You can’t really move a story like this; it just won’t sell. The writer writing about writing is a no-go. It’s cliched, done to death, and never worth the editor’s trouble to slog through to the end. Still, every writer has one in him and needs to let it out. This is mine. Happy Holidays.
The Parasite Life
by Victor Cypert
The ritual begins as it always does, with the opening of a fresh bottle of bourbon. I use a tumbler. That’s part of the ritual, too. And I grade with a fountain pen. But now, this late in the term, it takes three before I can look at the first paper of the night.
Budgetary constraints and retention quotas stay my pen for the most. I can’t unload on the margins, but I can down shots of cheap whiskey and scribble over the comma splices like Ahab lunging after his white whale. My pen taps out paragraph markers and run-on sentences with ease. Poorly assembled portmanteaus and banal neologisms receive the most withering of red X’s I can make, crucified efforts to glisten and grok—it’s hubris, just hubris.
If I were still in graduate school, I’d be ruthless. But not in this economy, not with the program director sweating my balls. I don’t blame him at all, but the monkey house produces little more than flung handfuls of vacuous dialog and rehashed arcs. Harry Potter in drag waltzes across my desk. Or worse, Alex Jones screams between the lines from a hackneyed hybrid, another angry young man’s take on Star Trekmeets The Roadmeets Atlas Shrugged. Oddly, in both cases, everyone comes out bisexual in the end; everyone comes out gender-ambiguous. Nobody feels authentic. Nobody feels real. But if art is anything, it’s a host for parasites.
Somewhere in the mix, someone offers me the severed bloody testicles of Renee Descartes. Literally, literarily, the severed bloody testicles of Renee Descartes. So much for the week spent lecturing on the importance of subtlety in symbolism.
I pour another glass of whiskey and make another scratch on a feeble effort to produce a powerful female protagonist. She’s just another mean-spirited bitch with a chip on her shoulder, and never a good person let alone a failure, a fuck-up. She’s perfect, and that makes her bluster all the more conceited. She’s awful. A Mary Sue. She always is.
The villains—military madmen with orbiting planet killers, genocidal cyberneticists, failed sorcerers of deconstructionism bent on godhood—come across as too stupid to scheme. But it’s spec-fic, and the bulk of my students want to be the next J.K Rowling without all of that introspection and originality baggage.
Despite the cliché, imitation only serves to diminish art, not flatter the emulated. There’s a reason someone coined the term “brown-noser” when “sycophant” worked perfectly well.
I down half the bumper and turn the page.
“Christ’s bloody crutch,” the old curse tumbles out on reflex. The heroine can fly. Nobody else can fly, but suddenly she can. And it’s clearly another vignette from an unfinished larger work that dwells in the realm of the nonexistent. It’s supposed to be a short story, not a chapter—not a thing you just came up with. It’s got to have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The conventions exist for a reason.
And she flies up and the sun is a golden coin—it’s a fucking videogame. It reads like a fucking videogame. It’s just pop-culture shit strewn together without rhyme or reason, a pack of pseudo-political dog whistles wrapped in 64-bit color and sound. Now all the characters appear in stunning low-res CGI, like that horrible job the hacks at Disney did when they yanked the ghost of Peter Cushing out of the ground to pad the profit margins. Just as fitting. Awful. Simply awful.
Suddenly, it feels personal and I want to leave a message to the writer, “Give up. You suck. Your work reads like fanfic. I’ve seen better on toilet paper after wiping….”It’s the God’s honest truth and denying it doesn’t help anyone, but we’ve got to think about the bottom line. Staying in the black. If we lose too many more, we’ll be in the red—and the red is bad. “I’m not sure I understand the rules of your world” find their way onto the page instead.
The rest of the tumbler vanishes behind my lips. The bottle spills two more fingers of the bitter draught into my glass as my pen splashes across a once perfectly good piece of typing paper.
The next offers little comfort as the remnants of humanity board their generational spaceship to flee the technological monstrosity their failed socialist utopia inadvertently created. “It was supposed to make life on the colony world easier—then it decided life was a mistake. The child turned on its parents….”Woven through this gem, a number of thinly veiled popular conspiracy theories about FEMA camps and a homosexual agenda.
I know some homosexuals. The only agenda they seem to follow demands window treatments and throw pillows match. If I could afford a sofa, let alone the accessories, they’d win me over.
