waste management (2009)

get borderline haikus
Instead of eggs, his mother served Victor a plate of shit.
     He stared at the wet mound in stunned silence, his eyes watering from the stench, then shoved the plate away, dragging the placemat with it and almost knocking over his glass of milk.  He looked around for some sign of recognition—had nobody else noticed the smell?—and saw only his oblivious mother, humming some inane tune as she added salt to a simmering skillet.
     "Mom?" he said hesitantly, not wanting to be disrespectful, "is . . . what . . ."
     "Hmm, dear?"  She wiped her hands on her worn plaid robe and asked, "Do you want toast, too?"
     Victor checked his plate again.  Still shit.
     He asked, "Is this . . . Are you feeling okay?"
     Concern crinkled her eyes.  "What? Why, are you sick?"
     He wasn't sure how to respond.
     "I hope you're not getting sick.  You just missed school a few weeks ago and—"
     Victor jumped up from his chair, unable to endure a lecture.  "I'm going to be late," he said, and though he gave his mother a quick hug, he couldn't stand to kiss her cheek, because he detected the faintest whiff of shit upon her breath.
At school, Victor stopped his brother Mike in the hallway.
     "Did you see Mom this morning?" Victor asked.
     "She wasn't up when I left for practice," Mike said.  Someone called his name and Mike turned to nod his head and shout, "'Sup Smitty?"  (For three months, Mike had been saying, 'sup.')  He shoved his hand into the pockets of his basketball shorts and asked Victor, "Is that all?"
     "Yeah," Victor said, "I guess," and he stood dazed while Mike scampered off to be social.
     Maybe the eggs were rotten and his mother hadn't noticed, or had thought they were edible enough.  Sometimes she stretched expiration dates.  Maybe the plumbing was backed up and the odor wasn't from his plate at all.  Once he'd sat down in History class and found his green spiral, gazed at its comforting hue and taken a deep breath, Victor decided to dismiss the matter altogether.  It was one of those things, an anomaly, a mishap of the senses.
     Dr. Wentworth—the sole teacher at Scarlett Falls High to have attained that prefix, thank you very much—began his lesson.  "Now students," he said, handing stacks of photocopies to the front of each row, "today's material is very important for the AP test."  (At the start of each class Dr. Wentworth emphasized the importance of the day's material for the AP test, a tactic that worked well on most of the fear-stricken college-bound adolescents.)
     When Victor received his hand-out, the heading read, "SHIT: 1856-1902."  A typo, an acronym gone wrong?  He studied the page—a typical map of the world with areas shaded, dotted, crossed, anything to section them off without using expensive color ink—and when he saw the map's legend he actually gasped:  "Chunky," read one label;  "Runny," another.  Yet no student snickered, no one seemed to notice.  They were dutifully transcribing Wentworth's monologue as usual—
     ". . . and when a sudden influx of fiber into the northern hemisphere prompted a dramatic change in consistency . . ."
     Victor was alone.
"What do you get," Miss Caruso inquired during Math, "when you have two turds factorial?", and in PE they spent the period doing squats.
     Victor must have snapped—it had finally happened.  The kids who'd tormented him in second grade for spending recess with his imaginary friend, they'd been right all along.  (And as for Gerald the miniature dragon, Victor missed him dearly.)  There was no explanation other than insanity for this, and that cold fact sent shivers through Victor's crazy bones.
     After school he went straight to his room and listened to The Best of Morrissey on repeat, burying his face in a plaid pillow, not even looking up to watch Oprah, because his own problems were more important today.  In addition to his mounting insanity, Victor was starving, having missed breakfast and skipped lunch, instead hiding in the library to skim through psychology textbooks and mope.
     When his mother called him for dinner, he took the stairs slowly, almost quivering in fear, and he hoped that the food would be normal, that this would all go away.
     Mike and their father were already at the table.  At the kitchen's island his mother stirred gravy.  The smell of garlic, not excrement, filled the air, and Victor took a deep whiff.
     "Hey buddy," his father said, "I heard you weren't feeling too good this morning."
     Mike snorted. "When does Vic ever feel good?"
     His father ignored him, continuing. "How do you feel now?"
     "I'm alright," Victor said. "Hungry." He placed his napkin in his lap, fiddled with his fork, trying to remain hopeful but cautious, have faith, and be a sane, responsible citizen.
     But once his mother opened the oven, no amount of garlic could have masked that unmistakable stink.  Garlic chicken and mashed potatoes were laid in front of him, a meal Victor normally would have enjoyed, but when Victor tentatively cut into his chicken breast, trying to breathe through his mouth, garlic diarrhea oozed out with every press of his fork.
     Victor struggled to keep from vomiting.
     His brother Mike was piling the mashed garlic shit onto his plate.  His father was chewed with his head cocked to the side, evaluating until he said, "Very tender," and Victor's mother relaxed, slumping slightly in her chair.  Victor, clenching his stomach, pushed around the shit on his plate, but he couldn't bring himself to actually taste it, mental illusion or not.
