The First Draft of Adulthood by Yash Seyedbagheri

Nicholas Botkin struggles to create meaningful fiction, with Hemingway as his muse; by Yash Seyedbagheri.

The first draft of anything is shit. Amend that. The first draft of anything is shit according to Hemingway, who drank, fought, wrote, then blew his brains out in Idaho. But that's an unfortunate footnote. At least the others are quantifiable achievements.

As an undergraduate, you change majors from history, to political science, and then creative writing. Too many theories, too many abstractions, too many essays. You're saturated with theories of executive power, realpolitik, Wilsonian idealism. Drift, discard assignments, As turn to Bs, and threaten to metamorphose into Cs before creative writing finds you. It fulfills a liberal arts requirement, plus your advisor thinks you need a little "release." Some "balance." By which they mean emotional balance, you're certain, an outlet. They've seen your sullen glances, absorbed your laconic responses in regards to your academic progress. I'm fine, I like Professor Whitmore's American Chief Executive class.

Try to find stories, but first find words. Try to form them into something visceral. You might describe dusk as an explosion of lavender and pink. No, a shimmering symphony. It may be purple prose, but it beats mediocrity and saying that dusk is "beautiful."

You devour authors like Richard Yates, Joyce Carol Oates, Lorrie Moore, Richard Ford. And Hemingway, of course. The man who declares in clipped sentences. But you cannot convey the world in clipped sentences.

Birth full stories. A lot of runaway mother stories, stories that would give a psychiatrist an erection. But truth is there's a certain soothing quality to those stories, stories where people fuck up and you know why. Of course, they'll seem contrived many years later, assessing each story like some detached, drunken scholar. Dad drinks, Mom runs off after delivering a Shakespearean soliloquy, involving space and hamster wheels. Mom forgets to take son or sees son as a manifestation of the father, down to the hazel eyes and the gait. Son becomes fucked up.

In your case, Mom ran off with an Episcopal bishop who was also obsessed with the Coen Brothers, quoting The Big Lebowski in sermons. Full pastoral staff, miter, and all. You were twelve.

"It's not your fault, Nicky," she said then, taking your face with both hands, cupping it like a Faberge egg. "Please know that."

"Then why can't you take me?"

"I just need to be happy right now," she said. "That's a very, very long process, Nicky. You know your father."

"Can you hurry it up?"

"That's not the way of things," she said. "I love you very much, though. I know I get impatient sometimes and I'm sorry. Have faith, Nicky."

Faith, faith, words that still ring like big, cracked bells.

Maybe she saw something beautiful in faith, in the unpredictable. Your father was a man of many regiments, after all. He wanted her to type his reports, to serve him dinner, to clean, serve, and to toughen you. Stop encouraging you in art and music back then. Any grade lower than B was her fault too.

Maybe God beckoned from behind his deck of cards, inviting her to a game. A new life.

But God didn't have a seat at the table for you. The Heavenly Father with a capital F.

What is it with fathers?

Blessed are the runaway moms, for they shall inherit the Earth. Blessed are the deadbeat dads, the douchebag dads.

Another truth: Your father spent and still spends much time dissecting you like a helpless frog, stealing out of shadows. He used to be the town bully as a youth, fists full of pugilistic energy. Now he dissects with words. Your mother was too soft on you. You're not aggressive enough, learn to distrust people, everybody uses anybody. Be a lawyer, my friends' sons are all doctors. I do this because I love you, because I must tell the truth. Dress nice, trim your beard, don't look like a bum. You let each word sink in like pieces of glass, each one penetrating deeper layers of flesh. Try to extract those fragments, tiny shapes of pain.

They just become embedded, sinking into what seems like unextractable places.

Write, start submitting to a few journals here and there. Create again on that new computer Mom bought you for your last birthday, that sleek little HP you want to despise, but find so damned effective. Everything's so ordered and accessible and there's something soothing in the electronic whirr. Plus, a computer beats the Khakis and dress shirts your father always buys to sharpen your image.

