Friday, September 25, 2015

Responses to doubts about writing fiction

At 25, I wanted to be a writer. At 31, after six years of floundering around, I gave up. Two years ago, I started again, but actually read some books on how to write. After a year, I had had some small success, but gave up again, largely because I thought it was interfering with more critical responsibilities. Now, I'm back to trying to write some more stories. If I can get to three publication credits, I've got a novel idea I'll start on.

During the end of the year of writing and for the year of not writing, I've occasionally scribbled in this blog about two subjects, mostly: 1) How dumb graduate writing programs are, and 2) Doubts about the value of spending time writing fiction. I here leave my final summary of these doubts, and how I've resolved them personally. This is not a scientific list of doubts that plague hopeful writers. I didn't research top doubts. These are mine. Most writers are probably at least a little weird. If you're my particular brand of weird, then some of this list might resonate with you. If not, feel free to list your own. These are in no particular order.

1. Nobody will ever read this, so I am wasting my time.

I'm sorry to say this, but mathematically speaking, this doubt is probably correct. There are between 20 and 100 submissions to every journal for every story they actually publish. Colleges are cranking out M.F.A. holders every year, probably at higher rates than old writers give up or die. Meanwhile, reading is on the decline. Shrinking demand, increasing supply. You're pushing into a very, very glutted market.

I've always felt that I would quit writing if I knew it would never get published. That's still probably true. But I think I've vastly altered my expectations such that I would settle for much less now in terms of readership to make it worth writing. Like anyone who thinks they write "serious" literature, I once wanted to be toasted as the "it" writer for intellectuals. I felt kind of like Keats, who once said he'd rather fail completely than not become one of the greats.

I don't write as therapy, that's true. I don't write just to work out my feelings, although that is a benefit I sometimes get out of it. I want to share ideas. But maybe you can think of readers like friends. How many do you actually want or need? If I had ten really close friends I could talk about the really big stuff with, I'd consider myself a lucky person. Scrounging together ten readers who really get you isn't such a tall task. I found one already.

If the end goal is to become financially independent through writing, give up now or start writing post-apocalyptic tween fiction. If you goal, though, is to make your ideas about the big stuff clear enough, and for them to be worth reading enough, that you find a few kindred spirits in the world, that's within reach. Melville probably wrote Moby Dick more for Hawthorne than for any other reason. For a variety of reasons, hardly anyone else really got the book for more than 50 years. If I ended up with a friend like Hawthorne and a book that everyone loved after I was dead, I'd call that a life well spent. (Okay, Hawthorne kind of dissed Melville soon after the book came out, but you get the idea.)

2. I'm not that good

This is similar to doubt #1. It's another "I'm wasting my time" consideration.  Not infrequently, I read something someone else wrote and think it's so perfect, it makes everything I've written seem suddenly naked with a shriveled wiener. It makes me want to throw a towel around everything I've written and just hide in a corner until all the big guys have left the locker room.

So what keeps me writing? Three things. One is when people who I think are even worse than me end up being feted as brilliant authors. Pure anger makes me think I need to write, because if anyone thinks that bullshit is worth a read, then it's for farking sure I deserve a few pages.

Secondly are those people who I think are writing great stuff, but whose talent is within my reach. I can't write like Jonathan Franzen. I don't want to write like Jumpa Lahiri, although I admire her work. But maybe, if I keep at it, I might write something that could be mildly reminiscent of a writer whose work appeared in the latest Pushcart anthology.

Third is love of the things I'm writing about. I'm a kid from a nearly all-white suburb in Ohio who had two Chinese siblings. My best friend was the only black kid I knew in town. I became a born-again Christian, because I had just started to wonder about the big things in life at 16, and they were the first people I ran into with answers. I enlisted in the Marine Corps because everyone I knew was going to college and I wanted to do something special. I hated the Marine Corps, but loved the people I was enlisted with. I married the girl I knew in the high school youth group at church, because it was better to marry than to burn. I got out of the Marines. I divorced the girl from high school youth group, because I no longer believed the answers the church had given me and she did. I went to college to get better answers. I married someone new. I went to more school to get even better answers. Then I gave up on answers to the big questions and decided to try having a family. I have learned three languages and lived deeply, for a time, in the cultures of people who speak them. I've met cowboys and intellectuals and racists and people who've lived through unimaginable shit. People who deserve to have their stories told, and, unlucky for them, I'm the most qualified bastard around to tell those stories for them. So I have to become the person who is able to tell them. No one part of my experience is that unusual, but the mix is. Writing is the only way to make that experience speak beyond my own life.

3. I have more important things to be doing

Then do them. Writing will be there. I didn't write for ten years. Things incubated. When I had time to write again, those incubating thoughts poured out. Writing is part of life, not life itself. Live your life. You'll know when it's time to get back to writing.

4. All the writing books say I should write every day, but I just can't

Books have great advice about how to handle tags in dialogue and similar mechanical things. But only you know you. I'm not the sort of person who does ANYTHING every day. I like to work out. But I don't do it every day. Sometimes, I work out five times in a week. Sometimes, I only get to it twice. If I'm feeling like I have time and the desire to devote to it, I do. If not, I just do enough that I don't fall apart. "Something is better than nothing" has been my fitness motto for 20 years, and it's worked. I'm not always in great shape, but I've never really been "out of shape," whatever that means. Write when you can, or when you want to. If you have time on the weekends, go apeshit on the weekends. If you have an idea you're really in the swing of, and there's nothing going on at work on Thursday, call out Thursday and write. Then don't write next week when the big audit is on at work and you need to be there the whole time. I'm the kind of guy who doesn't clean house for two weeks and then does it all at once. I tend to do the same with writing. That's just me. I don't see why writing should be different from every other thing in my life.

