I’ve been busy both trying to cobble together a writing office and ready myself for a week-long trip to Pennsylvania for a wedding, and while the latter will no doubt provide for a blog post or two, my mind of late has been preoccupied. So here is an article by Charlie Jane Anders (whose work I’ve shared here before) to help you decide how to open your short stories.
I haven’t been sleeping well lately. I’ve been getting to bed late and waking up early. I’ve been having a lot of nightmares, too, because if I’m only going to get three or four hours of sleep, those hours better be filled with distressing thoughts and images.
I’ve dreamed separately of my mother and my father and both have involved arguments. Terrible, horrible arguments that had me waking anxious and nauseous. I don’t know where those dreams came from but they can go back to whatever hell they pulled themself out of.
Anyway, between exhaustion and general dismay I haven’t had anything worth writing about. Until today! Today, a friend’s Facebook status asked: “What are the stories that you are going to tell your grandchildren?”
That is one hell of a question. My knee-jerk reaction is that I want to be the grandfather who waits until his grandchild/grandchildren reach that age where they just know me as the nice, old, unassuming guy who gave the best Christmas gifts and then reveal stories of my youth that would blow their fucking mind.
Stories about the first time I got really drunk and vomited into an entire party’s shoes. Or the time I was tripping balls on mushrooms and saw a poster of an elegant looking woman while lilting music played in the background so it felt like she was singing to me and – naturally – I fell in love. Or about the time I had to beat the shit out of a guy behind a bar because he sucker-punched me, and only the next morning did I find out he did it because I winked and finger-gunned him and if any action deserved a sucker-punch, it’s that.
I just remember learning about my dad’s stories from his youth and some of the stories of my grandfather when he was in the army and I remembered how it blew my mind. That these vanilla people in my life, the authority, The Man had these stories of derring-do and debauchery. I wanted to hear about their adventures. The times they cheated death. The places they got kicked out of. The bones they broke and the liquors they liked. That kind of thing turns a boring old codger into a man of legend and mystery.
I would tell my grandkids these stories and tell them it was our little secret, and they’d run and tell their friends how awesome their Pappy was or whatever.
And you know, those stories are fun and they come with lessons all their own. That being said, I started thinking more about the kinds of stories that make you think. The stories I really wanted to leave behind. The stories I wanted to hear from my grandparents.
So what stories would I tell my grandkids?
I’d tell them about every woman I ever fell in love with. The ones I loved for years, who built me up and broke me down and taught me more about myself than anything else could. I would talk about our inside jokes and the little quirks that made them unique. I would talk about the women I loved quietly, the ones who slipped through my fingers like air, the ones whose backs I smiled at as they found happiness elsewhere in the world. I would talk about the women I loved for a night and the sparks that danced across the cocktails we stared at each other over, or the women whose backs I traced novels on with my finger tips while the golden rays of dawn played with their hair.
I would talk about love and I would talk about heartbreak, and the projects I threw myself into to avoid seeing their ghosts in every corner, and hearing their voice in every song.
I would talk about struggle and pain and loss and desperation. When twenty dollars was two weeks worth of food and 2-for-1 cans of pork and beans was a deal only in a liberal sense but certainly not in any culinary kind of way. How a Canadian roadie named Pat the Pirate would spot me a few bucks for Jack in the Box “tacos” because I couldn’t even afford that. How suicide and car wrecks and old age and adorable animals can take you from
the highest high to a shivering and sobbing wreck effortlessly, because it is a delightful thing to hear about love and kindness but without consciousness of tragedy and that fairness is a myth and that things never quite work out exactly right, you never truly appreciate everything and everyone you have.
I would tell them about the letters I never wrote, the plot ideas I would pass on, the places I missed, the spots I scribbled my name around the world. I would tell them that my favorite kiss is always the first one: if it’s great, it’s everything you hoped for and the greatest feeling; if it’s bad, it was either never meant to be or it could only get better. There’s a thrill in the unknown.
I would tell them my favorite kiss is the last kiss. Last kisses are a painful, hopeful, desperate ocean of art. There are a thousand words in goodbyes and none shouted more loudly than in a last kiss.
I would tell them the closest I ever came to God was in every dawn and dusk I witnessed and impress upon them the importance of reflection, even on this little rock floating in circles in the vastness of space. I would tell them whatever stories made me realize that in the grand scheme of things, we might be insignificant, but to each other, we are the grand scheme of things.
