Return periodically to this section to discover a new story. This is a work of fiction.
BEFORE IT IS WRITTEN
First published in Black Denim
This happened the year the Russians launched Sputnik and nearly stole the heavens.
There was this guy who was younger than any of our dads, but older than our biggest brothers. Like an uncle, maybe. Not the almost cool playboy one. The weird one that never married. The quiet one. The loner. We whispered rumors of boys disappearing in the night. They would be our age or maybe a little older. But they were never one of us.
We could only imagine. We kept our distance.
Something dangerous. That was a time when I was drawn to something dangerous. Hell, maybe I wondered if I could be dangerous. Like the danger wasn't just something out there. It was something inside here, too.
We all lived in the new housing tract of pastel houses with double garages, new lawns and the little parkway trees that would someday buckle the sidewalks. My house stood at the edge of the tract. When we sat on the brick planter resting from a game of pepper and sipping my mom's lemonade, we could stare across the empty field to the little bungalows that had been built right after the war. That one on the corner lurking behind bougainvillea and shaded by elephant ears and banana trees was his. Although sickened by what it might mean, I wanted to know what happened to those boys---if they even were.
So one day I ditched. I walked straight across that field that was knee high with dry grass, wearing tight blue jeans cuffed over black high top Keds, a black belt cinched tight around my small waist, the buckle pulled to the right, and a white t-shirt stretched across my boney chest. My Swiss army knife that I pretended was a switchblade hung in my back pocket. I didn't dab my hair, but let strands fall over my forehead with a ducktail in back.
There's this weird feeling, being out when school is in. Like the rest of the world just stood in some Twilight Zone. The streets were empty, of course. Most of the dads in our neighborhood commuted north to Rocketdyne in Canoga Park to work on top secret stuff, or south to Disney Studios in Burbank to work on not so secret stuff, which then was Sleeping Beauty. The rest had boring jobs, like my school teacher parents.
When I knocked on his door, I felt like calling trick or treat. Okay, so we hadn't actually seen any guys go into the house, but we sure as hell hadn't seen any leave it, either. If he didn't answer or if he said to get out or if he just demanded why I wasn't in school, then that would be the end of it.
He opened the door wearing slacks, a dress shirt and a tie, but with old slippers and a torn silk robe draped over him. He was a seedy version of Captain Kangaroo, except maybe a little girlish, somehow.
He brandished a peacock colored umbrella with a beaked handle like he might whack me with it. And yet he didn't act surprised to see me. Just a little disappointed. Not in me. Just in the circumstances, I guess.
He put the umbrella back in the stand by the door and returned to the tiny living room. The base of the stand had been carved into an elephant's foot and the top into a flattened elephant's head complete with a trunk. An old book lay on the head. Having grown up in the Valley, I had never seen an umbrella stand before, but we did have a reeking old elephant at Jungle Land just a short family outing north. But I mostly remembered that mangy old lion that had once been the dangerous beast captured on film forever roaring down at the audience as MGM flashed across the not-so-silver screen.
I closed the front door and stepped into a room littered with papers and books and filled by a fat maroon sofa. No TV. He didn't ask my name and I didn't give it.
He plopped back onto the sofa. A highball glass teetered on the arm. The ice clinked as he drank and I could smell my dad's bourbon. I had thought he was going to offer me something, but he didn't. There was nowhere else to sit except on that sofa next to him, so I stood.
He tapped out a Lucky Strike, slid it between his lips, and then handed me the pack.
"Not now," I said and slipped the pack into my turned-up sleeve.
He flipped open a golden lighter that had some kind of special lettering on the side. My dad had a lighter like that he'd carried through the war that had Army Air Corps on it, but I couldn't picture this guy in any war, though it didn't take much to picture him killing something. Then he fingered the wheel and studied the flame for a few seconds before igniting the cigarette and dropping the lighter back into the pocket of his robe. I liked the haze that hung over the room. It gave the place atmosphere.
I turned and studied the bookcase. There were no photos. In addition to the books, there was this baseball trophy. I figured he must have had a son or a nephew in little league and maybe he'd died or something because there was no universe in which that pudgy guy on the sofa could have won anything in any sport. Then I stepped closer and saw a planet, not a baseball, and a rocket ship, not a bat. It was some kind of writing award.
"A.K. Griffith, that you?" I asked. Maybe he was some washed-up character actor.
"Yes. Heard of me?"
Only then did he ask, "What are you doing here?"
I said, "Why don't you figure it out."
"You write?" he asked.
I thought he had asked if I was all right, which if I was, I sure as hell wouldn't be there, and so I said, "What is that supposed to mean? I'm not the sick one here."
He sat back like I hit him.
"I didn't ask if you were alright," he said. "I asked if you write."
I flopped down at the other end of the sofa.
My dad worked on screenplays, but nobody thought of screenplays as writing. That was just movie stuff, and lots of people in the neighborhood nibbled at the edges of Hollywood. I guess that's why we were NorthHollywood. Not quite the real thing.
I don't know why his question made me so angry. I guess real writing seemed like such a girl thing back then. Like my little sister's pink diary. The truth was that I did write, mostly on yellow pads or scraps of paper that I hid or threw away. But how did he know? Was writing for perverts?
