

“He’s not trustworthy?” Darci looks completely confused.

“No, I trust him — did trust him, he’s gone now.” Her eyes widen in shock — “I mean, he moved.” Her eyes relax. “What I’m trying to say is, he would say things about himself, and you never knew which of those things were true, which were exaggerations, and which were flat-out lies. You could never tell if he was being honest, or was just giving you a line to make you think a certain way about him.”

“Wow.” Darci’s doing her best to stay engaged with the conversation, but it’s like I’m speaking a different language and she’s scrambling to keep up with the translation. And it’s seeing the hurt in her eyes that inspires me to change the topic. I reach out with my other hand, take hers.

“Darci — it’s time.”

Her eyes show that she understands me fully. “Are you sure?”

I nod. “Never more so in my life.”

An Important Reminder Call

I hustle out of the bedroom, then down the stairs towards the ringing phone, moving swiftly not to pick up the call but rather to appease my growing desperation for information. The receiver rests on a small glass end table, and to my relief displays the caller ID. MAYFIELD MOVING, along with a number from an area code I don’t recognize. The ringing stops, and I hear Murph’s baritone again, Hello. The greeting ends, the tone sounds. A mechanical voice, clearly automated and pausing at irregular intervals, responds:

Hello. This is … Mayfield Moving … with an important reminder call for … Tomas Murphy. The voice’s tone changes when speaking Murph’s name, then resumes its mechanized monotone. Your moving van, and its crew, will be, arriving, at your home, on … Monday, at … 9 … AM.

I gasp. Murph’s freaking moving? In two freaking days?

We will be, departing, your home on … Wednesday, at … 5 … PM. Three full days; he must be paying the company for packing, which explains why no room, except the unused bedroom upstairs, seems prepared for moving.

We will be, arriving, at your, new home, in — another temporary tone change — Smithfield … on … Friday, at … 12 … PM.

The automated response continues, but I’ve stopped listening. I’ve moved past shock, and flown right into anger. All this investigative work I’ve done, the laws I’ve broken to find answers — and before I can get satisfaction, Murph’s leaving. Somehow, I know I’ll never see him again the rest of my life.

Goodbye. The answering machine clicks off, leaving me in silence once again. I hear a car pass on the street outside, its headlights briefly illuminating the room, and I decide it’s time to leave. Retracing my steps, I turn off all the lights, close all the doors I’ve opened, even re-engage the house alarm before walking out the service door into the garage. A few minutes later, as I watch the garage door complete its slow closing, I feel certain that all visible traces of my presence have been removed, and whatever evidence I may have left behind will be obliterated or ignored by the movers when they arrive first thing Monday. “Unless,” I tell myself silently as I walk back towards the train station, “Murph arrives before the movers, and sees something I’ve left out of place in his perfectly ordered world.” I laugh out loud at the thought; if Murph does launch an investigation that leads back to me, I’ll be grateful for the opportunity to confront him at last.

Bathroom Truths

I turn on an overhead light as I enter the upstairs hallway. Three doors, two open, one closed. Bathroom to my right, bedroom ahead. To my left, the closed door; I turn the handle, push it open — three tall columns of large cardboard cartons, all unopened; two filing cabinets, no other furniture. There’s probably a wealth of information I could find here, but it would take time and I’d leave too evidence of my presence, so I close the door and walk into the bathroom.

There is a bathtub with a shower head but no curtain, and the shelves above the sink are empty. Looks like a guest bathroom, and based on the evidence here and in the closed room I’d just left, this home does not have many overnight visitors. With literally nothing to see here, I head into the bedroom.

I feel regret sink into my belly as I enter this last room. If Darci was searching for her car keys, I’d feel a bit uncomfortable allowing her to search through my apartment’s bedroom; I can only imagine how violated Murph would feel if he knew that I, a person from work he hardly knew, was investigating the place of his most initimate moments. But I’ve come too far to turn back now, and I flip on another light. Like the kitchen and living room, the bedroom is immaculate, bedsheets dressing the king mattress like a finely tailored suit, the side tables and dresses spotless, not a single article of clothing out of place. Clothes — to my right, on the wall across the bed, is a plastic hamper, waist high. I race over, lift the cover; the hamper is half full, and I begin sifting through the contents. Boxer shorts, crew socks, t-shirts … and panties, bras, nylons. Either Murph’s a cross-dresser, or a female most definitely lives here.