I would tell my grandchildren stories of life and death, of love and loss, of art and absence, of how the slightest success can vanquish the hardest failure.
And then…after all of that…I would tell them about the three (3) times I greeted a pizza guy in the middle of a party wearing nothing but a gauntlet over my genitals because I’m fucking awesome.
I want to buy a desk. There’s an extra room in our apartment that has a bunch of knick-knacks scattered about but that can easily be moved and sorted off to the side, leaving a perfectly suitable little office. My roommate and I had discussed finding someone like me, someone who doesn’t need a whole lot of room for themselves, to move into the spare space. So far, there have been no takers.
It would be perfect for me, if nobody steps up. I could use it as a writing area. This would be a Very Good Thing, as writing isn’t something I’ve been doing a lot of lately. It’s several steps down after “working”, “eating”, “sleeping”, “watching Arrow”…
Oh, but I have been reading! I’ve been reading The Shining Girls by Lauren Beukes which is weird and violent and different, and I’m fond of it so far. I’ve also been reading with the intent to write, poring over my novel Waypoint (which you can buy for the Nook, the Kindle, and in print) and its sequels so I can have the material fresh in mind when I finally finish the third book.
Writing, though? Not so much. But I need to, and I’m starting to gain my confidence back, and I’ve got these ideas in my brain area, and oh yeah, I got a call from my friend yesterday morning saying I’m a published game designer now technically because a supplement I contributed to was published and put on sale yesterday and, whoops, the novel I was supposed to write to set up the world that supplement is set in is a bit behind.
Okay, a lot behind. (Side note: if you like playing tabletop games/Pathfinder, you can check out and purchase Akashic Mysteries here)
So anyway, to get writing, I’ve got to get in the mood. I need some ambience, some space. Some discomfort, because if I get too comfortable, I get sleepy. Right now, if I come home, I just have my room. Well, there’s the living room, but I get distracted or restless, and I feel weird. In my room, there’s really only my bed and if I try to write sitting cross-legged atop it, I can’t get a good vantage point of the notebook and then I’m like, “well, fuck this, then. Time to see what’s on Hulu”, and then nothing gets done and I get to write a half-dozen blog posts about how I’m shitting my potential away.
I write best hunched over something. Usually a bar counter. And bars give me a weird focus because the business and clatter and general muggyness of it all lends a certain focus to me. I see why so many famous writers fancy taverns, and while I’m sure a pint or two is part of the appeal, there’s just something comforting about having your own corner to your thoughts and yourself.
Also, people tend to leave you alone at the bar. Nobody gives a shit what you’re working on. You’re that quiet guy with a beer, a beard, and a notebook (“People still write in notebooks, ohmigawww”).
I don’t have any fancy beach bars anymore, though. I don’t live in Los Angeles anymore, and it’s awful. Anchorage is tapped the fuck out on solid bars to write in, to my knowledge. My karaoke bar closed down. That hinky place with the corsetted bartenders and really nice low-lit booths in the back that I could sneak into closed down. Now I’m stuck in places where nobody gives a shit what I’m writing, but everyone just wants to come talk about the fact that I’m writing. And that conversation topic lasts about 45 seconds before turning on a dime and skyrocketing into some bullshit and soon we’re talking about sports or video games or another topic I would love to discuss any other time than when I’ve put headphones in and am trying to work on this novel I promised months ago.
The point is I need a spot to write where I’m not going to be accosted, where I can pace if I need to, where I’m not at an awkward angle. I need an office space.
Now the first sentence of this post has so much more weight to it. Do you feel it? Writing.
Anyway, I want to get a desk, but I don’t know what kind. Four legs and a top? Shelves below to store extra notebooks and pens? Shelves on top to put books on, or sticky notes? Collapsible? Something I need to assemble (ooo, shit, I could put it together misOOO SHIT WHAT IF I BUILT IT WITH MY OWN HANDS WITH MATERIALS FROM HOME DEPoh no, I’m far too lazy for that)? I kind of want a nice one, but we live in a downstairs apartment with a narrow staircase and it would be a bitch and a half to try and negotiate it down and inside.
And then if and when I get a desk, I’ll need a chair. I’m not just going to stand in front of my desk and write. That’s exhausting, and it would look stupid. Nobody would see me, but I would know, and I have to look at myself in the mirror every day. More often than most, too, because I’m a narcissist.
So now I’ve got a chair problem. Office chair with good cushions? A normal wooden chair with a back that curves not-quite aesthetically so I can always remember writing is pain? SHOULD I GET A THRONE?
