ONE NIGHT AT KAM’S:
YES, THIS STORY REALLY IS TITLED ONE NIGHT AT KAM’S, IN ALL CAPS.
THAT LAST SENTENCE IS PART OF THE TITLE, AND SO IS THIS ONE.
AND THIS ONE.
“Fuck this,” she says, and she stands up and kicks back and connects. The oversized highchair smacks backwards. A squeak echoes hard and clear as she skids her heel on the white quartz floor. The echo hits her in the face like a cold wet rag. She wipes her damp face with the sleeve of her undone straightjacket, but only smears the liquid, not even sure anymore if the moisture is the sweat dripping off her hands and oozing out her pores or the condensation of her yawp enveloping her at all angles. She tells herself it doesn’t matter one way or another — but that’s a lie too. She tells herself thousands of others feel the same way, but, now ripping off the shirt, she feels no consolation. She can’t win. Not at his game.
“Fuck you,” she mumbles to the white walls. They don’t care. They keep closing in at a glacier’s pace. “I’m not wrong. You’re wrong.”
Glaciers, she thinks. That sounds right. Glaciers plow the landscape; they flatten the valleys — crush them under unspeakable pressure. If I stay in this room, I, too, will be flattened.
“I am convicted.” She sighs. “I mean, I have conviction.” This she says with her eyes to the ground.
She whips out her knife again and paces. To and fro and back and forth and side-to-side. She ambles, she traverses, she storms, she lumbers. None of these walks help her think.
Of course I can’t think, she thinks. She stares at the walls. I’ve learned I can’t think for myself. I’ve learned to take orders from . . . well, from him.
The man with eyeglasses but no eyes peers down at her from behind the glass window set forty feet high in the west wall. He sits with his arms crossed. When he speaks, he vomits the rumbling voices of smug men. But right now he says nothing. He’s already said enough.
He has no eyes. He doesn’t see. He knows.
“Fuck it,” she says. She snatches a handful of hair and saws it off. She grabs thick, luxurious handful after handful and separates it from herself with sharp metal. Biting her lower lip and wincing, she convulses and shakes out the loose strands.
I’m a person, she thinks. He should appreciate me not as an object for his penetration but as a person, but he won’t, and that’s why I’m going.
She flips the knife in her hand and stabs down into the stone floor with the might of a Greek titan. She is as strong as any man who ever lived. The twelve inch blade rests halfway in the quartz. “This is my mark. I’ve made it, and now I’m leaving.”
She turns her back to him and walks toward the door — the door that has always been unlocked but she never thought she would need to use. She thought she could live within the rules of the room. One foot away from leaving, the door swings open for her. She furrows her brow, combs through her downy and uneven hair. Turns back, tilts her chin up. Her head is a camera, her eyes lenses, and she tilts up, pans right, and zooms in on his face.
He smiles. His colorless lips are horizontal, expressionless, not different than before when he was not smiling, but he is smiling nonetheless. Nonetheless he smiles at her knowingly.
She sees this and realizes she will not win by leaving. At least not in his mind. In his mind he has won by making her want to leave. He thinks her leaving proves what he knows: she is not fit to meddle in man’s work; she’s leaving the office to go back home to cook his food in the kitchen and iron his collared shirts and slacks in the laundry room.
“You’re wrong,” she says to him. Her eyes lock on his lack of eyes and she says: “I haven’t lost your game. I’ve quit yours to start my own. This room, this fucking room, this clean white room where both silence and sound deafens me, this room is a glacier, and it will melt someday.”
His grin spreads wider without him even moving his lips.
“You don’t see and you don’t think. You only know.”
She sees her own reflection in his glasses.
“I’m done with your knowledge. Finished. I will never know because I think, and I think that is the only right way.”
He knows she is wrong. .
“I think that’s right,” she says, “but I’ll never know. And I never intend to know. I’ll leave knowing to you.”
He doesn’t even blink. How can he? He doesn’t have eyes.