"I have something to show you," he said.
He tipped a piece of ice into his mouth and crunched it and placed the glass on the arm and pulled himself up. So now we were finally getting to it. As I followed, he seemed a little larger than I thought, or else I was a little smaller. But I could take him, maybe.
"Do you read any science fiction?" He asked.
"I used to read some Tom Swift."
"God save us," he said.
He led me to a door off the entry.
"You should read Lovecraft," he said.
Great, some kind of innuendo. Lovefreakingcraft.
He opened the door to the garage and the scent of mildewed books slid out.
"Always begin with Lovecraft," he said. "Let yourself go. Of course, there was a perversity in the man and his work---though who am I to say? Perhaps even betrayal. Oh, but the writing! Open up to it without any preconceptions and you'll fall in love."
He flipped the light switch and stepped inside. The hanging bulb didn't do much to lighten the stacks of books and boxes teetering to the ceiling. A sad desk that looked like something stolen out of the downtown library sat on a frayed Persian rug in the middle of the concrete floor. A black Underwood typewriter was squared exactly on the desk with a pile of blank paper next to it. A wastebasket overflowed with crumpled pages.
Then that siren echoed through the neighborhood. Not cops. This was the take-cover drill, always ten on Friday. Like our desk could shelter us from the A-bomb. All the drill did was instill in us a danger that would forever lurk inside us. As I stood in that house, I pictured the younger kids scrambling under their desks, while the older guys were slouching defiantly, having none of that shit. I stared around that garage. Man, I should have been doing my own take cover about then.
I orbited the desk as he sat down. He reached in his pocket for the pack of cigarettes that were now tucked in my sleeve. I didn't offer him one. He scrolled in a piece of paper, his fingers poised, his eyes closed like Liberace contemplating "The Firebird Suite." Or maybe just chop sticks.
"The future can change before it is written," he said.
"What the hell is that supposed to mean?" I asked.
He clacked the keys, and I stared over his shoulder...The future can change before it is written.
"That doesn't even make sense," I said.
He yanked the paper out and he balled it and tossed it into the trash.
"I didn't come here to watch you pound away on a type writer," I said.
"Pound away. That's good." He laughed as he twisted in another sheet. "Let me get that down." Then, quietly, "You weren't invited here."
His fingers curved over the keys again. Then froze. It didn't take a genius to see there wasn't a single word left in them.
"Why did you come?" He asked.
"You know why. And it doesn't have anything to do with writing."
"Doesn't it, now?"
I turned my back to him and studied the stacks of books and boxes and wondered if he was checking out the knife bulging in my back pocket. A great pillar of paperbacks rose to the rafters, all the same maroon color with the same title tracing the spine: The Red Rocket Brigade by A. K. Griffith.
I thought about asking what the A.K. stood for, but didn't really care.
A smaller stack of dark paperbacks: The Black Planet Battalion by A.K. Griffith.
"Why do you have so many of your own books?"
"They are called remainders. The books that don't sell. I bought them out."
I picked up a copy of The Black Planet Battalion. The cover showed a red octopus-like creature holding up a spaceman dressed in black in one tentacle, some freaky weapons waving from other tentacles and another spaceman lying in a crater with a tentacle rammed up his suit. Even though the book looked untouched, the pages puffed out like a used book as I opened it. The copyright read 1951.
"You have any newer books?"
"That was the last novel I sold."
I counted seven different colored stacks. "That's a lot of reminders," I said.
"Remainders," he corrected.
"You haven't sold one since?"
"The future can change before it is written," I said. It still sounded like made-up crap.
"Other than a few stories in the pulps," he said, "it has been seven years since I published a novel. Five years since I finished one. Three years since I started one. The future no longer interests me. At least not the future the way they write it now."
I almost asked how the future could be now, but I was sick of all the talk. For the first time since he let me in I was scared of what might happen next. I cruised along the piles of remainders, my arm out like a jet wing strafing them, and then I crashed my wing into a stack and it teetered and then a fleet of The Green Saucer Sentries crashed across the unforgiving concrete and one careened against his slipper. It felt like the worst thing I had ever done, but not like the worst I would ever do.
His lips quivered.
I left him sitting, his fingers limp across the keys. Before stepping out the front door I read the title of that book on the umbrella stand: At the Mountain of Madness, by H.P. Lovecraft. I picked it up and flipped the soft cover. An autograph scrawled inside read: "To Alex, a dear fellow traveler, Howard." I took the knife out of my back pocket and drove the blade into the elephant's head and walked away.
The next day flames engulfed the garage first, and then spread to the rest of the house. The fields lay like tinder between his house and our new tract. Our parents had seen enough fires to know the drill. Mothers ran sprinklers and our fathers watered roofs even before we heard the first siren.
We stared, shoving at each other now and then, trying to hold in our excitement. Danger. The smoke stung my eyes, which were already raw from staying up all night reading that book. I hadn't known any better. I crossed the street and stepped onto the edge of the field. The other boys followed. I pushed ahead until that heat throbbed against me. Our parents yelled at us to come back.
The elephant ears and banana trees smoldered but did not burn.
A.K. Griffith never came out.
"The future can change before it is written," I said.
That was when I fell in love with the inferno that books can fuel, and I became a writer.