The smoke billowing from the base of the rocket looked normal enough, but the purple flames added an unsettling, unearthly glow. That’s an astronaut joke. Unearthly glow. Get it?
Well, it isn’t my fault you don’t have a sense of humor. If anyone shouldn’t be laughing it’s me. And just for the record, the flames from the rocket’s ignition were purple due the high amounts of chlorrasiride in the atmosphere, which was also the reason for our three hundred pound EMARU Z-Suits. That trademarked string of garbage, by the way, stands for extravehicular mobility and reconnaissance unit, in case you weren’t paying attention during the mission briefing. Although, you got me as to what the hell the Z stands for since I nodded off during that part of the briefing. We just called them zuits anyway, so it couldn’t have been that important.
Those zuits may have allowed us to stretch our legs without our insides instantly liquefying and pouring out of us (I’ve mentioned the chlorrasiride-rich atmosphere, haven’t I?) from our most southern bodily orifice, thank you very much to this planet’s gravity that was nearly double what Earth’s used to be. But these zuits were also the reason Terry and I didn’t even try to make a run for it when we saw that purple smoke start to kick out from the prelaunch.
It had taken us just under an hour to walk to the primary target area. From prelaunch to full ignition and liftoff, we wouldn’t have made it a quarter of the distance between, even back on Earth at a full run without all this shit weighing us down. But in a zuit with a full load of oxygen and all our diagnostic gear? Fuck all, man. We didn’t stand a chance of doing anything but wasting our breath, and that was something we were suddenly very short on.
All we could do was stare off at the horizon, hailing nothing but static on the ship to shore. There we were, the only two people on this planet that I thought knew how to fly the Lamplighter—hell, I thought we were the only two people on this planet, period—watching their ride blast off to who the hell knows where.
Terry reached up to shield his eyes from the nearer of the two suns that AMC-IV circled around. He could have just flipped his visor down, I don’t know why he always had to be so dramatic about these things.
“Steve, isn’t that our ride?” he asked.
An abandoned travelogue, a short story, a new appreciation for Hemingway?
When I was in college I came up with the idea for a book that I would call “Emasculating Hemingway”, in which I would travel the world and seek out the places and experiences Ernest Hemingway wrote about throughout all of his short stories and novels. Tying it all together would be the struggle for the average man, like myself, who had never been particularly big or strong or athletic, who had never felt “manly” to learn it firsthand from the epitome of manliness.
It was brilliant, I thought. I’d get to see the world, to read everything Hemingway had ever written, I’d write a book myself—one that tied together life, literature, travel and finding one’s purpose, one’s place. Brilliant.
But it never got much past what I thought was an eye-catching title and a few bullet points. Years later, working at Barnes & Noble, I joined a book group with some other booksellers. We read On the Road. I wasn’t impressed. I found it tiresome. It’s not my type of book. Sometime later I read the Sun Also Rises, and perhaps it was having read Jack Kerouac so soon before, but I hated it. I felt the same way about it as I had On the Road. It was the same story, thirty years before. Only there was no story. Nothing happened. There was no point. And I know, that is the point, but I just didn’t like it. I’m allowed to. Just because it’s a classic, doesn’t make it good, and it certainly doesn’t mean it will appeal to everyone. Hemingway is brilliant and I will always emulate his writing style (imitate poorly) and I will read a handful of his short stories a few times a year (Hills Like White Elephants, the End of Something among others), but I just did not like that book.
Then just the other night, a line popped into my head and having my computer nearby I wrote it down and then kept going with wherever the hell it was going to take me. I wrote a couple paragraphs, got stuck, and it being late, I fell asleep while trying to figure out where this story was going next. The next morning, I woke up and had no idea what I’d written about, but remember that I had been very excited at the time.
“The bulls were running, or so they had been told.”
Maybe not a particularly good opening line, but this is a work in progress. That’s the fourth or fifth take on that idea, and I’m sure it will change another dozen times as I work through what this story is really about.
The important thing is that I wrote it and with it came the café, and the others sitting around the table, the drinking, the girl… and it brought back the idea of feeling emasculated by the persona of manliness that Hemingway left us. I’m pretty certain at this point in my life that I will never write that travel book, but that doesn’t mean these characters aren’t writing their own version of it. They are at this café because they believe they should be, but they have no idea why or for what.
Ultimately, that was the idea behind Emasculating Hemingway, that we have to be the giant of man who drinks Scotch and smokes cigars, who builds things and goes fishing, who plays football on Thanksgiving while the women cook, because we’re men and that’s what we do!—but we don’t know why we have to be that kind of man, and we don’t know how to be, and more importantly, more terrifyingly important, is that it crushes us because we never will be that man. We’re emasculated and cut down by an idea that no one really lives up to.
That’s who these characters are, and perhaps who each one of us allows ourselves to become: men who cannot live up to an impossible ideal, and instead put on a show to pretend we have. This story is about how the false journey we set ourselves on in trying to live up to a dead man’s fictional standard—trying to live up to any man’s standards rather than our own—prevents us from living our lives honestly and leaves us missing out on the moments we deserve to experience for ourselves.
Maybe I’m writing that book after all, now as a short work of fiction instead. We’ll see. I’ll let you know how it turns out…
In a story I’ve yet to finish to my satisfaction, I named a character Kevin. Didn’t seem like a big deal at the time. He was mentioned only once, and his exact role, his actions were never explicitly said. What happened between him and the narrator of this story was alluded to, and sure, anyone could figure out what had happened between them. But he—that name—was only mentioned once. He wasn’t a real character, I suppose, is what I mean to say. His actions were the character; how he influenced the trajectory of these characters’ back-story, that was important, that was the character. Kevin was the fog of a nightmare that these characters were trying so desperately to run from. But he wasn’t a character. His name didn’t matter to me.
It didn’t matter until I accidentally started writing a prequel of sorts to that story which made the Kevin character the third of a three-pronged attack on the main character’s sanity. It started to matter then because one of my closest friends is named Kevin. That makes me uncomfortable. Do other writers have this reaction? Do they have rules against naming particular characters a certain name? Do other writers refuse to use their mother’s or sister’s name for a love interest? Or their best friend’s name for a rapist?
This wasn’t supposed to be a character. So why not just change the name? What does it matter? Well, the problem now is that I’ve spent months working on both of these stories, and beyond what’s committed to paper there’s a hidden story for them all, a back-story that’s developed and played out in my head whether or not I’m actively writing these characters. This back-story is as real for me as anything taking place in the so-called “real world,” despite my realization that I’m making it up as I go along. This is why all writers are that special kind of crazy that makes us all so endearing and delightfully morose; we’re creatures of two worlds. And sometimes we lose track of which one is real.
Which is why this Kevin thing is making me really uncomfortable. But as I get ready to post the next part of my ongoing accidental story through Wattpad, I’ve realized there’s nothing I can do. Not after this long. Like I said, it’s been months. For months this guy’s name has been Kevin. This Kevin is a son of a bitch, he’s obnoxious, he’s entitled. He has no idea that what he did to this girl was a crime, or that he should be punished.
Looking at a character after this long, thinking about their name, is like seeing their name spelled out in front of me as part of a photo-mosaic puzzle that I’ve put together. In each letter is a thousand images and ideas and snapshots of what this character has done, what they’ve experienced, who they’ve interacted with and how they’ve come to exist in this small little story, this slice of their life that I’m writing. It’s all there now, it’s all put together to spell out their name. I don’t know how to change that, no matter how much I want to.