“Mmmm,” says the driver. A cloud of smoke swirls around him. He wears a brown leather jacket, purposefully holey jeans, and aviator sunglasses rimmed with gold-painted frames. In the driver seat of his car, navigating the snaky country highway, he is an ethereal being. He is a cherub in the heavens, no less than 2000 meters above ground. He’d like to think he feels that good. He rubs the frayed right knee of his jeans. It feels good, like money. He loves himself. “Mmm.”
“What are you ‘mmming’ about?” says his friend in the front passenger seat. “You act like you’re eating when you smoke.”
“Mmm,” says the driver, who takes another hearty drag, looks right, and blows it all in his friend’s face. “I’m sorry, bra. Parliaments are delicious.”
“That so? I gotta disagree with you there, mein Freund. I think they smell like shit. Like dirt, actually. Like burnt dirt, or something.”
“Yeah, I think so.”
“You can’t burn dirt,” says the driver. “Can you?”
“Well,” says his friend. “I don’t really know. Maybe you can. Probably not, though. What I mean is it has a smell that reminds me of dirt but also of burnt stuff.”
“What kinda burnt stuff?”
“I dunno. Just the usual kind of burnt stuff. Leaves, paper, chemicals.”
“Yeah, well, all of those things are in all cigarettes.”
“Shit,” says the passenger. He scratches his head, leans back in his seat. “I guess that’s true. Well I guess Parliaments just smell earthy, like a rotting compost heap. But also, you know, has the usual cigarette smoke smell, too.”
“Then why didn’t you just say that?”
“Dude,” says the passenger.
“What?” says the driver.
“You just missed the turn. Pay attention to the road. Quit looking at me.”
“I’m sorry,” says the driver. He steers the car left, into a long gravel driveway. He glances back at the road, reverses, and shoots forward back toward the turn. His cigarette is only half-smoked, and he feels good. “I like to look at people when I talk to them. My career counselor told me looking at people when they talk shows more interest and proves that I’m paying attention to what they’re saying.”
“Fuck your career counselor. You’re driving.”
“Fine, fine,” he says. He doesn’t want to argue. He wants to get to the camp site, pop open a longneck and smoke Parliaments by the fireside. Wants a crack at the leggy bleach blonde with an attitude. He’s heard a lot of stories about her. He heard the other day that she got a tongue piercing, and he wonders if she knows how to use it. HhE’S She’s a friend of a friend, and he knows she’ll be there. She’s been cheeky with him in the past, very quick to belittle him in a playful kind of way. He’d tease her about being blonde; she’d tease him about his small hands, his little baby bear paws, and say that his small hands indicate his smallness in other places. They’d both laugh.
I’ll prove her wrong tonight, he assures himself. If not tonight, then at some point this weekend. I don’t just think it. I know it. I’m fuckin Super Fly. I’m the Fonz. I’m James Bond, and I’m about to conduct a spy mission on her naked body, and I’ll report back with confidential information and top-secret photos for MI6.
For a moment, he imagines himself a few hours in the future after the prolonged bout of rough, earthshaking sex. He’ll light up a cig under the heavens. Nothing between him and the Almighty but a wisp of smoke and space. No dull gray skyscrapers blocking his view. No parents to distract him, yipping at him to at least do some chores if he’s going to live in their house. He’ll point with his left hand to the shooting stars, his right hand caressing her shoulder, the moving down her side and over her breast. He’ll time it just right so that he blows a smoke ring just as he passes over her nipple.
His aspirations almost always involve smoking.
“Are you in your own little world over there?” says the passenger. He rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “You just missed the turn. Again. How can you miss the same turn twice? Right after I pointed it out, even?”
“My bad, broseph,” says the driver. “I’m thinking about how fuckin sweet it’s gonna be tonight. Shit’s gonna be so cash.” He yanks the wheel counter-clockwise and angles into another rocky driveway. A breeze picks up outside and a sheet of dust from the driveway coats the car. Damn these farmers, he thinks. Why can’t they pave—
“That’s enough,” says the passenger. “Do you realize how cliché you are?”
