You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me

 

 

A sample of my short story ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me‘, about a reclusive former actor and politician who’s reluctantly propelled back into the limelight by a determined journalist.

–––––––––––––––––––––––

 

In his youth he was an inextinguishable flame; an irrepressible voice in the world of entertainment; a reasonable, level-headed voice in the world of politics. He’d been both an actor on screen and a performer in the presence of the media. But what’s happened to Roger Dreyfus, the former governor of California and star of the action-packed mega-hits Glorious Day, A Bridge to Brooklyn, and What’s In It For Me? Where is Roger Dreyfus?!

   That’s how the article began.

   His son had called him first thing that morning and told him about it. First he sighed, and then he panicked—as he did on a regular basis now—and shortly after he got off the call and calmed down, he drove to the nearest store (which took an hour to reach, because the local store which serviced the sparsely populated-but-large gated community in which he lived had burned down two days earlier) and picked up a copy of the magazine in which he’d been featured.

   Now, as he sat at the table in the spacious kitchen featuring the granite-top counter, the biggest fridge he’d ever laid eyes on, and the island in the middle of the room with the mahogany countertop, where dinner would be eaten (alone), he read the piece written by one Warren S. Franzen.

   He knew Franzen; had met him a couple of times, didn’t like him—thought he was too effeminate. He didn’t have a problem with ‘the gays’ as he called them. Heck, he’d been governor when they passed the bill. But he liked men to be men, irrespective of whom they shared a bed with.

   He remembered the first time he’d met Franzen: He was greeted by a short, skinny man who some would call stylish, although not Roger; Roger liked men who dressed like men; none of these skinny suits, no checked pants and bright pink shirts, and certainly no stupid hairstyles. Upon meeting him, Franzen first words were unintelligible; it was a combination of “Oh-mah-God”, “Whaaaat?” and a wail which had reminded him of the time his mother had put out her back when lifting their overweight bulldog all those years ago. And it wasn’t that Franzen wasn’t a nice guy—he would categorize him as a nice, amiable person—but he was too loud, too annoying, too camp. And Roger didn’t do camp. This didn’t deter him from being a Hollywood heavyweight for the best part of forty years; he just put up with the campness like one puts up with an old football injury that creeps up on you every now and then.

   Football, he thought. Now there’s a sport that fairy Franzen had never played.

   The thing was, Franzen adored Roger. There was of course the possibility that this was the result of an attraction; Roger was muscular, masculine, magnetic; his charisma was infectious, as were his handsome features. Plus, this piece wasn’t an attack on his character; far from it. It was a celebration of the man, and it was a calling:

   “Come back to us, Roger!” it said.

   And that was the problem precisely.

   Damn that little prick, Roger thought to himself.

   He’d worked hard to escape life in the public gaze. People, he’d concluded after all these years, were perverts. Obsessive, silly, perverted little cretins. He’d also acknowledged that this supposed perversion that he’d grown to despise was part of the reason he’d become so successful in the first place. But he hadn’t held on to fame; eventually he’d willed it away like a bad flu that wouldn’t clear. He’d been a major player in Hollywood and a political powerhouse, but all that changed four years ago. Nobody, apart from family (i.e. his son, not the ex-wife) and his few remaining friends, (one a controversial Libertarian economist, one a successful author, and the other a director with whom he’d collaborated on many occasions), had contacted him over the past four years. And when the aforementioned called him it was usually unwelcomed.

   So, the question was: why? Why was Franzen calling him out? And why now?

   As he sat in the kitchen reading the piece he grew more and more frustrated; with each word, sentence, paragraph, his anxiety levels increased. He licked a thumb and aggressively turned the page. He released a vexed groan. He cleared his throat even though there was nothing to clear: this was the ultimate sign that his anxiety had peaked: incessant throat-clearing.

   “Ah-hmmmm. Ummmmmm. Ah-hmmmm. Ummmmmmmm. Ummmm.”

   He sat reading the article in the cheap, gossip-filled entertainment column, as he emitted noises like a car struggling to start.

   When he reached the end of the piece the throat clearing stopped. This was beyond the peak: he’d never gotten past the throat clearing, it was always a downhill return to calm. He’d soared to unchartered territory—this was the next phase. He wasn’t sure what was going to happen. Perhaps his head would explode like it had in that movie he’d starred in back in the 80s (box office earnings: $120m). Perhaps he’d keel over and die of an aneurysm. Perhaps he’d leave the physical world but remain a living thing: a revelation that the key to transcendence was not calm, meditative conduct, after all, but in fact intense, silent rage.