I want this fucking chair:
But that is not a writing chair. That’s a chair you buy when you strangle a lion to death and eat its heart, or at least when the kid who bullied you in high school bags your groceries and carries them out to your Bugatti.
I am currently Bugatti-less.
Anyway, that’s been on my mind. Have a good weekend, gals and guys.
I’ve been thinking about my dad a lot lately. Not the one who sired me and left; the one who adopted me and left. I still call him Dad, but since I have four figures in my life that factor into that role somehow (Father, Dad, Grandpa, Step-Dad), to avoid any confusion for anybody who casually knows me, I’ll call him Rick for the sake of this post. Because his name is Rick.
I had a customer a couple days that reminded me of Rick. He was an older gentleman, late forties or fifties, with a heavy jacket and one of those suitcases with the wheels on it. I was getting him set up with a basic phone, “just a cheap little thing so I can call up a friend when I want to”. I don’t know if he was homeless or just bouncing around. I know he expressed interest in moving down to the lower 48 (California, preferably) and was concerned about the phone working down there. He had a faint whiff of the previous night’s booze, that sort of metallic soundness I used to recognize on my dad. My customer was grateful for the help and shook my hand tightly before he left.
It reminded me of my dad back when he had his shit together, sort of, before his demons began growing up and getting together to buy a condo in his mind and running that ship into shore in increasingly disastrous ways. Then I realized Rick’s birthday had passed by a few days previously. So he’s been on my mind since.
My dad was the youngest of three kids, and the one most likely to do reckless things. He loved to play the guitar and skipped school to go skiing in dangerous places, parts of the mountains that hadn’t been cleared for trails yet. He broke a lot of bones out there and blew out both knees and ankles, which he had to get surgery on later in life.
He had a high school sweetheart, blonde hair, blue eyes, soft southern twang. Her father was the football coach. She was a beautiful woman. She was also the worst person I’ve ever met in my life. But I’ll get back to that.
They eventually broke up and my dad bounced around a bunch. California, Florida, Hawaii, back to Alaska. He’s on the front page of the newspaper somewhere for helping clean up animal corpses from the Exxon Valdez oil spill. Eventually, he found himself working construction. Painting, carpentry but primarily heavy machinery. Paving roads, building runways. There are pictures of me on bulldozers as a toddler that are adorable. I was a cutie. You’ll have to take my word for it.
Somewhere along the line, he met my mother and they got married (I think? I’m 90% sure and in the dustiest corners of my childhood memory, I recall some pretty dirty divorce proceedings). Somewhere along the line, she cheated on Rick and got pregnant with me. Rick knew I wasn’t his. He put his name on my birth certificate anyway, intent on loving me and raising me as his own.
Rick and my mom split up before I turned two. My mom had primary custody of me for a while, but due to reasons I’ve detailed in other posts, eventually I found myself back with Rick. Sort of. Rick was sleeping on his parent’s couch while he worked long days at the construction yard. He’d come home late, pull from the large stock of cheap beers in the fridge and turn on some late night television. He smelled like Budweiser and sweat. It wasn’t pleasant, but that was DAD smell. It was comforting.
You know, there was the time he passed out drunk in my best friend’s front lawn in the middle of the day and told me, his eight year old son, “don’t fucking touch me” when I worriedly tried to check on him, sending me crying home as the ambulance loaded him into the back.
Or the time he and his psycho wife dipped out of Alaska for two years to try and avoid the anger management classes they had to take for domestically abusing each other, with nary a phone call to show for it. Or Frank Zappa when I showed him this fancy program on my computer where I could allegedly illegally download any song you could think of.
Or the time he took me on a shopping spree to Toys R Us. $100 could buy a ton of shit in the early 90s.
Or the time he introduced me to David Lee Roth via a vinyl playing of Just a Gigolo. Or the Eagles via cassette tape in his beat up brown Ford truck.
Or the time I came downstairs in the middle of the night to see him sitting in the recliner with blood all over the front of him because his wife broke his nose with a lamp while he was sleeping, or the time he picked up some young, hitchhiking Kiwi girl who kept telling me how cute I was and I was too young to know what love is, but I was old enough to know her dialect was my new favorite thing in life.
