Here it is, for your reading pleasure, Chapter 1 of Book 3, tentatively entitled, "Artificial Light." I say Book 3, though this is not a trilogy; however, there are recurring themes that tie them all together. Along with Books 1 and 2, Decline and Mya, respectively, Artificial Light continues an apocalyptic "collection"--bearing in mind that an apocalypse can be existential.
If I put the side of my face up against the cool glass, I can see almost down to the river. That’s long dark smudge is the immense Dockmoor bridge. I’ve seen it a thousand times from this vantage. Of course, from here, it looks blurry—like a rusty, metal, apocalyptic horizon. You see, these windows are the original glass, and their waves and curves refract the light and distort the images. For instance, it’s easy to imagine that the sun flashing off the line of cars criss-crossing the street below is the sunlight shimmering on an ocean. Their slow and constant commute is contorted by the sizzling heat fluttering above their roofs and their hoods (and, of course, these old shitty windows), so, for me, if I glaze out, I see the ocean waving peacefully.
The city just finished constructing the newest building in the area, which is just down the street from us. It’s a white cement behemoth, glittering in the morning sun. From where my face is pressed on the glass, the building sits in the thickest part of the window’s occlusion, giving it sharp, tall angles the building doesn’t actually possess.
Hmm. Today, I think it looks like a giant, lonesome iceberg on the zen waterscape shimmering beneath it.
“What a lovely day,” I say, glancing briefly at the blue sky, my face still on the window. I open my mouth wide and breathe on the glass, trying to fog up a section I can write upon. I’m a writer, and I have to write something today. I’m barricading myself in my study until I do, like these windows are bars. That’s okay, though. Outside is honestly not that appealing to me: the sunlight, which is painting that metaphor of the ocean drowning the icy cement behemoth, is like the sunshine in hell. It may be cooler than the fire, but so what? I’m still in hell.
I don’t stay at the window long. I sit back down at my computer to write. Though, first, I reward my anticipated efforts with a glass of bourbon. As I write, then delete, write, then delete, the minutes turn to hours, and the morning into the afternoon. I drink more bourbon and struggle even more. The summer heat descends on me, misting my brow as I stare at my screen. Periodically, my eyes flicker to the window, and to that quiet white building outside, glittering in the light. That fucker is always in the corner of my eye when I’m at the computer. Today, it’s as shimmeringly white and bare as my page.
Perhaps a break will reinvigorate me. I leave my cell, go to the kitchen. I sit with my cat. I watch TV for five minutes. Then I’m back at my computer with a fresh drink. I waste hours this way. And each time, a few minutes after sitting back down at the computer, I’m standing back up and I’m at the window. The waves and inclusions in the glass make the newly constructed iceberg look as if it’s pressing on the glass, like how my wife says my bones seem to push through my skin.
It’s growing dark outside. The ocean of cars on the street don’t shimmer at dusk, and I can see myself in the window now: just a skeleton modeling a baggy grey shirt and jeans. My long black bangs don’t reflect, and their jagged dark strands cut my forehead into the recesses of my dark eyes. I watch this weird ghoul looking back at me. I watch the half-full glass of bourbon travel from his hip to his fuzzy jaw, again and again. The glass refills. I know what that man in the window wants to say, but I don’t think anyone wants to hear it. Whenever I allow myself to write without conscience, it’s like an Irish knot, or the pretzel of on and off ramps just outside the city—every word circulates like blood through veins, going miles but ultimately ending up back at the heart. And I mix metaphors like crazy.
Another refill of my glass slackens my grip on the evening. I’m still watching myself in the window, sniffing at the silence in my room. What must someone on the street think if they look up here? Another full drink goes down, all at once—that used was a lot for me. And I used to have a therapist to tell me that. He didn’t understand, though. It’s not like I’m sitting around, watching TV and playing video games. I’m a writer. I’m a reincarnation, hundreds of years old, wading in the same oil as Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald; on the same adventure as Hunter S. Thompson; at the same table as Dorothy Parker; and chasing the same dragon as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This is not a vice, it’s a badge, a brotherhood.
I’m a writer, for christ’s sake, and I can feel my purpose sharpening with each spill burning down my throat. When I get enough in there, that water rises above the rust, and I’m ready to go back to work. I return to my computer and in minutes, I vomit up a page, then two, then three. Each word is another stone skipped across my strange pond, and each is more nebulous than the last. The helix of my rational intent has long disappeared, and all that is left is that Irish knot inside me. In the moment, I believe I’m liquefying your eyes and demystifying your flesh, but in the morning, I realize it was just the poison on my breath.