   What happened surprised him. After reading the final paragraph, And this journalist’s mission is to find our beloved Roger Dreyfus. Bring him back into our lives. With everything happening right now in the entertainment industry, in politics, in America, we need Roger Dreyfus more than ever. So, to use one of his most famous lines: watch this space!, he calmly picked up his phone which rested on the table. He tapped the screen and unlocked the phone. He dialled the most recent number.

   As he waited for his only son to pick up, he recalled the scene in which he spoke those immortal words: Watch this space, he said, before blowing off a Saudi terrorist’s head.

   God, they’re easy, he thought.

   Almost three-thousand miles away, Rain Dreyfus looked at his vibrating cell phone. His blond-headed four-year-old kid was busy poking his father in the chin with a toy pistol.

   “Honey,” Rain called to his wife, who was sitting across from him reading the magazine which featured the article on her father-in-law.

   She stood up.

   “Come on, Sean, daddy has to talk to the crazy man.”

   Rain didn’t laugh; he rolled his eyes. This crazed man calling him was nothing more than an inconvenience: the only reason he’d told him about the article earlier was so the discussion about it would be on his terms. They barely spoke as it was, why was his father calling him after only talking with him a few hours earlier? After Sean was distracted by his mother, Rain reached for the phone, stood up, left the room, opened the back door and stepped out onto the patio. It was a sweltering Monday in Los Angeles—what’s new?

   “Yo, Pop.”

   “Rain.”

   The greeting was too calm, the voice too rational. He was expecting an explosion but  had instead experienced a lame fart.

   “What’s up, Pop?”

   “Franzen,” Roger’s calm voice said. “He’s still based in LA?”

   “I don’t know, Pop. Why would I know that?”

   “You’re good with the internet. Find out.”

   “Why? Why do you want to know?”

   Back in New Hampshire, in a dull kitchen that was too big for four people, let alone a single divorcé, Roger paused: whatever he had in mind, he hadn’t thought it through.

   “Pop?” he heard through the phone.

   “Ah, never mind. Forget it.”

   “Okay. Listen—”

   “I said forget it,” said Roger. “And don’t call me.”

   He hung up the phone and sat in silence in New Hampshire.

   In Los Angeles, Rain pocketed his phone and returned inside to his wife and kid.

 

***

A couple of days passed and Roger spent them in bed at the behest of his emboldened paranoia. He refused to answer the buzz of the gate which permitted entry to his property. Most of his neighbours were CEOs, bankers, not celebrities. This wasn’t a celebrity town; that’s why he’d moved here. He didn’t speak with the neighbours often, and many of the properties were vacant throughout the year. That was something he was thankful for.

   His phone had vibrated seventeen times in two days. That was more than it had buzzed in the preceding two months. The phone was a necessity; in case of emergencies and the need for food or alcohol when he was too lazy, or paranoid, to venture outside. Seventeen times in two days—certainly the article had led to some kind of activity, and if the calls were from anyone other than his son, the economist, the author, the director, or—God forbid—his ex-wife, then someone had gotten hold of his number. He knew that this was a distinct possibility; people had ways of getting anything they wanted these days. All it took was a little journalistic tenacity, and that was something Warren S. Franzen held in abundance.

   He would sleep and jolt awake following dreams filled with flashing lights and paparazzi. He would sweat and think about appearances on Jay Leno and David Letterman. His mind would drift and he’d find himself in conversation with Oprah yet again (he’d always hated Oprah). He’d recall the interviews, the fans, the autographs, the relentless demand and inquiry, and he would retch regularly.

   He’d only left his bed for three reasons: to eat, to visit the bathroom, and to check his Beretta M9, which his ex-publicist had purchased for him at his request ten years earlier (when his paranoia had first made its appearance). The pistol was loaded, always was. He’d fired it drunkenly a couple of times. A few other times he’d held it to his head. This was also a drunken act. He was only ever suicidal in the morning, or when he was drunk. So he didn’t drink very often, and he slept past noon on most days. He’d found that filling his days reading works by his favourite writers and watching lectures online was a good distraction from the noxious elements of life, or his head. He hadn’t had sex in four years, and it didn’t work anyway. He’d asked himself: when your cock goes, where does your pride go?