I knew all of my dad’s friends, too. Kirk, who died of diabetes and whose gold chain my dad never removed from his neck after that. Marty, who used to be called the Bonecrusher, but who I recall drunkenly and nakedly slithering out of his hot tub to collapse on his back deck while his friends and my dad laughed and laughed. Danny, who was an amazing guy, whose Rottweilers were the most loving dogs ever, who failed to maintain his brakes and accidentally killed a man and his son when his vehicle failed to stop. Vince, my godfather, who was killed when a drunk driver ran into him, whose son was my first experience with suicide. Mark, who owned a funeral home that I used to have sleepovers in.
I learned a lot from my dad. I’ve got a lot of good stories with and about my dad. He taught me how to smile and say sweetly “Esadah” to someone who had wronged me, because it meant, of course, “Eat shit and die, asshole.”
But, I dunno. I just remember him showing up less and less. When he rediscovered and married his high school sweetheart, they just sucked the life out of each other. It was a slow build, but it happened and all I could see was this man who always had a bit of trouble with drinking, but had a lot of life in him. He had a lot of love for me, and I remember being a kid and listening to my mom and him talking on the phone and I could hear that they still loved each other but I couldn’t understand what they did: that they would never work together.
So when my dad finds his high school love again, it seems like it’s picture perfect. And it turned fucking awful. His drinking increased. Hers did, too, and underneath her beautiful Southern charm lay a petty, selfish, vengeful, violent animal. They were in and out of jails in Alaska, Nevada, Florida, Arizona, half the time because she lied to put my dad in just to admit to lying later and serve time herself. My grandmother, God bless her soul, tried to help them out with money and they slowly bled her. My stepmother would call up and demand more money and when my grandmother refused her, she would cuss and swear at her, at the sweetest and most generous woman I’ve ever known.
It culminated in a prison stint for a couple years in Arizona. Domestic violence. Did my stepmother lie about this one? I honestly don’t know. This woman tried to gouge his eye out with a key once. She tried to run him over with a truck once. She’s beaten him, cut him, broken his bones. Did he finally snap and hit her? Maybe. Probably. Don’t know. I know that while he was in there, she got together with another man and used my Rick’s social security number to commit fraud.
Somehow she’s not in jail. Somehow she managed to reconcile with my dad and they’re back together again. And I feel for my dad because there’s not much left of him there anymore. He can’t walk well because a broken back he suffered on a construction job years ago has come back to haunt him. She’s got her talons in everything he does. He’s a wreck. And I feel for him for that.
But here’s the thing.
My grandparents were getting old and getting closer to passing away. They made it clear to my uncle, my aunt and my dad that their life insurance and possessions were to be split three ways between my uncle, my aunt, and me. They had given my dad money for years to get by, despite his time in jail and prison and despite how much of a blood-sucking harpy his wife was. I, on the other hand, had made it by on my own. Moved to Los Angeles, moved to Seattle, paid my own rent, bought my own food, and I never got so much as a speeding ticket. Ever. In my life. Completely clean record. So I was entitled to a third of their worldly belongings.
This was not an arrangement I was aware of until after they both passed. My uncle came to me to let me know, and though I was riddled with the worst grief I’ve ever known, it was a small silver lining. It was enough money to get me out of debt, out of the state, with a fresh start to my life and even a little spare time to focus on my writing. Their final gift to me was to help me get a leg up on things.
One catch: they hadn’t had a chance to change it in their will before they died. It was still set to be split between my uncle, my aunt and Rick. So my uncle went to my dad again. I thought to myself at that point, well, he’ll probably want to split it, then, and that’s fair.
What I wasn’t expecting was for him to give fully half to his wife and blow the other half without a cent -or even a word- my way.
I like to think I’m not particularly materialistic. I’ve been living out of two suitcases for five years. I sleep on an air mattress when I’m settled down and couches, futons and floors when I’m not, and I’m content with that. I know there isn’t a way to write this without sounding petty or greedy, but I felt wronged and hurt and I saw my hopes for a breath of fresh air slip away. So there it is.
He called me on my birthday this year from a number I didn’t recognize. I was working, so I missed the call, but checked my voicemail later and got the birthday wishes. I considered giving him a call back after work, but then the rest of my life happened.
That’s literally where I’m at in my life with him. I was raised by Rock’s parents from the age of 5. He missed my high school years, my adult years. He didn’t know I almost died in the hospital last year. He took what was left to me and in turn will leave nothing for me, either. There’s a sense of freedom, I guess, in that inasmuch as it means that going forward I know everything I’ve earned, I’ve earned through hard work and dedication. But it leaves me ambivalent to his presence or lack thereof in my life.
