fragments: AT TROY’S
This fragment is the first chapter of a novel entitled At Troy’s. It’s also as far as I got in writing it, apart from bits of dialogue for later, although I know the general shape of the plot from this point on. I’m really fond of it, though. The voice it’s written in always makes me smile. Here ya go:
* * *
I am not an interesting person. I have an uninteresting name (Allan Smith) and an uninteresting job (engineer). My clothes are uninteresting, my car is uninteresting, and my apartment is—guess what—uninteresting. Want another example? I have a dog named Spot. Or, I did. But the story behind that isn’t even interesting.
I’m not writing this to bore you with uninteresting things. I just wanted you to understand what kind of person I am.
All this being said, there was a time for a few months when I was surrounded by interesting people and witnessed them do interesting things. I hoped for a while that this would make me interesting by association, but it doesn’t seem to work that way.
One of these interesting people, a poet by the name of Troy Fannin, who you may have heard of, told me that everyone, no matter how uninteresting, had at least one good novel in them if they would just put their shoulder to the wheel and write it. He didn’t say “put their shoulder to the wheel”; that’s a cliché and he wouldn’t be caught dead uttering a cliché. So I’m making this clarification. There’s a lot of stuff about Troy in this book, and some of it’s not very nice, but I know that what would really get to him would be if I implied that he used clichés.
So, anyway, where I was going there before I derailed is that, if everyone’s got one good novel in them, then this is mine, or at least my attempt at it.
I guess all of this started with Troy Fannin. Troy was, as I mentioned, a poet. If you’re not familiar with his work, you should be. I didn’t use to be familiar with his work, but I am now, and—well, I was going to say that it changed by life, or at least that knowing him changed my life, but it didn’t. I’m still uninteresting. That’s not a reflection on Troy. That’s just me.
I didn’t use to be familiar with any poets, really, or any artists or musicians for that matter. That started to change when I was dating this hipster girl called Moz. I never learned her real name. We didn’t last long enough for that.
I met Moz on a double blind date with one of my coworkers and one of Moz’s friends. I think her name was Catsy. Or Katsie. Qat-Z? I don’t know, which isn’t very nice of me I guess, since I was actually supposed to be dating her that night. But, to be fair, I don’t remember which coworker of mine was there either.
My coworker dragged me into the whole thing. He said he wanted a wingman. I told him that I would be useless as a wingman. He told me that he wanted moral support. I told him that I would be useless as moral support. He either didn’t believe me or everyone else at the office had already declined to go with him. Whatever the reason was, he kept asking. I finally agreed when he offered to pay for the whole thing.
Apparently Moz had also been dragged into it by the Catsy girl. Katsie was thin and had short blonde hair, a pierced nose, and a wicked smile with a laugh to match. I think she was making fun of us. I think she did the whole thing to make uninteresting people like me feel uninteresting. She was good-looking, ish, I guess; not really my type, but this was probably mostly because I thought she was making fun of me. Which she probably was. No, really. Moz thought so too.
So, as you’re probably guessing, Qatzee and I didn’t hit it off, and I turned most of my attention to Moz. My coworker didn’t seem to mind. I think he also realized that we were being made fun of. This bothered me because I thought he might get mad and make me pay for the meal. He still paid for it himself, but I was seriously worried at the time.
Moz was cute as a button. That’s another cliché, but I can’t think of another way to put it. She had a round, pale face with freckles and dark brown eyes. Her hair was mid-length and this chestnut color, and above it she had this black leather cap, the kind with the short bill in front and the button on the top, and below it this forest green scarf. She was short, maybe even less than five feet tall. I’m not all that tall myself, around five-foot-nine, but she made me feel tall, which I guess is at least part of why I liked her. I also liked her because she was sharp and witty. I mean, I’m used to the things that people talk about going over my head—although I guess if people heard me talking shop with other engineers it would go right over their heads—but when she talked, it soared over like an eagle, with grace and majesty and aplomb. Those weren’t qualities I was used to in women, and she knocked me right off my feet.
I became desperate to not look stupid in front of her. She kept talking about art and literature, which made it really difficult. She kept saying something about “the Scene.” She actually said it with a capital S. I had no clue what the Scene was. I still don’t really know what the Scene is. I managed to fake my way through enough of it to keep her smiling, and not out of pity. I guess she also must have found me cute, at least in that helpless puppy dog sort of way. Or maybe she knew how bad I was floundering and really was smiling out of pity and found me cute because of that.