“What? Where’d that come from? And what the fuck’s that supposed to mean?” The driver puts the car in park and looks at the passenger, startled and googly-eyed.
“That’s so typical of you, man. We’re driving somewhere and all you can think about is how tonight will end up with you and that girl. You’re objectifying her in your mind to the point where she isn’t a person, but a head of blonde hair, a pierced tongue, a pair of tits, and a vagina.”
“Whoa. How’d you know that?”
“Let’s cut the bullshit,” says the passenger. “We’re not real people.”
“In what sense?”
“In the sense that we’re two characters in a short story. And you’re a very typical one.”
“And how do you figure that?”
“Well, we could probably start with the beginning of our scene. You’re smoking and you felt the need to call out the name brand — PARLIAMENTS — like we’re in an advertisement instead of a piece of literature. Do you know what percent of all college students’ writing have cigarette smoking in them?”
“No. You tell me.”
“I haven’t a fucking clue, but it’s higher than it ought to be.”
A good ol’ boy wearing a trucker hat, a flannel shirt, and steel-toed boots taps on the car window with yellowed fingernails. The driver rolls it down and slaps on an ‘everything’s OK’ pseudo-smile.
“Can I help you fellas? I seen you been out here in my driveway fer bout five minutes’n I figured maybe I oughta offer you some help, if you needed some. Need some directions?”
“I apologize, sir,” says the driver. “My friend and I were just . . . um . . . discussing whether I was supposed to turn at the last stop sign or keep going straight down this road.”
“He’s full of shit,” says the passenger. “We were discussing why he sucks as a character in this story.”
“Shut up man,” says the driver. “You’re ruining the realism and believability we had going there. I was letting the narrator describe my desire to get with this one chick, but hinting that I had some kind of deeper yearning with the whole talk of ‘getting close to the Almighty.’ I was starting off as a very shallow fratboy-esque character who calls his friends ‘bra’ and ‘broseph’ and thinks more with his penis than his brain, but was going to build on that with some three-dimensionality and complexity later on, in the process building sympathy for me with the reading audience. Looks like you fucked all that up, didn’t you, asshole?”
The driver pauses for a moment, looks around.
“Hey, where’d the farmer guy go?” he asks. “He was about to charm us with his regional accent and the lively glint in his ancient gray-blue eyes. He was gong to introduce a major plot point in this story by giving us a piece of country wisdom that ends up resonating in the end. He’s the salt-of-the-earth bumpkin/sage.”
“He disappeared because he’s not important in this story anymore,” says the passenger. “I shattered the illusion for the readers and gave the story a metafictional self-awareness that kind of demands we focus on our conversation and not him.”
“Yes you did. And that’s no fun.”
“In fact all our physical surroundings disappeared, including our bodies, and it’s just you and me talking to each other in a vacuum outside of space and time.”
“How’d that happen?”
“I dunno. I guess the author decided to experiment with the form of the short story.”
“There’s only so much room for experimentation, man. There are rules, and you have to learn them before you break them, and you definitely can’t break them all at the same time because that shows you don’t know them. Like, I bet right people are getting confused about which one of us is which because number one, we don’t have real names, and number two, the narrator is not even referring to us as ‘the driver’ and ‘the passenger’ anymore.
“Hey you up there writing! Quit that shit! We need some more conflict to progress the story arc. Let’s go back to where we were and cut this part in revision. I know I was sure as hell looking forward to meeting up with the bleach blonde and either fucking her and feeling empty, trying to get with her and failing miserably and feeling empty, or shying away from even talking to her and revealing myself to be a big wimp after all the pats on the back I gave myself about being a badass.”
“And feeling empty, right?”