5. Fiction is a corrupt, capitalist, bourgeois luxury read by the wealthy who have time for such activities while most of the world is working 27 hours a day on 14 calories (or some version of this)

Fair enough. Earlier, I wrote about having neo-Augustinian feelings about literature. I also have completely repented from having once said that writing was more important to me than family. People matter. Writing matters, too, but far less. If I really thought that by giving up writing and dedicating myself to teaching immigrants I would accomplish more net happiness in the world than by writing, I would do it. At least, I hope I would. Maybe I wouldn't be able to. A different saint, Saint Jerome, tried to give up his books when he went to the desert, but just couldn't. Millions of people who have lived after him are glad he didn't. To some extent, you are what you are. If you're the kind of person who just has to write--so much so that you are reading this blog by someone else who, against all rational argument, continues to do the same thing--then you're probably just a person who is going to write no matter what. So live with it. Give something else up, instead. Give up Facebook. Give up porn. Give up something. It's 2015, and you're (probably) a Westerner who has something else he can give up.

When I was working in retail for years after the Marine Corps, I wasn't a third-world day laborer, but I wasn't really bourgeois, either. But reading made my life better. I don't think I'd have lived through the Marine Corps without reading Melville when I was at sea. Human happiness is a weird commodity. Sometimes, a stupid thing like a good book contributes to it as much as five pounds of rice.

Writing doesn't matter much in the cosmic scheme of things. But really, on that scale, what does? So write if you want to. 

6. Failing often is making me feel bad about myself

Anecdote: I have a former brother-in-law that I like a lot. He tried for many years to be a pro golfer. He is a great golfer. I once watched him shoot a 60. A 60. That does not happen. But he was a streaky guy. He'd have great days and bad days. He never quite managed to make it as a pro. He's better than 99% of people who have ever played golf. He's a great golfer. But somehow, he still isn't good enough for it to really matter.

This is probably familiar to a lot of people. You start off, and you're the best at something. You get to the next level, and you're still the best. Your parents talk about you as that kid who is great at that one thing. Then, one day, you get to a level where you're not the best. You're still better at it than almost anyone who ever tried to do it. Mathematically, you're amazing. But it's still not enough to matter.  It's crazy. How can you be so good at something, and still be so far away from being good enough?

I honestly haven't really figured out how to answer this one. The universe isn't fair. Maybe the point is that day he shot a 60. He was a foot from a 59; his putt on 18 was just a little short. If he had done that, he might have gotten a little play on ESPN. (He did this in a local tournament.) If you're good at something, and you keep at it, you've got a puncher's chance of having your day. But even if you don't, at least trying to have that one breakthrough has distracted you from the meaninglessness of life for a while.

7. Literature is bad for people

I made this very argument. I have a feeling that thinking too much in literary terms can corrupt your mind. In literature, it's imperative to bring things into some kind of order, to simplify, to give purpose. Life isn't really like this. It's unordered, and, ultimately, kind of without purpose. If you read too much stuff where life is working to some kind of end ordered by an intelligent designer, you can fall into magical thinking.  

I can offer three humble defenses:

1) People think in stories. We're hard-wired to do it. Our whole language is built around it. So live with it.
2) Some magical thinking might not be a bad thing. It's better to talk yourself into a mythology where life makes some kind of sense than to live with the alternative.
3) Too much literature reading might be bad for the reader, but it can also be very good for the writer. Forcing the jangled discord of existence into some kind of order can be a healthy exercise. It's what life makes us do all the time, and writing can be a way to force yourself to try to find some kind of order to the mess.

8. Life is hard, so I should man up and face it and not try to duck it with stories

Stories are a survival technique. Okay, I could try to sneak in a re-statement of the thesis of Joseph Meeker's The Comedy of Survival, as my own, but I'll attribute. Life can be hard, even for people for whom there is no reason for it to be hard. Surviving it can be as simple as the the story you tell yourself about it. You can face it head-on with stoic resignation, not allowing yourself to re-create life in the godlike role of storyteller. Or you can make up stories that help you to survive. I'll give you one guess which philosophy passes on its genes. There is a grand, tragic beauty in refusing to blink before the meaninglessness. But they'll be admiring you while you're dead. Ahab faced the universe head-on. He killed a boat full of sailors. Ishmael, the more pliable one, escapes to tell the story. Escape to tell the story.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

story sins

While writing "Infection," it was easy for me to imagine a reader finding misogynistic notes. A woman damages a man's sexual organ, symbol of his manhood, through her own psychosis-fueled philandering. Hemingway, who I think everyone finds some misogyny in, had something of an obsession with men being cuckolded and the loss of a man's vital masculine force through a woman's influence. I could see analogies being drawn.
I felt like there were other elements in the story that offset this effect. Evie injured Steve's phallus, but Maria helped to restore it, literally and figuratively. She didn't do this because it's the woman's role to restore a man's confidence in his sexual prowess, she did it because it made her happy to do it. That's one reason I chose not to make her too "feminine" looking according to contemporary expectations of what that means. She is boxy and strong rather than skinny at all costs. Her body is developed according to her own notions of what she wants out of it.

There isn't a whole ton of Steve and Evie's backstory, which was one of the things Blake Kimzey, my literary service editor, critiqued. We know they were in an evangelical church together as teens in Ohio, that they didn't fit in with the church kids, that Steve left for Chicago to play blues music and Evie followed him sometime thereafter. Since Steve's final act is a rejection of the opportunity to move forward that life offered him, we can assume that maybe Steve wasn't a completely innocent victim of Evie.

