I wrote the following short story in my hotel room just now and posted it right to the site without looking it over once. The thing with writing, as any writer will tell you, is that it’s not just writing, it’s rewriting, it’s reading it over and over, even when a pro editor is on-board. This gets to a point soon enough. Often, people are shocked when they ask me about my influences: S.E. Hinton -my first author-, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Knut Hamsun, John Fante, Louis-Ferdinand Céline, Kurt Vonnegut, Nelson Algren, Charles Bukowksi, Vladimir Nabokov, Arthur Schopenhauer, and Stephen King. I’ve left out quite a few here. Now, the word influences: I’ve never been a fan of that word. Inspirations would be better. I once had this incredibly dumb woman in Oregon argue with me about Stephen King. She was another Portland douche (douchette?) who hung around the shitty “community” of “writers”, who aped the famous, boring, collegiate writers, usually from the eastern U.S. -A “community” of “writers” with no fire or passion, but sentence nerds, plain and simple, performance artists, closeted or open about spoken word. Performers. Now, when she asked me about my influences, when I mentioned King, she laughed like I was joking or something. When I told her that his literary short stories are better than almost anyone else’s, including and especially Hemingway’s, she almost lost her mind. I believe she said something to the tune of “Stephen King can suck the dick of all airport bookstores everywhere.” Of course, her writing was barely better than her boyfriend’s, and both of their writing was just plain awful, like all writing that comes from circles like that, like the people. Forget subjectivity and perspective and opinion, in fact, fuck it: It was awful. Cut and dry. What I’m getting to here is that while it’s good to be aware of what we like, don’t like, love, or flat-out fucking despise: and while it’s important to know your work and to be mindful of putting out your best and most refined work, not to ignore the animal of what you do, the exercises that keep your tools sharp, that keep your mind ablaze and your senses quick, an ear to the wind or whatever the fuck you use to symbolize what it is that keeps you going, keeps you ready, keeps you hungry. One thing I love about writers like King, is the way a story haunts them. A reoccurring thought or image gets a hold of me and starts to fuck with me until I write it out, short or long. It’s not constant. I usually just sit down to write, like earlier today. But, this afternoon I was walking my dog while my room was being serviced, and a thought hit me, moonlight reaching into an orphanage type setting, a blue and grey and sad cityscape, decay of soul, desperation, when the image of the window got darker and more twisted, and by the time I sat down this story had already started writing itself. Whether or not I’ll use it anywhere is not certain. I don’t even really have a title for it. It’s a short, short story for me, which is why I wanted to post it here, unedited, raw. To circle back to the point of all of this, I had that good feeling again when I hammered this out. It’s been a long and strange grip of months for me creatively, and just strange, period. There’s been constant re-reading and editing, constant corrections and second-guessing, which is also a big part of writing, not the biggest, but a serious component, a burly one, too. But this afternoon: getting back to the bare line, the blood and nerves and beauty of the word, the creation, just to kiss the mouth of the unknown, is something not only good to get back to, but something every creator feels foolish over abandoning, whether it’s reasonable or not: outside work, pressures, money, relationships, all of it. Or whether it’s just from taking a long break. Today the first sentence back into my swing of things became this.
Shelter Skelter (or Mess Around, or Three Dogs and a Woman )
The cots were lined up platoon-style. I’d been on the fourth one from the window for over a month. Hell, maybe longer. Six years on the streets can fuck your idea of time, let alone the onset of schizophrenia. Or that’s what the “doctor” said my last time in county. A thing about county for a man like me, it’s paradise, especially when they’d put me in the bad pod, where nobody gave a shit about my fake vagrancy or bad shoplifting, or whatever charge I could catch to get me inside, in one of the single cells with a paperback about anything, long hours of secured, safe sleep, three meals and a shower. The judge told me next time I’d be sent to prison, five hours east, and from what I’d heard about it, it was worse than the streets.
Only ones there longer than me were Vic and Barnhill. No one knew Barnhill’s first name, and no one gave a shit. I think I heard Vic call him Phil at one point, but I can’t be sure. Those two stuck together like glue. Vic had the window cot, and Barnhill was on the third one, next to mine. The second one was for a skier. Every new one under the age of 30 was a skier, from what I understood. I wouldn’t actually see anyone ski until the guy on the second cot left and a young one took his place. The guy who left was like Barnhill, fat and bearded and constantly farting. I’d grown used to it. The other cots down to the door had all been taken for months. The sad part is I was lucky to have a cot, no matter how much Barnhill’s ass repulsed me, or how much Vic’s yellow, canine baring smile at other homeless fags got under my skin. I’d heard about the second cot for weeks. They’d laugh about it, but when Barnhill’s buddy lucked into a halfway house I was close to the end of my rope as it was, and seeing the new kid come in and set his stuff down in between those two fuckers had already started to upset me. The bunk to my other side slept another neurotic, like me, only he was new there and 70, a decade older. He would break out laughing or crying out of nowhere, or both at the same time. It was goddamn heartbreaking.
