Monday, October 31, 2011

Insanity Calls the Bells of Halloween

In honor of Hallowe'en and all of the spirits purportedly rising from their graves, I've written a thematically appropriate poem.  It's sort of like a zombie apocalypse, but because zombies aren't really as interesting as everyone thinks they are, I've replaced them with knife-wielding ghosts, driven to madness and murder by the sound of bells on All Hallows Eve.  I hope you enjoy!

You say you don't believe in magic spells;
But something's cast and something fell has come
To ring that iron bell.  And now it's ringing
So I tell you, playing dead won't end
This hell; just pick yourself up off the ground
And stand alert: you'll know them by their smell.

The iron breaks and tremors shake the walls,
And horrors from the earth are crawling from
Forgotten graves.  They sprawl across the city
Streets and call for allies, reinforcements;
All our homes will swarm with evil shapes
and shadows, seizing lives within their halls.

And soon the shades will set about their work;
They start in stages, first by lurking, then
Emerging from the murk to claim their prey.
They go berserk with ghastly rage and sharply
Jerk their frightened victims from their homes,
To menace them with cruel knives and dirks.

Until the night is through we'll be at war;
I fear the bells won't stop before they tear
Our fences down and bore their terrors in
Our skulls! The score is grim: the revenants
Abhor us, their insanity will break
Our flimsy gates and batter down our doors.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

Feeling Well Enough and More.

Greetings, citizens of the world.  It's been a little while since I wrote in first person on this blog, so I thought I'd take a moment to let everyone know how I'm doing.

I can feel your anticipation from here.

As it happens, I'm doing pretty well.  Looking back on the last time I talked about myself here, I can see that I was in something of a foul mood.  Nobody likes guys in foul moods: they sulk, they make snide comments, and they often refrain from bathing.  A guy in a bad mood doesn't even particularly like himself, so it's very important that he find his way out of it as soon as he can.

Anyway, about a month and a half ago I'd just started a regular daily exercise routine at the gym.  Since I had hardly ever "worked out" a day in my life, it was rough going at first.  My body reacted to the sudden lifestyle change with petulance and pain, and I responded by punishing my body with buckets of sweat.  The two of us weren't on good terms for a while, and I suppose that had a lot to do with my unnecessary surliness.

Well, my mood has improved significantly since then.  I can do more than handle the routine I set for myself; I've had to increase its difficulty repeatedly.  And most significantly, I'm beginning to notice changes in my physique.  Shirts that previously fit tightly are hanging a little looser, and some of my looser shirts are even looking a little over-sized.  It's a little ridiculous to admit this, but it always seemed kind of abstract before: apparently, regular exercise actually has an effect on a person's shape.  Imagine that.

So it's entirely possible that I've lost some weight.  I can't confirm this, because I don't have a bathroom scale and I refuse to use anyone else's (because they can't be trusted), but it seems highly probable.  I'm not really making a point of counting calories one way or another.  I just follow a simple principle: if the day's workout doesn't make me feel spent, then tomorrow's needs to be harder.  It can be painful sometimes, and I'm beginning to suspect that "runner's high" is a myth created to entice fat people to move around more.  But the joy of realizing that I've poured so much energy into something that's actually, objectively good for me is absolutely thrilling. 

Being healthier has obviously been good for my mood.  In fact, I've heard it said that the healthier you get, the more likely you are to stay in a happy state of mind.  That means fewer episodes of irrational rage and surliness, which presumably makes me a more pleasant person to be around.  Everybody wins!

Well, I got all caught up in my passion for aches and sweat and forgot to talk about the blog. Let's have a little word on that now.

In the past month I've put out two short stories which I am very proud of.  I've wanted to say a couple of words on each of them, but I kept forgetting to, so I thought I'd say it now.  Both of them are significant for me, because they revolve around dialogue.  Writers have strengths and weaknesses, and while I like to think I'm strong generally, my weaknesses are very obvious to me.  Writing convincing dialogue ranks up with describing clothing as something I hardly consider myself capable of doing.  John in the Box, however, is mainly centered around a conversation between two people, while Red Alert is composed entirely of a single conversation.  Neither of them were especially easy to write, but they were not as difficult as I thought, and they're both more enjoyable to read than I had hoped.  Small successes can make a person very happy.