So I thought there was enough there that this wasn't a hate anthem to loose women who break your heart and give your herpes. There wasn't an underlying resentment of the female. But it wouldn't have surprised me if an editor at a journal or a reader of a literary journal, someone with a background in analyzing literature but not a whole lot of time to devote to analyzing one story, found it in there. Nobody sits down to read a story, turns off all electronic devices, eliminates distractions and says "I will now fully devote myself to giving this story my fullest, most thoughtful attention, giving the story the benefit of the doubt in every circumstance." It would be easy for a distracted reader, even a good one, to find that a woman gave a man V.D. and think "this is some woman-hating shit like in Hemingway" and move on. Worse yet, you might get a sympathetic editor to print it, and then a critic decides to treat the perceived misogyny at length. You've still got the piece itself to defend yourself, and all those parts you think mitigate that one fact in your story, but now the critic has already influenced the way others will read it. You've lost control of the meaning of your own words.

Every writer faces this. Blake told me to quit worrying about rejection from editors and other things I can't control. But I find it extremely frightening that something I wrote might be described with such an awful word as "misogyny." Worse yet, that a critic would jump the tracks of examining the intent of the text and head right into the intent of the writer, calling me, personally, a misogynist. You have to write about dangerous stuff and walk a line in writing, or else there's no point to it. But in a society that is getting worse and worse at reading, it's a guarantee that you'll be misunderstood. I can't imagine how comics write jokes about race or child molestation or other awful things and then go out in front of a crowd where someone is likely to not see how the joke is funny. Worse, to have the joke fail because it really isn't funny, and it actually does deserve to be called a racist joke or a sick joke. You're up there on stage. It's only seconds before they go from saying racist joke to racist comedian. You didn't mean it that way, but all the audience has to go on is the joke they just heard.

If you write, you will either say something you didn't exactly mean, or you will be misread, or both. Probably both, and probably every time. It will take exactly one reader to have someone see something in what you wrote that you didn't intend. Blake gave this story a very thorough reading, but when he listed themes he saw, this was his list: money, class, art, charity, love, regret, and a host of others. I didn't think money or class were at play at all. I more or less gave American capitalism a pass in this story; Steve is poor because he's a slacker, not--as thousands in Chicago who don't have a voice in "Infection,"--because the economic system has let them down. When Steve wants to improve his position in life, a job is there for him, and he does. I was paying Blake to read the story well, and he did, but he still didn't see in it what I hoped he'd see. If I had to give a theme to the story, I'd say it was something like "People have the ability to spread both faith and doubt to other people, like an infection."

A lurking commenter on this site once told me to write for myself, let others come along if they wish, and assume the rest are just too dumb to get it. This attitude seemed like hubris to me--if one of us is wrong, why should I always assume it's the other guy? But there might also be a sort of wisdom in this. Defensive backs in football are known for being cocky. Even after giving up a big catch, they will still talk like they are unbeatable. There's a reason for that. If you act for a second like you can be beaten, you're already beaten. So you have to act like you're the best. Give up a touchdown, whatever. It wasn't your fault. The receiver pushed off. He'll never do it to you again.

But I'll bet that defensive back still looks at the film to see what he did wrong. He'll learn from it. He'll practice to never make that mistake again. He'll build it into his muscle memory, but erase it from his conscious memory. He has to play fearlessly, and he will, because he's never been beaten on the next play.

So after a year of writing followed by a year of not writing, I'm ready for writing again. One purpose of this blog was to work out doubts about whether writing was even worth the trouble. It's served its purpose. My next story will be the best fucking thing you've ever seen.  



Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Story example--the one I talked about earlier

Here is the story "Infection," the one I gave to a paid editor. I wish I had the original, because I think it would make a strong case that a $120 service like this can do as much for a story as a graduate-level workshop can. This is true even though I clearly didn't like a lot of what the editor said. But a 6800-word story on my visually ugly blog is already asking a lot of the reader. Expecting anyone to read the old version and the new version is ridiculous. Just know that this version is a lot better than the original.

I was going to put all nine of the unpublished stories I wrote in a year on here, but I think these two are enough. The point was to let you decide if grad school didn't work for me because nothing could have helped me. That only seems fair. If you assess that I just suck, and you can make more use out of grad school because you are more talented, knock yourself out. Maybe it'll be perfect for you. Just know that everyone in grad school goes in thinking they're uniquely gifted. And even if you are, there are still more gifted writers than the market can support.

Here's the story. Again, sorry it's so ugly to read on this blog. Learning to make it look nice is way beyond my skills.