     "Well," his father said, turning to Mike, "how was practice?"
     "Good," Mike said, little brown flecks spraying from his stuffed mouth.  "I think we'll make it to State this year."
     And then his father turned to Victor, with his sickly face and watering eyes, and asked, "How was school?"
     "Fine.”  Victor answered like he always did when his father was in town and not on a business trip.  To his mother he offered the occasional detail—"We had a substitute today"—but he liked to get his father's dinner ritual over as quickly as possible.
     "And how was your day, darling?" Victor's father asked his wife.
     "Swell," she said, and took another sip of wine.
     Then the pause.  Mike licked his brown lips and Victor's mother gazed into the kitchen, likely thinking of something she'd forgotten.  Silence, but Victor wasn't going to say it, even when his father began clearing his throat repeatedly.
     Finally Mike said, "And how was your day, Dad?"
     Victor's father said, "Well, thank you for asking," and proceeded to launch into the fifteen minute story about some inane incident on the job that he'd been itching to tell all along.
     After an excruciating twenty-eight minutes of dinner time, Victor felt he could leave, and he tried to rush off to his room, but his mother stopped him.  "You didn't eat anything again," she said.  She put the back of her hand on his forehead, then his cheek.  "You don't have a fever . . ."
     "I just had a bad day," Victor said.
     She glanced over her shoulder to ensure that Mike and his father were discussing sports, then led Victor into the living room, and they sat down on the couch.  "What happened?"
     Victor stared at the old gray carpet, the fireplace, anything but her wide green eyes.  What he was about to say seemed too ridiculous.  He began with, "I guess food hasn't seemed so appealing, since . . ."  Hmm.  He tried again, "I just feel like . . ."
     "Everything's crap," Victor said finally, "everywhere I look, and I feel like I'm going crazy or something, but . . ."
     "Honey, I'm sorry.”  She hugged him.  “I'm not trying to be mean here, but do you think you might feel better, if you got out a little more?"  ("Like Mike," Victor knew she wanted to add.)
     "This is more than that," he said, but he wondered if maybe it wasn't.  So it was with all his parents' suggestions:  no matter how preposterous they seemed at first, they wormed their way into his head eventually to lay their eggs of guilt.
     If you looked through Victor's phonebook and took out relatives and restaurants, who would really be left?  When was the last time he'd gone to a movie or—Jesus—on a date?
     "But you've got to eat," she said.  "Is there something else I can make you?  Do you want a grilled cheese?"
     Victor's stomach growled—a genuine grilled cheese sandwich would be manna from Kraft heaven—but he couldn't risk it, and he wanted to get out more of his point.  "Has today seemed weird to you at all?" he asked.
     As if on cue, his father came into the living room.  "What's going on?”
     "Victor's not feeling well," his mother said.
     "How're your bowel movements?" Victor's father asked.
     Victor said, "What?"
     "A lot of times when you're sick, you just need to go to the bathroom," his father said, settling the matter, and he sat down in his recliner, turned on the TV and sought out the stock market crawl.
     Now that Victor thought about it, he couldn't remember the last time he had defecated, but he wasn't going to talk to his parents about his constipation.  "I'm going to lie down," he said, and he retreated up the stairs.
His Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas poster, smeared with shit.  His plaid bedspread and pillows, covered with droppings as if from birds.   The screensaver on his computer, a looping video of someone defecating.  Shit, crouching between Dr Peppers and stiff tissues on his nightstand; shit on his desk, in his dresser drawers.
     Victor left his room and slammed the door behind him.
Almost forty-five gut-wrenching minutes later, Victor had produced a stool of his own.  It bobbed half-submerged in the toilet bowl, almost trivial compared to the excrement he'd been assaulted with all day, though he still second-guessed what he was about to do.
     "This will really be crossing a line," he whispered to himself in the mirror.  Victor sometimes talked to himself in moments of stress, not that he did voices or anything.
     Victor followed the thumping bass down the hall to Mike's room, took a deep breath and started pounding on the door.  The music paused, and Mike came to the door with his shirt off, which Victor knew Mike did on purpose, because he had muscles and Victor didn't.  But that didn't matter now.
     "What do you want?"
     "I need to show you something."
     "I'm busy."
     "It's really important," Victor said. "Please. It will just take a second."
     Mike sighed, "Whatever," and followed Victor down the hall, until he turned toward the bathroom. "What the hell, Vic? Is this some queer thing?"
     Victor snapped, "Fuck no."  But he caught himself before continuing—he had to focus on his mission.  He pushed the bathroom door open wider.  "I just wanna know what you think of this."
     Mike followed him cautiously, past the sink, over the faded green rug.  When Victor gestured to the toilet bowl and repeated his question—"What does this make you think of?  How does this make you feel?"
     Mike backed into the towel rack and, after rubbing his shoulder, punched Victor on his.  "What the fuck, man?  You brought me in here to look at your shit?"
     "So you see that it's shit, I mean, it doesn't look like food, or a history lesson, or—"
     "What's wrong with you?" Mike asked.
