So, to be, or not to be: It happened w-a-y back, at least 30 Hanukkahs, nigh Dutch Reagan’s Tear down this wall, before household staples like MiraLax and Viagra and Rogaine. But – I need a swig of H2O – not so long ago – slurp – for me to forget how this prince landed here.
My Madre and Vater hooked up during the Cold War at UW-Madison. Beatrice Pareto was a grad student in Philosophy. Moshe Mendelssohn was a post-grad in Music Theory. Both were international students. With tuition waivers, stipends and health insurance. Richly deserved. If you ask me.
Her antenati included Vilfredo Pareto. The Italian engineer, economist and philosopher. Who introduced the concept of Pareto Efficiency. Which posited it’s impossible to make one individual better off without making at least one individual worse off. And had applications in economics, engineering and life sciences. His landsmen included Felix Mendelssohn. The German composer, pianist and conductor. Considered the greasy-sweetest child prodigy the annals of Western tunes have ever known and recognized among the most bad-ass composers of the Romantic era.
At first, Beatrice and Moshe clashed like Athens and Sparta. And Albanian punk and Nashville country. And a Steinway tossed from the University’s Carillon Tower, facing the Social Sciences building on Observatory Drive. In time, they shared common ground. Common activities. Common passions. Like reading pre-Socratic philosophy on Bascom Hill. And practicing assorted embraces, especially the jaghana in Chapter 2 of the Kama Sutra. Oh, and mathematics. Totally mathematics. Which they agreed underpinned the nature, mechanics and import of philosophy and music and their passiOns like pOured concrete belOw the WiscOnsin State CapitOl. WhOleheartedly with CAPITAL “Os.”
But she didn’t propose marriage to him. Nor he to her. They believed only government vendor-wannabes. And prom-date-seeking losers. And business-types in white, button-down, oxford cloth shirts from Brooks Brothers made proposals. Not them. No way. Never-ever.
An only child, I was crowned, raised and home-schooled in music and philosophy. Princely. And in mathematics. Inevitably. Just like I was primed to brush my teeth. And scrub my face. And smirk-reply, “Distributed Algorithms or Schenkerian Analysis or anything written by D.H Lawrence, Nabokov or Boccaccio. I can’t decide, Ms. Luftkopf,” when my pre-school teacher asked, “What’s your favorite subject, buddy?”
Now, I’m thinking you’re thinking I was a first-class 1) brainiac, 2) ham/let, 3) smart ass or 4) all of the above. And, in pre-school, I probably would have answered, “How do I know? I’m not into Epistemology at this juncture in my psycho-social development.”
Any who, I went on to earn a B.A. in Pure Math from Harvard and a Ph.D. in Applied Math at MIT before pivoting, like a Janus-faced politician campaigning for election, to Psychometrics, in general, and the objective measurement of abilities, attitudes and personality traits, in particular.
My first kosher job, after a few down-the-drain years jabbering at Stanford and Yale, was with the CIA, where I was responsible for correlating and evaluating intelligence related to national security and puking out that stinky stuff to stuffy bureaucrats. But I found government work too, ah, hotbox-lockdown. So I escaped to launch my own business, which I tagged Image Maker. My mission was twofold: 1) to make a rock-star public image for my clients, especially political candidates, and 2) to HIGHlight and underscore their images for our contract’s duration.
As you might suspect, my work was totally chugalug, so I never married, although I had several, you might say, UP-close relationships that never materialized beyond, well, …‘nuff dis-clOsed abOut that. Except – Promise to keep this between you and me? – I’m trying really hard to go beyond just a mechanical in-out relationship with women to a – I’m not sure what to call it – loving, honoring, committed place. But, so far, I’ve only preempted disappointment.
Now, one of my MIT profs, an engagingly influential but frumpy-looking dude with a dime store, shmatta-toupee on his noggin, hung out with J. B. Rhine in the 1930s at Duke University. Heady J.B. investigated extrasensory perception (ESP), also called the sixth sense, which he claimed received information not gained through the physical senses but rather with the mind. For whatever reason – enhance my chances of getting laid? – I became totally obsessed with researching and preaching ESP. And my, if I may say so, a*s*t*r*a*l work was published in the Journal of Parapsychology and Journal of Experimental Psychology among other four-star publications worldwide like Oregon’s Bizarro Magazine. I also held big kahuna posts at the Institute of Noetic Sciences, the Parapsychology Association and the Society of Psychical Research. In short, I was considered quite the muck-a-muck, grand poohbah or – forgive my sincerity – hot shit in the Big Apple’s prestigious Flushing Times.
