SPINELESS - 10 BOOKS LEFT UNWRITTEN
Ten imaginary book covers of differing styles, with titles and authors. The project was created using the popular website dedicated to that purpose, CANVA. Included with each cover is a possible first page.
By Duane Michaels
“A troubled mind,” her friends said. But there were moments when the fish-hook negativity and the bleak pounding of thought and the hurled stabs of images that came, they, for no apparent reason, stopped. It wasn't the drugs, because she'd always had these almost transcendent, too temporary, moments of relief, right through her teens, before the days of the drugs. These were just simply moments when the malicious parts of her own self would cease their grip and leave - not a reversal - but nothing, nothing of thought; just a pure physical sense of the world, of her body within it; of her sentience unbound.
And so it was now, sitting in the humid coffee shop and facing the window alone at a small table, just that sort of moment, with its nurturing calm, with the excoriating thoughts leaving like water running off a hill.
She exhaled. The last days had been a helpless, grappling slide into a sucking, jagged, chasm. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps, she thought, she could hold on or hold on better.
People passed outside the window in apparent silence on the crisp, October day. She watched the trickle-down condensation on the inner glass, smelt the aroma of strong coffee, heard the mummer of customers, the shrieked banter of the young baristas. At the same time, she thought of his exposed back and its moles, turned away from her in the bed that morning before he awoke, where eventually he'd rolled over to look at her intently, blearily: “You're as white as a church candle,” he'd said. She heard him wake properly in the shower, his washing audibly brisker as the needles of heat broke on his skin. Then the coarse towelling of his body.
“I've no clean knickers to put on,” she said, when he returned to the bedroom and began to dress for work.
“You'll catch your death for your harlotry!" he replied, jocular, easy.
He went to the kitchen.
She fell back to the pillow.
“I'm off work, today!” she called to the ceiling, above his breakfast clatter.
“You told me!” he shouted back. “Did you … ," he hesitated - " ... forget you told me?” There was a questioning, a resultant timbre in his voice that she did not want to acknowledge.
Rising, her pale, unclothed body did indeed appear luminous, truly almost waxy in the early light. She checked her handbag but had no spare underwear. Peering into his wash basket she found discarded boxers, a Christmas novelty pair he wore all the year round. She reached in and retrieved them, pulled them up her thighs. Now, in the coffee shop, the elastic bit high on her waist and the extra volume of material felt oddly cramped inside her jeans. She looked down to the table before her and her hand. It lifted the coffee cup, travelled upwards to her mouth. The hot, porcelain lip touched her own thinly fleshed lip and brought instant pain. She thought angrily: How hard is empty? Just how hard is empty? Then she thought these words again but this time with those hot enemies gathering: tears.
Hold the Light
The bottom latch on the door opens; the bowl is thrust in. It spills some liquid as the latch closes but that it can spill from its rim means it is a good bowl and has held its contents. It is hard to eat; my stomach is revolted by the chewy grain in fluid. My hands shake and I spill.
It is a beautiful bowl. Just sometimes that happens. As I slowly clear its contents, I see the patterns carved into it by a needle of wood before it was fired. This is the way some prisoners hold onto their pride, by making these bowls beautiful, by decorating with precise patterns the interiors, exteriors, or both. There is no need for them to do so. But always, such a bowl is a bowl without leaks.
I face the window as I chew. The bars are loose and crooked so that I could wrench them out like decayed teeth, but where would I go? Across the prison yard, the guards languidly observing me until somebody decided I shouldn't be out of my cell and returned me to it with a bleeding head? I await the sun and my light. As it comes shining, I bask for long minutes, unsteadily shivering in relief, holding the scored, empty bowl.
I will ply my trade again today, writing letters for the other prisoners. My Spanish is university standard and I have acquired some legal knowledge of this hellish country. I am paid in liquor from the illicit stills of the prison. I am alcoholic and my customers don't bother to consider money or any of the common means of barter. I write ten, maybe fifteen, letters per day. I write for the guards too but they don't pay. If I need a favour, for example if I fall foul of one of the gangs in here, their influence will more than compensate for a few letters. But in truth, I am one of the very few inmates who have no real enemies.
My stomach settles enough for me raise the battered, plastic container to my lips. I suck a testing mouthful. The liquor sits in my mouth like a rotten oyster, and that is how I swallow it: disgusted, praying not to wretch, letting it open the back of my throat and swim against my instinct.
