"The University." Capital T. I just love how pompous that is. Of course, I'm the one who's begging to get in, so who am I to talk?
Listen, about your application form. Part seven.
I don't get one lousy point for being gay? Alaskan Native -- fifty? Come on. I used to live in Alaska. Sure, there's alcoholism, depression, a few suicides. But really. Let me know when they start prohibiting Alaskan Natives from marrying each other, OK?
I'm sending applications to five programs, but The University is my first choice. My admissions counselor told me to say that. She specializes in advising people who are pursuing advanced degrees in creative writing. I gave her money! You know what she said? She said my personal statement must not exceed five hundred words, it must not compete with my manuscript, it must not brown-nose the faculty, it must not cast aspersions on other universities, and it must not, must not, must not contain profanity of any sort.
Let me know when you get an application from an Alaskan Native who has to sneak out of his own house to write in peace. Let me know when you get an application from a Pacific Islander with a half-renovated bungalow full of relatives who aren't even his. Let me know when you get an application from a Portuguese American with a lover whose younger brother has been playing out the world's most garment-rending death scene in your extra bedroom. And the whole family has moved in to watch. The parents are sleeping in our fucking room! Our fucking room!
My admissions counselor says your program's emphasis is "experimental." Do I do the experiments? Or do you do them on me? Please advise.
Little Brother was feeling OK enough to be out in the kitchen not too long ago, in his purple-velour bathrobe, in the middle of the afternoon. I was making myself a slice of peanut butter toast. I set a piece out on the table for the kid. I thought he could use a little nutrition.
"You want me to hurry it up, don't you?" he said.
"Of course I don't," I told him. "Of course I don't want you to die."
He shuffled over on his linty orange slippers and put his hand on my shoulder. "That's OK," he said. "I want you to die."
Show me an Alaskan Native who has to put up with that!
Allow me to suggest the following.
Are my past study and research perfectly clear? Need I say more about the issues and problems I want to address?
My admissions counselor was trying to talk me into applying to a few "traditional" writing programs, but I figured I'd try this experimental thing. I figure if I put in a bit of
It's all too fresh to me. The fancy drugs don't work on Little Brother. The not-so-fancy drugs didn't work on him, either. He's practically allergic to aspirin. It's like, "Excuse us! Could we have a researcher over here, please?"
As if anyone should care.
But what else am I supposed to write about? If being gay isn't bad enough, I'm an only child to boot, a privileged only child of older-than-normal parents -- someone who never has known and never will know what it's like to have a brother, sister, grandmother, grandfather, niece, nephew, son, daughter, wife. That should make for some compelling prose, huh? I can be the Jerry Seinfeld of literature. The Master of Fine Arts candidate about nothing.
My admissions counselor would probably say I'm not "selling myself" very well.
I don't think I need to enclose a writing sample. You can guess how I render this story. It would have to be one of those irritating pieces in which everyone "gets it" except the main character, in which the first-person narrator stumbles around in the middle of everything, oblivious, self-absorbed, whining. "What am I doing wrong? Why's everybody mad at me?" Until the reader wants to crawl inside the pages and shake some sense into this asshole! I mean, it's not like the kid could spend his final days back home, now is it? We're talking about a town of 113 people. East Branch, Neb. would look a little strange atop the year's DEATHS PER CAPITA, HIV-RELATED.
Even the conflict in this tale feels like paralysis. At one point, the "I" character puts his foot down with his lover: "If you're not going to tell them, I will."
"You don't understand. It's not your family."
"Not as far as they know."
"With everything they're going through right now, you want to pile us on top?"
"Everything they're going through? What about you-know-who?"
"Oh, Alex. Don't act like this is about him. With all he's got to deal with, it's not like he gives a shit about you or me at this point."
"How can he not give a shit? They sit there and ask him why he can't be more like his brother. They're practically blaming him out loud."