The drug use in the ship’s libertarian society reminds me that the only thing keeping me clean right now is that I have absolutely no idea where to look for smack or oxy. One bump of China White and maybe I could handle another dredged up plotline from Buffy. One Dilaudid and I could stomach reheated Doctor Whoserved up with a slice of Babylon 5. Even a bit of blow would do the trick.
Speed, on the other hand, might drive me over the edge once and for all.
At the start of the term, my class held ten. Now I’m down to eight. Normally, that’d be fine except the two that dropped were two of the program’s best. In their letters to the director and department head, they cited the genre fiction course as motivating their decisions to withdraw. That’s on me, and I’m on thin ice.
My glass hits the floor. The mouth of the bottle finds my lips, my head tilts back until the last of the bourbon vanishes.
The bottle follows the tumbler with a hollow thud. The ceiling tiles, stained brown slabs of asbestos and mica, float through my field of vision as the last of the bourbon winds it way from my gut to my cerebral cortex.
“Cortex,” I slur the word. “Sounds…sounds wrong. Other way around. Should be the…the…hic…the core, not the surface.” The tiles flicker and fade into the darkness behind my eyelids.
I come to and my head throbs. The stiffness in my neck, more than the sunlight streaming through the window, tell me I’ve been out for hours.
“Shit!” Panic sets in as it occurs to me that it’s morning and I’ve got to get to work. I try to stand, but my legs refuse to obey, my arms feel like I slept on both of them all night. My body resists all but the simplest of orders
A deep breath and, with great effort, I rub my eyes. Everything falls into focus and a new fear emerges: I’m not in my apartment.
Part living room part art gallery, the walls hold works by artists I don’t recognize plus a few iconic pieces by Mondrian, Basquiat, and Pollack. Splashes of color and slices of the icons of Americana wheel about the space, frame the baby grand piano shoved into a corner like the casket of Good Taste mourned by her flakier friends. Long purple silks drape from the vaulted ceiling to form a cushion effect about a cheap brass and brilliant glass chandelier. The burgundy suede sofa, matching easy chair, and glass top coffee table complete the piss-elegant effect.
A square tile mirror, beveled and streaked with white residue, rests atop the table.
The old demon grinds against me once more, demands I forget that it’s not my place, find the stash, cut a rail, and take a toot. The thought of the owner walking in, running to find his gun, and splattering my brains all over his art collection, however, urges prudence.
I struggle against the dead weight of my body, but eventually lean over the mirror. If there’s a little bit of whatever, maybe it’ll be just enough to dislodge the monster.
The man gazing up from the mirror isn’t me. My craving vanishes.
His face looks like mine, but healthier—tan and lean. His hair’s cut shorter than mine, but it’s the same dark brown flecked with silver threads. He is me, but not me—not the me I know, the me drowning in cheap booze and bad prose and trying to hang onto a job I really don’t want.
“I know you don’t like being disturbed after one of your little social soirees, but you’re on The Tonight Showin six hours. You can’t put them off again—the tabloids will be all over it. God only knows what they’ll concoct.” She bursts into the room a span shorter than six feet tall. Her hair, a brunette bouffant like something out of a 1950s science fiction flick, floats above her perfect heart shaped face—not too much makeup—and a model’s physique. She’s the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.
My heart races, drums in my throat as she barrels down on me, grasping for my face as if to claw my eyes out. Instinctively I lift my hands to ward off the attack only to find her fingers gently interlaced with my own. “Christ, lady. I’ll go. Just point me out of here.”
But that’s not what comes out. My own voice, yet not myvoice, pulses in my ears, “I’ll be ready. Did they send over an itinerary?”
Perfect lips press against mine, and my tongue, propelled by a will other than my own, probes the moist recesses of her mouth. The same force compels my hand to her breast, a gentle squeeze. She lingers a moment before pulling away.
“It’s good to initiate the libido in the morning; it starts the flow of the psychic fluid,” my head echoes with words not my own, in a voice too confident to ever belong to me. “And last night proved my most enlightening outing to date.”
“Oh?” She grabs up a small green leather notebook from under the couch. “Did you chronicle it already?”
My head nods without my consent. “Sure. The party began after the ritual.”
She flips through the notebook and stops on a page toward the end. She arches an eyebrow. “Amazing. These ideas—wow. This really is something.”
