In A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders says this:
“If you’ve ever wondered, as I have, ‘Given how generally sweet people are, why is the world so messed up*?’ Gogol has an answer: we each have an energetic and unique skaz loop running in our heads, one we believe in fully, not as ‘merely my opinion’ but ‘the way things actually are, for sure’.
The entire drama of life on earth is Skaz-Headed Person #1 steps outside, where he encounters Skaz-Headed Person #2. Both, seeing themselves as the center of the universe, thinking highly of themselves, immediately misunderstand everything. They try to communicate but aren’t any good at it.
Saunders is explaining Nikolai Gogol’s short story, The Nose. The story is absurd. It’s a form of Russian story-telling called skaz, where the narrator of the story becomes part of the story because of his own inept story-telling. Google it. Or better yet, read Saunders’ book.
I came across the passage and thought, yep, that’s how we are in real life. We’re all just skazzes. I find it funny because it’s true.
*Saunders used a description a little cruder than “messed up.” I took editorial liberty to clean it up a tad, though I personally am not offended by the cruder language. They’re just words, after all.
Home. The theme of Katie’s writing challenge. I failed to get a new story for March. I tried, but it didn’t happen. I could tell you the reasons, but you don’t really care. Instead, here is something I wrote few years ago that fits the theme. Next month, something new.
Yet again I’m at my desk, working, with music in the background. Again it’s Wilco. I’m learning a couple of their songs and I’m letting them sink in. I came across this live performance of Shot in the Arm. When I play it on my guitar it’s just me and it’s a simple song, though the song itself is infused with conflict and doubt. In this live version, you see Jeff Tweedy up front, singing and playing his simple chords. In the background a whole heckuva a lot is going on. The conflict can’t be avoided. Doubt is everywhere. It’s all in the music and it might be a chaotic mess if not for the simple story (Tweedy) holding it all together. It makes a simple song complex and engaging. Good art and good literature do the same thing.
So I’m sitting here at work listening to Wilco on YouTube, and I see in the upcoming videos, a video of Jeff Tweedy (Wilco) talking to George Saunders, whose book – A Swim in a Pond in the Rain – I’m currently reading. If you’re a writer or a musician, I think you’ll enjoy this. If you’re like me, you’ll have to listen in bits and pieces.
In The Darling, Chekhov tells the story of a woman who is somewhat of a serial lover, losing herself to whomever she loves. When we first meet Olenko, we admire her utter devotion to the man she loves. When he dies, she repeats the pattern with her new love. And when he dies, she repeats it again with her new love, and we begin to have questions about her. We begin to see the flaws in her character. And yet, her biggest sin is loving too much and too easily.
In his book, A Swim in a Pond in the Rain, George Saunders offers this about Olenka:
“I feel about Olenko the way I think God might. I know so much about her. Nothing has been hidden from me. It’s rare, in the real world, that I get to know someone so completely. I’ve known her in so many modes: a happy young newlywed and a lonely old lady; a rosy beloved darling and an overlooked, neglected piece of furniture, nearly a local joke; a nurturing wife and an overbearing false mother.
And look at that: the more I know about her, the less inclined I feel to pass a too-harsh or premature judgment. Some essential mercy in me has been switched on. What God has going for Him that we don’t is infinite information. Maybe that’s why He’s able to, supposedly, love us so much.”
A publisher has expressed interest in my novel, Heather Girl. They like the story and the primary characters; however, they feel that I have too many sub-plots and secondary characters that take away from the main focus of the novel. There are a couple of sub-plots and secondary characters that I have no trouble eliminating. There are others that I’m hesitant to lose.
I’ve been reading a book recommended by Mr. Larry Ellis, A Swim in the Pond in the Rain, by George Saunders. In the book, Saunders examines short stories of Russian authors so that writers may learn and hone their craft. Saunders just told me something that is helpful in evaluating Heather Girl. It is this:
Imagine we’re bouncers, roaming through Club Story, asking each part [of the story], “Excuse me, but why do you need to be in here?” In a perfect story, every part has a good answer. (“Well, uh, in my subtle way, I am routing energy to the heart of the story.”)