     He flushed the toilet; Victor's mumbled half-response was lost in the sound.
The smell followed him to school the next day; shit crept out from the lesson plans into the walls, permeating every classroom, an unbearable musk.  He didn't turn in his homework; he didn't dress out during PE . Victor just stared, hating life, watching a trail of shit plop down from the ceiling of the gym, while his classmates below stretched their sphincters and warmed up their glutes.
     In Art class, Miss Rachel, hung over, let them draw what they wanted.  Victor always sat alone at the table nearest her desk, and she would often look over and encourage him in whatever he was working on.
     "Are you okay?" she asked him after class.  “You didn't draw a thing today.”
     Under the mouthwash, under the liquor, shit on her breath.  Shit on the poster behind her, smeared across Starry Night.
     "I'm fine," he answered.
Victor found that food in vending machines, anything wrapped up instead of cooked, was safe.  He began hoarding chips and candies in his room, his only sustenance.
     And since school was useless now, revolving entirely around shit, he skipped it.  He would walk out the door towards the bus stop, then wander around the neighborhood until his mother left for her job at the daycare, and he could safely return home.
     It was Wednesday of the week after all this had started.  Victor lay on his bed, the dirty comforter and pillows on the floor beside him, hand buried in a bag of Lays.  He was watching a documentary on the manufacture of toilet paper, the only thing playing on three hundred channels.
     "This is awful," Victor said, "still nothing but shit, although at least I'm getting used to the smell."
     Indeed, and he was hardly surprised now when he found shit in new places (shoes, shampoo bottles).  He greeted each disappointment with disinterest, having expected things to continue getting worse.
     That night after dinner, his parents sent Mike to his room, but asked Victor to stay behind.
     "We got a call from Miss Caruso today," his mother said.
     Victor's father slammed his fists on the table and the plates of shit casserole trembled.  "What are you thinking, skipping class, missing tests?  Don't you realize that junior year is the most important?"  He stroked his bushy mustache, raised his eyebrows.
     "I . . ." Victor said.
     "We're worried about you," his mother said.  "You've been holed up in your room even more than usual, you haven't been eating, and now this . . . it's just not like you, you used to be such a good kid, such a good student—"
     "Are you doing drugs?"
     "No!" Victor said.  He dug the heels of his shoes into each other, tried to prepare himself for this disclosure (they'd helped Mike, hadn't they, when he tore that tendon?) and he said, "I think I'm going insane."
     His parents looked at each other, his father nodding slightly as if to say, told you so.
     "I love you, son," Victor's father said, "but we've got to get this straightened out; your future is too important . . .  You need to be filling out applications, going on college visits . . ."
     "We made an appointment," his mother said.
The next day Victor's mother left the daycare early and drove Victor to a brown, two-story building that—he suspected—would have smelled even more like shit than the car, the street, the trees on the sidewalk as they walked to the door, but now, after constant inundation by shit particles, his poor nose had given up, and he could hardly smell at all.
     There was only one other person in the waiting room, a balding man wearing jeans and a Morrissey T-shirt who wouldn't stop smiling nervously and bouncing his leg.  Victor realized with horror that he was dressed identically, and though he tried to focus on the clipboard of diagnostic questions in front of him, he kept looking at this future version of himself and wondering, is his life shit, too?
     "Honey," Victor's mother said, "you have to mark 'somewhat' or 'often.'"
     Victor looked down at the statement he was supposed to remark on:
     "I sometimes think about death or hurting myself."
     He checked 'Severely,' cringing at the way the ball point pen (furnished by Pfizer) left a brown trail in only his palm.
The Psychiatrist was literally personified excrement.  Arms and legs stuck out awkwardly like Mr. Potato Head limbs, but there was no face; the boisterous voice emerged from somewhere within the crap.
     "I'm Dr. Shit," he said, and Victor's mother replied, "Pleased to meet you."
     He led them to his office, where Victor couldn't make out the features because everything was draped in toilet paper, a white padded cell.  His mother found the couch easily, though, so he sat down beside her.
     The Psychiatrist sat in a rocking chair across from them, studying Victor's file.  "When did these feelings of hopelessness start, Victor?"
     His mother stared expectantly, waiting for Victor to answer, but even after all this he found it a little difficult to speak, especially in front of a six-foot tall turd, and he'd always had trouble expressing himself, afterall, at least when it came to emotional matters—
     "Go on," she said, "he's a doctor, we're here to get you help."
     "Well I guess I've never been that happy, exactly . . .  I mean, maybe for a few minutes, or hours, if something particularly good happened, but not just in general.  I think I'm actually a bit melancholy by temperament, maybe even depressed . . .  Anyway, I'd accepted this about myself, until it suddenly got a lot worse, because . . .   I know this will sound strange, and I don't want it to be construed as strangely as it sounds, because other than this, I think I have a good grip on things, I mean aside from my melancholy nature, that I mentioned, I think I'm fairly well balanced—  But last . . . Thursday, was it Thursday? Or maybe Wednesday?   . . . I guess I'll just say it, I suppose I'll just level with you:   I see crap everywhere.  Feces, shit, whatever you want to call it.  In fact" (here Victor actually giggled) "you look like a giant piece of shit to me, Doctor, and if it weren't for my being used to it, I'm sure this office, this whole building would reek of it, just reek, and you would all want to vomit and oh, I tried to vomit at first, but it doesn't help much now does it, dry-heaving because you have nothing to throw up, because all anyone anywhere can eat is shit?"