After closing the hamper, I almost leave the bedroom, confident that the evidence I’ve gathered so far has proven Steph’s existence. But I decide to peek into the room that held my greatest interest, the master bathroom. If you want to find the truth about someone, you have to search through their medicine cabinet and toiletries. I find the medicine cabinet on a wall to the side of the double-bowl vanity; in it are a few prescription bottles — statin, antibiotic, suppository — all in Murph’s name. Deodarant, shaving cream, razors … and tampons, vaginal cream, several other products for feminine hygenie. I close the cabinet, walk to the shower stall, open the door; there are two corner shelves, each with a different set of hair products.

“I’m done here,” my words spoken to nobody as I close the shower door. I’m halfway through the bedroom, on my way out of the house — and a detail from what I’ve just seen in the bathroom leaps to my mind. I turn, race back to the double-bowl vanity, and confirm that detail.

Each bowl had a toothbrush holder on the right side, and toothbrush lying to the left of the bowl, along with a tube of toothpaste. The arrangement of both bowls is identical, except — the tube on the right bowl is rolled up, while the tube on the left is full.

I race over to the shower stall, open the door, and check the bottles of hair products. One shelf’s bottles are partially emptied, but the other shelf’s are all filled.

Medicine cabinet — I don’t even bother closing the shower stall door. I examine each of the feminine products; none of them have been opened.

“Dammit.” I’m no longer curious, but rather suspicious, and more than a little enraged. I’m now convinced that Murph has created an elaborate ruse, has been fooling me all along with his story about his fake wife —

I hear a telephone ringing, from the living room downstairs.

First Sighting

The sharp rhythmic beeping stops, and a solitary tone an octave higher sounds; a red light on the device turns off, a green light illuminates. I exhale, then turn my attention to the kitchen.

There’s a panel of switches next to the garage service door, and I flip all of them up, flooding the kitchen with light. The kitchen looks like a museum, the marbled counter tops and island clean and clear, no dirty dishes or garbage in sight. Light reflects brightly off the appliances and floors, no fingerprints or smudges in sight; it seems abnormally clean, like the room has never actually been visited by humans. I have to test this hypothesis, so I walk over to the refrigerator, open the door. Milk and orange juice, both partially empty; canned beverages, bottles of dressings and condiments, cold cuts, leftovers in plastic containers. Well, there’s my proof of human habitation.

A wide doorway leads to a carpeted living room, as immaculate as the kitchen. The room is furnished with a large leather sofa, a recliner on either side. On the strategically arranged tables are vases of plastic flowers and small framed pictures; I don’t recognize any of the pictured faces. I scan the walls, adorned with posters of European art, nothing I haven’t —

On the wall behind me, I find a large photograph. A couple, bride and groom, embracing each other in front of a gazebo, a lake in the background. The man is unmistakably Murph.

I walk up to the photograph, studying the woman. She looks in her early thirties, as does Murph. Curly brown hair, face narrow and lean. Short. It’s the first time I’ve seen an image of Stephanie, and she’s stunning, just like I’d expect from a happy bride.

Or a very good actress. I turn, head up the carpeted stairs leading to the second floor.

Entry

Saturday has mercifully arrived. Before leaving my apartment to catch the train up to the ‘burbs, I call Murph’s home number. Three rings, then his distinctive baritone — Hello. We can’t come to the phone right now. Please leave a message. The automated reply of a man who routinely screens calls; I hang up the phone, chiding myself for wasting time.

All manner of alibis come to me as the train crawls out of the city. He left a report at home, and I need to review it over the weekend. I heard he was going out of town, and wasn’t sure he’d arranged for a house sitter. (Angelina had told me yesterday she would be at the outlet mall today; it’s an hour away, and I’ve been on enough shopping trips with her to know she’d be gone most of the day.) A few others as well, all plausible enough to keep me out of trouble with the neighbors or police. Of course once Murph got back along with Steph, if there was a Steph, I’d have some explaining to do, but I’ve come down this road too far to turn away.