I’m mid-sentence when that fire burns itself out, and I adjourn to the couch in my study. It’s quiet and I’m still alone. My thoughts come slow and blurry. My eyes, half-shut, see empty whisky bottles lined up along the wall, like a Seal team sneaking to the door. It’s not so bad fighting them night after night, then seeing them steal away one by one. Like that ocean and the ice outside, I’ve mistaken this artificial light inside me for pure. But if this existence is currently less than romantic, soldiers like me always die, and that’s when I win for sure.
One more drink and I’m ready to tip. Then I’m down on the couch like a fighter on the canvas, and I’m sinking into a dreamy rift. All the soldiers have fallen tonight. They’re just ghosts now, quivering on my shelves, each with an echo of themselves inside me. The ghosts of another wasted day surround me like a chorus of sinking, Russian dolls. I smile at them. I’ve batted away their hands before, like I’m waving as I struggle. But the thing about failure is that it’s easy to come to peace dying. ‘Cause if those ghosts up there whispering to me aren’t telling the truth, then there’s no such thing as truth and lies.
And with that, I’m KO’d. There’s no cigarette burns, no soft fade into black. My head simply droops on the leather, like it falls through one ether . . . then lifts into another when morning stabs through the window, blinding me. Looks like another lovely day. I get up groggily and sit down to write.
Maybe if I hit five thousand words, I’ll reward myself with a beer. But I’ve cracked one open before I’ve written a word. My eyes twitch toward the great, white bull—that quiet iceberg of a building outside that shines a light on my failings. It’s breathing heavily, tickling my neck, just waiting for the red muleta to drop.
I start where I left off last night. I try to, anyway. As usual, the first couple thousand words are uninhibited and inscrutable. Like Sartre, they’re meticulous and lugubrious. I’m sure I thought I was weaving spiderwebs and wagers between each paragraph, just perfect little footnotes that’ll grow into payoffs. Ironically, those are the moments of true inspiration and motivation. That’s when my blood is on the page, and every narrative root and branch that emerges is another philosophical pinion from which I throw chains on my characters.
But it never lasts into the morning. It can’t. Reading what I wrote last night, I realize it’s too intricate, too confusing. These words are like clearing my throat, coughing up a hairball. It’s how I write when the air is clean, the sparkling darkness in my eyes clears up, and everything’s possible. But the whole thing must come crashing down. I mean, I want someone to read it. It can’t be three-hundred pages of philosophic meandering. While that might be cathartic for me, it’s uninteresting for my reader. So, from that beautiful, unencumbered tree I planted last night, I must pluck some heavy, drooping leaves, and pull it back down to earth so it can hit all the monotonous marks your mind is expecting. Then I’ll be on autopilot, playing the concerto as it’s been mandated for centuries, each note a cliché shat upon the page by me, the Pinocchio-conductor. Each beat of my main character’s hero’s journey will have its analogous beat in the writing process—predictable and safe, and stale.
It wasn’t always this way. I’ve written two books. They were rejected by everyone: dozens of publishers, literary agents, and even the “community” on social media. They are not easy books, and they are not pleasant experiences. And sure, maybe when I read passages of them now, even I don’t know what the hell I meant. But I thought they were beautiful. They’re like carvings on the page in deep relief, painted in hues inexplicable outside the reader’s head. And when the narratives end, the reader may not always be sure what they’ve read, but they feel it. Precisely as I set out to accomplish from the first words. The problem is, that’s not what readers wanted. So, there were ultimately few readers willing to misunderstand or feel my first two books, and they were unceremoniously buried. This time has to be different. For too long, I’ve indulged my extravagance—as I did last night—but my writing has to come back to earth.
Daisy wanders in and out of the room as I write. She jumps up, jumps down, jumps back up. Daisy is my cat, not my wife. She purrs at me and rubs and manipulates. She jumps on the keyboard once, closing my document. Although I yell at her, I’m all bark, no bite, with Daisy, and she knows it. When she finally settles, she settles on my lap and I absently pet her black and white spotted head in between tapping out paragraphs. The four fingers on my left hand—tattooed D-A-R-K—play her favourite melody up and down her fur. She sticks her little head up in the air, eyes closed, pushing up into the massage. The first smile I’ve experienced in days is for her. She’s been my partner in lethargy for years. I envy her: each moment is her first and her last, her best or her worst—it’s a freedom my ape-brain snuffed out thousands of years ago so I could plan harvests, trap prey, and detect danger. Then I took over for evolution at about the age of twenty-five so I could snuff out the rest.