   On the third day he decided to revisit his original idea; the one he’d considered before calling his son a few days earlier. He retrieved the 9mm from the walk-in closet that was mostly empty, and placed it on the granite countertop in the kitchen. He showered, shaved and worked his penis to see if it did anything.

   It didn’t.

   In the bedroom he took his phone and texted Rain: Get me Franzen’s fucking address.

   When he returned to the kitchen he said aloud, “Who do I have to shoot in here to get a bourbon, neat?” He couldn’t remember if this was a line from one of his movies. There was no response, not even in his head.

   Under the winding staircase he rummaged in a box filled with miscellaneous items until he found what he was looking for: the bottle of 23-year-old Four Roses. Back in the kitchen he poured himself a glass of the bourbon and, with 9mm in hand, he rambled around the house. In the living room he urinated into the fireplace. In the dining room he upturned the table. In the home theatre—which he rarely used—he sat with his feet up and watched his most celebrated movie, A Bridge to Brooklyn. He hated it. He shot the pistol at the giant version of himself on the screen, piercing a neat, smoking-hot hole in his forehead; his aim was still good, even if his cock didn’t work anymore.

   His phone vibrated.

   He opened the message from Rain: 1842, Wells Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90046

   He returned to the kitchen and began to write on a single sheet of ruled paper. He spent some time writing the letter. He sipped his fifth glass of bourbon and thought about each sentence at length. When he was done he placed the letter in the envelope, licked, and sealed. On it he wrote: Warren S. Franzen, 1842, Wells Drive, Los Angeles, CA 90046

   He walked with dignity, despite his voluminous consumption of alcohol, to his study. He fingered from the library a copy of Hemingway’s The Old Man and The Sea.

   He sat at the island in the kitchen and read the short novel into the early hours, pouring the remainder of the bottle into the glass as he read the final paragraph of the widely celebrated work. After he absorbed the final few lines, having read them a number of times as he always did when finishing a novel, he closed the book and placed it on the mahogany countertop.

   He stood up, fixing his shirt neatly into his pants, and downed the remaining bourbon. He whispered to himself, “Watch this space,” as he raised the gun to his head and took a deep breath.

Six Short Stories

 

 

There’s a good chance you’ve heard the following well-travelled quote many times:

“If I had more time, I would have written a shorter letter.”

You’ve likely seen it attributed to Mark Twain. Until recently, I would’ve thought that was correct. It was, in fact, originally written by French mathematician, physicist, inventor, and writer Blaise Pascal (thanks for that nugget of knowledge, Eric).

But let’s get back to the quote…

What does it mean when it’s applied to writing short fiction, as it regularly is? Well, if it isn’t obvious, it means short stories take a lot of time to perfect — they’re difficult. You need time to trim the fat, or kill your darlings as the literati like to say. Some of the greatest novelists who’ve put pen to paper didn’t, or don’t, have the skill (or, perhaps, the temperament) to write short fiction. Many authors over the years have said writing a short story is far more difficult than writing a novel; there’s less room to play, there’s certainly less time to say all that you want to say — basically, you’re more restricted in the short-fiction world.

I’ve been writing short fiction on and off for a number of years while working on a number of screenplays and a novel. Am I near as strong as I’d like to be when it comes to the shorter work? No, but the more I write the better I get. And I’m putting together a short story collection that I hope to publish in the future (out of all the titles I’ve created over the years, this one is my favourite).

I’ve also been reading short stories for a long time. Some writers I’ve been reading for years, some I’ve only discovered, and some I’ve known about but have only gotten round to devouring recently.

With that in mind, I thought I’d list a few short stories worth reading written by American writers. I won’t go into much detail, as going in blind is always better. Of course, I do recommend buying the collections in which these stories feature.

So, here they are:

 

 

1. Nathan Englander — The Twenty-Seventh Man

From the collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’ (1999).

Englander 1

Nathan Englander made an immediate impact on the literary world with the release of his debut short story collection ‘For the Relief of Unbearable Urges’. The first story in the collection, The Twenty-Seventh Man, is an allusion to the Night of the Murdered Poets  the execution of 13 Soviet Jews on the orders of Stalin, on August 12, 1952.

The short story isn’t available online, but you can read the script for the play based on it here. Or, you could go buy the collection in your favourite second-hand bookstore (for you Irish readers, it’s gotta be Chapters on Parnell Street).