Part of me hurts intensely for him, for the dreams he had of a good life, an ideal life with his high school sweetheart and a son that turned into…this mess. His nightmare and the shame I know he feels. Part of me just wants to put all that behind me and just focus on my life and myself and my future instead of getting bogged down with the black sheep of and regrets inherent in my family. I miss my grandparents every day and I sometimes wish I had a close relationship with family members the way most of my friends do. Then again, I’ve relied on myself and felt so alone for so long, I don’t think anything else would feel natural.
I love my dad, but he’s a ghost to me anymore. I haven’t called him to wish him a happy birthday and, though it’s been a year or two since we’ve actually spoken, I don’t know that I’m going to.
I was on my way home, riding in the back of a cab and staring out the window at the downtown lights in the darkness of night. I don’t know why, but my mind found itself thinking about the last woman I truly opened myself up to, the one that, two years ago, destroyed any notion of trust I had and brought me to my lowest point during one of the most tragic periods of my life.
I don’t know why I thought about her. She broke a promise to be there when my grandfather passed away. She didn’t so much as send me a text when I was dying in the hospital, nor after. We tried to be civil for a while. I reached a point where I decided, after six years of friendship and love, I couldn’t – rather, shouldn’t – have her in my life anymore. When I cut my ties without a word, silence was my response. Well and truly done, then.
You know what I think it was? A couple weeks ago, I saw her at the bar. She was with friends and she was drunk. We walked past each other and someone jostled me on my right just as she put her left foot forward. Our elbows bumped into each other. I flinched. She didn’t. She kept going forward, never noticing me. I kept going forward, quietly relieved.
In the back of the cab, I went from thinking about the shitty parts to the last time it was good. Before she lied, before she left. We had rented a hotel room just for something different
We had sex. It was good, but it was always good with us. Afterwards, we turned the television on but kept the volume low. We lay there, curled around each other, talking for hours about everything and nothing.
She got up before I did the next morning, ready for work. I blinked awake and called her over. I sat on the edge of the bed, arms around her waist, and we kissed. Passionately. Desperately.
I knew it was the last kiss between us that would ever mean anything. It was a farewell and I felt my heart breaking as the door closed, though it wouldn’t be complete for a few months further.
People like to talk about their first kiss. Their first kiss ever, as if more often than not it wasn’t a bumbling, awkward thing. But that very first kiss isn’t the only special one. It isn’t the only one with a story. Often times, it’s hardly even the best story.
I have kissed a lot of women, and I’ve kissed many more times. I haven’t always remembered them. It hasn’t always been women I liked. There have been instances when alcohol or grief or anger has driven me into the arms of a woman who would receive me.
One time I spent an entire evening trying to hit on a girl and when it didn’t go anywhere, I kissed her friend – who I had known for years and worked with – at last call. And while I was attracted to the second woman as well, that was still a really shitty thing to do.
First kisses are weird. They can be bad. They can be great. They can be awkward.
Not too long ago, I finally got to take a woman out on a date that I had fancied for quite a while. We spent eight hours together. Dinner, movies, drinks, karaoke, back to my place to relax. We kissed for the first time and despite how many hundreds of times I’ve kissed someone before, this time I had no idea what to do with my hands. The kissing itself was fine, enjoyable and Lord, she was beautiful, and maybe it was because I liked her so much and I psyched myself up, but as she pulled away from my house, all I could think was that I had fucked it up.
We’re just friends, still, if you were wondering.
The first kiss is something special. Not just the first kiss ever, but the first kiss with each person. The first time you and someone else decide maybe there’s enough chemistry to lock lips. It’s different with everyone.
I had a first kiss with a woman in Texas while Katrina raged around us and Black Sabbath played on stage and that’s the most metal fucking thing that’s ever happened to me. She and I still disagree about a lot of things (mainly my attitude), but I still hold so much fondness for her as a woman, an artist, a musician, and an animal enthusiast.
I had a first kiss with a woman in a Bed, Bath and Beyond. Who the fuck knows why? We weren’t dating long. I liked her a lot, but our relationship was full of whimsy and randomness and so we were surrounded by towels and mattresses and we kissed and it wasn’t spectacular. No fireworks went off. No parade marched through. But it was cute, and it was our kiss, and we’re still close. We had Easter dinner together this year.