Although I don’t reach five thousand words, I’m productive. The morning and early afternoon hours scatter in-between my fingers onto the keyboard and Daisy’s little head. It’s hot outside again, and it’s thick and heavy in the den. I’m sweating, and continuously sweeping my damp black hair out of my eyes and tucking it behind my ears. My messy waves are still mostly black, though I know the brown roots (or ‘chestnut’, as I once called it in a dating profile) will soon be climbing down the sides of my scalp. I’m know that, one dye job soon, both the black and the brown will slide off my hair together, leaving it grey (or ‘silver’, as I’ll call it in an upcoming dating profile). Approaching forty, I’m still eighteen. Any impetus for a hero’s journey in my life passed me by and chose another. I’m stuck like a statue: I still dye, I keep inking up my arms and my chest like I’m a kid drawing on the walls of his room, and I have several holes in my ears, including a dime-sized, black void in each lobe. Sometimes I imagine it’s like I’m marking off my time on the walls of a prison. And just like a long prison sentence, everything spins around me and I don’t change. Everything I encounter that I can’t compute ends up tossed in a widening chasm that everyone forgot about, including me: that chasm is a Mariana Trench now, disappeared beneath a hundred million tonnes of alcohol. I’ve cracked my sixth beer of the afternoon before “Mariana Trench” has a chance to echo through my monkeybrain.
I’m mid-gulp, standing next to the window when my phone rings. My ringtone is the default that came with the phone. From the start, I wanted to defy the iPhone, so I purchased something else. But there’s no rewards for rebellion, and I ended up a real piece of shit phone. I sigh as I sit back down in my computer chair, putting my beer between my legs. Then I reach under Daisy, who has relocated to the couch, to retrieve the handset. She stands up, stretches, and moves further down the couch—she doesn't like her tummy touched. I tap the green button, put it on speakerphone, then drop it on the desk in front of me. I need that hand for my beer.
"Hullo," I answer.
"Finally! Jesus Christ, don't you answer the phone anymore?"
"Who is this?" I’m torturing her.
"Oh my god. . ." There's a frustrated gap on the other end. In my head, her eyes are closed and head shaking. That's usually how this goes. "It's Amy. Amy! You fuck!” She sighs. Amy’s been my agent for about two years, though I haven’t heard from her for a blissful month. I know what she wants. “You know that I vouched for you. But did you know I literally walked into Tony's office and said he needed to sign you?” Of course I know this. She tells me whenever we have these little talks. Always a difficult conversation. “He fucking hated those last chapters.” Tony is the head of Black Dog Publishing—my publisher—and Amy’s husband. The first time I sent him my work, it was that uninhibited, inscrutable stuff that made up the bulk of my first two, highly-unpopular books. He was not happy. Amy, though, was well aware of my style, so she has only herself to blame, I think. “Whatever poison I can hear you slurping was bought with our money and my goddamn trust!"
"Amy who?" I gurgle through a mouthful of beer. Amy was once the best thing to ever happen to me. "Just kidding," I swallow.
"I'm not laughing, Matthew."
"I know. I'm sorry. I always pick up my phone. When did you call?"
"Oh, I don't know, like every night this week." That explains it. I’ve blacked out early each night in the past week while Jasmine, my wife, has been away. Although Amy doesn’t realize it, she should be glad I didn’t hear the phone all those times—the conversations would have been much more frustrating for her. She sighs again.
"How are you?" She asks, calmer.
"Same. I'm trying. I'm working. I promise."
"How close are you to being done? Tony likes to keep the deadlines, especially on new authors." I look at the bottom of my screen: 4,256 words. I promised 75,000, give or take. It was also supposed to be book one of a trilogy for some reason. I hate trilogies. Give me one book or give me ten—be concise or be ambitious. Above all, I despise the fantasies and dystopias that are currently the province of children in bookstores and theatres across the country.
"I'm close-ish. It’s . . . it’s a fantasy, set in a dystopian society. There’s werewolves, and uh, an evil corporation chasing them. Radiation. Mutants. And like we talked about, there’s, um, two guys, and they’re both into the same girl. You know, I don’t want to ruin it, but I promise, I’m going to be wrapping it up soon. I just have to, you know, polish it up."
"Okay. Did you tone down all that flowery stuff like I asked you to? You know I love your writing, but Tony needs to be able to sell it."
"I did," I lie. I look at my screen and the flowery drivel I’ve been writing the last two days. I put my head down in my empty hand. A beer in one hand, my head in the other—I’m not sure which is of more value. Both empty, but at least the can is worth five cents.