Our evolving, rather hard-ass model of a story says that every part of it should be there for a reason. The merely incidental (“this really happened” or “this was pretty cool” or “this got into the story and I couldn’t quite take it out again”) won’t cut it. Every part of the story should be able to withstand this level of scrutiny…
The second paragraph confirms what I think needs to be cut.
The first paragraph makes me hesitate on other parts, those that I believe are routing energy to the heart of the story.
And it’s running down my arm, dripping onto the dirty concrete, pooling like cherry jello next to the steps where I’m sitting, hoping someone has called for a wagon, but then I realize the closest ambulance sits idle at the hospital twenty miles away. It’s a long, deep cut and it’s all I can do to keep the pressure on.
Apologies to Dylan. He wrote that song, what, fifty years ago? Sixty, maybe?
Ma’s been gone a while.
Nothing good happens after midnight, she used to tell me. It’s 1:37 and all self-respecting people in this godforsaken town are fast asleep. Truth is, there’s not too many of them left.
There’s this photograph, a grainy black and white, probably taken about the same time Dylan wrote that song. I would have been about eight. Ma sitting at table with her sister-in-law, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother. Looks like they had been working, or maybe getting ready to work. They all look tired. They’re all at rest now.
It seems to be slowing down a little. Maybe if knot my shirt around the cut. Kind of hard to do with just one arm, but if I can take one end with my teeth and pull tight. It’s cool out here but it was muggy in that closed-up building and I was starting to sweat before I went through the window so taking off my shirt feels pretty good. And there’s nobody around to see my soft, pasty flesh.
Ok. That’s better. But it’s hurting now. Not just stinging from the cut but real pain. The muscle’s been cut. I’m probably going to need surgery. I can’t stay on this stoop.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.
Ma and her sister-in-law were young women with their glorious lives ahead of them. Later I would see the color photographs they were proud to show, their hair just right, their smiles beaming. But in this old black-and-white they looked tired. Just beat.
Kennedy was assassinated around that time. Then Martin Luther King. Then the other Kennedy. Death was all around. So when I came home one day after a nasty fall in the creek, blood streaming down my leg, ma looked at me like I was going to die.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding, I told her back then.
Dylan had nothing on me. If I could have just come up with the other existential verses and the complex rhythms and rhyming patterns and a hundred other songs I could have been another Dylan.
I’m walking now. Not to the hospital. I couldn’t do that under the best circumstances. And not home.
Just about every storefront I walk by is empty. More than a few with the glass busted out. So when Decker tossed me through the plate glass window of the old hardware store, it was kind of like if tree fell in the forest and nobody was there to hear it, would it still make a noise? If anybody heard, nobody would care. That’s how it is here.
And I can’t blame Decker. He had to do it.
I’ve always been an under-achiever. Ma had more faith in me than I deserved. Maybe it was just hope. My sisters were something else. Intelligent, outgoing. Honor roll. And my cousins, the kids of the sister-in-law in that photograph, they were the best at everything. And then there was me.
I don’t know. I tried. Sometimes. Most of the time I just didn’t care that much. Went to the university after high school but didn’t last a semester. Nothing good happens after midnight. But I had fun.
It’s alright, ma. I’m only bleeding.
He never even sings that line in the song but in my head he does and I’m singing it over and over because that’s the only line I know and the rest of the song is beyond my comprehension.
I haven’t had a drink in ten years. Not since Ma’s funeral. I don’t know if I was ever an alcoholic. I drank a lot, but never on the job. But there was a lot of stress and the drink softened the edges.
Been married twice. Neither marriage lasted long enough to build a family. First one was peer pressure. Everyone was getting married and it seemed like the reasonable thing to do, but we were way too young. Didn’t know who we were. Second marriage I blame to an out-of-control libido. And when the flame died down there was nothing else.
My dad died when I was thirty. Hardly ever see my sisters. They’ve lived out of state most of their lives. They’ve got family. And their families got families.
There’s a safe house about five miles away. Little cabin about a mile off the hard road back in the woods. I’ll stay there and call Decker in a couple of hours. Have him run me over the mountain before dawn.
