A Clean and Edgy Light–On Reading Hemingway Before Writing Prose

Today before posting my ‘crackaccino and prose’ banner and having at it, I decided to re-read Hemingway’s A Clean, Well Lighted Place. I’ve been pondering Hemingway lately; I’ve been pondering him as a life-long and beloved antipode. I am a bit of a medievalist, though a highly atypical medievalist in my thinking and it shows in my prose. I say atypical because what I share with my antipode is a stark anti-mysticism. Unlike Tolkien and Lewis, I cannot romanticize chivalry, but rather see it as the first brainwashing the weak succeeded in throwing upon the strong. Do not make assumptions about who I deem weak and who strong. I am talking about the kind of strength Dickens gives Molly in Great Expectations, when the young men are foolishly flexing their muscles, when Jaggers talks about her hands, the scarred hands of a maid. It is not only that she killed, but the tedium of her work, that gives her strength.

Hemingway puts this at stake in A Clean Well Lighted Place. The young working waiter grows frustrated with the old man because of his work, impatience, and need for sleep (here I digress again—I take shots at Hemingway because he can take it. Were he alive and taking this to his face I am sure he would be giving it back and making it painful. That’s fine. I’ve tangled with bigger bouncers than him, taken the heat, given as much as I got, and come away on my feet. A gristly hippy is something to be). But I do not dismiss Hemingway—friends close, enemies closer, I take his point—the young waiter who wants to go home is not in the end faulted over his work, but his inability to value reflection. Hemingway is writing about someone who experienced war, but it is not this alone which defines what is heroic in the story.

Instead, it is a circumstance that Hemingway is calling heroic—a situation. For a “clean, well lighted place”, a place that is “bright” within the story’s symbolism does not mean an antiseptic place. It does not mean one needs a fluorescent light and a white table, a trim lawn and a bright sun. The shadows the leaves cast across the café matter supremely, and the café lamp gathers its brightness not from wattage, but contrast.

Hemingway is calling heroic that which glows in despite and does not necessarily condemn the darkness. This can only happen under the right conditions. The older waiter, also a worker, but not hurrying to bed, understands this. The prayer to nada/nothing toward the end of the story is significant certainly, but subordinate to the theme of ‘right conditions for reflection’. It is an individual’s conclusion (and, incidentally, it is the type of Hemingwayesque conclusion from which I diverge. A certain type of medievalist diverges at the satire of the church and Lord’s Prayer, because said medievalist looks at a time when that artifice was in its infancy along with its horror, and looks to a material something that may have existed before, that ironically, Hemingway appears to generally efface).

But for the accurate outline of the right situation for a certain type of reflection, that clean, well lighted place, that set of possibilities and conditions—as say, the way an overcast sky and the smell of rain drifts across a kitchen table—for that I thank my antipode, toast him with a black coffee, and get to work.

Canto II: Revelation Part 1

The following work of fiction is intended for mature audiences only. Reader discretion is advised.

Canto II: Revelation, Part 1

Nate Morgan gazed out over the Atlantic’s gray-blue expanse. The wind was riling the waves, an irritant on an angry beast’s leathery skin. He marveled a moment at its immensity, how it flooded the horizon as if it would challenge the limitlessness of the sky. When the clouds began to dim, he closed the blinds, pushed in his desk drawer, and slipped his pen in the jar. He checked to make sure his file was sent, then shut down his computer, headed downstairs, and outside.

The salt air tasted clean and cold and he felt a coil in his mind loosen as he made his way down Littleneck Harbor’s cobblestone streets. He was one of the few year-round residents renting an apartment downtown, if one could call it that—a rickety strip of old wooden buildings that curled out from the working waterfront. A pair of stone and steel piers ran along it, serving fishing boats and cargo ships. A few sailboats were moored within the cove itself, and it was here that the older docks stretched like bony fingers from the abandoned shops and warehouses, and the few restaurants that remained open.

Nate climbed the stairs to his efficiency, dropped off his markups, and headed to the credit union’s ATM machine. Business done, he moved on to Jeb’s Tavern. With a pocket full of crisp twenties, Nate was one of the establishment’s more well-to-do patrons. The last decades of the Twentieth Century had not been kind to Littleneck’s economy, and the beginning of the Twenty First downright cruel. Factory trawlers had depleted the fish population, and even the independently owned shellfish boats were getting beaten out by far off industrial platforms. Even worse, the tourism and real estate markets had plunged, bankrupting all but a few of the knick-knack shops, restaurants, and higher-end resorts.

Nate was lucky to be a rare bird among these spoils. His job editing shipping documents for an import-export consulting service gave him a solid twenty hours a week at just over forty dollars an hour. Not so much money in the grand scheme of things, but when combined with his small pension from his stint in Massachusetts as a customs inspector, he enjoyed a relatively prosperous existence.