     Victor took several badly needed breaths.
     A moment of silence, then, "I don't understand where this anger is coming from, Victor," Dr. Shit said.  "It seems like you're going through a lot of pain, and I would like to help you, but you must tone down your hostility."
     At first Victor didn't understand—he was just sitting there, and maybe he'd talked a little too fast and a little too long, but he hadn't raised his voice, and he'd tried to make eye contact although who could be sure where its eyes were.  Then he laughed again, the same hectic, sideways laugh as earlier and said, "Oh, I don't mean 'shit' in the pejorative sense . . . I mean, I see it, I smell it, I feel it, everywhere I go, and you . . .  You don't even have a face, you're just a giant piece of . . .  a giant walking, talking—"
     "Are you telling me," Dr. Shit said slowly, clearly speaking in the way he spoke to his most delusional patients, "that you actually see feces everywhere?  That food and even people are appearing as feces to you?"
     Victor nodded.
     His mother's bottom lip quivered, the levees in her eyes gave out. She probably hadn't realized the extent of it, she hadn't understood—
     "I need to speak to Victor alone," Dr. Shit said sharply.
     Victor tried to hug his mother but that only made her cry more; after a few minutes and a number of tissues (courtesy of GlaxoSmithKline), she composed herself enough to close the Downy-soft toilet-paper door behind her.  Victor and Dr. Shit were alone.
     "You said this started last week, Victor?  What was happening when you first noticed?"
     "Nothing unusual.  I was just eating breakfast."
     "How about the day before? Anything out of the ordinary, anything that upset you?"
     Victor strained to think.  "Emma got kicked off Top Model?"
     "Victor," Dr. Shit said, scribbling on his clipboard, "you don't get out much, do you?"
     There it was again for the second time in two weeks, this assumption that Victor had no social life.
     "I do have friends," he said.  "I'm just a quiet person. I don't mind solitude."
     "Hmm," Dr. Shit said, scribbling again.  "What about romantic relationships? Girlfriend?  Boyfriend?"
     "I had a girlfriend before.  Eighth grade, Gretchen Something."
     "And how was that?"
     "Fine," Victor said.  "So am I crazy, or what?"
     Dr. Shit scratched the place where his nose might have been, and flecks of excrement landed on the clipboard.  "I don't like to use those terms, especially after just meeting someone."
Thirty-two minutes later, Victor had a trial pack of Xanopol ("This should help settle the delusions") and six Lometrin for emergencies ("In case he becomes violent"), hard black shits in cellophane tabs.  His mother made him a second appointment for later in the week, while Victor stared at the man in the Morrissey shirt, who was still sitting there and grinning.
That night after his parents had gone to bed, in the bathroom where feces was smeared on the walls and dripping out the faucet, Vincent looked at the shit-pills he was supposed to swallow, heard his brother down the hall lifting weights, thought of his intercepted attempt at groping Gretchen on Halloween three years ago (he'd been thinking of her ever since leaving Dr. Shit's office).  He locked the door, turned on the noisy fan, checked his pocket again for the knife he'd snatched from the kitchen.
     "Well, Victor," he said, gazing at his reflection, "here we are."  He was ten pounds heavier from the junk food he'd been living off of, his greasy hair hung over his forehead, his clothes were unwashed but none of it mattered now.
     "I am crazy," he said to himself, "and miserable, and alone.  Maybe I've always been like this . . . maybe it took this shit for me to realize . . . that I am defective . . . this excitement, this drive to live and flourish the way Mike does with girls and football, it's entirely absent in me.  Even mother has her daycare and her wine, father has clients and investments . . .  But I am rarely interested in anything more than the occasional television program, and when I am, as in the case of Gretchen, I handle it so ineptly that I might as well have not tried at all, and this is in addition to being largely talentless."
     If his life were actually the movie he sometimes imagined it to be, here—he decided—would be the close-up:
     "Now I alone understand that all existence is shit . . ."
     He reached into his pocket for the knife, weeping.  He waved goodbye to his reflection.  With the tip of the blade against his pale skin, Vincent took a deep breath, closed his eyes, pushed as hard as he could and dragged downward (not across).  He screamed in agony, dropping the blade and stumbling to the ground.
     His blood was brown and rotten, not blood at all, but, of course, shit.