Incidentally, in the wake of my pickings in academic publications, I shook the dice like Wild Bill Hickok at writing a short story about the peaks and valleys of a guy’s life lived, near and dear to my heart and wallet. Before I submitted it to a literary journal, however, I hedged my bet straightaway by hiring a BIG ticket writing coach to critique it. Truth told – I’m telling you this in confidence – my liberal arts parents were underwhelmed with my pseudo-scientific ESP abracadabra. So, I wanted badly, super badly, to impress them with a published short story in a prestigious literary journal, to feel some of the love they passionately but guardedly felt for each other and to carry on my ancestors’ historical distinction.
For too-painful weeks, I sat on prickly pears for the coach to reply, climaxing in our f-2-f at a deli on NYC’s Lower East Side. As I recall, our chewy chat went something like this:
“Thanx for meeting with me,” I said, munching a pastrami-tongue combo on Rosen’s rye.
“Thank you for trusting me with your manuscript.”
“Want some nosh? The tongue here is to die for.”
“May I have a toasted cheese on white bread and a diet cola?”
“Waiter,” I called out, “toasted cheese on white and a diet for la signora professori.” Then, “Let’s cut to the bone. What’s your verdict, Fräulein Professor?”
“Ok, first, your piece creates a surreal atmosphere, absurd in a David Lynch-meets-Salvador Dali sort of way, and it has a distinctive voice with personality and wit.”
“Grazie,” I said, slurping a cold Peroni.
“And, you created a character whose soaring imagination and intelligence lead him to fame and fortune, followed by his …. An Icarus myth retold. False facts exposed.”
“Thanx for noticing my nod to Icky.”
“Most importantly, hope you don’t think I’m crude,” she said, “your smart-aleck writing style is hot and distinguishes you from the crowd.” Then, sipped her diet cola like it was 100+ proof Old Bushmill Irish whiskey, and she was stranded in the Sahara desert.
“I take that as a complimento and love when distinguished Ph.D.s talk hot and doity.”
“However, your writing is more aimed at carving a new branch channel than following the main stream. So, I’m wondering how readers will respond.”
“For example, the first couple of pages consist mostly of short fragmented sentence pieces, many of which I wanted to link together like Oscar Meyer’s Smokies for a tried and true subject-verb-object structure like Jane runs home. But, the rest of your piece uses conventional sentences with some of Mr. Webster’s most elaborate words and a few he probably never heard of. I enjoyed the stream-of-consciousness flow, but at times I longed for a chance to exhale, to be pulled along with less exhausting prose.”
“That bifurcated structure was intentional, reflecting…”
“Please, may I finish? Your writing style in this piece is more effective, at least to my mind, than the academic writing samples you sent me, because the volume of your esoteric allusions feels more manageable. But…”
“But, what?” I said.
“Punctuation is linked in a reader’s brain to certain rhythms. Putting periods in where commas might normally go makes the reader stop longer. It’s basically the literary equivalent of whiplash to make the reader stop reading,” she said, nibbling on her toasted cheese like a little white mouse.
“Audaces fortuna iuvat.”
“I don’t understand,” she said.
“It’s Latin, idiota. Fortune favors the bold.”
“And, your story’s language,” she continued, “feels out of the narrator’s control, brandished like a dull sword meant to impress but ultimately dissuading any reader from caring at all about its clichés, pop culture dialect, incomplete thoughts and sentence fragments.”
“Can you spell a-b-s-u-r-d?” I said.
“Furthermore, your story is largely plotless and pointless and nonsensical.”
“Sorry, Snow White, if your sense of HIGH drama is Sunday-lunch in the park with Brooks Brothers and you never XXXperienced ecstasy with a ROsen, Offbeat, antiherO, smashing literary cOnventiOns and dOing cOmic battle with mainstream standards,” I said. Then, suddenly and unexpectedly whip-lashed out, “LOOk. Here. StOp. Catch. 22. PeriOd.”
Trying to regain her balance, like she was blue-in-the-face, dehydrated-dizzy-breathless after a seriOus wOrkOut, she said, “I’ve been immersed… in critiquing student work… and talking about the craft of fiction… in my Creative Writing 101 class… at NYU, and that experience – however mainstream – suggests upgrading… and enhancing your story, because it’s almost… all telling and summary.”
“Almost all telling and summary?”
“Right, the narrator is in one place, drinking water (?), writing and telling like a parched inmate turning state’s evidence. The reader goes through his life lived at a pretty fast clip without entering any particular scenes with other characters or interaction. That leaves less opportunity for the reader to get engaged and invested in the piece,” she said, refleshed refreshed.