"Okay," Amy pauses. Uh-oh. I have a feeling what’s coming next.
"Hey, can we get together this weekend? I miss you."
"Um, let me look at my calendar," I stall. I never have any appointments in my calendar. Jasmine will be home from her trip this weekend and will definitely want to spend some time together.
"Yeah, looks like I have some free time,” I respond, “what are you thinking?"
"How about dinner? The Orchid Grill. Do you know it?”
“It's new. It’s in the lobby of the Ramada. It’s beautiful. Romantic."
"The Orchid Grill it is," I try to push my head further into my hand. I want to stifle all the light, all the sound. "Seven o'clock on Saturday?" I suggest. The anticipatory cheer in my voice is as convincing a creation as I've ever given birth to in any story, poem, or book I've ever written.
"Awesome!" I can hear Amy's smile, I just don't understand it. I mean, she’s a pretty, twenty-five-year-old girl, and I’m . . . me. "I'll see you then."
"See you then."
"Oh yeah,” she adds, “Tony wants to see the first three chapters by Sunday. Don’t worry, they don’t need to be perfect, or a final draft or anything. He just wants to get an idea of your direction."
"Hey, no problem," my tone is still chipper, but I sneer. That was a cruel little footnote she added after getting me to commit an entire evening and night to her in the interim.
"Great!” She pauses again. “Sorry I got mad earlier."
"Don't sweat it. You have a job, too."
"Thanks for understanding, Matthew. See you on Saturday!"
"See you then." The call ends, and my hand drops onto my leg, still holding the phone.
I lift my head out of my free hand. With my elbows on my knees, I sit staring into the distance through the corner of my room. The devil tattooed on my forearm is looking in the same direction. As always, I wonder what the hell Amy is thinking. She's met Jasmine. We all had dinner together. I signed my contract on that very dinner table under Jasmine’s dark angelic eyes and Amy’s bright succubus eyes. Sadly, wistfully, I think about how that was my very best moment as a writer. I felt validated for the first time. Then, when I delivered my first pages, it was, invariably, as it’s always been.
“I have to buy more condoms,” I say to myself. Since I have my phone out, I flip through a dating app. I don’t even know why I have it. There’s a couple “hmmm” moments before I shut the phone off and toss it back onto the couch next to Daisy's new spot. Her eyes open a crack, only for a moment. She’s totally unflappable.
I turn back to my computer, frazzled and with a tickle of panic. I scan the page down to the half-finished scene at which it concludes. I know I can’t send this to Tony as is. I finish the scene in very plain language, then I go back, clarify other sections and add some happy. I get another beer. I repeat. I read the whole thing back. I switch to whisky, upending half the glass into my mouth. Without swallowing, I read just the first two pages, feeling the bourbon burning against my tongue and cheeks. Finally, I swallow it, and I delete those pages. Then I write them again almost exactly as they were. Realizing this, I get up and walk back to my mini-fridge, watching Daisy as she watches me. After I open the bottle, I take a long drink while my eyes travel up and down the peeling, brown wall paper of our decrepit WWII-era apartment. I walk back to the computer as Daisy continues to eye me sleepily. I work for another twenty minutes, killing metaphors like clipping flowers, and deleting two brutal and surreal action sequences.
I look back down at the word count: 1,746 words. Son. Of. A. Bitch. I crack my knuckles and exhale heavily. When I put my fingers back on the keyboard, they gallop along the keys without pause for about thirty minutes (minus drinks). My eyes start to droop, and my thoughts with them. When I let myself peek again, I’m at 3,006 words. My head slumps over the keyboard. I need to put a post-it note over the word count. I scroll back up and read through the entire document. At several points, I laugh or shake my head. It reads like a parody of what I’m supposed to be writing.
All this work, all the revisions . . . the whole thing is not just confusing, it’s shiny and silly. The protagonist was in a dusty post-apocalyptic wasteland. Now he’s in a luminous dystopian future. Instead of patched clothing, scavenged bits of food, and ducking starved berserkers, he plays with metal gadgets, walks by crystal buildings as tall as clouds, and is vexed by a dubious government led by a villain named Spurious Loveloss. But isn’t this exactly the mandate? All the big firms in the Old City are writing this YA tripe by proxy, and all the characters are angsty studs with happy arcs involving ludicrous love triangles. Amy’s wrong about one thing: Tony does want flowers, but he wants them woven through wolves’ teeth. This three-thousand-word piffle I’ve written isn’t a compromise. This is me dunking my head in a discarded vat of grease behind a McDonald’s.