“Right. Emptiness is a pretty popular theme in contemporary fiction, you know. Modernity is like th—”
STOP USING OVERGENERALIZING TIMES LIKE “MODERNITY.” EVERY CENTURY FELT MODERN TO THE PEOPLE WHO LIVED IN IT. ALSO, I DON’T THINK WE SHOULD AUTOMATICALLY ASSUME THAT ALL STORIES NEED TO ARC. THIS IS FICTION AFTER ALL. IT’S NOT REALITY. IT’S ART. AND IF I WANTED IT TO CONVEY PURE REALITY, THEN PURE REALITY WOULD SUFFICE, AND I WOULD NOT HAVE TO WRITE STORIES ABOUT EVENTS THAT NEVER HAPPENED. I THINK FICTION SHOULD BE WHATEVER IT WANTS TO BE AND THERE SHOULD BE, IN ESSENCE, NO RULES.
“Who’s that talking?”
“That’s the author. Or is it the narrator? I can’t really tell.”
EVERYTHING IN THIS WHOLE STORY IS THE AUTHOR.
“This is the driver speaking. I still think it’s just unreliable narration. Except from a third person perspective. Isn’t unreliable narration traditionally reserved for first person stories? You’re not supposed to—”
I’M TIRED OF TRYING TO FIT A CERTAIN MOLD AND DOING WHAT I’M SUPPOSED TO DO. I WANT TO WRITE WITHOUT BOUNDARIES OF TRADITION.
“Well that’s too fuckin bad for you. You can’t escape tradition. There’s simply no room for people like you in mainstream media. Maybe you’ll get pieces published here and there, win some obscure awards in fruity places like France, get a novel printed by an experimental press that will go under in 10 years or less. But you’ll never make a living from writing. Not unless you want to live in a two-story stapled-together cardboard box.”
FINE WITH ME. I’M LEAVING THE ROOM WITH MUNDANE WHITE WALLS AND BUILDING MY OWN. I REFUSE TO BE CRUSHED WITH RULES. I WILL NOT BE FLATTENED BY THE BANE OF TRYING TO WRITE CREATIVELY BY SOMEONE ELSE’S STANDARDS. I DO NOT BELIEVE THAT ANYONE CAN KNOW THE RIGHT WAY TO WRITE; ONE CAN ONLY THINK OF A WAY THAT INTERESTS HIM OR HER. IT’S EASY TO MAKE FUN OF UNCHALLENGING STORIES ABOUT PEOPLE’S DRUNKEN ADVENTURES AT CAMPUS BARS, BUT IN A WAY, ANY STORY THAT POSES NO CHALLENGE TO THE “RULES” AND NEVER EXPERIMENTS MIGHT AS WELL BE ABOUT DRINKING AT KAM’S.
“Did he just reference Part I and the title?”
“I’m pretty sure he just did. Maybe this isn’t the author but that girl character speaking.”
“I was wondering when that was going to get brought up again. I wasn’t sure if the author was going to make it into some kind of frame story where that girl character comes back or not. Regardless, I’d say the guy writing this is just being difficult for the sake of being difficult. And anyway, how can anyone know if the writing is good if there are no standards? There has to be a way to measure goodness.”
OBJECTIVITY IS A MYTH. NO WRITING IS INHERENTLY GOOD OR BAD UNTIL SOMEONE INTERPRETS IT. IT’S UP TO THE READER TO DECIDE WHETHER AN AUTHOR’S WRITING DOES OR DOESN’T “WORK” AND WHAT IT MEANS.
“OK . . . So from now on you’re just going to write stories about stories?”
NO, NOT ALWAYS. MAYBE NEVER AGAIN.
“I guess I can deal with that. So can we go back to the plot of Part II and let me meet up with the blonde and then contemplate the universe while looking at the stars and smoking my Parliaments?”
NAH. MAYBE NEXT TIME.
“Are you at least going to close up with some cool descriptions of me? I have nice hair and striking features. I’d be glad to describe myself in detail if the narrator wants to take a nap. I mean, you can’t just end the story like this. You need an ending that feels believable in the context of the story. It can’t be too abrupt, and should close the story down somewhat while remaining sort of vague, leaving an open interpretation for readers to continue the story in their heads even though there are no more words on the page. You really can’t end a story with this much pure dialogue.”
OH YEAH? I THINK I CAN.
“Prove it, you subversive bastard.”