Leap into the computer. Learn to understand metaphors, especially Hemingway's iceberg theory. Only one-eighth of the story should be on the surface, he proclaims in one of his many visits to your consciousness, his beard hovering, assessing. Of course, he's shirtless, the culmination of boxing time. He thinks you could be a good boxer, even though your father often says you can't punch a wet paper bag and need confidence.

The test of any story, Hemingway barks during his second or third visit, is how very good the stuff that you, not your editors, omit.

Good old Hemingway. Papa. At least he hasn't said your work is irredeemable. But at this juncture omitting is not in your vocabulary at all. Spill, spill, spill, instructors advise. Then cut.

Hemingway also takes exception to your subject matter.

No runaway moms in stories, Hemingway grouses. Where's the courage? The grace under fucking pressure? For you and the runaway mom, that is.

Courage and grace, unfortunately, are missing in action.

Graduate with a degree in creative writing. Your father dons a starched smile, a smile that cannot conceal his thoughts, an energy rising. You should have been pre-law. It's not too late, my boy. Mom sits off in the periphery of the arena, although she leaves right after the ceremony, waving from a distance. She has to get back home, she says. Home, a restricted word, a stuck door you can't pry open.

She's too literal, Hemingway growls. Home. Where's the story in that? Has she ever stared down a rampaging bull?

Mom later texts that she's proud, replete with a little hugging face emoji. She says that she's glad you're becoming independent, learning to navigate the world and all its labyrinthine norms. You re-read them and delete the texts, hand hovering before landing on its target.

Hemingway, of course, mentions he hated his mother. But you can't, even when you try. It's hard when she still calls you Nicksie, a word that propels you back in time. And she still has a certain beatific presence. Even her gait is graceful, easy. Not like your father who clumps across spaces, whose footsteps and bristling mustache are a portent of mood.

You try to find jobs, beyond typing your father's soil protocols from thousands of miles away. Telling him to kiss your ass or adopt a more pliable son if he's not fucking satisfied. So what if you're not well-versed in soil pH or macro and micronutrients? The point is to edit the jumbles he sends you. Put them into something that resembles logical order. The protocols come out all right after a few tries, and after he asks if you're high or drunk for the five-hundredth time. His words never lose their sharpness, their unpolished edges.

At least Hemingway's brusqueness belies adventure. Challenge. Vision, however misguided. Your father's world is limited to his couch, to dusty, musky spaces that reek of armpits, flatulence, and papers strewn over oak coffee tables.

But it's easier to type away for your father, feeling the silence and not the weight of lectures. Arguments always get out of hand, and terms like "kiss my ass," "tyrant," and "bad son" or "ungrateful child" are lobbed like grenades. You are in your father's employ, but this is a fleeting moment. One small point in a draft of things.

You apply for positions in bookstores and libraries, but they simply thank you for your time and speak platitudes about the very competitive applicant pool. Some refer to you as "Dear Applicant." A few intimate they simply want people who can sell books and maximize profits, not pontificate on Tolstoyan leitmotifs or Ignatius J. Reilly's pompousness. That degree swings from your neck, a pendulum, a scarlet D. Others do not respond to your applications at all, moving on in the world, leaving you in an empty space, a space that's oddly soothing. Better emptiness than platitudes.

You end up working in theaters, dispensing Skittles and jumbo Cokes, while screens flicker, giant shadows darting. People rush by in arrays of colors and voices, baritone, bass, mouselike, cracked. In this kaleidoscope, you dream of great novels and better positions. Teaching perhaps, footsteps clickety-clacking through a department hall. You dream of having your name in print, preferably in Garamond, but never, never, never in Arial or Comic Sans. Convince yourself that you can achieve, achieve.