     He was collapsed against the door, his slashed arm throbbing and oozing, the stench affecting him again for the first time in days, and his vision faded as his essence gushed out and he smiled, thinking I am full of—

"Authorial Intent" (shortish story)

After seeing Thomas’s profile on Facebook, I'm already planning the names for our adopted Ethiopian kids as he drives to my dorm for the first time.  He's even hotter in person, prototypically tall with shaggy hair, but it’s mostly an aura thing with him; physically, his body’s so frail, it’s like his bird-thin bones are being held together by my attraction alone.  He says, "Hey," and I say, "Hey," then apologize for my total pigsty of a room.  I had to decide between cleaning up and taking a shower, but I don’t tell him this: that I bathe only for company is not something I want to advertise.
            Thomas lugs around the requisite messenger bag and he shoves aside the crap on my desk to unload a pile of manuscripts.  "Okay," he says, "so the piece I'm working on now, it's like I'm trying to capture, how, like," . . . et cetera.
            "I totally understand," I say.  I just want to kiss him.
            "Yeah," he says, "well, like, you'll see, when you read."
            He hands me the first story and I thumb through quickly.  It's split into dozens of few-paragraph fragments separated by asterisks that Thomas put in a special font.
            "Those are crots," he says, briefly intriguing me (Did he say “crotch“?), but he's already explaining, ". . . which is like, a literary term we use in class, for the divisions in your story."
            Thomas is a year ahead of me and taking the advanced creative writing course.  I get so busy tracing the creases on his jeans with my eyes that I forget I'm supposed to be reading his story.  When I do, I make a big show of nodding and ah-ha-ing.  The story's fragments switch between some epic playground encounter and a weird narrative about narrating that Thomas proudly proclaims as "meta-fiction," and his clipped, erotic pronunciation of this term erases any bullshit I might have found in the concept.
            "That's really cool," I say.
            "You liked it?"
             There’s a tap at my window and we both look over.  Thomas actually jumps up like a burglar’s scaled two floors.  “That’s just this bird,” I say.  “He’s out there all the time.  It’s like he never sleeps.”
            “Oh,” Thomas says, sitting back down and swiveling again in my chair.  “So . . . you think the story was okay?”
            "Yeah, yeah, I liked it a lot.  I can't wait to read more."
            Thomas takes my words literally and hands me another story.  "This one is kind of different," he says.  "I wrote it when I was going through this really difficult time with my parents. Our whole family was falling apart, and I just had to express it somehow."
            "The best writing always comes from emotions," I say, echoing my professor.  Of course, I’m only in the beginner’s course.   Thomas's jeans are fitted to his nice calves and his shirt's so thin it seems almost translucent under the light of my lamp.  I imagine his voice in my head as I'm reading, pretend that with each word he brings me closer to climax, that the characters’ endless talk of "metaphor" and "intrinsic irony" leaves me writhing with pleasure.
            "So, what did you think?" he asks, putting down the issue of The New Yorker he pretended to enjoy while I read, but I knew he was actually studying my face, trying to associate my every change of expression with his clever turns of phrase.
            "Really good," I say.  I didn't actually read much of the story, although I'm sure it was fine.   "You're a great writer."  And I pause, but I can tell from his eyes that I have a quota to fill, so I add, "I really liked the recurring, uh, bird imagery?"
            "Oh, you got that?"  He's overjoyed, knees bouncing.  "My dad's really into birds, birdcalls, bird watching, all that.”
            "Uh-huh," I say and just look at him for a second until I remember what a shitty host I’ve been.  “Hey do you uh, want a Pepsi or juice or anything?”  It comes out awkward, a blatant subject-change, but it’s not as if I’ve had a lot of practice at this.
            "I'm good," Thomas says, and pulls a bottle of Perrier from his bag.  "This is pretty much all I drink."  He swivels in my chair and fiddles with the paperclips and Post-It notes scattered around my desk.  I‘m worried he‘s pissed at me, that I was supposed to say more about his story, until he makes a rough conversational maneuver of his own. " So like, I still can't believe I found someone else around this shitty campus who likes Tear.  I mean, it's such an amazing book, and no one reads it."
            "Yeah," I say, "I haven't really found anyone who's read it either. I tried to get my friend Kat to, but she said it was too confusing and gave up after two chapters."
            "That's just when it starts getting really good," Thomas says, and I agree.
Tear is a brief novel by Jared Foster about a writer named Jared who lives in Manhattan.  He loses his cushy professor job and, not wanting to do anything other than finish his novel, moves to his hometown, which he hasn’t visited in years.  Nothing spectacular.  What makes it special is the execution, the way the book pushes the boundaries between entertainment and art, conventional narrative and post-postmodern literary devices.  At least, that’s what it says on the back of the book.
            Hailed by some reviewers as fascinating commentary on our "self-referential, meta-infused existence," Tear was equally derided by critics who called the prose "sloppy" and the structure nothing more than a "cheap gimmick."
            Me, I liked it for the feeling.  Some writing stutters; other writing hums.  Tear sang.
Thomas and I are lying on the floor surrounded by pillows, watching I Love the 90's and sharing the stories of our lives. While D-list celebrities drone on about the cultural achievements of five or six years ago, Thomas tells me about his family.