I save and close the file. The desktop is cluttered with folders, each with a file or two no longer than the one I just closed. A hundred false starts garrulously ejaculated with analogous exuberance, each of which quickly turning into shame or boredom when I realized I had veered off course. Maybe I should combine them all into a Ulysses-like tale of gibberish. Of course, when Joyce wrote Ulysses, he could pretty much regurgitate any opaque stream of consciousness slog and it’d be a classic.
I’m consider impressionistically slamming my forehead down on the keyboard. Or alternatively, because the world is truly a banquet, I also consider visiting a porn site. Either of the two options would make fine choices; but in the end, I get up and sidle over to the den’s couch, sitting right in the middle next to Daisy. Her splotchy head lifts and she looks at me. I fancy I can feel her censure for my lousy writing, and for deserting the computer before I’ve figured it all out. But really, I've just vexed her sleep. A moment later, she’s made peace with it, and puts her head back down. I wish I trusted anything as much as she trusts me, perhaps the least trustworthy person in the borough.
I sink into the couch like a wading pool. It’s old leather, and uncomfortable everywhere but in the centre, with a cheek on each cushion. It’s cracked and torn in many different places. The couch, my writing desk (i.e. my computer), a TV stand with an old, heavy CRT TV on it, and the mini-fridge below the TV stand make up the rest of my study’s furniture. I’ll probably sleep here. On days I stay up late writing and working on the night's blackout, I don't sleep with Jasmine. Not that she’s currently here to sleep with. She's a Policy Analyst in a large financial firm in the Old City. Yet we live in this dump in the Dockmoor borough. She says it has history and character. But I do wonder if the real reason we haven't moved to the island is because Jasmine doesn't want to flit the entire bill. I don’t blame her. The contract Amy helped me obtain was a blessing. But that was two years ago. I still need to make my submission. One Tony likes, that is. Finally, I need to be solicited for further submissions. Then I can do my financial part. God, I’m a loser.
I refill my glass—the mini-fridge is a convenient reach away. Against my back is something sharp and hard, and it's vibrating. My phone again. Not a call, though, just texts. I pull the phone from behind me and struggle with the facial recognition before giving up and punching in my code.
"How are you?" Jasmine writes. I’m surprised she’s still up. What time is it anyway? She and I don’t talk much when she’s out of town, which she will be for a few more days. I settle in for a riveting text conversation, rubbing Daisy’s head between slow sentences.
"I'm fine. You?"
"Good. The conference is boring. SF is nice. Good food." SF? San Francisco maybe? I can't keep track of Jasmine's business trips.
"Let's go out on Saturday," she adds a moment later.
"That sounds good." Fuck! I typed that without even thinking. I forgot about Amy. I continue: "Oh wait. I'm doing a writing workshop on Saturday night. Sorry, I totally forgot." I'm never sure if I'm teaching or attending these phantom workshops I make up. Regardless, it's almost a personal challenge to see how many times I can go to that particular well. I’ve been meaning to develop a curriculum and get some flyers printed to really make it convincing. "Can we do it Sunday?"
"No." There's a long break and I think perhaps that's how the conversation ends. "I have an early day on Monday," she adds finally. Why early? And since when does she care about that? We used to go out on weekdays all the time, and she still does with her friends. "How's the book coming?" She asks.
"Good. It's getting there." Despite my whole lifestyle being an implicit cry for help, Jasmine is either unaware or unwilling to broach my personal, philosophical, and artistic quandaries—which currently border on inability—when it comes to writing. This was never more apparent one day last year when she came home and slapped Twilight and the Hunger Games on the kitchen table for me. She thought they could be valuable reference material for writing commercial stories. That night—while I was at a “writing workshop”—I found a secluded alley in our neighborhood near Rococo, one of my favorite bars. I put the books in an empty paint can, lit a match, and watched them burn until they were dust. Then I pissed on the ashes. It seemed the most appropriate way to bookend the ritual. I've since decided to purchase the books once a year to make it an annual rite.
"I'm glad. I look forward to reading it," Jasmine responds. She hasn’t read any of my writing for years. Though, in her defense, the world has expressly informed me I haven’t produced anything worth reading. I drop my phone on the floor beside the couch—there's no space for a coffee table in the room. Daisy takes the opportunity to shift and rest her head on my leg. I'm still wearing the same dirty jeans and torn, sweaty black shirt I was wearing yesterday. As I lay my head back and let the yawning darkness take me, it seems especially likely that that streak will make it to three days.