“The other world may be dark, but it’s rich. A wealth of ideas, all equally greater than the last. It’s…it’s…” A tear slides along my—our—his cheek. “It’s beautiful.”
She sits in his lap, drapes her arms about his neck. “And the others in your little club? What do they get out of all of this incense burning and monotone chanting and arm flailing?”
He shrugs. “I’m not sure and I don’t care. We don’t discuss it among ourselves—that’s the fourth power of the sphinx, after all.”
A new panic sets in. Before, I could control his body with some difficulty. But now, I’m trapped in his head. It’s like he woke up and I’m just a dream fading from memory. Maybe I am a dream? No. Thisis the dream. I’m real; this is just a whiskey-addled nightmare. Yes, a nightmare. Maybe I drank myself into a coma and I’m trapped in my deep subconscious. But it feels real, genuine, and his sensory experiences are my own. A dream—a nightmare—hallucination—cry for help. I’m drunk to the point of death—that’s all.
“This can’t be right,” the not-my-voice says. “They want to talk about Star Bender. Again. I don’t get it. Princess of the Forlorn Towergoes places Star Bendernever could—it’s a superior novel.” He slides her off his lap and throws the itinerary across the room.
The woman massages the back of his neck and the pain in our neck vanishes. “I know. I know, love. But people can access Star Bender. Princess—wow—nobody was ready for Princess, and we’re still not ready for that one. Maybe in fifty years. What’s that saying you’re so fond of, again?”
“Vita brevis; ars longa.”
Her arms wrap around his waist, her fingers reach into the fly of his silk pajamas, squeeze softly. “Life is short…you are long.”
He turns and she releases him. They kiss again.
The pressure of her lips on my own, the taste of her once more, the sensuous curve in the small of her back against his palm, the smoothness of her buttocks—maybe the parasitic life wouldn’t be so bad? If it’s real, it’s not bad at all.
Their hands rove, find the sensuous nodes of each other’s bodies, entangle in hair, grasp and intertwine for long minutes. Then he draws back. “No, you stupid shit! Get to it! Fuck her!”
“What is it, what’s wrong?”
He releases her, rises, and skips across the room. He sits at the piano and strikes the keys at random.
“Last night’s vision—the last one on the page, those are always the best. Read it.”
She flips to the back of the notebook. “This one about the girl?”
She gazes at the page for long moments and her eyes widen. “Oh…” a tear falls onto the paper. “Shit. Shit. It’ll smudge the ink.”
He laughs and waves it away. “Just keep reading.”
She returns to the text and, after another pause, clamps her hand to her mouth, her astonishment genuine. When she finally puts the book down, she can’t meet his gaze.
“It’s…it’s brilliant. Genius. They’ll give you another National Book Award for certain, and maybe even another Nobel,” her voice catches and when she looks up, it’s evident she’s afraid. “But at what cost? These ideas…these concepts about literature and art and other worlds…it’s all so…radical. Paradigm altering.”
He sits beside her and takes her hands in his. “I know you’ve never approved of my occultism. And with this, I don’t think I require anything more from that line of study. The other world may possess a divine aesthetic, but it has its own share of problems, too. You told me last month that I was losing myself to that place, and I was. Last night we convened for the last time. No more. I burned the Book of Shadows, disbanded the coven.”
She lays her head in his lap and reaches into the fly of his pajamas once more. “You mean it?”
A chime sounds and she releases him. “Shit, that’s wardrobe and makeup. I told them to come by early so they could get your measurements.”
“Fuck, no! No! You didn’t even get started!”
He stands and kisses her once again. “It’s fine. Go let them in, but tell them I’ll need an hour. I’ve got to get some notes down for the next novel, before the details of the vision fade.”
She shoots him a slightly perturbed look followed by a quick grin, and leaves.
He sits back on the couch, pulls a small tray holding a pad of paper from under his seat. On the pad rests a baggy of white powder and a sliver of drinking straw. He drops a bump of powder onto the mirror and snorts it up. Taking the pad, he begins his outline as the amphetamine hits me.
Heroine– Mary Sue. Ruthless, compassionless, totally devoid of empathy, able to break balls with a withering glance. She can fly.
Arc–She discovers the sun is a giant, digitized golden coin. Then the robots attack and she must learn magic while simultaneously captaining a large spaceship on a quest to find a new home world. Ends on a cliffhanger.