            "So one day my dad came in my room all, 'We need to have a family meeting.'  And I started to bitch about it, because those things were usually just about where we were going on vacation or some lecture on premarital sex.  But he seemed so serious, so I followed him downstairs, where Devin and my mom were already sitting on the couch.”  Thomas takes a swig of Perrier.  “Devin is my brother. Anyway, I was all like, ‘Dad, what the hell, do you know how much homework I have?’  And he said, ‘Son, Tom, sit down, this is more important.’”
            I giggle at the impression of his father—to accompany the voice, Thomas raises his eyebrows and tilts his head down, even adds a wagging finger.  “Was he wearing a suit?” I ask.  “In my mind he was wearing a suit, like Leave it to Beaver.”
            Thomas looks wistfully into the distance to an invisible music cue.  “Yeah,” he says, “but I still miss him.”
            I can tell by his wet eyes that this is serious.  Dare I place a comforting hand on his?  Carpe diem, I think. Carpe manum, I imagine my former Latin teacher joking.
            Not only do I touch his hand, I intertwine our fingers, lean close, as the bird starts chirping outside, maybe for his own potential mate.  This isn’t my ideal first date, but when I tell Bethany tomorrow I can frame it as profound.  We worked through his father issues, I’ll say, and I feel like we really connected because of it.  In my memoir I’ll write,

That night, holding hands and whispering by candlelight, Thomas and I realized that, blessed by sweet serendipity, perhaps a karmic reward for separate lives of hardship, we had, at last, found our soul mates. We—

but for now I have to listen: “What happened then? What was your father’s news?”
Tear opens with Jared Foster’s alter-ego (“author-ego,” quipped one reviewer) returning to his hometown, Scarlet Falls.  He is an only child—Foster’s real-life sibling, Jeremiah, has no clear analog in the novel—and his parents are dead, although he continues to pay the mortgage on their house, and has yet to box up their possessions.  When Jared heads to a bar (self-medication is a prevalent theme in Foster’s work; see also Glint, 1998) he meets Tom.
            “I was in your Latin class sophomore year,” Tom says. “I had the hugest crush on you.“  (Jared is visibly uncomfortable and shreds his bar napkin with tense fingers, one of many quirks he and I share.)  “Of course,” Tom continues, “you were always scribbling in your notebooks and never paid any attention.”
            One of the few straight characters I’ve ever sympathized with, Jared is less than interested (see “Homosexuality in Foster and Rolffe: An Intertextual Analysis” Stein 2005), but lingers, perhaps sensing that Tom is on the verge of telling him something important, or perhaps merely to advance the plot.
            Either way, the hardwood sticky table Jared rested his hands on, the damp torn napkin under their beers echoing the ripped napkin in Jared’s lap, the ambient chatter punctuated by an occasional outburst of laughter, the click of pool cues and chime of the door’s overhead bell—I felt like I was there.  Not the funeral of my drunk brother rushing headlong into traffic, not the endless arrangements for which my parents argued over everything from the choice of music to the font on the announcement, not the numb feeling (not happy, not sad, just dead—like him), but in a quiet, comfortable bar in my quiet, comfortable hometown with a quiet, comfortable friend.
Thomas talks for six consecutive minutes—I can see my alarm clock over his shoulder—and after all the build-up, his father’s huge, life-changing, earth-shattering announcement is nothing more than an imminent divorce.
from Tear (p. 5-6):

Tom shifted the conversation from their Latin teacher’s enthusiasm for Catullus with an unexpected u-turn:  “By the way, I read your book.  Tear, I mean.”
            Jared waved his glass of ice cubes in the air until a waiter came.  “Another Bacardi, please.”  He sighed and faced Tom, exhausted and halfway drunk.  Was this another one of his awkward come-ons?   “Oh really?  You mean the one only my editor has read?”
            “It was terrific.  Way better than your last book.”
            “Well, thanks.”  The waiter returned and passed Tom the drink, bits of wet napkin stuck to the bottom.  He took a big gulp and looked around as if for witnesses, eyes landing on the slightly disturbing stuffed birds on a shelf above the bar.  “Let me know what the ending was, because I’m still having trouble with it.”
            “The ending was fine,” Tom said.  He snapped a pretzel in two from the red plastic basket and nibbled on one half with his arms crossed.  “A bit anti-climactic, but then again, that’s you.”
            Tom poked him in the shoulder playfully and Jared’s eye twitched as he tried to suppress a cringe.  He thought he’d left this shit in New York.  He started to stand and bits of napkin fell from his lap.  “I’ve got to go to the bathroom.”
            Tom giggled, a bearded middle-aged man with a schoolgirl’s high pitch.  Unsettling.  Jared’s head pounded.  Maybe he’d drank more than he thought.  He just wanted to leave and was reaching for his wallet when Tom seized his hand.
             “I didn’t much like the characterization of Tom, though.  Too over the top.”
            Jared yanked his hand back, slapped a bill on the counter and stared into Tom’s glazed eyes.  “I don’t know what you’re talking about.  Anyway, it was nice talking to you, see you around and all that—”  He grabbed his leather coat from the back of the chair.  It already smelled like cigarettes.