The moon looked in the window at night, over the vampire-like profile of Vic and the gut of Barnhill. It bounced off the two of them and streaked the long floor in front of the cots all the way to the doors. It was tragic and also beautiful, I guess, an adult orphanage with all the grey tones of a movie about a real orphanage, except our gatekeepers were tired and apathetic. Most of them didn’t even walk in there unless there was a fight or a body. I’d counted three deaths while I was there, an old addict who went clean too fast, a drifter who made the place his last stop before his AIDS took him, and a guy who just simply died in his sleep.
The lights went out and the doors were shut for the night. I heard the whispers, the persuasion, and then Barnhill’s pants hit the floor, the heavy thud of his leather belt, and his smell wafting up from the covers as he threw them off to the side, the smell of his balls and ass. A blind man who’d never broken a sweat or went unwashed for a day would smell cheap wine and the thick odor of flowering dogwood trees. I often closed my eyes at night and thought of walking down the street beneath those white blossoms with a tall glass of bad red to get to sleep.
The kid was a bit slow, to make it worse for me, but he was also unopposed to them. To go skiing in the shelter would be a low even I couldn’t fathom, on my back in the dark gripping the cocks of those two and stroking them until they shot. Vic bragged to us more than once that last month he and Barnhill came at the same time. I heard the cots shaking and looked over. Barnhill’s gut eclipsed the kid, but I could see Vic’s knees up and back and parted like he was giving birth. Barnhill farted and laughed while the kid stroked them. It was wet and loud and it smelled awful, one of his worst ones yet. I covered my mouth and nose and stared at the cot to my right. The old guy was on his back smiling at the ceiling, listening to the three of them. I looked over at Barnhill. His beard and neck-fat below a rotted smile, his gut being bounced up and down by the kid’s strokes, his face vibrating there.
The kid coughed, “My arms are gettin’ tired.”
“Shhhhhh,” Vic said from behind the side of Barnhill’s gut, “It’s okay, buddy. Just keep goin’…”
It could’ve been the quack in county was right about me, or it could have been fatigue, it could have been the years of bullshit I’d lost, but a song broke into my head watching Barnhill’s face as the kid jacked him off.
Ah, you can talk about the pit, barbecue
The band was jumpin’, the people too
Ah, mess around
They doin’ the mess around
I pictured Ray Charles, a black and white photograph, sunglasses and soul patch, his famous smile oblivious to the size of the world, oblivious to things like skiing in the shelter, watching two scumbags jacked off by a homeless, retarded kid. The cots squeaked and cracked with each stroke, each stroke becoming a race for the kid’s tired arms. A smile tore across my teeth as I watched Barnhill’s face jiggling above all his fat, his stink.
Now, ah, when I say stop don’t you move a peg
When I say go, just ah, shake your leg
And do the mess around
Yeah do the mess around,
Everybody’s doin’ the mess around…
The smile became silent laughter. The guy next to me whispered.
“What is it?”
I told him. He started laughing with me, then sang out a line:
“Now let me have it there, boy!”
Barnhill farted and the guy next to me laughed, louder and louder. Vic hissed from the window, “Shut yer fuckin’ mouth, you motherfucker!”
We laid there and laughed. We laughed because of our joined situation, we laughed because all of us in the shelter had fucked up huge, we’d fucked up bad to be there. We’d lost family and love. We’d done something, lost control somewhere. I felt the back of Barhnill’s hairy arm across the bridge of my nose while he connected with the old guy’s face.
“SHUT THE FUCK UP, PRICK!”
I shoved his arm out of my space, “What the fuck, Barnhill?”
I looked over at the old guy. He rolled over on his side away from us and sobbed, “I had this life, a beautiful thing, three dogs and a woman…”
The kid let go and sat up. He stretched his arms, “I need a break.”
The guy next to me sobbed louder. Vic sighed bitterly on his back.
“Great. Great fuckin’ night.”
The light flipped on and the graveyard counselor looked in.
“You all alright?”
Barnhill farted and a few cots laughed. The lights went out again and the kid started back down the slope. The old guy next to me kept sobbing. I wanted to reach over and squeeze his shoulder, but I didn’t.