The contrast was underscored when he pushed through the tavern’s paint-peeled door and took in the shambled figures sitting along the bar. One gray face turned and gave him a warped smile. Tiny Hobart, former stern man and methamphetamine addict, was now a full time alcoholic who on occasion slept in the ATM vestibule.

“Well if it ain’t Nate Morgan come down ta celebrate anothah pay day,” he said. The twinkle in his eye said he knew Nate would buy him a beer. The assumption never grated him too much, Nate being a man who didn’t like to keep his good luck to himself, within reasonable limits.

Next to Tiny sat Ray Gillings, a tall schizophrenic man with long black hair and a goatee. He didn’t talk much, just sipped and stared until his monthly check ran out. He only half sat on his stool, never quite looking like he was arriving or leaving. Ray gave Nate a nod, then went back to his sipping and staring.

The third figure was Maggie Fields, a lean, fifty-something widow with a carefree, drunken smile and swath of pretty white hair. The small stack of money she earned from her piece work at the on-its-last legs seafood processing plant sat beside her beer as it did each night, dwindling dollar by dollar until it was time to go home.

“Hi Nate,” she said, eyes widening above her smile. “You don’t always have to shell out ya know. Heck I’ll buy you a round right now.”

That’s when Jeb, the proprietor, pulled a five off her already small stack. “You ain’t paid for the last one yet,” he said. “Which means you ain’t got enough.”

Old Jeb Crawford slipped the bill in the cash register, one of the few working machines in the otherwise cobwebbed lounge. In the same motion he plucked the ten year scotch from a doorless wooden cabinet, poured Nate a dram of whisky a left the bottle beside the glass. “Be ten,” he said, holding out his mottled hand.

Nate paid and Jeb nodded thanks. The older man had hair nearly as long as Crazy Ray’s. Most of it had gone gray, though there remained a few streaks of black. He wore an old, unbuttoned dress shirt from which wiry chest hairs stuck out. His body was all bone and gnarled muscle, with skin gray like his hair, though dotted with patches of whitish discoloration that Nate guessed was some sort of psoriasis.

Nate laid out another twenty. “And back our three friends up, if you would.”

Jeb shrugged. “Suits me. Drunker they are, more they spend.”

“Like you don’t get my grocery money anyway,” said Maggie. She cackled and sipped her fresh beer.

A long flat screen television stretched behind the bar, one of the few pieces of recent technology in the tavern. Maritime news was going on about a new wave of piracy off the Somalian coast.

“Don’t know why they go on about that when we got problems enough right here,” said Maggie.

“That right?” asked Nate.

“Another one yesterday. Those boys in the fishing boat.”

“They found them?”

“Yeah, they found them. They boys. Not the boat.”

The way she said them, Nate knew it must have been bad. He imagined a pair of drowned corpses being zipped into body bags as he swallowed a sip of his drink. There had been a string of missing crafts that fall, drownings, and even a shark attack. But it was too much, even the state troopers who’d paid too many reluctant visits shook their heads like the common explanations weren’t cutting it this time.

“You go ahead and tell ’im. He’d wanna know,” said Tiny, nudging Maggie’s arm.

“Don’t wanna talk ’bout that,” said Maggie.

“Come on Tiny,” said Nate. “You heard her.” He moved down to the end of the bar and stood close by Tiny.

The broadbacked fisherman whose shoulders belied his name swiveled on his stool, thick fingers clamped on his pint glass. “All right, I’ll tell ya myself then,” he said. “The boys were missing their arms. Just like that swimmer who’d gotten attacked by the shark. Taken off at the shoulders. But what kinda shark injures someone the same way twice? Exact same way?”

Ray shook his head beside them. “They did it on purpose, you know it,” he said. His nose stuck out of his greasy strands of hair and he didn’t look at them when he spoke.

“Who’s they?” asked Nate.

“Dunno, but them’s a they, you can bet on it, cuz a they means they got a brain, cuz a they means they’re smart enough to know what they want, and go cut it off.”

“Dunno ’bout that,” said Tiny. “Brain never helped you none.”

“Hey guys, come on,” said Nate. “Let’s get one more round. Jeb, can you get us another round?”

But Maggie’s smile had already faded. Her eyes narrowed beneath her curl of gray hair. “Those boys belonged to tourists, some a’ the last fall types. Come up for the colors. Now the batter house is gonna close for sure, I ain’t never gonna get my dishwashing job back.”

“You know, I have a better idea,” said Nate. “Hey Jeb, why don’t ya hire these three to clean this place up. Bring some of that tip money back into the community.”

Jeb Crawford sauntered up to the bar from where he’d crouched by in the shadow of the cash register. “Community,” he rasped. “Round here, community’s like buybacks. There ain’t none.” He glared with his stony eyes as he snatched a twenty. “Besides, I got Harpswell.”