Sometimes, while filling a bucket of popcorn or dispensing a rubber-like pretzel, you imagine Mom picking up one of your novels. She approaches you at a book signing. She will be wearing lavender, a color that soothed you as a child. She looked so saintly. Dream Mom will fumble for the word sorry or some scrap of it in the dustbin of history. Isn't that what Trotsky called it? Yes, that's it. If she cannot find it, she will survey you with a sad, little smile. Murmur some words of pride. She may even chalk up success to her genes. You will affect a cold demeanor in public. Right? In some deep reveries, you reach out for a hug, to absorb her new scents. Once it was lavender perfume and herbal shampoos. Now, perhaps it is incense and Communion wine. Or something without fragrance, even.

Other times, you even imagine Dad as a kind of Leave It To Beaver figure, with a chiseled jaw and a knowing smile, spouting advice like some paternal fountain. Be kind, treat people well. Someone who dispenses easily digested wisdom. But that's too stupid. Too neat.

There's no point drifting into such senseless dreamlands, but it does fill you with a certain power. Sometimes, a smile even escapes. Of course, you also have dreams about the Bishop. He creeps into your mind, his miter gleaming, talking about God's will, carrying his pastoral staff like a weapon and your mother like some oddly beatific hostage.

You try to take each task one step at a time, even though your supervisor, Mr. Van Pelt likes picking up the pace. Pour a Coke for a young woman in a lavender tank top, savor the whoosh of soda. Set the Coke on the counter. Offer a smile. Take the money.

Then say, "Have a swell day," because you like that word, swell, a vestige of Cole Porter songs, neat dressers, a contrast to pink, maroon, and purple floors that look like someone ralphed for an hour and that smell like armpits, onions, pizza, and pot.

Nothing swell about that. Or nice.

Nice is as abstract as a Picasso painting. Mom sends you Amazon gift cards for Christmas and emails with the words "blessings." Technically nice, but not really so. There are no Christmas invites and only a few lunches a year where you both immerse yourselves in electronic screens and grunts and murmurs.

But you are neither nice nor swell.

You call moviegoers "philistines" because they like flicks where people get kicked in the nuts. It's their choice. Don't do it. But, of course, you do. You mutter the word, but at least a few hear it, heads whirling around. There's a dark satisfaction, watching words strike a target. Philistine, philistine. But shame washes over you just as fast. Is this what it feels like for your father to lecture? When did he fall down this rabbit hole? At what point does a person officially become bad?

"I'm sorry," you call. But your words are absorbed by the whirl of moviegoers, parting like the Red Sea. They keep dispersing, into seas of sweat, cigarettes, laughter, and the world, footsteps clickety-clacking, cracking, even thwacking as they move from carpeted floors to cold beige tiles.

On top of this, you grab someone by the collar because he tells you to hurry it up. Not just hurry it up, but fucking hurry it up. Of course, it's one of those things that just happens, a blinding moment, like lightning. Then you're holding a man's collar, a raven-haired man who smells oddly like Old Spice, wearing a lime green 420 T-shirt and a rather small-sized mouth, a tiny O.

There's a certain power in that grab, in holding a piece of a bully, options hovering, waiting for your command. What would you have done next? That's what Mr. Van Pelt asks, the two of you sitting at a small table near the concession stand. A box of orphaned Trojans, a half-consumed Diet Coke, and a grease-stained napkin with FOR A GOOD TIME, CALL TONY DICENZO scrawled in something that looks like hieroglyphics line the table, but Mr. Van Pelt just brushes them aside.

"Nothing, sir," you say, because that's what rushes to mind. Of course, Hemingway rushes into your head, boxing gloves in hand, jabbing, jabbing, glaring. He shakes his head. Why does it have to be bearded Hemingway and not young, pre-facial hair Hemingway? Beards convey disappointment.

"Nothing?" Mr. Van Pelt says, arching a caterpillar-like eyebrow. He shakes his bulbous bald head. "You have a temper, Botkin. I can tell. You're a good guy, but there's something in you. It's in your expression. I can feel it."