My first “girlfriend” was when I was in 4th grade. She was two years older, a black girl, and while I didn’t and still don’t give a shit about interracial relationships, there were some boys in her grade that felt a white guy shouldn’t be hanging around and I got my ass kicked a handful of times for it. Which didn’t stop me for a second because I have more balls than brains sometimes.
We played Spin the Bottle, she and I, and some other kids in the neighborhood. We kissed. That was nice. But then she wanted to “French” and I chickened out. I did. I didn’t want to be bad. Now we’re introducing tongues?! What is that madness?
…I don’t…wait a second.
I have no fucking idea who the first girl I kissed with tongue was.
I do, however, remember being in Germany. After a night of drinking through Oktoberfest, I wound up drinking at a party hostel and dancing on a table with an American girl from the Midwest. We laughed off demands to get off the furniture, we drank our ass off, we stayed up til sunrise. I never actually went to sleep that night, so we ran into each other again as she checked out of the hostel to move on, on to her next destination. I remember she kissed me. I had one hand on her hip and she had her hands on my shoulders. It was a sweet moment, and we both smiled as we separated and she moved out the door.
First kisses and last kisses can be the same, sometimes, and they can be worthwhile.
I have kissed sober and drunk, clean and sloppy. I have kissed with passion and pecked with disinterest, and kissed with a hunger, a need for a connection. Sometimes I got it. Sometimes I didn’t.
I did a theater show once and afterwards, after I had signed some kid’s copies of the program and said hello to my friends and family, a girl cornered me and shoved me against the wall and plunged her tongue down my throat. She said seeing me on stage was just, MMM, yeah.
Which is ridiculous,because I’ve seen recordings of my shows and I’m a terrible actor.
I was in a show with another woman,one I had a small, nothing-serious crush on, and instinctively, we kissed gently before the show started. We both smiled, she said, “We just kissed”, we both laughed and then nothing ever happened again.
First and final kisses can be the same and be completely pointless.
The last kiss on the lips of someone you care about can be a haunt.
That fucking hotel room.
The doorway of a three-story mansion, my birthday, good food, good sex, good movies but my ex is distant and I ask if she wants to break up and she insists she doesn’t, and we kiss so goddamn tightly and I find out two days later that she got drunk and confessed to a mutual friend that she did, in fact, want to end things.
That wasn’t the last time we kissed, but it was the last time it meant anything.
That kiss with the Canadian girl in the back of a cab in Barcelona where I’m pulling back and desperately cranking the window open because I’m convinced one or both of us is going to vomit at any moment.
Kisses, man. A picture may say a thousand words, but a kiss will tell stories, and it will pull inside parts of you that you didn’t know you had, emotions positive and negative that have no goddamn names.
Physical intimacy is a beautiful thing. Being close with someone, being accepted by someone and having a mutual need or desire for each other is enticing. That moment where two people feel each other out – does it work, does it not – and you get that heat and that taste, and their hair is in your face or your hands and their clothes are twisted in your fingers and people are watching, or maybe they’re not, maybe there are candles, maybe it’s Bed, fucking Bath and Beyond, and there’s just a moment. A moment where nothing else matters. Whether the kiss is good or bad, there’s that one moment.
I look back on my past with lucidity, and I view the good with the bad with the embarrassing. I’ve had kisses that are forgettable. I’ve had kisses that I miss. Ones that are checkered and that shouldn’t have happened and ones that should have happened much sooner than they did.
Hell, there are kisses that never happened that haunt me for the sake of never being known for sure.
And there will be kisses to come, I’m sure. Good and bad, both with stories. Hopefully, too, one of those will be the start again of something truly special. Something that makes the rest of it just a footnote.
I’m a sucker for an ensemble piece.
Don’t get me wrong: the lone heroes (John McClane from Die Hard, Harry Callahan from Dirty Harry, Jack Reacher from his series of novels that started with Killing Floor, Indiana Jones from…well, Indiana Jones) are awesome. There’s something exciting about one man overcoming impossible odds and taking down the bad guys.
Dynamic duos are cool, too! Hot-headed Gabriel Cash and meticulous Ray Tango in Tango&Cash; unhinged Martin Riggs and family man Roger Murtaugh in Lethal Weapon; neurotic and brooding Batman and inspirational, idealistic Superman; brash and flamboyant Mugen and elegant, precise Jin from Samurai Champloo.
Even The Way of the Gun, in which both gunmen (George Parker and Harold Longbaugh) are small-time but consummate professionals, does duty to make them stand out as having distinct differences in their personalities. Parker is a little more impulsive and a lot more loquacious while Longbaugh has a consistent air of intrigue about him.