“What about the narrator’s snarky engagement with his pre-school teacher?” I said.
“That aside, the story’s ending relies on the reader’s Eureka! moment, discovering where the narrator is, but the narrator doesn’t change. There isn’t a character arc or journey that I could feel.”
“What about the narrator’s journey from a top-tier ESP consultant and published writer to his ultimate…?”
“Well, as I said, I didn’t feel it.”
“Did you,” I said, “as you put it, ‘feel’ that the story was the narrator’s soliloquy?”
“Yeah, wasn’t it packed with subtle and not-so-subtle references to Hamlet’s fourth of seven soliloquies?”
“Hamlet’s fourth soliloquy?”
“Remember?” I preached, “in the so-called ‘nunnery scene’ in Act III, Scene I of Shakespeare’s play Hamlet?”
“Doesn’t the story begin and end with Hamlet’s existential ‘To be, or not to be?’”
“I saw that.”
“And, doesn’t the narrator refer to himself as a prince and princely?”
“And, doesn’t the narrator admit he’s a ham/let?”
“And, isn’t Hamlet’s line that begins ‘Whether ‘tis nobler in the mind to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune…’ repeated?”
“So, are you saying those recurring references to Hamlet didn’t grab you like when you’re star gazing with your main squeeze…if you have one?”
“I’m sorry. They didn’t. Besides, what’s the bottom line relevance of Hamlet to your story?”
“For openers, my dear,” I cross-examined, playing Perry Mason in court/ship, “isn’t the narrator, like the character Hamlet, discernably depressed and seeking revenge because of his fall from breathtaking ESP guru to breathless …?”
“And, like the play Hamlet, isn’t my story a tragedy?” I continued, waving my right hand in her face like she was a puppy at the Humane Society, and I wanted her attention.
“Well, technically, in Aristotle’s Poetics, a tragedy is defined as…”
“And I could go into the weeds to distinguish a soliloquy from a monologue and explain why the narrator chose one over the other and whether he’s contemplating suicide and/or reflecting on his life lived and…”
“Hold on,” she said.
“And the narrator’s sense of frustration that, however bad life is, he’s prevented from doing anything majorly cool about it by fear of the unknown, and…”
“Look, right now, to my mind, the parallels between your narrator and Hamlet are flimsy. My suggestion is to take a bolder step, commit to the incorporation and make the connection stronger. Or, you could go the other way. Draw the parallels with more subtlety, and trust that those clever enough will appreciate what you’ve done. And maybe even consider leaving enough of a story there so that if your readers don’t exactly understand what you’re trying to do, they might still take something new away from it anyway. As a reader, I love a puzzle, and uncovering a subtle connection can be exciting. For example, you could s-l-o-w down the story’s pace and follow the protagonist in some of the specific events or moments told.”
“Like what moments or events told? Be specific!”
“Maybe there’s a character or two within the story, or factored into the telling, and you could develop a self-reflexive backstory at that level, which the reader experiences in the narrative present.”
“A character within the story like…?”
“Like someone who represents a semblance of fiction’s craft like showing, not just telling, what the narrator does and why, how, to whom and to what extent he does it.”
“Like more bump and grind between characters within the story and more oohs and aahs between the story and its readers?”
“More bump and grind like …?”
“Like pump the narrator’s passionate M.O. and reactions, and show how they reflect the larger society and what they reveal about human behavior.”
Pump this, I said to myself, picturing my right hand rocketING for Equal Rights.
“Oh, one more suggestion. Your story’s ending is confusing. I got that its narrator is a brilliant Asperger-type and borderline megalomaniac and his tone may be truly autobiographical with little if any exaggeration. And I say that with deep respect. But, how did he get out, then write his story and meet with his writing coach? To my mind, it looks like an Escher drawing, where the viewer can’t find the beginning of the loop.”
“Escher, how do you know his stuff?”
Grinning like a bottom feeding, baby catfish with cheese on its whiskers, she said, “I studied him in Art Appreciation as an undergraduate at Bennington College and wanted to sO squeeze his sOul.”
“Hey, he’s among my top 10 favorite 20th Century Dutch graphic artists. His math-inspired Concentric Rinds wood carving is awesome, and he even broke bread with the mathematician George Polya. Have you read his book How to Solve It? I did, when I was in diapers. Did I mentiOn that my MOm and POp were tOtally intO math with passiOnate CAPITAL “Os?”
“Really?” she said.
“For real,” I asked, “about my story’s ending, didn’t you read that its narrator ‘immediately shook the dice’ and ‘straightaway hired a writing coach’ to critique it, then put one and one together to conclude that he wrote his story before he was escorted to…Are you dumb as dirt, or what?”