If Steve mentally divided all women into two orders based on the presence or lack of sculpted calf muscles, he did not believe he could be faulted for it. The only piece of advice his father had ever given him in earnest was this: Look for a woman with nice legs; it’s a sign of a good foundation. It was almost certainly not good advice, but since his father had given him none other, it seemed a waste to just throw it away. So it was a stubborn taxonomy to remove, in spite of its being built on the loosest of sand.
Nor did Steve fault himself if Maria, the backs of whose legs swelled sideways, like a paddle, even in the highest of heels, fell in love with him in vain. After all, on the face of his bass drum was a graphic design of a beaver humping a saxophone. What kind of relationship did she expect from someone like that?
She had walked into the Blinking Baboon on Blinking Baboon Blues Thursday. Like most venues Steve’s band played, the Baboon had been open for less than a year. The owners had been optimistic enough to put a drop ceiling in to cover the mold on the ceiling, but too cautious to invest in taking down the column grid that blocked a third of the tables from seeing the stage. It was a typical crowd that night. Two-thirds were people above fifty who wore old age like a medal and tried to look older; the rest were college students, beautiful but obscuring it with ragged clothing. From behind the drums, Steve usually took little notice of the audience, and he didn’t notice Maria until Bennie Beaver, lead singer of the Bennie Beaver Blues band, leaned his arm onto one of Steve’s tom drums during the bridge of a song and shouted “The tall one in the front is mine.” Steve, who was wearing his second cleanest t-shirt and struggling squint-eyed through a herpes outbreak, barely missed hitting Bennie’s arm with his right stick.  Instead, it landed near the pen marks left from when Steve had used his drum set as a desk in the apartment with Evie. Because it seemed the thing to do, he looked through his spy hole for the girl. Bennie was blocking his view to the front, while Toga Petey and Randy were off to the sides, completing the diamond shape Benny insisted the band keep. Toga Petey, who was good enough to be pro, was relaxed, while Randy, who worked sixty hours a week at a real job downtown and was one of two saxophone players the band rotated through, was shifting his weight between his feet as he played, like a tennis player about to return a serve.
Steve barely made her out, sitting with her shoulders slouched, a mane of muddy-red frizzy hair half pinned in the back but half hanging down in front into a face that was pale as a Chinese melon. Her rounded plumpness was offset somewhat by a sharp nose. A glass of the white wine that was on special for four bucks a glass sat on a napkin in front of her. Steve pegged her as a college girl. Which school was closest? Loyola? His left thigh was on fire.
Toga Petey finished his solo on his axe, and Bennie started in with the chorus one more time. “Well, I woke up this mornin’, feelin’ half dead / So I turned myself over and I went on back to bed.” Steve hated this song, one of the band’s original numbers. People like their blues more serious than that, and rule one is to always meet audience expectations. The blues could be an easy living if you played it right. Just move through your twelve bars and say your baby ain’t comin’ back. People who go to blues bars like the Blinking Babbon just want to be able to take some pictures to post on Instagram, because they think listening to blues makes them interesting. Most of the time, this band was a good gig. Bennie knew how to market, if nothing else. He could usually get them two gigs a week, and the band sold their share of merch to boot. The older crowd had money to burn on t-shirts and CDs, and the college kids thought they were supporting an alternative to big record labels. The band was more than half of Steve’s income.
Steve went to find the Advil in his drum cases during the break while Bennie sat down with the red head. A second wine glass appeared on her table while Steve was still trying to flag down someone to get him a glass of water. He finally gave up, swallowed the pills dry, and laid down on the floor of the stage behind his drums for the last twenty minutes of the break. His genitals kept falling through the hole in his underwear, the raw spots rubbing against his jeans that were stiff from being washed in a sink.
They started the last set a little after ten, the part when the Beaver Band was out of original material and Bennie was too drunk to sing, so the rest of the guys took turns singing covers.  Steve went with “My Love Will Never Die,” one of his standbys. He had a good voice for blues; he didn’t have to fake minor dissonances, that’s just what his voice did. As he sang, he closed his eyes and tried to will away the headache. He seldom thought about the words he sang, but tonight, to distract him from the fire in his body, he tried to imagine they meant something:
You’ve done me wrong for a long, long time
And all you’ve done still never changed my mind
So please try to love me, oh please, honey, try
My love for you will never die.
Someone in the bar cackled above the music, a high-pitched, drunk laugh, and Steve thought whoever it was had realized the same irony that struck him: his love for Evie--the girl who had first refused over a decade ago to come with him from Ohio to Chicago, then later showed up at his door with her hair dyed green and needing forty-seven dollars to pay the cab from the bus station—would now literally never die. “The gift that keeps on giving,” the doctor at the clinic had called his venereal disease. No pills to clear this up.
Randy started to muscle his way through his solo, and Bennie slid next to Steve on his chair behind the drums while Steve kept playing.
“You can have her, man,” he slurred over the music. He had perfect, sandy hair he did not deserve.
“Have who?” Steve said, half into the mike. He was trying to keep looking forward so Benny wouldn’t get him off beat.
“The girl. Her name’s Maria. That’s about all I got out of her. I think she’s studying to be a nun or something.”
Steve peered below his cymbals toward her table; she was looking straight back through the gap at him. He had never seen such perfect circles for eyes, eyes like a first grader draws before learning the meaning of ovals. She reminded him of Japanese anime. Steve wondered if she could hear any of what he and Benny had been saying. He’d been talking pretty loud, and near Benny’s mike. Steve was late on the last verse, but passed it off as rubato.
After the last set, when Steve had finished packing up his drums into the same van he’d come to Chicago in with his drums a dozen years ago, Bennie handed him his fifty dollar cut and immediately went back to spending his share at the bar. Steve felt a tug like a child’s at his sleeve.
“I love your voice,” Maria said. She had her shoulders pulled back now as she stood, no more slouching. The conical ceiling lights sent shadows across her face as she leaned toward him. The wrist attached to the hand on his sleeve had two watches and a stretchy, neon pink band with some sort of message on it.
“Thanks. Not much to it, really,” Steve replied, shrugging one shoulder.
“No. I mean it. To put that much feeling into your voice. You must have really felt something to be able to sing like that.”
Oh, God. A blues true believer. A blueliever. Over three-quarters of a century of blues music in Chicago, and still the most profound thing anybody could think to say about it was how blues was the truest expression of raw human emotion.
“Look, music’s got nothing to do with expressing feeling,” he launched at her. “It’s about suggesting feeling. You play the right note at the right time and hold it for the proper length at the correct volume, and you’ve got music. Music doesn’t care if you’re trying to express some demons in your soul or just trying to keep your mom from beating the shit out of you for screwing up ‘On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand’ at Greenmount Baptist. Cynical music sounds the same as reverent music if the guy playing it knows what he’s doing. A computer can play music. Whether it means something is up to the people who paid money to hear it.”
She dropped her hand from his sleeve. Steve noticed her breasts bounce when her arm fell, and understood why Bennie had been interested in her.
“Is that why you stopped believing in God?” she asked him. Steve now realized Bennie might have been right about studying to be a nun; he had assumed at first that he just confused Maria with the nun from Sound of Music because of the name.
“Who said anything about believing in God?”
“Well, you’re a skeptic about music. Isn’t that almost the same thing as being a skeptic about God?”