            Tom stood too, dropping his half-pretzel back into the basket and grabbing his messenger bag.  “What I don’t get is, why’d you call it Tear?  Because of the crying at the funeral?  Or is it Tear like a rip, like tearing something up?”
            The room narrowed—all sound stopped.  Jared stared at this man he couldn’t remember from class, this man who’d somehow got a hold of a manuscript that Jared had barely started, much less shown to anyone, a manuscript that did in fact feature a gay character named Tom.  Jared headed for the door, but Tom scrambled to block his exit.  A young couple sitting at the bar turned to look, sipping from the same giant margarita.
            “Not to mention the melodrama with the brother—”
            “Listen,” Jared said, feeling like he would puke, “If you ever come near me again, I’m calling the cops.”  Never good with aggressive gestures beyond the confines of his stories, he jumped straight to the cliché threat of calling the police.  Equally cliché but more masculine would have been kicking this guy’s ass—but he was too afraid.  He’d rather take a bath and read.
            “Well, you’re the author.” Tom laughs and raises his hands, surrenders. “I’m just a lowly reader, what do I know? All I’m saying is, if it were me—if I were you—I’d give it a few more drafts.”
            A few more drafts. The exact words his editor had used. “Fuck off.” Jared pushed past him to the chiming glass door, failing at ignoring Tom’s persistent, piercing laughter.
One thing my brother Jeremy tried to teach me before he died was the importance of interpretation. Positive attitude. Selective memory.
            “Think about your life like a book,” he told me in the car on the way to Six Flags, one of our few outings together.  “A book you write for yourself.”  I didn’t know it then, but he was probably on drugs.  He kept peering nervously at the sky.
            “You mean, I get to choose my own fate, and all that.”  Unimpressive.  I’d heard this same “everything-is-possible” bullshit at school and already sensed it wasn’t true.  There were too many adults with failed marriages and lousy jobs.
            “That’s part of it,” Jeremy continued, “—you’re certainly the main character, I mean, the book is about you.  But more importantly, you’re the author too.   You write the descriptions, you put the scenes in order.  Even when you can’t control your life”—and here I imagine that he paused, a moment of silence for the family he would soon smoke and drink away—“you can control how you present it.  Does that make sense?  You can make it a comedy or a tragedy, I mean, you can leave out the sad parts or focus on nothing else.  You can . . .” et cetera.
            I had an epiphany about life.  After that, I always tried to put a good spin on things after that.
            Or, I asked him if he’d get me a hot dog when we got there.
            Either way, now I’m hugging Thomas tightly and saying, “I’m so, so sorry.”  His revelation was typical and underwhelming at best, but Thomas and I are going to have our moment, if not now then when I relate it to Bethany.  As Thomas starts to cry and I stroke his head, fingers soon sticky from hair gel, I consider revising his revelation for my memoir:

“’I have cancer,’ he told us. My mom and I were devastated, but . . .”

Or maybe:

“—and then finally he said, ‘Son, I’m not really your father.’”

I’ll figure out something.  I free my hand, wipe it on my jeans and then try to casually place it on his thigh.  In between sniffles, he’s still talking about his dad.  I stare over his shoulder at my bookcase.
Tear stands out from Foster’s works as his most violent, but also his most abstract. For example, when Tom’s severed head appears in a package at the door of Jared’s home, why is it wrapped in manuscript pages?  In addition, the head is found stuffed with feathers, a recurring motif in the novel.  What is the significance of the birds?  However, many scholars gloss over such details, focusing instead on the message written in Sharpie on Tom’s forehead, the graffiti bizarrely complementing Tom’s frozen grin:
Imagine being so empty you obsess over fiction.  You don’t enjoy stories, you shroud yourself in them.  Your life is so dull, so pointless, so typical, that when getting wasted loses its luster, the only thing left is . . . imagination.
            “We’re getting along famously,” I tell Bethany as I drive us to the mall.  I keep running my windshield wipers in an attempt to remove the bird shit.  “We talked that whole first night—remind me to tell you about his dad sometime, such a sad story—and that was a week ago, we’ve seen each other every night since and we talk for hours.”
            “Wow,” she says, “Steve’s all grunts and monosyllables.  I’m so jealous.  What do y’all talk about?”
            Bethany is tan and at least four pounds lighter since she got back from Cancun.  Leave it to Bethany to come back looking better instead of worse from a week of drunken debauchery.  But my spring break was fun, too.
            Example: hours with Thomas working on his novella, answering questions like, “So do you think Version A, B, or C is the best?”
            I compared the three opening paragraphs again and still can’t tell the difference.  “B?”   It seemed to have more commas.
            Thomas sighed.  “Gosh, okay, well, I really thought that C was the strongest, but if you think—”
            I tried to convince myself this was a genius at work—so what if he’s annoying; it’s just an artist being eccentric.  How cool to have a boyfriend who’s so creative.  But then he wanted me to read his own stories to him, ostensibly to help him revise, but I think just to marvel at the sound of his words. I kept having to remind myself that at least he’s cute, and this was better than last spring break, which I spent alone.