I slump - relieved, breathless - before the now blinding equatorial sun, wait for my hands to cease their shaking, the pure, caustic liquor to bite into and numb my body. One day my hands won't steady and my letters will be too spidery, too illegible, and my customers will not come back. I dread that day. I will never leave this burning place where men loose everything and die forgotten; where the only humanity shows itself in a bowl with a pattern no one was forced to etch.
My first customer is outside. I hear his sandalled feet. The guard, bribed by him, opens my door. Papers in hand, he bows to me.
My father was an alcoholic who left us. From the age of three I was brought up by my mother. It was later in life that I got to know him, in restaurants around the city. He was weathily retired by that stage and would invite me, just the two of us, to eat indulgently, course upon course, taking from two to three hours out of the middle of the day. He would imbibe a bottle and a half of expensive wine, maybe two bottles, one white and one red, far more interested in his glass than in anything I might say. Without antagonism, I went through the motions, accepting of my fate in a lazy adolescent manner, and aware this wouldn't be forever.
Oddly, I've sometimes wondered about the back of people's heads. Once, I attended a concert by a talented, Scottish chanteuse, who wrote powerful songs with words I would memorise in my bedroom. After her gig she came to sit in the audience at a small table directly before me, to listen to another act. I was fascinated by the back of her head. The wonderful music, the cherished lyrics, the humble but captivating on stage persona, all emanated from within that ordinary looking head. There may be many clues - when a face is visible - as to what goes on inside a skull, from the eyes, the line of a mouth, the intellectual height of a brow, but from the rear, there are no such clues. On one occasion when I returned to father's restaurant table from the toilets, near the end of our lunch, I stopped, fascinated, and guilty observed the back of his head: the reddened neck and tight starchy collar, the rather silly ears either side of the glossy pate. Who is this that I think of as my father, I wondered? Sensing my presence, he turned lumpenly in his chair and eyed me with faint alarm, eyesight fugged with alcohol. I resumed my seat and he silently fondled his glass.
These lunches lasted until I was seventeen, at which point I would request that I bring a girl. He objected to the intrusion on our intimacy but did not outright decline, and as different girls passed through the ceremony over the next period of roughly a year, their disgust at his boorish drinking was always apparent, and so his invitations to myself at first declined and then petered out. I have no doubt he continued to frequent the same places at the same times as we had, the same tables, alone, and that he enjoyed himself probably more, freed from his familial encumbrance. He was, I guessed, now promoting himself to whiskey straight after the first bottle of wine, maybe with a self-toast regarding his only son, successfully raised.
Nowadays, I have my own boy by my side. Often, I watch him as he sleeps and attempt to deduce his dreams from what I know has gone on in his day. I also have a wife and the fact about her is, she's really very interesting.
My grandfather juggled hot potatoes.
As a small child I'd study the blue smudge on his watery skin as his arms interplayed and the potatoes occasionally fell.
“I asked for a rose,” he told me. “They screwed up.”
“Did they call you by that number?”
“They called you by the toe of their boot!”
”Who was your best friend, back then?” I'd ask. I was young. I wanted him to have a friend
“I didn't know him.”
“How could you not know him?”
A theatrical insouciance passed like a silent wave across his droopy face.
My first girlfriend was a sixteen year old, like myself. I was outgoing and she was bookish with round glasses and two braids of thickly plaited hair, one of which would lie down her back and the other forward, over her chest. I remember her bare knees and how they peeked from below the hem of her dress.
“Wowwww,” I said to her after she'd been in his presence. “I never knew he could be like that...”
“Sort of, flirting with you ...”
“What do you mean?”she said again, brown eyes enlarging.
“He was kinda creepy with you ...”
“He's simply the sweetest,” she said, and those round, magnificently magnified eyes dared me to say more.
Alas, she showed me the toe of her boot days after that exchange, rejection from nowhere and for no one else. I stood shamed in the cold at the gate of our house before I went inside. Grandfather was living with us and I went to his room.
“Well?” he said.
“Well, that's over!”
“Guess she had too much to live up to,” he said.
“Are you forgiving, about what was done?” I questioned, a day or two later.
He pulled the skin of his tattoo into a small, window-like shape, but was silent.
“You had a friend,” I said. “You told me when I was a kid...”
“We all had that friend...,” he said.
“And it was some guy you never knew?”
“Who says you have to know your friends?” he said.
“You're not talking sense,” I replied impudently.