But even so, looking back on them I see obvious cause for criticism.  Even as the author, the omnipotent and all-seeing creator of the universes in which these tales take place, I can't quite distinguish where my voice ends and the voices of my characters begins.  This probably results from my method of composition.  I often carry on very involved and evolving internal monologues which can turn into the substance of future conversations and stories; when dialogue is necessary, I play it out in my head as if I'm talking to myself.  This has a way of making characters who speak at length in my stories seem just a little less real.

I think Red Alert actually plays to this weakness as a strength.  You could almost call it a stream of consciousness piece, as I transcribed more or less the conversation I held inside my own head.  The two characters essentially are myself, engaged in a transparent metaphor of my creative process.  If they both speak with my voice, that's to be expected; and yet, the fact that they disagree and seem to have different priorities creates the opportunity for some interesting interpretations.  I of course interpret the story as evidence of my own latent insanity, as I always do, but I wouldn't say that's all there is to it.

It's nice when art can bend to the limitations of the artist and still become something worthwhile, but all the same I really ought to get better at writing dialogue.  Limitations can only take you so far.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Red Alert

"So, I had an idea."

"That's an improvement.  Let's hear it."

"OK, here it goes.  So we start in the middle of the action, to make it dynamic."

"Right, right.  This automatically makes it dynamic."

"It damn sure does, now listen."

"I'm listening!"

"Right, in the middle of the action, and the guy is on a space ship."

"A spaceship?  Really?"

"Yes, really.  You don't like it?"

"Well I don't know.  Is it a cliche?  I don't know if spaceships are cliche or not."

"Well they might be.  They might very well be.  But there's no law against cliches."

"There kind of is.  That's kind of why they call them cliches.  They are things to be avoided."

"Maybe so, but I'm not going to avoid writing about outer space just because Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury and whoever wrote about outer space fifty years ago.  Space is fertile ground."

"It's a fertile space."

"It sure is.  Now, he's on a spaceship."

"Or a space station?"

"It could be a space station, too.  I can make it a space station if you'd like.  If that's less of a cliche."

"I'm not sure it is, but I think I like it better."

"Well if you like it better, it just might be better.  I'll change it, just for you."

"Well, it might not be better, but let's run with it.  See where it goes."

"Where it goes, right.  In the middle of the action."

"Just what is the action, exactly?"

"I'm getting to the action!"

"OK, OK!  The action's very important you see."

"I do see.  Anyway, there's an emergency."

"Go on."

"It's a really bad emergency.  The spaceship is melting, and there's hundreds of people trapped inside."

"The space station is melting?"

"It sure is."

"Wow, that is bad.  Really, really bad."

"Not something you want to stick around for, right?"

"I think I'd try to get far away from that."

"Well here's the thing.  This guy can't."


"Can't get away, you see."

"I do see.  Why can't he get away?"

"Here's the deal: he's running through the corridors of the spaceship."

"Running, running, I see it."

"And everyone else is running, trying to get away."

"To the escape pods?"

"Exactly, there's escape pods all along the rim of the ship, all the other guys are running to them, it's super chaotic."

"Very exciting.  So, he doesn't make it to an escape pod?"

"No, no, hang on a sec.  So you see, while he's running, things are just starting to melt, the air conditioning or whatever's knocked out."

"I don't think they have air conditioners in space."

"They do, it can get very hot.  Anyway, there's lights flashing and alarms blaring and shit's melting, everywhere."

"Very tense, very tense."

"It's super tense."

"Do we want to start out that tense?"

"We absolutely do, because it's just one long, slow, release of tension after that."

"Is that a good idea?"

"It is a great idea, which you will quickly see if you let me tell you the story."

"I am listening.  You know I'm listening."

"I guess so.  So it's really tense, and the alarm is blaring something over and over, like 'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"


"'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"

"Yeah, I see how that could get very tense."