Steve wasn’t sure if this was a non-sequitur or something touching the profound, but felt that to wait too long to reply was to concede the point.
“I’m a Buddhist,” he offered.
Her cartoon eyes blinked. She could have been fanning herself with her eyelashes.
“Well, shit,” she said.
“I guess that means you don’t want to come have a cheeseburger with me at Clark’s.”
“Why is that?”
“You know. Because Buddhists don’t eat meat.”
For a nearly penniless musician in his mid-thirties, Steve had seen a surprising number of advances like this, the inexplicable, immediate attraction of younger women who were certain there was more to him than he was sure he amounted to. He had always had enough skepticism to reject offers like this before, based on the notion that anyone who was so easily attracted to him must have something wrong with her. Girls worth the trouble were all kinds of hell, like Evie was. So what interested him about Maria now?
“Oh. Well, that’s actually kind of complicated. The Buddha, for example, wouldn’t eat an animal that had been killed specifically for him. But, if one had already been killed and brought from the market…”
She put her hand back on his sleeve. “Perfect. How about this, then? I’ll go to Clark’s, and order two cheeseburgers. If you don’t come, I’ll throw one in the trash. So if you don’t come, a cow will have died in vain.”
On the way out the door, after Steve said goodbye a little too loud to Bennie to make sure he knew who was leaving with whom, Steve saw her calves like two hams. A shame, he thought. Why couldn’t someone be improbably and immediately attracted to him AND have nice legs? She looked like one of those girls who intentionally rejected yoga and step classes, because why shouldn’t girls try to do squats and deadlifts like boys? There was strength there, but no shape.
At the all-night restaurant, sharing one end of a table meant for eight, the truth about her legs set him free to tell the truth about himself. Why lie to a girl he could never fall in love with? He unfolded his lesser secrets, in perhaps more unflattering terms than was strictly necessary. The fights he and his mother had at the piano, her insisting there was some imagined variance between his rhythm and the metronome’s. How he tricked his parents into letting him learn drums so that he could be part of a “Christian” rock band. How he had dropped out after two years at a Christian college and drove straight from campus to Chicago. About Evie. Well, some about Evie. He emphasized enough parts to let her know he was damaged goods. He told her about the herpes.
“So anyway, like you can see, I’m not really the soulful, romantic catch I seem to be behind the drums.”
Air and froth charged into her straw as she sucked at her milkshake. “How did you become a Buddhist?”
Steve spurted out a laugh, and the vein in his temple that used to be covered by his black hair before he started shaving it jagged down his forehead. “Well, I was in the hospital with Evie one of those times. She was out of it because of whatever they had switched her to, and I was just kind of sitting there with nothing to do. A priest comes in, wanting to know if she wants communion. I tell him she’s Baptist. He asks if I want to. So I tell him I’m Buddhist, just to get him off my back. He leaves, but about an hour later, he comes back with a little book called ‘Basics of Buddhism.’ I mean, it was kind of dumb. If I had actually been a Buddhist, it would have all been stuff I knew already. But it was really nice of him to go find it and bring it to me. He said he thought a person needed whatever faith they believed in at times like these. So I read it. And it kind of made sense to me.”
“Made sense how?” She shook the paraphernalia on her wrist. “I’m sorry—are these too many questions about religion? I’m not really obsessed with it. It’s just that I think religion is an interesting subject, and tells you a lot about someone in a short amount of time. I hate that everyone says it’s one of the two things it’s not polite to talk about. That’s like saying you can sing songs about anything except love and loss.”
“Aren’t you about to be a nun or something?” Steve realized, with shame, that they had spent almost the whole meal talking about him.
Her hair shook from her laughter, and she put her free hand over her mouth to keep from spraying milkshake on him. “Is that what Bucky Beaver told you?”
Steve felt winded from her energy. He had to catch his breath, remember what the question was. She was a girl who invited digressions. “How did it make sense? I don’t know how it made sense to me. I guess how it says that everybody feels pain from wanting stuff. And the only way to stop feeling pain is to stop wanting stuff.”
She rubbed at an old sticker that had become part of the table with her thumbnail and said nothing for a moment. “Is it easy to stop wanting…stuff?” she asked.
Steve thought of a long answer, but wondered how much she was already guessing about Evie, and opted for thrift of speech. “I wish.”
“So you still feel pain, then? You feel pain, trying to stop wanting…stuff, so you won’t feel pain?”
He’d just met her, and twice she’d argued him into a tight spot.
“You’re saying ‘What’s the point?’ right? If I’m going to hurt either way, might as well go ahead and feel desire like everyone else?”
“Something like that.”
Steve now took a pull at his milkshake, and held it in the back of his mouth before swallowing. “Maybe it’s like a pre-pay plan. It doesn’t cost as much if you pay up front.”
She pushed herself away from the table. He wondered if he could ask to eat the rest of her cheeseburger. He felt his knobby ribs. He could use the protein—not much of that in ramen.
“So it’s good to plan ahead, then?” she asked.
“I guess so.”
“Good, then come with me. We need to go somewhere. If we’re going to be in a relationship, you’ll need a few things.”
She stood and lifted her purse from the table, holding it with one hand outward on the strap, like a soldier at shoulder arms.
He paid for the dinner, which took over half of what he had just made. They got back in his van, and headed for Uptown. Steve worried she would be disgusted by the peeling seat cushions and foot aroma, but she leaned back comfortably in the filthy passenger’s seat while she told him about herself. He was right about her being in college, but had misjudged her age. She was Catholic, but the kind that cares about charity more than believing the right things. She had spent two years after earning her nurse’s degree working for Doctors without Borders in some African hellhole Steve thought might not still be a country. She’d even seen people die. She was at Loyola now to become a nurse practitioner, but was finishing slowly, part time at school and part time working at a clinic for the poor in Uptown. That was where she was taking him now. Figures a dipshit like Bennie wouldn’t know a nurse from a nun.
The clinic was a small annex on the backside of Uptown Baptist Church, around the side of the church from the big sign that read “Christ Died for Our Sins.” He parked the van in a lot across from the church, the engine gurgling to a stop. They crossed in the middle of the road, the block quiet, as though a vast game of hide-and-seek had just begun in which the world had fled from Maria and Steve, who were just beginning to stalk what was in it. The clinic was closed, but she had the key. He stood in the waiting room, too sore on the side of his leg to sit down again, and looked at vaccination posters in Spanish. She disappeared behind a curtain and into a room beyond it. He saw a light go on and heard a shaking noise like a maraca. The light flipped back off and she appeared again from behind the curtain. She handed him a bag.
“There’s some pills for your herpes and some condoms. I’m not supposed to be able to give out drugs yet, but they let me with the light stuff. Don’t tell anyone.”
He held the bag as though it were filled with dog feces. “The doc told me pills don’t do anything for this.”
“They won’t cure it, but it’ll help with the symptoms. And you’ll get over your breakouts faster.”
The bag still hung mid-air in his hand. Did she expect him to use the condoms tonight?
“Relax. I can tell you’re burning too bad to use those right now. Besides, I’m not putting out on the first date. You have to at least call me once. Plan a date this time, like a Buddhist would.”
Steve slowly wrapped the plastic handles of the bag around his wrist, and thought he knew what was different about Maria from the other girls who’d put their total faith in him without question. She wasn’t just young and innocent. She’d taken the first few punches to her innocence that life had to offer, and her faith was still standing strong.
“About calling you. That’s kind of a problem…”