Little Brother materializes, wraithlike, a few feet above us on a staircase landing. He's heard everything, seeing as, thanks to the renovation, the plaster has been taken off nearly all the walls -- now there's a plot device for you.
"I got no shit left to give," he says. Then he pads off and back up the stairs, muttering. "It's a good thing we're not in Nebraska anymore. We'd have guns, and I'd have to use one on somebody. Maybe me. Calgon, take me away."
So here's the big scene, finally. The narrator has his putative parents-in-law established around the dining room table. Their backs are straight, their hands are folded, they are plump, plaid, prim. Talk about miscast. These characters belong in some frontier tale, scraping out an existence on the infinite plains, beating the odds, battling the elements -- give them the elements, for God's sake! Winged pests, perpetual drought, a big, dark twister. Give them something where stolid and persistent does the trick.
But let's try to stitch this together somehow. Let's do it the way the writing manuals say. Let's bring in ALL FIVE SENSES: the aroma and crackle of high-fat cuisine in preparation; the foreboding lashings of the late October air; the mocking sound of traffic in the indifferent city outside. Let's scatter some TELLING DETAILS around the room: an inoperative wall clock; several half-consumed cans of Sustain Plus Ultra-Calorie Shake; a squeeze bottle of antibacterial cleanser; a framed tapestry of foreign origin ("Bless This House And The Huskers!").
There's something that needs to be said, the "I" character proclaims. Something important. Something that can't be put off any longer.
The folks wait patiently, blinking. From the kitchen is heard a faint crashing, like distant cymbals; something may be boiling over.
"What is it, Alexander?" Mother says.
Our hero draws a breath.
"When are we going to talk about the funeral?"
Note to self: When choosing tragic flaws, try something more edifying than cowardice.
At least the portrayal is consistent. The "I" character finally resorts to "accidentally" leaving one of his lover's discarded beefcake magazines in the living room rack, something obvious but not too awful: Dude or Buddies or Malebox. The trap works like a fictional charm: Mother heads straight for Little Brother's room to administer a gentle scolding, which "I" can hear all too clearly through the exposed walls while pretending to write at my desk in what used to be my bedroom.
"It's lucky it was me who found this, and not your father," Mother says. "Lord knows he worries enough about your soul."
"Wish my soul was the problem, Ma."
"Not that it does my soul any good either. How do you suppose this looks to the poor old woman who raised you? Never mind your condition."
Do it, I'm thinking. Rat us out.
"I'll be more careful," the kid says.
They say characters in a story can take on lives of their own, refuse to behave. But this is ridiculous. And to top it off, as soon as Ma has waddled downstairs, shaking her head, Little Brother appears in my doorway.
"Did you think I wouldn't catch on to that?" he says, hands on hips. "I'm terminal, not retarded."
"I thought you wanted them to find out. I thought I was doing you a favor."
He tosses me the magazine. "Just because I'm ass-deep in your crap doesn't mean I'm cleaning it up. I do enough housework around here."
My crap? I want to say. But he has already spun and marched off.
I'm feeling a bit lightheaded. Nebraska farm families rarely go more than ninety minutes or so without eating something, and after these several months I've begun to go native. I head for the kitchen to find Ma putting the frosting on some sticky buns.
"You knew I was hungry," I say, sitting down at the table.
She sets a clean plate in front of me. "Oh, mothers know things," she says, returning to her work. "Fathers, well -- " She chuckles. "Fathers are too busy. Too proud. But that's all right. That's the way the Lord set things up. If a father noticed every little thing, children would never get any peace." She turns from the counter, displaying her plate of finished treats. "Don't you agree, Alexander? Don't you agree about fathers?"
From her severe expression it's clear "no" is not an option.
The praying in the house is ratcheted up considerably. Ma now insists on grace before every meal, breakfast included, directed as much at the three of us as any deity: "Be present at our table, Lord / Be here and everywhere adored / Your mercies bless, and grant that we / may feast in Par-a-dise with Thee." (Emphasis hers.)