He mutated into a stillness I had not witnessed before.
“Viktor,” he said.
“A man who stood in a hut in nineteen forty-five. Two and a half thousand Jews froze and starved and died, and he stood there to protect one of his own.”
“Ok,” I said, chilled by the sepulchral drop in his tone, shutting the conversation down. I did not want to hear what I had in adolescent petulance cajoled him to speak.
“You jilted little punk,” he said thickly, his pitch rising, his face reddening. “Let me tell you, let me tell you some Goddamn things about some Goddamn things!!”
I'm not one for arguments. Words orbit the fact. Take what you know and act upon it. Bluntly, if I mean to kill you, then I will kill you. It is at that point no longer for me to tell you why, nor for you to ask me why. Nor does it make sense for another person to interpret my motive nor the rationale of my action. There are always other words, another point of view, a different way of reasoning. Besides, there is always, too, another time, another place, another set of laws.
You think I jest when I say I am going to kill you. Impossible? Why would anybody wish to kill you? You are innocent. You lead a blameless life. You are yet a young man. You are a mother. You support a loving family. Etc..
I could argue differently. Others could argue differently. Truly - we could. We may even change your mind a little. But so what? The fact is, I am not going to kill you. I have never met you and you are nothing to me.
However, I am going to kill someone. That is a crystal. That is a polished crystal of truth and action, whose facets are not to be cut by the thoughts, words or the reasoning of others.
Time now moves. I hear the old clock on the wall and it ticks and tocks. It connects me with him. It is his heartbeat, this regular metallic pulsing. I will stop his life as easily as I could stop the sound of the clock on the wall by pulling it down, destroying it.
From the walnut surface of the old, sloping table - the front legs have, in antiquity, been cut short – I collect the leather shoulder holster which I hold dear, and I strap it across my shoulders and chest and feel its dead carcass embrace me. I raise a pistol from the surface of the old table and slide it into the holster, where it makes the sound of metal coming into contact with dry leather; and so I smell too the waft of oil I used last night to clean it. I remove my hand from the pistol's grip; it yearns to return to that nacreous and beautiful surface.
I move my head slowly from side to side to loosen my neck muscles. The holster and pistol drop better into position. I twist my torso towards the window and look over the rooftops of Paris, and breathe. I take in the heights and doing so I see myself: I might be an immense boulder to be dropped from a height onto a fleshy carcass.
My jacket hangs upon the chair. I lift it, swing it across my shoulders, and check the gun is not visible through the tweed fabric. The jacket's pockets are empty, so I have no identity, and I have polished my shoes and, actually, I see the humour in that as I walk, a killer, to the door.
“Will they break this too?”
“No, not here.”
“They're not here.”
“Where are they?”
“We're in Syria.”
“We're in Spain.”
“Mum … ?”
“Shusssh … I'm trying to talk!”
“How many shapes are there?”
“Well, work it out!”
“But I don't know how many big squares to take!”
“See how many shapes in four big squares.”
“I'm single, a single mum.”
“Did you drive up the mountains from the coast?”
“No, we took a coach tour ... from the hotel. It's a beautiful journey up into the mountains, almost lunar.”
“I love the way you keep his hair longer.”
“He's on the autistic spectrum. I can't get him to socialise but he's fantastic with shapes!”
“Well, how many?”
“Where did the lady go?”
“She just had to go.”
“Oh … Mum's gone to Iceland!”
“Not really. She was nice. Are you ok in this heat?”
“Will they break the Alhambra?”
“No, I said already. How many shapes did you count?”
“I like that word.”
“No you don't.”
“Isn't your counting finished?”
“There's a Spanish ice-cream seller over there.”
“So what, Mum? Is he staring?”
“Has he chocolate?”
“He might have.”
“What do you mean?”
“Isis for our ice cream?”
“That doesn't make sense.”
“You're cross ...”
“I am going to get cross ...”
“I don't want to ask, though.”
“You can practise your Spanish!”
“Ice cream, por favor!”
“Perfecto! Don't take no for an answer!”
In his book, Old School, Tobias Wolff asserts that a writer can define the exact point at which he decided writing was his lifetime's craft. I can tell you the exact point at which I decided to give it up.
I'd had a couple of close calls. A national television department rejected my dramatic work but invited me to submit more. A couple of literary agents rejected my short stories but asked me to post in longer pieces. I had a novel almost completed. In consequence I viewed myself as a writer, simply an unpublished one.