My coworker hardly said a word that whole night after ordering, and I spent all night talking to Moz, and her friend—you know, now that I’ve been thinking about it, maybe her name was just Cassie—couldn’t get a word in edgewise, and couldn’t get anything out of my coworker so she started to get visibly pissed off. It’s hard to make fun of people when no one’s paying attention to you.
So, anyway, I got Moz’s phone number before she and Cassie got into their cab that night. I called her a couple days later and we set up another date for just the two of us. When I hung up the phone, I panicked. I realized that I was lucky to fake my way through that first conversation, and lucky to get her phone number, and lucky that she answered when I called her, and lucky that she remembered me. Surely my luck was all spent. There was no way I could luck my way through another date. I was going to look stupid and I’d never see her cute-as-a-button face again. She might even laugh at me.
I panicked so long that the coffee I had made just before calling Moz was now cold. I guess that kind of worked out, because when I grabbed it and gulped a large amount of it down, the shock was so jarring that it snapped me out of it and I could calm down. Once I was calm, I realized that all I had to do was prepare. I had four and a half days to read as much about art and literature and music and politics as I could. It would be easy, because there’s a thing called the Internet and my job entailed working on the computer, and no one could truly tell if I’m really working or not, because nobody can ever tell whether an engineer is actually working or just slacking off. Seriously, it’s mysterious. Sometimes I don’t even know if I’m really working or slacking off myself.
It might not be possible for me to really become a hip, artsy person, but I could at least sound like one. I got to where I was very optimistic about this. It was research, and if there was anything I could do, it was research. Heck, I thought, I might even be able to read a novel in time for the date. Or even find out what the Scene is.
I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is the part where I read a poem or something and it touches me and it changes my life. Not really. I didn’t read any poems, for one, just read about poems, and for the other matter my life didn’t change at all. I just accumulated information. I didn’t even understand it. I just accumulated it and organized it in a nice, neat database in my brain. You don’t have to understand things to be able to correlate them, which is a fact I learned taking statistics courses back in college.
All the work paid off. I was able to bullshit my way through another date, well enough that there would be another one. We planned it for the next Friday.
I know I said that it all began with Troy Fannin, and it did, even if it looks at the moment like it started with Moz. I guess in a way it did, but I didn’t put it that way because you probably won’t hear anything else about Moz for the rest of the book after a few more pages. So to say that it started with Moz would be kind of misleading.
Thursday, the day before our scheduled third date, Moz called me up and said we couldn’t have dinner Friday. Which was unpleasant news for me. She let it sink in (she had kind of a messed up sense of humor sometimes) before she explained that instead we simply had to go to this poetry club on Saturday instead. Why couldn’t we do both? Apparently that wasn’t something that could be done. She didn’t explain why, and she said it like it should have been obvious, so I decided not to press the issue.
The reason we had to go to this poetry club was that this Troy Fannin guy was making a surprise appearance to read from his new book, Amanda’s Shoes, which wouldn’t even be out in stores for another week. How could it be a surprise appearance if she knew about it? She said Cassie told her. Apparently Cassie had “a lot of connections” in the Scene. I suspected that this meant that Cassie was some kind of groupie.
Cassie had apparently also specifically told Moz in no uncertain words to not bring me along. So, Moz decided it would be necessary to bring me, because it would get under Cassie’s skin. Hell of a thing to tell a guy before you take him on a date.
So, needless to say, I spent Friday reading up on Troy Fannin. Twenty-eight years old, born in the Missouri portion of Kansas City, first published poem at age eighteen, title was “Reed Organs.” Since then published several dozen poems in magazines, and compiled three collections: the ambivalently received Goodbye to the Railroad, the critical smash Coffee Brick, and the much anticipated Amanda’s Shoes—apparently Troy’s stock was on the rise, which, if you have followed Troy’s work, you already know it was at the time. Currently lives somewhere in the Los Angeles area with his girlfriend, the painter Sherri Brett. I made sure and found photographs of Troy so I could recognize him, and also of Sherri, in case she would be there too (which she wasn’t). Troy had a shock of dirty-blond curly hair and wore glasses with circular frames, and had prominent cheekbones; Sherri had shoulder-length dark auburn hair, strikingly large, brown eyes, and a firm yet not overly masculine jaw.