            “Well,” I tell Bethany, “we’re both really into literature and stuff.  He’s a really good writer.”
            “Both of you are,” Bethany says. “Speaking of—do you think you could help me with this paper for Hewitt?”
            “I’ll try, but I actually dropped that class.”
            “Really? Isn’t it a pre-req for your comp class?”
            “Yeah, but I talked to my advisor and . . .”
            I won‘t be attending any classes period, but I’m not going to tell her this.  I search for anything to derail the conversation and settle lamely for, “Hey look, isn’t that weird?”
            Dozens of birds are perched on a traffic light at the next intersection with dozens more swarming around them.
            “Like that Hitchcock movie,” she says.
            “Yeah.  Spooky.  So where‘s this sale at again?”
Imagine being a confused guy on the verge of suicide and finding a book like Tear on your doorstep, some kind of post office mishap, or a miracle gift from the stork of novels.  Maybe to other people it’s nothing but a horror book, an ill-advised foray into genre by an author who should have known better, but to you, it’s like magic. Because here you are, expelled from college at the same time Jared leaves the university, moving back home just like he does, two failed artists searching for meaning in life as the world crumbles into oblivion, and all you can see is that bluebird at the funeral, pecking at your brother’s coffin like at a tree for worms.
Bethany, spearing a piece of lettuce with her fork asks, “How are your parents? What’s it like back in the house with them?”
            I moved back home a few days ago.
            “They’re gone,” I say. “I mean, on vacation.  They really like Thomas, though.”
            Actually, they haven’t met.
            “That’s great; it’s so much easier when the family’s on board, you know? My family loves Steve so much; it’s been way easier with him than it was with Patrick.”
            I sigh.  Steve and Patrick, impossibly unattainable; they’re hot and charming and would never make me evaluate a manuscript, or trick me with a few false compliments online.  But even if they were gay, they’d hook up with someone better than me, someone all smiles like Bethany.   Jeremy would have liked her.
            I try to console myself with fries, but like most things in my life, this dinner is doing far less to cheer me up than I’d hoped.
            Bethany leans in and lowers her voice, half-smiling. “So, have y’all . . . I mean, you know, how is . . .”
            “Great,” I insist.
            Actually, Thomas and I didn’t make it past kissing before he broke down again, and I had to endure a monologue about his fears of intimacy and commitment, tied back, of course, to his father.  As Thomas droned on I wrapped his arms around me, closed my eyes and pretended that he lived up to his online profile or to my ideas of how romance should go.  The epic romance in Foster’s Glint for example, from a chance coffeehouse meeting to passionate lovemaking  on the roof of her apartment.  Now there was a couple.
            Bethany checks her watch.  “Oh wow, we should probably get going soon.  I have so much homework . . .”
            “Me too,” I say.  I have a note to write.
Tear portrays Jared as writing continuously, almost obsessively. What started as a memoir becomes an investigation, and then something deeper. Even as bodies drop around him—in addition to Tom, a reporter from the local paper named Beth is slaughtered—Jared is focused not on surviving, or even on figuring out his connection to the mysterious Tom, but on the power of words.  Jared loses himself in his work, and the reader gets lost as well, as excerpts from his work in progress are interspersed within the text.  When Jared writes about writing, are we reading the novel itself, or the work of a character?
Thomas is waiting on my porch when I return home, holding a tattered copy of Tear I recognize as one of mine.  From his blank gaze and the way he just comes in without saying hello, I know something’s wrong.  What else is new.
            “Hey,” I ask, pulling him towards a hug, “what’s wrong?”
            He doesn’t budge and, gesturing to the empty house, asks in a flat voice, “Aren’t your parents supposed to be back from their vacation?”
            I laugh, surprised.  “They decided to stay another day, what does that have to do with anything?  Are you alright?”
            He waves the book in front of my face and I see Post-Its where he’s marked off pages. “Jared’s parents were dead, remember?”
            We go to the living room and I sit on the couch next to him.  “What’s going on?  You don’t seem like yourself.”
            When Thomas starts pointing out parallels, what am I supposed to do?  Don’t I have an obligation to bring the story to its close?
The few critics who bought into Tear still debate the ending. Some insist on the literal interpretation, that Jared is a mentally ill serial killer. They treat Tear as Foster’s sublimated revenge: on the parents who neglected him, on the editors who dismissed his increasingly convoluted work, perhaps most of all on the review board—allegedly chaired by a man named Tom—who questioned renewing his teaching contract at NYU.  While this interpretation potentially has merit, I think it falls short of explaining Tear’s power, its ruminations on the importance and influence of narrative.  But authors can’t control how their work will be read, or by whom.

I find a bottle of Bacardi in the cabinet above the refrigerator.  Do I drink it because it’s there, or because it’s Jared’s favorite?  I collapse onto my bed, too exhausted to undress.  Flocks of birds squawk, chirp, and crow outside, as if pressing against my window with their words.