So when I'd earlier learned of a writer's conference in Dublin I found myself queuing with others in a dark corridor while names were checked against a clipboard. Some more flamboyant attendees wore multi-coloured waistcoats, sported extravagant moustaches and hats, chatting boisterously; mostly we were silent loners and once inside took seats well away from one another until the popularity of the event made that impossible.
At the allotted time five figures appeared and shuffled to position, sat facing us. True enough, they were a good representation of the publishing industry: a successful author, two writers' agents, two publishers.
I did stay, mostly, but I left the hall before questions were invited and caught an earlier train back to Belfast. Jolted benignly, I watched the Irish countryside, including scenes which had inspired Joyce, clatter and dash past the windows and, yes, I had a epiphany. I didn't have to write. There was nothing preordained which commanded me to a solitary life sitting in a cold room working for months or years on end, obsessed with narrative and exposition and truth, to produce thereby a draft to be hawked around anybody who might give it a half-glance.
The author had spoken first. With a a nervy, self-effacing wit he raised a few good laughs. It was the publishers and moreso the agents who'd flipped the mood, gradually stilling the hall as they'd addressed us in turn. Describing over a ninety minutes their professional interaction with writers there was an over-riding message: writers were difficult, egotistical, contrary, a necessary element in the laboratory of the publishing business, but one to be held if possible at arms length. Oh no, nobody said anywhere near as much but for myself and surely most of those present - our business after all was words, nuance - we well knew what we were hearing. And it was the final speaker, the second literary agent and the only female, who addressed us with words surely of confirmation.
“Before I start,” she began and I now believe quite bravely,“I just want to say one thing. I like writers and I enjoy working with writers. I value spending time in the company of writers and I want and am looking for writers!” She said more but that which I had begun to sense, truthfully well before this seminar, that I aspired to a class of outcasts, a breed inherently problematic within their own industry, to the point of being covertly despised, had been verified.
The train rattled me into Belfast. I had drunk too much from the on-board bar and slumped in my seat, hesitating from stepping down to the platform from where I had frankly no place to go.
The Truth Fairy
Clever, oh so clever ...
Diamond-like glass shards; saturated flower petals floating; thin, glistening, naked green stems: all of it more vibrantly beautiful than when contained within the unbroken vase upon the solid table ...
I found out! I suppose that's your reckoning of serious!
A rainbow layers into the unstable wetness; a rainbow curving through leaves and petals and rocking-chair islands of glass: a gorgeous flat and fullsome arch shimmering in the destruction ...
So what now, then? We need to learn to live with the fact you're also in love with another person?
I'm not in love.
Wonderful! Cut price betrayal! Value-pack sex! Not even love...
To walk through the wet, the thorns, the points of glass ... how melodramatic ... the skin-ripping shards doing their simple job and red, bloody clouds drifting languidly from creviced flesh ...
Oh such sorry bullshit ...
The water drains into the miniature canals between the marble tiles; it travels it seems by cleverly calculating its own grid; the leaves, the irregular stalks and petals of sodden colours, are dying downwards. The water still spreads outwards but also withdraws in places.
I'm trying to explain but as you wish ...
The water encroaching against the front pad of the bare big toe is cold then cool then warm.
Actually, the joke is you loving anybody! You? Don't make me laugh! I'll tell you who you love! YOUR...FUCKING...SELF!!!
I love you … I feel no differently about you ...
OH YES? WELL, POOP AND PLOPS TO THAT!!
Jesus, this is adults talking, is it?! SHUT UP!! I'm going to clean this mess then talk to you properly, calmly. And I didn't mean you to find out about this on your own, so don't blame me for your snooping ...
Hahaha! OH HA HA HA!! This is my fault already! On my own, for FUCK'S SAKE!!
On the tiled floor, stasis of sorts: the peaks of glass are drying, the water has halted, the marble tiles gleam smugly; the darkened green vibrancy is piling flat and the petals have warped to one defeated dimension.
Are you calm?
The King Wants Him Dead !
Trent was there initially, a bald guy I met, or saw rather, only that once. He kind of stood sideways to everybody and everything. It was like he had strayed into an environment he should have shirked. He wore a creased, checked shirt, was way overweight, and his bald head under the artificial light had a liquidy gloss. His jowly face shone patchily so that he looked like he'd ruthlessly devoured fried food dripping in grease and needed a napkin.