When we got to the club that Saturday, Cassie was already there. At first she was happy to see Moz, but then she saw me. Her face went blank, but her eyes were scowling. After a curt greeting she excused herself to the bar for a drink. Moz asked Cassie to bring her a martini while she was at it. Cassie said, “Uh-huh,” unconvincingly and waved a hand, then disappeared into the cluster of people around the bar.
“Well, fuck her too,” Moz said.
Trying to be helpful, I offered to get her martini. She said okay. As I stood at the bar, waiting to get the attention of a bartender, I saw someone out of the corner of my eye leave through a side door with a cigarette, intending to smoke it I suppose, even though smoking was allowed in the club. The door was marked as a fire exit, “PUSH UNTIL ALARM SOUNDS” and all, but no alarm went off. Despite the hat covering his hair and the lack of glasses, I recognized him as no one less than Troy Fannin.
My next course of action was obvious. I was going to do much better for Moz than a martini, I was going to get Troy’s autograph. I went out the front door and around into the alley that I figured the fire door must open into. Sure enough, there he was, trying to light his cigarette with a book of matches from the club. He didn’t see me because of the way his hands were cupped to shield his matches, so I made sure to let my footsteps make enough noise that it wouldn’t seem like I was sneaking up on him.
He looked up.
I said, “Excuse me, but you’re Troy Fannin, aren’t you? Author of Goodbye to the Railroad?” I thought it would be a good idea to mention the book that was less popular, so that he wouldn’t think I was one of those types who hop onto trendy bandwagons.
He snorted, then tried to light his cigarette again. The match blew out.
“Goddammit,” he said, “This alley is a veritable wind-tunnel. You got a light?”
I said, “Sorry, no, I don’t smoke.”
“Yeah, I’m Troy Fannin. But don’t tell anyone I’m here, okay? It’s supposed to be a surprise.”
“You got it. You know, they let you smoke inside. It’d be easier to light it in there.”
He made a face.
“You know,” he said, “I didn’t even think of that. Been in California too long. You can’t do that in California.”
“Yeah, I heard that. It’s kinda funny, though, California’s got medicinal marijuana but no second-hand smoke.”
“Yeah. Look, you wanted an autograph, right?”
“Yeah, pretty much. How’d you know?”
“Well, you didn’t start reading your own poetry at me, or fawning all over me, and you’re too collected to be a stalker, and it appears you didn’t come out here to make conversation, so an autograph seemed the only reason left. Either that or you’re a contract killer.”
“Wow. Well, um, you’re right. About the autograph, I mean. Not the contract killer thing. I wanted to get an autograph for a friend who’s a big fan of yours.”
“So, what, you’re not a fan yourself?”
I laughed nervously in return.
“No, it’s not that, it’s just that my friend is, um, a girlfriend.”
He nodded knowingly.
“You got something to write with? And on?” he asked.
I had a pen almost immediately. I always carry several writing utensils; an engineer never knows when he might need to write something down, and pens are easily misplaced or borrowed without being returned, so it’s always good to have plenty of backups at all times. As for something to write on, the only paper I had was a business card. I handed both to Troy.
“So, you’re an engineer, Allan?”
“That’s fascinating,” he said, meaning it. “The way I see it, we’ve got scientists, who test and examine and figure out the properties of things, but it’s engineers who actually take that information and make into something useful. Without engineers, science is just masturbatory. Engineers give it purpose, you know what I mean?”
I was dumbstruck. He made it sound so beautiful. If I told him how things were actually done where I work, he would probably cry. And yet he was the only person I had met that had even an inkling of an idea as to what engineers even do.
“I’ll tell you what,” he said, “I’ll do you one better. How about an autograph on one of my own cards? That way your friend knows it’s authentic.”
“Sure,” I said, visibly excited (Moz was going to love this), “That would be great. Make it out to Moz.”
“Hipster chick, huh?”
“Kind of. I guess. Maybe.”
He made out the autograph and handed it to me. Then he put my own business card in his pocket. That was where it all actually started.
“Thanks, Mr. Fannin.”
“Call me Troy.”
“Thanks, Troy. And don’t worry, I won’t tell anyone you’re here.”
“I hope not. I’m running out of places to hide bodies.”