It’s late afternoon when the train arrives, and the sun’s all but disappeared into the late fall horizon. Murph’s home is about a mile away from the station. I see bus route signs, and there’s even a couple of taxis waiting. One of the drivers calls to me, asks if I’m sure I want to walk the streets alone in the dark. He’s patronizing but sincere, so I thank him and promise to be careful.

In the twenty minutes of walking it takes to reach my destination, I don’t meet anyone on the sidewalks. I pause a couple times for cars pulling into driveways, and every once in a while I pass a good citizen sweeping leaves out the garage. It occurs to me that I probably do look suspicious, the sole pedestrian in this sedentary community. Maybe somebody will call the cops; if they do, I’ll just pretend to be calling on Murph. And his wife, of course. I’ll act surprised when I find he’s not home.

One last left, and I’m on Murph’s street. Three houses down, on the right, a two-story structure that looks just like every other house in the subdivision, lined and spaced evenly like cookies on a baking sheet. I approach the garage, locate the key pad on the right, and as I flip it open I realize my ethical transgression is about to become a legal mattter. Lifting the combination from Angelina’s pad could be dismissed as silly and impetuous, but using that knowledge to enter someone’s private residence, without their knowledge and certainly not their consent …

I press the four buttons in sequence, and the up/down arrow at the bottom of the pad stares back at me. I can almost see it smile, hear its taunt — you’re not gonna chicken out now, are you?

No way. I punch the button with my thumb, smile with satisfaction as the garage door lifts.

The two-car garage is empty, and the half to my left is occupied with lawn equipment; I see oil spots in the expected location on the right. Seriously, how many people in this ‘burb have only one car? I check the driveway behind me, and yes, there are oil spots on the side in front of the lawn equipment. Their other car, the one that’s left outside the garage, could be in the shop.

I’m not going to find any definitive answers here, so I walk into the driveway, enter the house through the service door. The kitchen’s dark; in the distance, I can see a light from what must be the living room, probably on a timer.

And I hear a noise. A steady beeping, coming from a hallway to the right. I walk over, see a large flat electronic device — I don’t recognize the model, but it’s function is unmistakable. A house alarm, detecting an entry, and waiting to be disarmed. And primed to notify the police, should the disarm sequence not be entered on time.

I don’t have much time, probably no more than a minute. I flip on a nearby ceiling light, scan the device. It’s fairly intiuitve, all I need is the disarming sequence. Shit, Angelina only wrote down one set of numbers, and I didn’t hear her say anything to Murph about the house alarm. Maybe he called her later — hey there’s an alarm as well, you’ll need to know that number too. Or, he’d planned to disable the alarm, but forgot — sorry, I forgot to tell Steph not to set it.

Shaking my head, I realize I have only one play. Walking away’s not an option, because the arm will certainly report an aborted break-in, and should the cops find me my actions will seem highly suspicious. And there’s no time to figure out what combination Murph could have programmed, other than the same sequence used for the garage door. A fairly reasonable assumption, and it’s all I’ve got with no time to spare. I punch in the combination, reach over to the right of the keypad, press Off — and hold my breath.

Travel Plans

Three weeks later, and I’m having my weekly chess game with Murph. The numbers that will open his garage door, his home, and whatever secrets he’s been hiding, have lain scribbled on a sticky note in my apartment, like a miniature treasure map. Next week is Thanksgiving, the time he’d arranged for Angelina to house-sit for him. I need to confirm that plan is still in play.

I take a pawn of his with a knight. “We playing next week?”

Murph picks up a bishop, placing it in line to threaten the knight. “No, I’m out. Visiting Steph’s family in Colorado for the week.”

I move the knight out of harm’s way. “Cool. Leaving what, Sunday?”

My fingers have barely lifted from the knight, when he sends his bishop down the board, taking my knight’s pawn. Dammit, I forgot to look at the board again — I moved the bishop but not the knight on this side, so now he’s got my rook pinned. Only way I can come back from this is for Murph to make a mistake, which he almost never does.

I notice the silence between us, then look up at him, face as placid as ever; he’s been waiting for my attention. “Saturday. Our flight is Saturday, early morning. And we return the following Saturday evening.”

All I can do is blink, as I wonder why he’s providing me this information. Does he somehow suspect … no that’s crazy, he didn’t even know I was in the conference room with Angelina when he gave her the garage code. So why — 

“Your move.” Murph then glances down at my doomed rook.