These are good things. These are good characters and good match-ups and good stories.
But I am a sucker for an ensemble. I’m not just talking a group, like Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but a group where everyone has a specialized purpose for being there, like Firefly.
I’m talking about The Magnificent Seven, where Chris Adams and Vin are a couple of old, weather-worn dogs with a shared moral compass, Chico is an impetuous young man trying to prove himself, Britt is an aimless knife-man with nothing better to do, Harry Luck is hoping for riches, Lee is on the run from the law and going through a crisis of self, and Bernardo is just trying to get by. And these men, with their speed and their smarts and their guts and their experience get drawn together to save a village.
I’m talking about Ocean’s Eleven, where Danny Ocean and Rusty Ryan pull together a pickpocket, a pair of mechanics, a surveillance expert, an explosives expert, an experienced grifter, an acrobat, the femme fatale and an inside man to pull off an audacious heist.
I’m talking about 100 Bullets (my favorite story of all time) where one man tries to wake up his seven sleeper assassin’s (The Dog, The Wolf, The Bastard, The Rain, The Monster, The Saint, and the Pointman) to bring down the thirteen families running America but bad blood, conflicting loyalties, personal demons, and bloody grudges make the scheme more complicated and more deadly than expected.
The trick is not making the characters carbon copies of each other. A squad of mercenaries can be bad-ass, but in different ways. They do things differently from each other. They act differently from each other.
In The Losers, the group in question is former black ops military. Jensen is an electronics specialist and can (has killed), but he’s more like than not to duck away from direct conflict and crack wise to mask his fear. Rorque is a killer through and through, ruthless and unlikable even by his comrades, but efficient. Pooch is the vehicles expert, along for the ride and to pull his comrades out of the fire, but also the only one with familial ties back home. Cougar is a sniper, and a good one, but he keeps quiet and to himself, haunted by the things he’s seen during war.
This is what makes a good ensemble. Variety. Complexity. It doesn’t just flesh out each character more and make them feel like real people. It also breeds opportunities for real relationships and conflicts within the group itself. That’s where great storytelling is made. That’s where the stakes are raised. That’s what makes each betrayal sting so much more. That’s what makes each death hurt so deep. It’s what makes each victory, last-minute save, reluctant confession, and occasional hook-up such fist-pumping moments.
There’s a movie coming out soon called Fury, headlined by Brad Pitt and starring some other rising name actors (Shia LaBeouf is probably the next biggest, then Logan Lerman, Michael Peña, and Jon Berenthal) about a five-man tank crew stuck behind enemy lines in war-torn Germany.
Lerman is the new gunner on the crew, untrained and untested and thrown into a harrowing situation. Pitt tells him that he’s served with the other three members on the tank for years and across two continents, and he looks it, with deep crow’s feet etched around his eyes and a wicked scar across his mouth. From the previews, there is conflict, with the veterans pushing Lerman to do his job before he gets them killed. There are also several scenes between Pitt and Lerman where the tank commander endeavors to teach the boy about the nature of war and their place in it.
It looks excellent. From the cinematography to the interactions, from the action to the character, it looks fantastic.
But maybe I’m biased. I am, after all, a sucker for an ensemble.