His gas tank was under a quarter full after the long ride home to Halstead Street near 92nd South. Inevitably, he would have to fill it up ahead of his once-a-month budget. He turned the key to the door underneath the faded baby blue sign with “Halstead Street Grocery and Cold Beer” in red letters. There was a note on the door from Ray, the other part-time sax player, but he would have to wait until he found his lantern to read it. There was no electricity, although the owner mercifully kept the water on for watering the grass, which also made it possible for Steve to use the toilet, brush his teeth and wash his clothes and himself in the sink with cold water.
            He got the lantern out from beneath where the cash register had been, clicked it on and headed to the small warehouse behind the retail space. Threading between two floor-to-ceiling orange metal racks, he came to a small office, and climbed the rungs of a thin ladder to the extra storage above the office. It smelled like pot up there; stock clerks probably once hid there to take unauthorized breaks. His mat and sleeping bag were laid out next to a couple of milk crates stacked up to make a night stand. On top of the stand was the Sterno cooker and pot he used to cook his ramen in. He set the lantern down next to the pot, crashed on the sleeping bag, and unfolded the note.
            “You need to be gone tomorrow between one and four,” it said, in a neat, blocky, printed hand. “I’m showing the place. Wish me luck!”
            Steve had had to live with the prospect that he might have to leave at a moment’s notice since Ray first let him stay in the old store. The arrangement had spiritual benefits as well as financial. He couldn’t allow himself to become too attached to the place, because it wasn’t his. It would be gone as soon as Ray found a buyer who wanted it. Still, it had been vacant for two years, and nobody had even made an offer. Steve had almost finished eating through the two palettes of ramen the former tenants had left.
Leaving the next day was not an issue. He needed to see if a pay phone still existed anywhere in the city so he could call Maria. He pulled one of his library books out of a milk crate shelf. It smelled like the Dial soap stacked next to it. He didn’t even find his place from the previous night before he was asleep.
It didn’t surprise him when Maria continued wanting to see him even after he showed her where he lived on their second date. He knew about loving people you shouldn’t. Besides, he didn’t look like a homeless person. He still had most of the wrestler’s body he developed in high school, thanks to 300 push-ups and 50 pull-ups from the storage rack every day. Maybe she took his living arrangement as noble asceticism, suffering for his art. That was a kinder take on it that he allowed himself; he just figured he was lazy, living off two gigs a week and his other job--the two private lessons he gave to the children of bluelievers he’d met at gigs. She asked him what he did all day. He said he read, meditated, and practiced music, although he didn’t really understand meditation. He had never learned any more about Buddhism than what was in the booklet that priest had given him. He figured it was more than the Buddha had read about Buddhism.  Most of his library loaners were the types of history books that find grand, sweeping themes explaining the zeitgeist of ages past or reasons why empires failed.
Maria didn’t make him see himself as something more than what he believed he really was, but he enjoyed watching her think that way about him. He had the time, so he volunteered at her clinic to help with cleaning and administrative tasks. The volunteer position turned into a part-time paid job that doubled his income. He used the money to get a cell phone so he could talk to her, and not have to rely on notes from Ray to know when the band was meeting.
Sex-wise, she surprised him. Evie had treated sex like an ongoing dare. “Oh, my God. Let’s do it in the park behind the statue of the Little League player.” She had a complete mental index of the frequency and location of their sex lives over a weekly, monthly, quarterly, and annual period. But the sex itself was never interesting, her refusing to be stimulated, only wanting him to finish as soon as possible so she could put it in the scorebook. But Maria bought whatever her friends sold at their in-home sex toy parties, to which she brought her mother’s crab dip, and tried whatever role-playing the magazines at the counter at the Jewel suggested. She offered to find a woman to join them once, although Steve declined. As he watched the lumps of her calves one day in the clinic, more hopeless than ever in her tennis shoes, he thought maybe he could imagine himself married to her. Her legs weren’t pretty, but they were strong. His father had only told him to look for “nice” legs, which left some wiggle room. He could get a real job, or at least teach a few more private lessons. She would make the real money. He wouldn’t mind. He could use his freedom to stay at home to raise the kids.
But on Halloween, Steve had another outbreak. The pills from Maria helped with the burning and the headaches, but he had two strawberry sores downstairs. Maria was wearing a sexy nurse’s outfit at the clinic, and though she was clearly proud of the irony, the patients did not seem to get the joke. All day, she tried to be playful with him, trying out lines from nurse-themed porn, like “Do you need me to take your temperature?” or “I think you have a tumor right here.” He kept telling her he had a breakout, but she persisted.  Steve watched the patients watch her: a Laotian mother, middle-aged men from Nicaragua, a feeble, cane-wielding woman from the Caribbean. The men watched with some interest, but the mothers just pulled their children closer.
He had a gig out in the suburbs, and he left early. Maria promised to make it later, but Steve insisted she stay home to get school work done. As soon as he walked in the door at Bill’s Blues, Ray started chattering at him. He was wearing a beige shirt with khaki pants, and the outfit, along with Ray’s half-bald and peach-colored head, blended so well into the light brown and tan brick, Steve had trouble realizing who was talking to him at first.