 

2. Jennifer Egan — The Stylist

From the collection ‘Emerald City’ (1993).

Egan - Emerald City 1

Jennifer Egan is probably best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work of fiction ‘A Visit from the Good Squad’. I say ‘work of fiction’ because the book has been characterised as both a short story collection and a novel — Egan herself has stated that she doesn’t consider it to be either of the aforementioned.

What is unequivocal about her first published work ‘Emerald City’ is that it’s most definitely a collection of short stories. The Stylist, the first story in the collection, focuses on a divorced fashion stylist on a shoot in Africa with a photographer and three teenage models.

Read it here.

 

3. Raymond Carver — Errand

From the collection ‘Cathedral’ (1983).

Carver - Cathedral 1

Raymond Carver has inspired countless short and long fiction writers since he became one of America’s best-loved writers with the publication of his collections ‘Will You Please Be Quiet, Please?’ and ‘What We Talk About When We Talk About Love’ (the latter of which has had its title borrowed by a number of writers, including Haruki Murakami and Mr. Englander mentioned above).

One of the greatest influences on Carver was the great Russian playwright and short story writer Anton Chekhov. In Errand — a tribute to his idol — Carver re-imagines the final hours of Chekhov’s life, but brings the focus of attention on a young bellboy.

(Note: This idea has prompted me to develop a short story about Carver’s final hours, the same way he wrote about his idol. I’m still working on it…)

You can read Errand here.

 

4. John Updike — Pigeon Feathers

From the collection ‘Pigeon Feathers’ (1962).

pigeon-feathers

The American heavyweight John Updike is considered by many to be the greatest writer of the 20th century. He’s most famous for his ‘Rabbit’ series, which centres around the life of former high-school basketball star Harry “Rabbit” Angstrom. Two novels from the series — ‘Rabbit Is Rich’ and ‘Rabbit at Rest’ — won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

In Pigeon Feathers, a young boy adjusting to life at the farmhouse he’s recently been moved to with his parents and ailing grandmother, faces a spiritual crises after reading a work by H.G. Wells.

Read it here.

 

5. Stephen  King — Premium Harmony

From the collection ‘The Bazaar of Bad Dreams’ (2015).

Stephen King 2

Stephen King. He’s probably the most famous author around; the man who’s seen countless stories and novels he’s written find their way onto the big screen, who’s been on the bestsellers list more times than he can remember. He’s not someone this writer has read very often (honestly, I just haven’t been able to get into his books), but he has written a short story in a similar vein to Raymond Carver, which is probably why I like it so much. In his introduction to Premium Harmony in the collection, King confesses that he’d only discovered the work of Carver shortly before writing the story, which is quite surprising since the work was published in 2009 — some 21 years after the short-story master’s death.

In Premium Harmony — which is unquestionably a pastiche  a car ride to a birthday party takes a turn when a couple stop off at a gas station to pick up a gift. This one is darkly comic, and hugely enjoyable.

You can read it here.

 

6. S.J. Coules — Photographs

From the collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’

photographs-3

You’re damn right I’m plugging my own work.

My short story collection ‘You Can Call Me What You Like as Long as You Don’t Call Me’ is definitely a work in progress. Out of all the short stories I’ve completed, four, maybe five will feature in this collection. The rest are to be written  many have been fleshed out and partially developed, some I haven’t even thought of yet. Of the completed works that I plan to include in the book, one has been published, the others have either been submitted to literary magazines, or are sitting on the laptop, eagerly waiting to be read.

In Photographs — my first published short story  a crotchety man who’s found himself old and with nothing but pictures, alcohol, and television to pass the time, encounters an irritating local kid.

You can read it here.

 

Anyway, last orders have been called.

Until next time, I will be in the bar, with my head on the bar . . .

 

Expressionism #1 — Liquid Pills

Anyone familiar with Jack Kerouac will know of his ‘spontaneous prose’. His method was well developed and it had its rules laid out in his “Essentials of Spontaneous Prose”. For his ‘set-up’ he compares it to an artist before they put pencil to paper, or a brush to canvas: “The object is set before the mind, either in reality, as in sketching (before a landscape or teacup or old face)  or is set in the memory wherein it becomes the sketching from memory of a definite image-object. . . .”

I took that idea of a blank canvas and the brush, but without a clear object or idea. I opened a word doc and jotted down whatever arrived in an attempt at writing a very short, somewhat coherent story. I suppose you could call that ‘spontaneous prose’, or ‘subconscious prose’. 