"'Red Alert, Red Alert!'"

"Ok, stop now.  Please, stop."

"Well that's the point, man.  It's a verbal refrain throughout the story, and it starts out really frequent, and it becomes less frequent and more distorted as the story progresses and the ship is melting and everything's breaking down."

"I get that.  But I think you could explain that without saying it over and over to me."

"Maybe, but I'm trying new things here."

"Do you really want to just write 'Red Alert, Red Alert,' over and over in the middle of the action?"

"Yes, I do.  You know, used correctly, repetition can be a very powerful literary tool."

"Is this what you're going for, a leitmotif?"

"Yeah, I guess so.  It's very arty."

"Very.  So, he's running, and everything's going all 'Red Alert' at him, and he can't make it to an escape pod."

"No, no, man, he gets to the escape pod.  You're not listening."

"He does?  Why can't he get away?"

"Because the escape pod gets stuck in the tube and can't launch."

"...OK, so he's trapped in the tube, and he's got to frantically find a way out?"

"No, it's pretty much stuck, there's nothing he can do.  He's stuck in the escape pod and the escape pod's stuck in the tube, and everything's melting and just blaring 'Red Alert, Red Alert!" constantly in his face."

"How long is he stuck in there?"

"Pretty much right until the end.  It's a really small pod, and it's shaped kind of like a bathysphere, with lots of cool rivets and stuff and a little window on the door, so he can still see the interior of the space ship as it's melting."

"You know, I don't know about this."

"Why not?"

"It sounds like you've killed the story halfway through.  You start off in the middle of the action, and all of a sudden there's no action whatsoever.  The tension's dead."
"No no no, the action hasn't stopped.  Let me finish."

"I'm trying."

"So, like I said, the window's there on the door.  There's still action going on outside the window.  There's pipes bursting and shooting out steam, and there's some stragglers trying to get to the last pods, and the alarms are still going 'Red Alert, Red Alert!' and all kinds of things like that."

"They're still doing that?"

"Yeah, but less frequently after a while, because everything's all melty and malfunctioning.  Maybe some of it gets distorted like, 'Red Aleeeerrrrt...'  and sparks start coming out  of things.  Things that shouldn't have sparks coming out of them."

"But the main character's just watching all of this, safe behind a magically heat-proof glass window?"

"Well he's not just watching it.  You see, simultaneously, there's a lot of psychological drama going on in his head."

"That's some tricky territory."

"It is, but I've got an idea on how to do it really well."

"Let's hear it."

"So at first, when there's lots of panic and things are breaking and sparking and the alarms are just constantly going 'Red Alert, Red Alert!' the narration is really hectic and clipped and there's all kinds of emotion, reflecting the main character's inner state.  It's really fearful and desperate, and he's desperately pressing buttons, but nothing works, so he just gets more frustrated and afraid."

"Alright, alright."

"Then, as things progress, everything outside starts melting into a more uniform state, I guess.  Everything's just melting together, glowing red, and the alarms are dying, and everything's flowing together.  And when that happens, the narration starts getting a little more relaxed, just like the main character."

"Wait, is the main character the narrator?  Is this first person?"

"Well, no."

"So why is the narration reflecting his psychological state?"

"Huh, well...actually, that's an interesting idea."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, it's like he is the narrator, but he 's not narrating it as though it happened to him.  He's describing someone else, but it actually happened to him."

"Or maybe some other, more confused and opaque circumstances?"

"Maybe.  These are some good ideas, though."

"So what's the point of all that, anyway?"

"Like I said, it's a gradual release of tension.  The narrator relaxes, the main character relaxes, even the space ship relaxes as it goes from a solid into a molten state."

"And then, the escape pod is able to get free of the molten tube?"

"Hmmm...I guess it could work that way.  Actually, I was having trouble deciding how it would end."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, I had two ideas.  On the one hand, like that, the ship eventually melts away, and the pod is free, and he goes off to tell his story to the survivors or whoever."