“Steve! I sold the store! Can you believe it? After two and a half years. We’ve all had a bet going at work about who would sell it, and everyone has been adding to it every week. So I got a pot of almost three thousand dollars.” He held the money up to Steve as proof. “Can you believe it? Sorry you’ll have to move out after all, but you’ve got a week or so. Maybe you could move in with Maria? Evie was a long time ago now.”
Steve congratulated Ray, and started to carry his drums to the stage, shuffling with his legs apart, when Benny grabbed him by the arm. “Steve. I don’t want to get too excited. I haven’t told anyone else in the band yet. But I think we’re in at next year’s blues festival. THE Blues Festival downtown. We’re gonna play where Buddy Guy plays. Oh, man, Steve. You and I have got to get together this weekend and start writing some new songs. We can’t play covers for this, we’ve got to make an impression. An impression!”
Bennie slipped off to the bar to get an early start. Steve might need to sing a couple of songs tonight.
Maria came anyway. She was still wearing her nurse’s uniform with the big, square hat and low-cut top. Every guy in the place would have found a reason to talk to her, except she sat so close to the stage and drummed her finger on her glass so intently, it was obvious she was with someone in the band.
True to Steve’s intuition, they did not make it to the end of the second set before Bennie started to go off script. He tried to improvise right in the middle of “Beaver Blues,” which Bennie considered the band’s signature song. Bennie wanted to break it down and introduce the band members one by one, encouraging each to try out a solo, like they were a goddamned jazz improvisation group.
Toga Petey, who was actually wearing the eponymous toga he donned every year on Halloween, was already due for his solo in the bridge anyway, so he just played that. Because of a childhood dog bite on his middle finger, Petey used a modified fret technique a purist might call cheating, but he was wearing a toga, and all things Belushi were in again, so the kids from Northwestern ate it up. Ray was so happy about the three grand, he rolled through some arpeggios on the sax, then actually pulled off a nifty riff that was a clever variation on the main theme. But when Bennie introduced Steve, Steve had no idea what to play. He mistrusted the whole idea of playing whatever you wanted. It was fine for a sax or a guitar or even Bennie on his harmonica, but the drums were the foundation of everything. If the band got off track while he jammed, the whole thing would end in a train wreck. So he played the same twelve measures he had opened the song with. The music stopped. Bennie had not been ready for Steve to finish so quickly. He jerked his harmonica to his lips and blared something at random. From there, he tried to go up a third and missed, tried to go back down and missed again, then just found his way back to E Flat and worked his way around the blues scale fast a couple of times. “And I’m Bennie Beaver, ladies and gentleman, on the harp and vocals. Please check us out online and at next year’s Blues festival in Grant Park.”
Steve was ready to go after that second set, and let the band keep his cut. He went out to the van during the break to lie down in the back. He heard the door snap open, saw the dome light dimly try to wink on, and felt Maria next to him. Both looked up at the roof, long since missing its padding. Her hand was on his shoulder. The music still echoed in his ears, and when her nurse’s dress crinkled next to him, it sounded like a microphone popping.
“Did you ever think of taking over the band for yourself?” she asked.
Steve said nothing, but grunted to let her know he had heard her. Smokers taking a puff outside the bar laughed near the van. She bent her knee and raised her leg at the hip, placing her thigh on top of his. He felt himself stirring, and it irritated his sores.
“Well, I didn’t get this dress to be a better nurse. And I’m not wearing any underwear beneath it.”
“Babe, you know I’m broken out right now.”
“Oh, mommy knows. I AM a nurse. I can make it feel all better,” she said breathily.
“I’m serious, Maria. Besides, I don’t even have any condoms with me. You wanna get it yourself? It’s no fun.”
Maria sat up. “What if I do?”
“Do what?”
“Want to get it myself. From you, I mean.”
“Be serious.”
“I am.”
She laid on her stomach and put her hands gently on his thigh, careful not to irritate his sores. Her hands interlocked, the pointer fingers free from the rest of the fist, pointing upwards together to form a steeple. He was hard as a grave stone.
“Have you been watching those vampire movies? You think it’s romantic for me to bite you and you’ll share immortality with me? It’s herpes that never dies, not me, Maria.”
“I’m not confusing you with Lord Byron, believe me,” Maria said.
“Never mind.”
“At least wait until Christmas. I hear V.D. makes a great gift.”
She moved her hands, putting them palms down on his temples, and the fleshy padding near her thumbs spread out across his jawbones as she turned his head to meet hers.
“I’ve been thinking. If I stay with you forever, eventually, I’m bound to get it. But it’s just herpes. Half the world has it. And I’m a nurse. I’ll be damned if I’m going to live my life afraid of glorified chicken pox. I love you, Steve. I want to make love to you without having to worry, without anything between us. So just give it to me and get it over with. You’re the only partner I want, and you have it, so I have nothing to lose.”
Now Steve sat up. “You don’t know what you’re saying, Maria,” he began. “It sucks. What kind of man would I be if I just gave it to you? You’re too young for me, you know? This won’t last, and when it ends, you’ll want some doctor your own age, and you’ll have to tell him you got herpes from a drummer in a blues band who got kicked out of the abandoned store he was squatting in.”
She pulled something out of the pocket in her fake nurse’s uniform and drank from it. Steve smelled liquor and some kind of fruit. Peaches maybe. She held the bottle out to him. When he refused it, she replaced it in the same pocket. A few tears reflected the streetlights shining in through the windows, although she didn’t make a sound.
“I thought you’d say something like that. Well, maybe a little nicer, but something like that. Just think about it, okay?”