He strokes his goatee. His almond-shaped hazel eyes flutter. Mr. Van Pelt utters a mellifluous hmm and then another. Laughter, gooselike and adolescent rises around you, a group of friends rushing from one movie to another, talking about people being kicked in the nuts, of course. Mr. Van Pelt smiles and shakes his head at all this, before turning back to you.

"I'm not a psychopath," you say. "He told me to hurry it up. Actually, let me be more precise. He told me to fucking hurry it up."

"You grabbed a customer," Mr. Van Pelt says, accentuating each word as if he is rehearsing for a play.

"The world's going to go to hell if it takes me a minute longer to prepare his popcorn? Come on. People are being detained in concentration camps at the border. I'm doing the best I can."

"You grabbed a customer," Mr. Van Pelt says, sighing this time. "Over a small issue. Yes, customers can be assholes. I'd love to throw half of them out, believe me. They smoke, they practically fuck in the lobby. But unfortunately, we have to feed the monkey. I gotta let you go."

"I'll apologize," you say, thinking of another failure, an imprint on your consciousness. "Whatever it takes."

"It's too late for that," Mr. Van Pelt say, sighing. He offers a crumpled smile. "Besides, you're not quite fast enough. I know you try, but in this line of work, everyone's in a hurry, you know? Everyone's gotta get to the trailers, get a good seat. They pay for stingily packaged Skittles, for fuck's sake."

"So, profit trumps human decency," you growl. Even then, you feel your fists clench. Unclench, unclench. There, that feels better and worse all in one. But now the PA system, mysterious and hidden is blasting Pharrell's "Happy." And some little kid in a striped shirt is dancing to it in the lobby, wearing a smile you can't help but envy.

"It's the way of things," Mr. Van Pelt sighs.

You often imagine slamming the moviegoer's head on the glass counter, imagine so much shattered. It is a slow-motion reel. One motion, another motion. So many pieces that cannot be salvaged.

On top of that, you imagine being handcuffed, imagine life ending right then and there, police lights whirling outside, red and blue, red and blue. Handcuffs clinking. You imagine the fallen man, a corpse, imagine people pointing and acknowledging this as the byproduct of something within you. Anger? Bad childhood?

Even without slammed heads, you wonder if this the moment when you have become some larger version of your father. Or something worse. You wonder if you're already bad, if badness is something genetic, beyond control. After all, your father once beat up a soldier twice his size. So he claims in his cheerful moments, gesturing with a frightening confidence, arms waving into the expanse of history.

Perhaps you are reading too much into this man's rudeness, seeing something shimmering beneath one rude, but inconsequential action. Yes. Perhaps so. Good people are rude. You have a penchant for brusqueness and grunts when a stranger says good morning in a coffee shop or smiles on the street.

Perhaps this is a man in a hurry and nothing more. Beyond the confines of this theater with its angled walls and beige exterior walls coated in old gum and inexplicable stains, you two could be friends. Silly. Not completely. An image: The two of you, young still, dissect the world's conventions over Fat Tires or 90 Shillings at Bavo's Bar. Job applications that ask you to lie and tolerate asshole coworkers and punish you for being educated. Parents who run off and still say I-love-you. You laugh, sharing this knowledge, clinking your beer glasses.

Of course, Hemingway also fought, and it bolstered his reputation in its own odd way.

You think of all these things, striding out of the theater, Pharrell still singing about happiness and truth. Happy. What an uncommon word. Something as indecipherable as a hieroglyph or the location of Jimmy Hoffa's body.

Go to anger management. Grab stress balls. Shred them, tear them, mangle them, buy more. Hang punching bags, strike, kick, ambush, preempt that fucking thing. Hemingway approves of this, two thumbs up, except they're both holding daquiris or flutes of champagne, filled to the hilt, and bubbling with energy. Inhale, smile, listen to Tchaikovsky. Dance to "Waltz of The Flowers," and imagine carriage wheels and smiles and mothers who stay. Fathers who smile. While drunk-Googling music history, learn that Tchaikovsky was miserable, and chased after his mother's carriage when she dropped him off at boarding school.