"But on the other hand, the pod could start melting too, right?  And right when he thinks he's safe, all of a sudden it's getting hot, and he's starting to panic again, and he still can't get it to move and his own alarm is going 'Red Alert...'"

"Really, this again?"

"Yeah, so?"

"It seems a little... B movie, you know?"

"It's a great twist!"

"Is it?  It seems more like you're cheapening what you're going for.  Like on the one hand, there's this gradual relaxation and looseness, and then bam, you've got a gremlin on the wing."

"Is that bad?"

"It can be, if you don't do it just right."

"And what makes you so sure I won't do it right?"

"Because doing it right is hard.  You seem a lot more committed to this ending than you let on."

"Well, I think it's more interesting.  If anything, the 'safe' ending is just an escape hatch if the other one turns out to be too hard to write."

"Well, I can promise you that it will be very hard to write it well.  But if you ask me, the 'safe' ending is actually more interesting, from the right perspective."

"From what perspective, exactly, is 'the lone survivor goes off to tell his tale' an interesting ending?"

"Well, not the telling of the tale, that's for sure.  But the survival aspect is more interesting on its face than a cheap cliffhanger."

"I don't see suffocating in a melting escape pod as a cliffhanger.  Once that pod starts melting, he's as good as dead.  Everyone knows he's not getting rescued."

"Alright, fair enough.  But does that contrast too much with your theme?"

"My theme?"

"That gradual release of tension you're so excited about.  The reason you start in the middle of the action, and then halfway through switch to trapping your protagonist in a box so he can watch everything through a window."

"Well, death is the ultimate release of tension."

"Really?  You're going with that?"

"And why not?"

"Look, I don't know if that's a cliche, but it should be.  It is cut from the very same cloth."

"I don't think you understand how cliches work.  Every cliche was original once, and most of them started off as good ideas."

"Well, going on one long slide from tense to relaxed, then tensing up at the very end with only an implied relaxation afterward, is not a good idea."

"It's a better idea than just letting the protagonist live after all that.  What's his struggle? What's he done to safeguard his life?  There's no danger!"

"Well, there's no more danger in certain death than in probable survival."

"I guess my story's screwed either way, then?  Who'd have guessed I could write a story about a man nearly melting to death in the vacuum of space, and fail to put him in the slightest bit of danger?"

"Look, forget the danger.  That's not my point."

"Really?  It isn't?"

"No, and it shouldn't be yours either."

"Then what is my point, sir?"

"Look, your story's kind of weird in its structure, but that's probably the best thing it has going for it.  You have to commit to that structure and end with a complete relaxation.  No last minute change ups, no gimmicks."

"Well, it could be possible to still kill the guy without necessarily tensing the story up again.  He could be resigned to death."

"You could do it that way, but if you ask me the story works a lot better as a metaphor for birth than death."


"Well, you don't have to spell out what corresponds to what.  But the journey out of the space station into the vacuum of space is like the journey from the womb into the wider world."

"Suddenly we have shades of 2001 in here.  Are you sure this is original?"

"This is nothing like 20012001 was an epic on an epochal time scale.  This is all a brief moment in time."

"Alright, I guess I can see it like that."

"But in order for the birth metaphor to really stick, the protagonist has to live.  Do you see what I'm talking about?"

"Huh.  Well, I suppose the story could be about that."

"It seems a lot stronger to me."

"But on the other hand, not every birth is successful."


"Things can go wrong, and the baby won't survive."

"You want to throw a stillbirth angle into this?"

"I want the story to be interesting, man.  There are lots of stories about birth and new life and all that jazz.  Who's ever told a story about an unsuccessful pregnancy, told from the perspective of the baby?"

"I thought it was about a man trying to get off of a melting space station."

"It's about whatever the metaphor is."

"Well at a certain point it becomes about bad taste."

"Have it your way, then.  He floats off in his pod, with the melting wreckage receding into the distance, safe and sound."

"Who's safe and sound?"

"The man in the escape pod, obviously."

"That's what I thought."

"That opens up an interesting visual possibility, too.  I imagine the space ship would sort of congeal into a gleaming silver ball.  Maybe it hardens back into a solid sphere as he leaves?"