This is how many writers approach the first draft of their works, with nothing really in mind. Then they take that first draft (or ‘vomit draft’ as some writers call it), and refine it from there. But here I wanted the vomit to remain; there’d be no clean up on aisle five. So I’ve called it Expressionism, and this is my first effort. No edits, no path — just words that flowed out onto the page.

 

Liquid Pills

Liquid pills.

Take them, slowly.

Take them in a few mouthfuls.

Down them like there’s no tomorrow.

They’ll dampen the thoughts but liven the spirit.

I pass through the narrow, rain-speckled, rouge-lighted laneway with a stumble and a fumble. I curse — cunt — who? Anyone. Whomever. And I fix my long cashmere coat and I will an argument with someone, but no one’s here.

5am.

Who’s around then?

Some taxi tarts. Some residual rodents of the night before. Some of those without a home to go to. Some of the heroin heroes and the wannabe di Neros waiting for the moment to pounce.

I’m classless — that’s lacking class, not a class. Gauche. Inelegant. Ungainly. Graceless. I do have a class. A working one. But I’m not stateless. Of which I’m not a devoted fan — not a centralized, expansive, militarized Europe. Who decides on the situation when Theresa, Jacob, and co. set sail? Us? No, the Junk, that’s with a ‘yuh’ —  Here, you! Piss off!

I don’t want to get into that, though. Who wants to? We’re all tired of it. All we want to do is to be left alone. Let us be. Let us do a bit of work and live life to a decent standard. Let us work and play. Let us live and love and let us not be drowned by the greedy and the corrupt.

We’re drowning. A stretched arm from the icy wall of water. A gasp, an open-mouthed cry — a raw caw, caw, caw. Can’t… breathe… Help… No help. No, we don’t need help, we need release. Release from your cold, stifling, suffocating grasp.

You. Corrupt. The Corruptors. The parasites. But enough of that… Because I’m loaded. I’m loaded on liquid pills and I’m looking for some new thrills. Some cheap thrills. Something that will let me forget… something… someone…

I approach The Beast. I don’t notice him at first. He’s the man with the plan.

   ‘All right, Beastie,’ I slur.

   ‘Sebastian,’ he purrs. ‘Sebastian, you’ve looked better.’ His voice. That voice. The Beast, a paradox. He’s a gentleman — a cock-hungry gent who speaks the Queen’s English as well as Hitchens the Polemicist did.

He chuckles, does The Beast. He laughs giddily like a schoolgirl.

He’s big — boisterous belly; nosey navel peeking through his partially unbuttoned shirt.

   ‘Sebastian, be a darling and give me your lighter. Mine… lost its way somewhere earlier in the night. I can hardly be held responsible for everyone and everything.’

I fumble around in my pocket and find the lighter. I rev the engine — the flame greets the ciggie.

   ‘I’ve got work in the morning,’ I tell The Beast.

   ‘You mean in a few hours?’

   ‘Yessssss.’ I stumble. ‘I’ve got work and it’s for the devil.’

   ‘The big C…’ he nods his head.

   ‘Tell me, Beasty boy,’ I say, attempting to stand up straight, with dignity — whatever that is. ‘Do you think we’re headed for the big bang of the nuke? Europe… Balkanization… China… The T Man… Where are we headed?’

   ‘Oh,’ The Beast says. ‘Oh, my sweet little Sebastian. That’s not for me to say… I’ve got a date with Mister Junk and The Elephant’s Whiskers — they’ll decide your fate… they’ll make the call on the Big Bang…’

   ‘What’s the way to go? I don’t want the big C…’ I say, half moaning… ‘I gave myself to It…’

   ‘It doesn’t matter,’ says The Beast, dropping the fag and twisting his foot on the concrete. ‘It’ll all be over soon.’

   ‘Soon,’ I say. ‘Soon I’m in work… It won’t be over by then…’

   ‘I’ve got to go,’ says The Beast. ‘I’ve got a lot to devour.’

   ‘So…’ I hiccup. ‘So, does the big C,’ I say.

   ‘We’re not so different, then,’ he says as he paces down the street — giant, meaningful steps.

I lean against the wall. The Beast left a half-empty pint behind.

I reach for the liquid pills.

I drink it.

We all drink it, in some way.

                                                                                    – 20th September 2018 — 8:19pm