And Hemingway, dear Papa, blew his brains out in Idaho. But you don't raise that subject with a ghost in your head.

Try to drown out your father's lectures. Lie, even. Make up fictitious girlfriends, daughters of prominent lawyers and fallen royalty. Make yourself a man on the cusp of promotions. Dissembling beats sparring with his words. Although you do save small moments, like when he calls you "my son," a certain warmth rising. You hold onto that, even though Hemingway thinks it's not manly enough.

Join the world. Credit cards welcome, soothing colors. Pay one card, another knocks at your door. Relish this luxury, the weight of plastic possibility.

You try not to think about a year from now. Or five.

But you do.

Max out cards for the sake of pleasure. Eat too many Lays potato chips, the seductive salt and vinegar ones. The limon ones too, because there's a sort of sourness, real and true. Take to drinking wine. Something grand. Start with a glass of Merlot a week, then move to one a night, two a night. Soon it's three or four glasses. Soon you think of wine while walking at dusk, while staring at the moon, while on the way to the store to buy sodium-saturated Michelinas TV dinners, the sweet and sour and Swedish meatballs, in particular.

Sometimes, wine is replaced by champagne. Hemingway truly approves. After all, he says, there's no finer way to spend money.

Another cold truth: You surrender to slumber many nights and you can't remember how you dozed off. Every morning, remember you had four glasses of Merlot (or champagne) and woke up, regret standing at your bedside, stomach churning, taunting. You try to conjure that movie from the night before. Step Brothers? That seems right. And what else? You hope you didn't email Mom again and mock the bishop. Or make that joke again, the one where she wanted his rod and his staff.

At least you don't write drunk and edit sober. Although Hemingway reminds you that was Faulkner's lifestyle and he's never, ever said that nonsense.

Sometimes your fist is poised over the computer screen when the Internet's too slow or Word takes too long to open, especially on days when you need both. Electrical energy squirms in your fist, yearning to break, while things are loading, loading, loading. Energy squirms, wrestles, shoves. The world's moving and you must move with it. You imagine losing a file you're editing. Or the computer shutting down, something unrevivable, its demise a mystery.

You think of Hemingway, fighting to settle a score, a bet, to establish dominion. Your father's words rising. And sometimes the fist taps the computer. Then a little harder. Once, it receives a light punch. Light, yet the punch echoes, your hand aching with the aftershock.

Thank God it survived.

Cradle the computer, whisper to it. Even tell the computer you love it. It is the one thing Mom bought you that holds up, unlike your father's occasional "sons" and "my boys," which disappear too soon. Same with Mom's gift cards, plastic squares that can be used day by day, as if they're endless. Then they reach their limit and must be disposed of, power drained in a fell swoop. At least, if you lose files, you can begin again and revise, even if the words seem hollow. You will have to take things a step at a time.

In 1922, Hemingway's first wife Hadley lost a bag with his original work, carbon copies, and handwritten notes for a novel in progress. Of course, he recreated the worlds, lost at a train station. From memory.

It was true alright, good old Papa Hemingway proclaims, laconic words soothing, and I remember what I did in the night after I let myself into the flat and found it was true.

You loosen your fists. Write, revise, write, revise, and submit work. Get some acceptances in online lit mags, some of which even pay. One story is about a man destroying a jukebox, which makes you laugh. At least you haven't gone down that route. Even Hemingway likes it.

It's not a bull, he proclaims, but someone's finally seeing a bit of the world.

There's also a certain pride in making copies of $50 checks and preserving them in perpetuity, victory among walls of rejection letters peppered with phrases like "this piece is not for us" and "we receive many, many fine submissions."