"I'm not sure I see how that fits with the metaphor, though."

"People can interpret it however they like.  I just think that a giant ball of molten steel would look terrific.  It could glisten like a great big jewel, or a pearl or something.  It's got to symbolize something."

"I guess I can't argue with that."

"It'll be pretty difficult to do the image justice, though."

"By the way, why is everything melting?"

"You know, I haven't the slightest idea."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

WFJ Book Club # 7: Less Than Zero

Prejudice should never be something to take pride in.  It's hurtful in many instances, and intellectually lazy in most others.  However, we all have prejudice, and the best way to deal with it is to lay it out in the open.  Finding out what triggers our prejudicial instincts can take us a long way in understanding our reactions to anyone or anything at all.

In my case, I carry two formidable prejudices: one against the city of Los Angeles, and the other against the mass culture of the 1980s.  In my mind, both represent the best possible case for the notion that hedonism and decadence lead to the downfall of civilization.  I'm no doomsayer, but I have a theory that Armageddon occurred on the Sunset Strip sometime during the rise of Hair Metal; all of history since then has merely been a traumatic hallucination, a collective defense mechanism against the overbearing awfulness of the modern world.

According to my theory, Less Than Zero, the 1985 novel by Brett Easton Ellis, would be an artifact of the end of the world, a graphic record of our civilization's greatest nightmare preserved for the education of its benighted survivors.  It isn't, of course, because the world didn't end in the 1980s (we're still living with its ill effects today).  But even with all of the references to payphones and Atari and other echoes of the last century, the story still reads like apocalyptic literature.

Truth be told, reading the book is painful.  Not stylistically; there's a lot to admire in the descriptions and characterizations, as well as the variety of contemporary references that gives the setting breadth.  The plot, however, is excruciating.  Scenes range along a continuum of troubling, depressing, disturbing, and abominable, sliding back and forth without mercy.  I'd recommend this book to anyone on the basis of its art and craft, but I'd hesitate to promise that they'd "like" it.

Less Than Zero works on a number of levels for me, to the point that I was a little afraid of the book in my hands.  As a portrait of privileged nihilism, I recognized a lot more in the characters and situations than I hoped I would.  If you disregard the specific trappings of time and place, the actions of characters bear a distressing resemblance to real life.  Even ordinary, respectable people spend most of their time doing what they believe they can't help doing.  It's a lifestyle that looks ugliest when those imagined imperatives are chemical addictions, but is just as bleak in principle for anyone else.  A book like this offers the chance to see the equivalence, in the comforting guise of morbid voyeurism.

I've come to expect tales of hedonistic excess like these from Los Angeles.  But in spite of my prejudices, are they realistic?  Well, I have heard some things.  I haven't seen nearly as much, but I've seen some; I know that humans have an astounding capacity for destruction, whether they direct it at themselves or others.  Families disintegrate, friends disappoint, and lovers fall out of love: in ordinary terms, these are the least of our troubles.  The collapse of ordinary life didn't happen in the 1980s; it happens everywhere at every time, as soon as our eyes are open enough to see it.

But a "collapse" implies some kind of finality.  Somehow, life and civilization survive to endure continuous new collapses, as we continue to surprise ourselves with new lows.  It may not make us stronger, but it hasn't killed us yet.

Oh, was I talking about a book?  I suppose I was.  Less Than Zero is a good one, if you're looking for a good punch in the gut as well.  Just take a weekend and watch the world explode.

Monday, October 3, 2011

John in the Box

“Get back in the box!” I gasped, recovering my balance.  An old hiking staff lay near my hand, and I clutched it with both hands, hoping to ward off the strange man.

“I don't want to go back in the box.”

“Get back in the box!  That's where you belong!”

“Says you.  I think I like it out here.  Who are you to order me around, anyway?”

“This is my room!  This is my house!  That's my box!”

“Then you get in the box.  I'm going to get a soda.”