At the sound of his name the kitchen boy emerged from behind Jeb. He swabbed the bar with a rag dark with mold spots and sniffled. His whitish blond hair hung over his waxy face in unkempt ringlets. Between that and the Empire Strikes Back t-shirt under his faded overalls, he had a look of fanboy meets Mr. Fixit. A protruding stomach that smelled of sweat, fried cheese, and grease, topped it off. “The hell’s the problem?” he asked.

“Usual bull,” said Jeb.

“Take it easy old snapper,” said Nate. “It was just a suggestion.”

Maggie broke her gloom and giggled. “Old snapper, hee, hee, that’s what he is.”

She threw her arms around Nate in a quick and dizzy hug. Tiny and Harpswell gave her breasts a blatant ogle as a bit of cleavage leaked from her red checkered button down. When she let go, the kitchen boy wandered back into the shadows, and Tiny and Maggie stepped over to the ancient vinyl jukebox and put on a fiddle tune to which they began to sloppily stomp the floorboards.

Despite the return of their good spirits, Nate couldn’t get his mind off the two boys. Gillings had been right, there wasn’t any way it was a shark. Shark attacks were rare in these waters. None of the locals believed it the first time around when the police closed the case and put it in their final report.

His thoughts were interrupted when tavern’s creaky door let in a new patron. The woman’s shock of red hair showed in bright contrast to her black dress. It was low cut, with the black pearl necklace bringing attention to her ample offer of flesh. As she sashayed to the bar, they saw that it was backless like a ballroom dancer’s. The shock of red hair not quite concealing her finely freckled musculature. Tiny was stumbling as he danced, not sure who to ogle anymore.

Nate sipped his drink and moved over beside Crazy Ray.

“Second time I’ve seen her in here,” he said.

“What’s a lady like that doin’ droppin’ in on the old creep?”

Nate shrugged. “That’s Van Garing’s widow, right? Probably real estate stuff.”

“It’s not his widow, man, it’s his daughter.”

On Dying Laptops, New Publications, and Wist for World Horror

Laptop.Portrait

I’ll begin this update by saying that my laptop is dying. Seven years ago I bought this Gateway Netbook, and it has been like a companion ever since. Because I travel each week for my “day job”, which consists technically of three twelve hour night shifts, I do a fair amount of writing on the road. I keep odd hours and my body’s circadian rhythm functions more on a weekly than daily basis. And so I say neither as complaint nor boast, but rather a fact, that I therefore write constantly. Any chance I get when my mind is awake and clear enough, I’m at it. Many writers I know are like this, most knowing the value of the daily practice necessary to develop the skill. For me it means often writing in odd locations and odd times. I don’t have a special room or desk in my house. I’m often at the kitchen table, in a café, on a Greyhound, in the woods, wherever I can carve out an isolated spot and a few isolated hours. Therefore, the Netbook has been essential.

I didn’t take to laptops when they first became popular. The large ones were too bulky, the small ones too difficult to type on. But though the Netbook is less than the length of a ruler, it has the beautiful deformity of full sized keys. It was love at first type, and I’ve kept it within reach all these years.

I’ve read anecdotes by Stephen King about the beauty of old typewriters, and by William Gibson about how he wrote on an “old fashioned” word processor. Alas, I will not be able to participate in such nostalgia. My laptop will be dying this year, the year my first true full length book will be published. Like Moses who could only glimpse the promised land but never enter, the Netbook, upon which I’ve written about a dozen novels and countless short stories, will not live to see the yield of its labors. I’ve already started backing up the files for when, one day soon, the broken power switch, which I have to press by sliding my guitar playing fingernail into a plastic crevice, ceases to function.

Well, in much better news, SLASH OF CRIMSON AND OTHER STORIES will soon be complete. Editor Margie Colton of Charon Coin Press has sent me the first round of edits on the short stories. An insightful, accurate editor means everything to a book’s success, and that’s why I am quite lucky to be working Margie and Charon Coin on this project.

I will also be posting more of the CANTOS on the blog soon, the companion pieces that go with the stories that will be coming out in the book. As I hope to make this a trilogy in the future, anyone who reads them will find they flesh out the world where the stories take place, as well as further developing the mythology.

Well, I am off to the woods with the kids this afternoon. It will be some small solace for not being at World Horror Convention 2015, which is taking place in Atlanta, Georgia, this weekend. I am especially bereft to be missing the absinthe party hosted by Daniel Knauf, and seeing my good friend Sydney Leigh and so many other talented and awesome people of the Horror Writers Association. Hopefully I will make it next time around, and hey, with a published book to promote.

For now, it’s time to get writing—heave oars for the starlit abyss!