Not much is left at this point but the inevitable, drawn-out hospital stuff. I'll have Little Brother get pneumonia. I'll have him drown in his own lungs -- that ought to be melodramatic enough. Done to death, you might say. The doctor announces predictably that the kid will be made as comfortable as possible. None of the characters is drawn daringly enough to ask how someone is made to suffocate comfortably. I've made them too stoic, too stereotypically countrified. All I can describe credibly is a sniffle or two.
The main character is supposed to change -- I read that somewhere. Change how? I wonder. It never happens in real life. Does it?
Two grim nurses -- "the negresses," Pa calls them -- keep showing up to force a suction tube down the kid's throat and vacuum him out. One holds him down, and the other handles the equipment. They come in once a day at first, then a couple of times a day, then every few hours. He alternately dreads this and begs them to do it more often. From the foot of the bed it looks like a futuristic mugging. It's a public hospital; this must be the government definition of comfort.
The "I" character merely shakes his head. He fails to connect. All he feels is a sort of trite, generalized sadness for the human race when he watches this. He's almost like a spectator from someone else's story -- he's frigid, he doesn't resonate, he's "workshoppy." Why then, do you suppose, am I applying for more workshops? You tell me.
Change. Hmmm. How about this? The parents have headed home for the night and the three of us are lounging in the deathroom, watching TV, something light and closet-faggy -- "Smallville." The kid is caught sobbing quietly to himself.
The "I" character says, "What's the matter?" (Imagine, after all this -- what's the matter?) Little Brother won't answer, but when pressed he points at my lap, which Big Brother has slung his legs across as an ottoman. I have been absentmindedly squeezing one of my lover's sweatsocked feet.
I pick up the foot and wave it at the kid. "This?"
"No one ever squeezed my foot," the kid says softly.
I get up, walk over to the bed, select a foot and squeeze it. "How's that?"
"You're not what I had in mind," he says petulantly, swallowing. Then he can't fight back a smile. Everyone ends up laughing at this. Is that improbable, or what? Laughing, at this point in the narrative?
This would be about where I would have my epiphany. It would happen late that night, while drifting off to sleep on the living room sofa. Illustrate through action, the manuals say. Avoid internal monologue. Good luck. Realizing death isn't the theme of this story -- realizing death isn't a fucking theme -- illustrate what through action? How can I not say what I'm thinking? Then again, maybe it shouldn't be that hard. This house is the Taj Mahal of not saying what you're thinking.
Wait. Maybe I could show, rather than tell. Maybe I could do exactly what I have the sudden urge to do: take the kid and squeeze him, the whole kid, not just his foot -- take him and hold him until the accumulated ill feeling conducts out of him like static electricity. At this point, a shock would feel good.
But I've screwed up the timing. I've got everything in the wrong order. By the next morning, morphine has turned Little Brother into a clown. He's having the typical comic hallucinations. He thinks he's back at the house. He keeps trying to get out of bed to clean up the place. He's suddenly and frighteningly strong -- "But it's recycling day!" he shouts, as Pa and Big Brother pin him back onto the mattress.
All that's left for me to do is kiss the kid on the cheek at the end of the day and whisper, dumbly, "I love you."
He wrinkles his nose and lets out an incredulous "Why?"
I can't come up with a line for that one. I'm not that good.
You know what sucks most about this piece? It's the kind of thing that's born of suspect impetus, of prior dishonesty. It's the kind of thing that comes out only after you've crumpled up twelve sickly sweet personal statements in a row. It's the kind of thing that makes my admissions counselor question my "motives for graduate study," and the kind of thing that makes me remind her to limit the counseling to admissions.
It's not even fiction. I'm not even as creative as this. The kid is gone. The parents have packed up, moved out. It feels like their surviving son may not be far behind, and I can't say I'd blame him. It's over.
Except I'm the one who's dying now. Dying to take something away from this story. Some points or something. I want the points. Make sure you give me the points.