Then: "Trent – come back in five," Brownoski snapped.
Trent left the room.
"Ex-CIA," Brownoski said. "He's the guy wired the hotel."
I didn't care.
"Look Brownoski," I said. "No. This ain't for me."
"Some people think it's for you," Brownoski said.
I'd been told Brownoski was a new, senior editor at the paper, but I'd never seen him edit and I'd sure never seen him write anything. He raised his elbow high in the air and rubbed the back of his neck with fat fingers of exasperation. The armpit of his light suit was black with sweat. He stared up at the ceiling and it seemed like an act. I glanced around the office. The walls and ceiling had a sepia overlay caused by decades of nicotine. Smoking was banned now.
"Who is Mike Stone?" I asked.
"Don't you read the papers, kiddo? Stone's Priscilla Presley's new squeeze?"
"Celebrity gossip? That'll pull the paper a Pulitzer!"
They'd bugged Elvis' suite. The editors had linked me up to report to this Brownoski and write up whatever his findings were, and at that point – well, truthfully, before that point - I should have refused the whole assignment.
"Cut the horseshit!" said Brownski. "You think you can swat this off of your arse? You agreed to do this story..."
"Initially! But the paper won't go along with your tactics," I said.
"This is what the paper was lookin' for!" Brownoski growled. "Elvis is going to kill somebody and you've got an exclusive."
"Elvis won't kill anybody!"
"You heard him say it."
Ok, I had, right on the tape.
"I've said it myself when I'm pissed at something!"
"Yeah? Did you also ask someone to go get you the price of a contract killer?"
"I got the price of new windows for my rear bedroom two days ago but I'm not going to buy any new windows!"
Too much. He lost patience. His face didn't change but his eyes did; they looked – no kidding – like a levelled shotgun.
"You're just the typist on this, frat boy! Here's a title to get your fingers dancng - Revenge of the Karate King. Now skip! Go get your typewriter!!"
Sammysaid a lot of stuff about Robbie but I don't know if its true. I hopeits true but Im kind of geeky with the new brace in and also would hejust say that stuff to Sammy? I asked if she got the digicam and shesaid yes and it had a big gig card to shoot loads
Wemessed with the cam for hours! I can't believe Sammys dad is lettingus have it for the trip even though they are rich. We danced andstuff and Sammy said Ill show it to Robbie you dancing, and I saidI'll upload yours in your gym skirt onto a revenge site SUCK ON THATIF YOUR think youre SO HOT. I am looking forward to the trip likenothing before and Jodi, Pammy, Alex and Rudi talk about it all thetime too. We bought the food
SoHELO Saturday! I am so looking forward to the trip but Pammys mumsaid no way could she go and shes strict so Pammys not going to bethere. I'm really sorry for her and shes fun. well really miss her. But guess what!! Sammy said Robbie was asking if I was going andSammy said yes, he said see you all there and Sammy said are you notscared and Robbie said he's more scared of his mom's cooking anddidn't we buy lots of food? The house is called Chasterlain. Ididn't even know that
YUCKchurch! If dad knew I was going to a haunted house for three dayshe'd lock me away! I have pains but thats good itll be over by wedwhen we get to go to Chasterlain. I saw Robbie with his friends buthe didn't say much to me only Hi and Seee ya! with no conversation inthe middle. FEEL STUPID
Isaw Robbie at break and he said sorry I didnt talk to you Im kindashy. I acted hurt and he said see you at Chasterlain and then hewent goofy and said your train tracks are cool. I told Sam and shesaid take his hand or something it's not just up to the boys be nicehe is kinda shy. I don't think he is shy how could he be when he'sthat cute !
PSjust take his hand though!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!as if
Tomorrow!!Im excited and frightened at once. We are going to Chasterlain. I'mnot frightenened of chasterlain and Robbie is definitely coming. Theres a boys room and a girls room. Its my chance. 3 days and hesgoing to be in the same house as me all that time. Its a hauntedhouse which is why we're going and now Ive heard why. A boy livedthere and his mother was a witch. They caught her in there and tookher outside and burned her alive in front of the Chasterlain houseYuk The boy was 10 years old and they took him out and made him lookat his mother burning on a stake Sooogruesome but thats why itshaunted. Its haunted by that boy that watched his mother
Somuch happened yesterday but I couldn't fill in my diary. The boysarrived and we had beer. I wish I hadn't had the beer it has ruined my life