I woke up in the sea and
It was grey and
It was cold and
I had but a
Broken piece of a
Broken ship to hold
The stars that hung above me
In unfamiliar constellations
Spawned a sickness in my stomach
By way of tremendous trepidation and
As my legs grew weary kicking and
My hands gained splinters sticking
I turned my eyes o’er the turbulence
But for what, I do not know
To my surprise, I spied at hand
A lonely house at a distant span
Bathed in a lantern’s sickly yellow glow
With numbness threatening to make me lame and
My clothes clinging tightly to my frame
I swam in hopes I’d not grown mad
Into the waves, mouth full of brine
I sobbed and bobbed and spat and whined
I chattered, sputtered, sank and stuttered
Until at last solid purchase was had
I retched with relief, then
Moaned low and hoarse
The sand ‘tween my fingers fine and coarse
With heavy ears and a handful of fears
I raised my head to the house I’d come upon
Mind and body soundly beat
Ocean tongues lapping my feet
I rose with singular need to carry on
The curtains were still, the windows dark
The outer walls serene and stark
The door wholly unimpressed as I approached
I reached for the knob and gave a twist
Found to my bemusement it did not resist and
Strived for silence as I then encroached
I noticed first the carpet weave
Which did my aching soles relieve
The softness there between my toes
Kneading as my temp’ture rose
I crept and scouted through the halls
Too chilled and scared to risk a call
To wake what residents might lie within and
I realized my plan was thin but
I knew not where my tale’d begin
So I did hem and haw and pause and stall
I left a trail damp and damning
While my all went to staying standing and
I staggered into a den of some grandeur
Art and trophies on floor and walls
Hardly room to store them all
These totems that through decades did endure
I spied antlers of half a dozen beasts
Portraits of the finest feasts
A display of snow globes two score deep
A suit of armor that looked asleep
A piano, a lute and a lyre
But though the richness of these things amassed
Compared to my own, far surpassed
My eyes were jarred from left and right
To take in with a mild fright
A crooked man seated by a crackling fire
“Come in, come in,” he gently said
I tried to speak but wheezed instead and
With a shame I couldn’t explain, I took a seat
I fidgeted in where I’d set
Knowing I was getting the leather wet but
He insisted I relax and enjoy the heat
“I don’t know what to say”, I said
“I’m so sorry to intrude.
My appearance and demeanor…
I’m sure I come off terribly rude.”
“Put your mind at ease, my friend.
You’ve been through an ordeal.
My home is yours until you’ve gained your strength.
Take some time to heal.
For one so drenched from head to toe,
You look thirstier than any man I know.”
He procured, then, a cup of tea
From where I did not see but
It was aromatic, it was warm
It tasted both of honey and orange and
Feeling returned to my legs and arms
I said, “My name is-” but he waved
“I know who my house saved.
The defiant eyes, the dimpled chin.
Crow’s feet borne of troubled sin.
You looked for storms, boy, and one you found;
A storm that almost left you drowned.
I can see you wonder how much fault is yours,
What drove your journey so far off course.
The answer, surely, is one of choice:
The one you make despite a voice of
Reason, a conscience disagreeing.
This is what happens when you
Live not by feeling but by seeing
How much you can get away with and
Just how far you can go.
Those choices led you here, this house,
Quite near the end of your bumpy road.”
I found a response hard in coming and
Myself quite offended
How could this feeble hoarder know
What outcomes I’d intended
“I’m grateful for your tea, sir, and
The comfort of these flames but
If I’m completely honest,
I take umbrage at your claims.
You say you know me clearly, but
How could that possibly be true?”
“Relax,” he urged, “it’s quite simple.
I know because I’m you.
I’m the you who made right choices.
Every one, in fact.
I’m the you with fame and fortune and
All my dignity intact.
My den is filled with treasures from
Ages past and countries far and
Diplomats invite me to their dinners
Even though I know not who they are.
It took me years to get here,
So I built this house myself
As a monument to my endurance,
My accomplishments and health.
The ocean that so plagued you?
That made you claw and gasp?
I never saw it in my journeys until
You scrabbled from its grasp.”
“Wait,” I said, a sudden drowsiness upon me
I realized belatedly there must be something in the tea, but
Answers I needed, especially now
If any of this was truth
“Tell me,” I managed, with lids suddenly heavy,
“You had even a flawless youth?”
“I made the right choices,” he repeated again,
“From childhood to now, and
As a result, I’ve reaped what I’ve sown.
A more fulfilling life couldn’t be asked for,
But for one thing: I…am alone.
There are pictures of me with the famous,
The prestigious, the world-renowned,
But not one of myself with a woman who
Could ever settle me down.
My bed has always been half empty.
Even when it’s not, there’s a great divide and
I’ve found, though the spotlight adores me,
There’s a ‘me’ I’ve tried always to hide.”
“This is the me that does right?” I mumbled.
“The one with no mistakes of his own? Then what chance do I have, who’s slipped up, oh so often?
Am I always destined to wind up alone?”
“Not all who are right are righteous, my boy, and
Not all who do wrong will be damned.
Remember no matter how many crossroads you come to,
It’s most important to always take a stand.”
My breathing grew heavy and my eyes closed
A sleep was swiftly descending
Yet my mind was a swirl of chaos
Even as my body was mending
“One last thing,” I heard the older me say,
“One more thing before you go.
Can mistakes lead to love, or a better life than mine?
For your sake, I hope, but I do not know.”
There was nothing.
I woke up on the beach and
It was black and
It was dry and
It was nothing for this
Broken piece of a
Broken man to cry