I pushed the stick in his face, and my eyes contorted with crazy, stupid rage.  “You.  The box.  Now.”  He looked down the end of the stick, unconcerned but visibly annoyed.  “We don't have soda, anyway.”

“Now that's ridiculous.”  He pushed the stick away with a wave of his hand.  “It's a hundred degrees out here.  You've got to have refreshments.”  He started walking to the door.

“I don't like soda.  It makes me gassy.”

He stopped walking.  “You.  You are ridiculous.”

It was then that I remembered myself.  “Get back in the box!”

“Oh not this again.”

“I mean it!”  I meant it.  Sort of.

“Look, why do you even want me in the box?”

“You came out of the box.  Now...I'm scared?  Of you, out of the box.  So get in the box!”

“Let me get this straight,” he said, as he sat down on the aforementioned box.  “You open a box that has been sitting in your closet for, how many years now?”

“Three.  Three years.  Five.  Eight?”

“You have no idea how long this box has been here.”

“I know it was after middle school.”

“Yes, and that was a very long time ago.”

“Ok, sure.  Ten years, maybe.”

“Anyway, you opened a box, and it's been here for a decade.  That's a very long time.”

“I suppose it is.”

“And when you opened it, a scary man came out.”

“Ummm...yes.  Yes, that is basically, exactly what happened.”

“And God knows how long he's been in there, right?”

“I know!  That's what makes it so scary!”  I was having a little trouble staying focused.

The man sighed.  “And now, you want that scary man to go back in the box, to sit in the closet for another indefinite period of time?”


“Probably watching you while you sleep...”

“Please, please tell me you haven't been watching me while I sleep.”

“Well I will now, if you make me go back in the box.”

I covered my eyes with my hands, in shame.  “My God, you're an asshole.”

"You're the one without any soda for your guests."

"Just...just tell me, who or, what, the hell are you?"  I closed my eyes and rubbed my temples vigorously, desperately trying to will the last ten years out of existence.  It didn't work.

Gently, he picked up my fallen staff and leaned it against the wall.  He sat down next to me on the bed, a look of deep compassion on his face.  "Which?"


"Who, or what?"


"Well," he said, "what I have to tell you is going to sound very, very difficult to believe.  Unless you do your best and keep an open mind, I'm afraid it would be a big waste of time."

"I'll see what I can do."

"You see," he began, "my name is very difficult to pronounce, so you can call me 'John.'  I'd tell you my true name, but it would take you a while to say it right, and I'd rather not waste all of that time."

"For someone who's been sitting in a box for ten years," I interrupted, "you'd think wasting time wouldn't be such a big deal."

"Who said I wasn't busy?  If you wouldn't interrupt, I'd get to that a lot faster!"

"I'm sorry."

"Anyway," he continued, "it just so happens that I was very busy the entire time.  Or, most of the time, anyway.  You see, I belong to a race of people who live in boxes.  We have a name, but it's not a very good name, so you might as well call us the Box People.  Most people don't know very much about the Box People, because most people don't go looking in old boxes very much.  Understand?"

"Very much," I answered, "as far as it goes."

"And it goes further than that.  You see, from the first invention of boxes, my people have lived in them.  We've lived our entire lives in boxes, moving from box to box as needs arose.  We've raised our families, conducted our businesses, and sought out the mysteries of the universe, all from within the confines of boxes; thousands, millions of boxes, all over the world.  Inside of each box there may be a whole community of Box People, or there may be none at all: more rarely, a box may be inhabited by a single Box Person.  It is a lonely existence, but there are certain aspects of living in boxes that can only be appreciated in isolation."

"Living by yourself, in a box," I observed, emptily.

It occurred to me that continuing to react as emotionally as before would not do me any good.  The situation was very weird, but it was real.  At least, real enough that it had to be dealt with responsibly.  So I decided to think it out.  I sat for a minute, pondering his tale and pondering the most appropriate response to it.  At length I turned to the man and said, "you're making that up.  I can tell."

"Oh really."