He skipped “My Love Will Never Die.” He couldn’t stand the way Maria doted on him when he sang that song. He chose “The Thrill is Gone.” Memphis didn’t really suit their Chicago sound, but Steve figured hell, blues is blues. There was nothing for Ray to do with the song, and Bennie was wandering around telling everyone they were going to be at the blues festival the next year. Steve hadn’t even checked to see if Toga Petey knew how to play the song, but he figured every blues guitarist knew it.
It was the same idea as “My Love Will Never Die,” except that instead of still loving the girl who did him wrong, the singer decides to get over it and love somebody new. Steve wondered if that was possible. Evie knew what it was like to change suddenly from one person to another, sometimes in the same day. Steve could never really tell which phase was the manic one and which was the one they called depressed. They never seemed like two opposite poles to him, but dots on a circle on which Evie’s personality spun. At some point, the dots seemed to him to come together into one.
When they had been the two kids that the other kids at Greenmount Baptist prayed for, he excused her moods as a justified reaction to the faith their parents pushed on them. She played tennis, and with calves cut like diamonds, he didn’t worry about her. His father’s words. If the foundation’s good, the rest will follow. When she showed him the cuts she had made on her legs, he thought she had done it because that was just what kids who listened to Nirvana did.
Even after she came to Chicago, her legs blinded him for far too long. She made it more difficult by feeding him false evidence. She would leave him for another man, then call days later to say the new guy had beaten her, and ask him to get her. After Steve threatened to kill the guy, she would deny she had ever said anything about abuse, say it didn’t matter now, because now all her demons were really behind her and she was ready to be his and only his forever.
The last time he had seen her, she’d been gone over a year. After one trip to the emergency room, she’d been admitted, and stayed a couple of weeks. Although he had gone to see her often during her recovery, and she had seemed better, one day he stopped by and she wasn’t there. She had been discharged, and left without telling him. He’d frantically called every hospital in the city, drove to every place he knew she liked to go. He even called numbers he had pulled from her cell phone when she wasn’t looking and spoke to men he didn’t know. One said he was Evie’s fiancĂ©e, and he’d appreciate any information about her, because he hadn’t seen her in months and was going crazy looking for her. When Steve called her parents in Ohio, they hung up.
After six months, he gave up looking. Two months later, he was living in the store, learning to want less. He was doing push-ups and pull-ups and washing his two pants and three shirts and six socks and four underwear in the sink and eating the divine manna of ramen. And then Evie showed up one night where the band was playing like she’d never left, and her eyes seemed clear and free of the cloud that had hung over them. She said she had found a mix of meds that worked. She was only drinking water. Now was finally the time. She was ready. So they went into the alley and had sex between a wall and his van, and when he looked to find her during his song on the third set, she was gone. A week later he had a fire in his leg and sores that the internet at the public library said meant herpes.
He peered through his spy hole beneath the cymbals and saw Maria swaying, the comic bun in her hair starting to come lose so that the peaked nurse’s hat was close to falling off. The makeup beneath her eyes had run when she cried, but now it was dry again, like American heartland soil that was once the bottom of an ocean. Her eyes had so much living to do, they still had a timeline in front of them measured in ages and eons. He sang Someday I know I'll be open armed baby just like I know a good man should and her eyes said they would wait, they would wait until the age they now lived in was nothing but a fancy name and it took a pickaxe to dig up the places where he had sung his songs for her.

On the road before dawn the next morning, the first cup of coffee he had drunk in years ripped his eyes awake. There was a coffee house downtown with a window like a cathedral’s that he had been by a hundred times and thought looked so pretentious he couldn’t imagine ever setting foot in it for fear it would contaminate his very soul. But this morning, he had put about three thousand dollars in cash in the glove box and gone to that coffee house to buy a five dollar coffee. The cup sat in a wire hanger he had fashioned into a cup holder and hung from a vent. This van had been built before people knew they wanted things like cup holders, but it was still going strong. It might last forever, like his love for Evie. Like Maria’s love for him. He had made sure of that last night.  
He could be something other than what he had been. He could coolly say the thrill was gone. Whatever foundation he had built the person he used to be on, it was nothing to tear it down and start over. Nothing is permanent. To believe otherwise is to invite suffering. Maria would see it, too. She was so young, and now she had already paid her dues far, far in advance. As he got on the highway headed southeast toward Memphis, he smiled, feeling free, the only feeling the first blues players who had left the South and come to Chicago cared about. She was so young. She would hardly feel a thing.