You even take on some editing work through friends of friends. Find beauty in tightening others' words. Soothe yourself, coupling words like freight cars. That's not nothing. Smile at an image of the moon, of evening shadows, of a cathedral glowing, stained-glass windows chasing shadows away.

Hemingway says you're going places, fucking places indeed, but you need more bulls or lions to conquer and slaughter. A war or two to fight.

Didn't your old man take you hunting for chrissakes? Think about that jukebox story you published. Isn't that cocksucker fighting something?

You need to create more. Streamline. Craft better dialogue, less iceberg, more cold truth. The cold truth is you still write runaway mom stories. Hemingway himself says you drown the reader in damn emotion, rather than the sequence of events. And you can't completely argue. You have so many stories where if moms don't run off, people get mowed down by trains, and you end up crying. It's not necessarily at the words, but at the fact that you made that particular choice, at the psychological symbols embedded within. Of course, the symbols are drowned in tears and angst, movement mistaken for action, as Hemingway also notes.

Is this all you have, he whispers into your ear. Iceberg theory, kid, iceberg. Jukebox fights. There's more in there. Just lay out the events and you will be able to chip away.

You wonder what's at the very bottom of that iceberg, at the bottom of you. More ice perhaps. A dark demon, something unfathomable, beyond nearly-punched computers and assholes in movie theaters. Hopefully no brains blown out in Idaho. And piece by piece, you must chip away, chip through the runaway mothers and the sorrowful protagonists and fatherly mustaches. You chip, write, words leaping onto pages, tears, wanderers, wonderlands. They rise and rise, as if there's no bottom, but there is a bottom and with each word that rises, you see something swirling among the muck and slush. You take to notebooks, to computer screens, letting words spill.

You write of futures, of teaching, of new faces and possible connections. Conquest even, in the twenty-first century sense, conquering booze and dark spaces (although Hemingway stubbornly pays fealty to the booze). You erase and try to recreate anew, write and write, fingers flying while things swirl, still too far beneath the iceberg. Try to withhold words from your father, retreat into grunts or deflect with jokes, even while insults tug. You look down, down, down, type when fatigue rises and screens blur. Chip away, write, chip some more. Make runaway mothers speak the words I-love-you, the most painful words in the world. Make them try to explain things. But don't have them say it outright in any language.

And don't have the protagonist say it out loud either. Hemingway heartily agrees.

Find joy in Netflix crap or episodes of Curb Your Enthusiasm. At least you can laugh at misery and not sink into it. Duck and dart a thousand more job applications with loaded questions, expose them. Declare yourself a writer, a college graduate, but most of all the best man for this position. Even your father wouldn't argue with all this. Although you do tell the truth, one of his cardinal sins.

Light flickers and recedes and flickers again. Something is swirling down there. No doubt. It is taunting. A blob, a mass. Charge at it. Chip away, the words stick. Chip, more words come loose and spill onto pages. Job interviews are offered. Just interviews, but it's something. Hemingway stares at you, more light flickering as you chip, chip, chip. The iceberg is melting and there's something more of that mass there, still swirling, dancing, darting, whooshing around. Hemingway's beard resembles something like a smile, a very knowing smile.

You stare straight down at the swirling mass. You jab and jab, your fists reaching into this netherworld. Fists meet nothing, but they're coming closer, and there's something beautiful in it, in the motion of things, living, moving, something. Hemingway still watches.

Champagne in hand, he takes a swig and asks, "So, son, what's at the very bottom? What's at the very bottom of that damned fucking big iceberg called Nicholas Alexander Botkin?"

2 comments:

  1. The turbulent life of a writer with Hemingway as Virgil.The note of self discovery at the end was well done, and could be interpreted as things turning for Nicholas, his finding himself in all the muck. Fitting title also. Cheers.

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  2. What would Hemingway say about Netflix and chill? I have this piece to thank for putting that thought in my head.

    ReplyDelete