"Really.  First of all, it's completely impossible.  You don't address any of the inherent impossibilities in your story.  It's like you expect me to suppose some magical element that makes it all possible, even though you never even bother to describe what that element is, and I can't even begin to imagine what it could be.  I don't think anyone could.  Or should, really.  It's clearly just a ridiculous lie."

"And yet," he said, smugly, "I'm here, and you can't explain it to yourself."

"That's true.  And I almost believed you for that reason.  But since you told the whole story with that same smug, condescending tone you're using now, I've decided to go ahead and assume that you don't really mean to tell me who you are, and that you've just been messing with my head this whole time."

"Well, you can believe that if you want."

"Thank you.  I will."

"In the meantime," he said, exactly as smugly as before, "I'm still a guest in your house.  Maybe you should get me some soda?"

In one sublime, fluid motion, my palm met my face with a resigned slap.  "Fine.  Fine.  Fuck it.  I'll get you a soda.  You just stay right here, don't go anywhere.  I'll get you a soda."



I left my parents' house and drove to the nearest gas station.  It was already evening time, and if I'd had my way I wouldn't have been going anywhere, but sometimes things happen that have to be dealt with immediately.  Well, perhaps not immediately, but it's usually better if you do, because otherwise they sit around in your room, telling you lies and complaining about what you do and don't have for them to drink.
I walked into the Seven Eleven, half-ignoring the customary greeting from the kid behind the counter.  Almost automatically, I I retrieved the requested beverages from the refrigerator in the back, and traversed the sticky floor back to the registers.  It felt much more familiar than it had any reason to feel.

"A six pack of Pepsi?" asked the fuzzy young man behind the cash register.

"That's what I've got."

"Did you want anything else?"

"Well, what else would you recommend?"

"Ummmm..." he stalled, desperately searching for something to offer me.

"Actually, I'd really appreciate a suggestion.  I'm probably not going to enjoy this Pepsi very much.  Too gassy, you know?"

Visibly confused, he scratched his head, stuttering finally, "beef jerky?"


"Do you want some... beef jerky, I guess?"

"Huh.  You know, I think I would like some beef jerky."

"Do you... still want the Pepsi?"

I sighed as I paid the cashier, and began counting the days until summer's end.

I ran into my mom as soon as I got home, though I tried not to make eye contact.  It didn't matter: she simply had to know why I was cradling a sixpack of diet Pepsi on the way back to my bedroom.  I couldn't blame her for being surprised.

"I don't know.  I had a craving?  A craving for Pepsi."

"Well, you usually don't crave things like that."

"Yeah, well, weird things happen sometimes."

"By the way," she added, "I put those things back in the box in your closet for you."

My heart stalled.  I played it cool.  "You did, huh?"

"Yes, I did.  Did you want to take any of those things back home with you?"

"Umm... no.  No, I definitely don't want anything in that box following me home."

She laughed, probably because it sounded funny.  "OK.  I'll keep holding onto it for you.  Let me know if you change your mind."

Back in my room, I found no strange men lurking in the shadows; only a closed box, sitting in its familiar spot in the closet.  None of its contents remained outside, least of all my strange visitor.  As relieved as I was, I didn't see myself changing my mind any time soon.

"Asshole," I muttered, placing the box of warm Pepsi cans on the lid of the box, thereby fulfilling my promise to my unwanted house guest.  I took one for myself, in a halfhearted and unnecessary display of hospitality.  I drank it, and it was warm and gassy and terrible.  I'm sure he would have enjoyed it.

I didn't know where John the Box Man had gone, or whether he was telling the truth about his life and adventures.  I really couldn't be sure that he was even real, or just the product of a bored imagination.  The only way to confirm his existence, opening the box, didn't seem like a very good idea.  Now that he was gone, frankly, I found it surprisingly easy to just stop caring.  I could go a very, very long time without opening that box again.

After about an hour or so of TV, I felt tired.  More tired than usual, actually; I told myself I wasn't feeling well.  People can hallucinate when they're under the weather, and I couldn't be happier than to know I'd been hallucinating.  I brushed my teeth and got ready for bed, confident once again that I was truly alone.

And after about a minute, I thought better of it, and closed the closet door.