When I got back inside, I couldn’t find Moz. But I did find Cassie. She was sitting at the bar, sliding a wet finger around the rim of a tumbler half filled with whiskey sour. Benjamin Franklin, who was the clever engineer that gave us the lightning rod and the bifocal lens, built a musical instrument based on this concept (with water, instead of whiskey sour) that he called the Glass Armonica (often written Harmonica, but that’s not the way he spelled it). He said it was his favorite of all the things he had ever invented. They say that, under the hands of a musician who knows what he’s doing, the glass armonica sounds very haunting and beautiful. Cassie didn’t know what she was doing, and it sounded like a cat with tuberculosis. Seriously.
I tried to get her attention, but she was having none of that. She focused more on the glass and the cat sounded more like it was at the end of its rope. I persisted. Finally, the cat gave out its death rattle, and she turned on me violently.
“What?” she screeched.
“Where the hell is Moz?” I asked sharply. I was really on edge at this point. Cats dying of tuberculosis can have that effect on people.
“Gone,” she said.
She shrugged. “Away.”
“Away where, dammit?”
“Hell if I know. Why do you care?”
“Because, I got her an autograph.”
She narrowed her eyes at me.
“Who do you think?”
“I don’t believe you.”
“Fine. Look for yourself.”
I showed her the card. Big mistake. Should have known better. She seized it, read it, and, with a cold stare straight into my eyes, lit it on fire with her cigarette lighter. I tried to snatch it out of her hand, but she kept moving it. When I finally got a hold of it and extinguished it in her whiskey sour (man did they mix the drinks weak in that club), there wasn’t any autograph left. Just a bit of scorched paper. I left it floating in her glass and excused myself from the bar.
“Hey!” she called after me, “You’re buying me another drink!”
I ignored her.
“Well fuck you too!” she almost screamed.
I found a table to watch the stage from and sat down.
Moz walked up. Apparently she had only been in the ladies’ room. Figures, right?
“Cassie can be a real bitch, you know that?” I fumed. I don’t normally swear this much, just so you know. That’s how much of a B-word Cassie could be.
That was also totally the wrong thing to say. Moz turned on me.
“Hey! Cassie’s my friend, okay? Don’t call her a bitch.”
“All right, I’m sorry.”
She sat down.
“What did she do, anyway?” she asked.
“Never mind. It isn’t important anymore.” She would have never believed it at this point.
Then she looked at the martini-less surface of the table.
“I thought you were getting me a martini?”
Sometimes you just can’t win, you know?
* * *
Here’s those bits of dialogue I mentioned earlier. They’re all for a novelist named Jack Travis, one of Troy’s “friends.” I’m really fond of him too, caustic and sardonic bastard though he is.
Spoken to Allan, during a boy’s-night-out conversation:
“The female orgasm is a myth created and perpetuated by women to prey on the male fear of inadequacy, thus gaining a powerful chokehold on and control over the male species. Don’t kid yourself, it’s a woman’s world.”
Spoken to Allan, during a conversation about the Allan’s workplace, the constant training and re-training, and concerns about losing his job due to being in California for longer than he was supposed to:
“Fuck that!” he shouted. “Fuck your job security. Specialization is for termites and crocodiles! You know what happens when an organism specializes, when it becomes perfect for a specific niche so that it can just keep doing that? It stops evolving. Nothing evolves if it’s perfect. Stop being perfect, stop all this specialization, stop going to fucking classes to learn to do one job so you can make as perfect a cog as possible for the goddamn corporate machine — Why? ‘Cause that’s a dead-end road, man! That’s all going nowhere, that’s all going down. At this rate, the human race will be surpassed by the insects in no time, and you’ll be a contributor!”
He stopped to catch his breath.
“And you can have that engraved on your fuckin’ headstone, because if you keep up with that path you won’t do anything else world-changing.”
He took a drag from his cigarette, and capped off his dissertation:
“Job security is the bane of the human race.”
And, my favorite, spoken to Sherri, while waiting for Troy to arrive at some event:
“Where the fuck is Troy?”
“He’s picking up his father at the airport,” Sherri replied.
“For fucking out loud,” Travis drawled, rolling his eyes, “That loser needs to cut the umbilical cord.”
Sherri gave him a weird look. “Travis, he’s picking up his father at the airport. Fathers don’t have umbilical cords.”
“Fine then. The umbilical cock.”
“Jesus! Do you even hear the shit that comes out of your mouth?”