“Sorry, I didn’t,” she said, signing to our waiter, like John Hancock theatrically signed The Declaration of Independence, that she wanted a box to take her diet and shiksa sandwich home for her sole squeeze, Escher, a toy poodle.
“O-k,” I sighed, wolfing down the last morsel of pastrami and chugging the last millilitre of suds.
“Thank you, again,” she said, “for trusting me with your story.” Then, suddenly and unexpectedly like the first time Milda ordered me to spank her, she morphed from a fishy-mousey-puppy, white bread-tight ass to a naked, chariot-driving Baltic warrior. “Your story has kick-ass potential, idiota! Are you dumb as dirt, or what? Smell the Bushmill! Remember this! Always! A great short story has the power to remove you from your life and lift you w-a-y UP for a while like the first time you watched Deep Throat alone in the dark.”
“Nice touch. Did you make that UP?”
“I flat-out stole most of it from Heidi Pitlor’s Foreward to The Best American Short Stories, which I push on my creative writing geeks. You wanna star gaze with a lovable and loving woman? Keep writing! Herculean-ly! Jolt your readers! Audaces fortuna iuvat! Kick ‘em in the crotch! Watch ‘em cringe! Listen to ‘em gasp! Taste their retch! Smell their sweat! Then, lift ‘em away from their drive-thru McLives, if only for a while, w-a-y UP to a Michelin 3-star treat!”
“But, what mainstream literary journal would have the cojones to…?”
“Fuck but!” she commanded. “Climb the hill! Walk the edge! Reach for the stars! Refuse to settle for a handful of muck!”
Sorry, where was I? Oh, so, w-a-y back, my ESP skillz were Image Maker’s hallmark. So, I wasn’t surprised when a high-profile, low-brow, political candidate, with a sinner’s chance of election- survival in Dante’s Inferno, knee-begged me, Please-please, for help. You see, the candidate was desperately seeking a big league makeover. Specifically, he wanted his opponent’s supporters to somehow liken, link and equate him with his opponent’s top-drawer qualities, thereby supercharging or double bubbling him, so voters would elect him rather than the other guy. I admit what I described seems kinda kinky, so I’ll unravel it.
I was tasked, unequivocally, to make my client appear like his opponent to the extent that his opponent’s advocates would elect my client. Exactly how I would make my client appear like his opponent was predicated on my reputed abracadabra. Now, please understand, my objective was no amateur-night, rabbit in a hat trick. I mean, merely modifying and aligning my client’s physical quirks with his opponent’s John Glenn crew cut, What’s your name, honey? banter and Listerine wheeze would be too, ah, 1+1 = 2. Nothing my client would cough up boku bucks for. Capish? My M.O. would have to be much more, ah, Steven Hawking, based on an efficiency- algorithm my maternal Grandpa Vilfredo would have relished like somewhere between how to square a sausage and solve Riemann’s hypothesis. I can’t, or won’t – your choice – say more about it now and here. Cuz, it’s sorta pricey and proprietary and classified (?) like what goes on at Area 51 – We insiders tag it Paradise Ranch, Home Base and Watertown – in the Silver State of Nevada.
Did my M.O. work? You bet it did, Cha-ching, at least in the short term. I mean, it’s nobler to take arms against a sea of troubles by opposing them than to suffer in the mind the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, right? My client’s approval rating soared, and he was Gallup-predicted to win his race with flying red-white-blues, which was exactly what happened. Concurrently, Image Maker’s stock sky-rocketed, enabling me to elevate my consulting fee to a towering figure, which rivaled One World Trade Center in downtown Manhattan.
However, there was, as there usually is in gummy ESP cases, an Extra factor. My client’s opponent landed a Muhammad Ali-counterpunch, which shouldn’t have jolted me, but did because of its speed, accuracy and P!O?W! Licking his wounds, my client’s challenger hired my #1 contender, an ESP consultant famous, or you might say infamous, for in-your-puss paybacks. So, when my client ran for re-election, he suffered the same M.O. that I exploited to get him elected. Explicitly, his consultant got my client’s supporters to somehow liken, link and equate his client with my client’s blue-chip qualities, thereby voting for him rather than my guy.
Did my competitor’s M.O. work? You bet it did, Cha-ching, at least short-term. I mean, as I said, it’s nobler to take arms against a sea of troubles by opposing them than to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, right? My horse’s approval rating flopped, and he was Washington Post-predicted to lose his race with flying red-white-blues, which was exactly what happened. Concurrently, Image Maker’s stock crashed, causing me to drop my consulting fee to a dumpy figure, which rivaled a garden apartment in the South Bronx.