I shouldn’t be doing this. Not at my age. I should be at a desk. There’s younger guys that could have taken the assignment. It didn’t have to be me. Didn’t have to be good old Joey.
But Joey, he’s got no kids. No grandkids. No wife. Not even a regular girl. Evenings are bad. Weekends worse. I got to find something to fill the time. And so here I am out here after midnight, when nothing good happens. Right, ma?
I had to talk the captain into letting me do it. He didn’t come right out and say what I already knew, that I’m too old to be chasing bad guys and getting thrown threw a window. He’s right.
But I’ve seen what the pills do. And if it was just killing the ones who used it, I might be ok with that. But I’ve seen the kids, the ones I never had, and they end up being raised by their grandma. Or maybe their great-grandma. And I think of that photograph. And I’m glad ma lived in simpler times and I’m glad that those ladies in that simple kitchen never had to see what things have come to. And maybe I can save a family. Maybe I can do some good.
So Decker’s the middle man. He sets up the meeting between the docs and pharmacist. That’s me. At least that’s my role. We talk to the docs and convince them that it’s all safe. They can write the scripts and I’ll fill them at the pharmacy, no questions asked. Then we get a some of our younger plain clothes to pose as patients and when the doc rights the scripts, we start building the case. They wear wires and everything. Once things are set up, we move on to the next county. It’s usually low risk with meet-ups in a diner or sometimes at the doc’s house. But his was different. Should have known better.
The docs are usually forty-something. Maybe they realized they’re never going to be the hot-shot surgeon they thought they’d be in med school. Maybe they see they’re not going to have that big house on the hill, or the condo in Florida, so they see the chance for easy money and what they felt was their destiny. Or maybe it’s just simple greed.
But Doc Varney was different. He’s in his seventies. Everyone in the county knows him and there’s a cloud of fear that overcomes folks when you talk about him. He’s been involved in the drug business since before the opiates took over. So he’s a prime target.
He wanted to meet after hours at the hardware building. Bad move by me and Decker to agree to it. Should have been neutral turf. Supposed to meet at ten, but he called and put it off till midnight. Then one. Nothing good, I told Decker. Nothing good.
Varney shows up and he’s not alone. There’s another guy, body guard or some such thug. Varney’s probably around five-eight and his thumb-breaker, a neanderthal for sure, is maybe six-two and probably weights two-fifty, hair cut close to the scalp, belly puffed out beyond his windbreaker jacket. He looks at me. Eying me.
Decker’s talking to Varney, the usual patter. I hear my name mentioned. Joey will take care of everything he says. Plenty of money for everyone. And best of all, it’s legal. Well, that’s a lie. And if it was legal, it’s completely immoral. I see Varney smiling.
And then neanderthal pulls a gun. He points it at me.
He’s a cop, he says to Varney.
Decker looks surprised. No way, he says. He runs the pharmacy over in Herndon.
He was in the task force that took me and Gilley down, what was it Joey, six years ago?
Yeah, I’m thinking. He’s right. Six years ago.
You’re a cop? It’s Decker. He gives me a backhand across the chops.
Varney’s left the building and is sitting in his car. That’s when Decker takes me by the collar and heaves me through the window. I hear a gun shot and see a puff of concrete dust where the bullet hit beside me.
Varney yells something and the goon gets in with Varney and they take off. Decker does, too. He’s staying in character. Too much invested in all of this just to give it up. Besides, I just crashed through the window. How bad could it be?
It’s alright ma. I’m only bleeding.
Another mile and I’ll be off the hard road. Feeling tired and thirsty but there’s food and drink at the cabin. And a real bandage.
I don’t hear the car and it surprises me as it came around the curve. I try to step back into the edge of the woods but I’m too slow. The car throws gravel off the shoulder as the wheels lock up.
I reach for my Glock but I’m too late. He’s leaning out the window, firing. I take a shot in the shoulder, then my stomach, then my chest.
I’m on the ground, looking up at the stars. I can’t move. I hear the car throwing gravel again.
I can’t move. I’m gurgling blood. I know what that means.