That’s what happened short-term in both elections. Longer term, both my client and his rival were outed for exactly what they were. Two-faced frauds, they found themselves in the political bread line, begging for crumbs like under-associate deputy commissioner of this or that department of who-gives-a-shit, for as long as they did what they were told and kept their heads down and mouths shut. My nemesis consultant and I, however, continued to spar with his implausible wins and my inconceivable defeats r-e-p-e-a-t-i-n-g themselves like a Tommy gun’s rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat, rat-a-tat-tat during Chicago’s St. Valentine’s Day massacre. When I totally had enough of his holey valentines, I scheduled a Don-Vito-sit-down to negotiate a settlement, which resulted in an, ah, shall I say, unarranged altercation.
During our get-together, Nemesis felt so threatened, despite my best attempt at Emily Post etiquette, that he 9-1-1d for help. When the cops arrived, I clearly recall saying, “I’d rather kill myself than submit to that rat-fuck,” which the cops unfortunately took to mean that I was about to off myself with my trusty 9mm Beretta. I mean, I was obviously dramatizing Shakespeare’s Ophelia but with more gusto like – your choice – Othello or Romeo or Brutus. But, the Philistine cops acted like they were more into munching on Charles Schulz’s Peanuts, so they un-comically escorted me to…
And what happened to that rat? I hoped he’d crash like that Steinway from his tower to Observatory Drive, then char-burn like a Janus-faced politician in Dante’s Inferno. But, as Grandpa Vilfredo theorized, “It’s impossible to make one individual better off without making at least one individual worse off.” So, go figure, he was awarded the Mayor’s metal for distinguished citizenship, and I found myself here.
Well, as I said, to be, or not to be: It happened w-a-y back, at least 30 Hanukkahs, nigh Dutch Reagan’s Tear down this wall, before household staples like MiraLax and Viagra and Rogaine. But – I need another swig of H2O – not so long ago for me – slurp – to forget how this prince landed here, playing Paul Newman’s Cool Hand Luke, but too cool like a dis-heartened octogenarian’s chubbie.
Here, heart-pOuNdInG craving, breathlessly scheming in-YOUR-puss payback, rat-fuck.
Here, a brainiac, ham/let, smart ass with zero probability of getting laid, of going beyond just a mechanical in-out relationship with women, of impressing my parents with a published short story in a prestigious literary journal, of feeling some of the love they passionately but guardedly felt for each other and of carrying on my ancestors’ historical distinction?
Here, hotbox-locked down, crouched against a white-washed wall within a rotten-cheesy – How shall I describe it? – rat trap with a too-bright LED bulb, dangling from its flakey-peeling ceiling over a piss-stained El Cheapo toilet and bleach-starved-drip-drop sink next to a back-ouching cot under a prickly-itchy blanket with I’ll count them. – uno, due, tre, quattro, cinque, sei, sette, otto – Hershey-colored, parallel, equilateral streaks: B-E-L-L-E-V-U-E.
Here, wRiTiNg about my life lived and talking to myself about wRiTiNg about my life lived and thinking about talking to myself about wRiTiNg about my life lived and reflecting about thinking about talking to myself about wRiTiNg about my life lived, I firmly resolve with the help of thy grace to confess my sins, do penance and amend my life.
J. Ray Paradiso is a recovering academic in the process of refreshing himself as an experimental
writer and a street photographer.
Twenty-four short stories, exclusive afterwords, interviews, artwork, and more.
From Trumpocalypse to Brexit Britain, brick by brick the walls are closing in. But don’t despair. Bulldoze the borders. Conquer freedom, not fear. EXIT EARTH explores all life – past, present, or future – on, or off – this beautiful, yet fragile, world of ours. Final embraces beneath a sky of flames. Tears of joy aboard a sinking ship. Laughter in a lonely land. Dystopian or utopian, realist or fantasy, horror or sci-fi, EXIT EARTH is yours to conquer.
EXIT EARTH includes the short stories of all fourteen finalists of the STORGY EXIT EARTH Short Story Competition, as judged by critically acclaimed author Diane Cook (Man vs. Nature) and additional stories by award winning authors M R Cary (The Girl With All The Gifts), Toby Litt (Corpsing), James Miller (Lost Boys), Courttia Newland (A Book of Blues), and David James Poissant (The Heaven of Animals), and exclusive artwork by Amie Dearlove, HarlotVonCharlotte, CrapPanther, and cover design by Rob Pearce.
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