Writing From the Black, Twitchy Place by Frank DiPalermo

Editor Matty Byloos, Fiction, June 4th, 2014

I have been lying to you non-stop...

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What you will read below is an excerpt from my novel-in-endless-progress that I’ve been working on. Recently, I was rather desperately wondering how to begin the next scene, when the sentence there’s the stuff you know popped into my head. Since no better sentences occurred to me, I wrote that one down and hoped like hell that it led to more sentences. And that is exactly what happened. What follows is all those sentences strung together to make the next chapter, which ultimately says something about the nature of writing fiction itself.

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There’s what you remember.

This is the stuff you are sure of. There’s no doubt in your mind that this exact thing happened in this exact way. Here’s why you’re so sure: that time your grandmother started the grease fire ‘cause she forgot about the bacon sizzling on the stove; or the time your brother had his first epileptic seizure right after he came home from catechism; or when you broke the ugly green vase your mom had in the living room and, for reasons no one can explain, got a cut in the middle of your scalp that needed five stitches; when the thing you are sure of happened the sun was at a late-afternoon angle. The light slanted between half-closed blinds as your mother ran for the extinguisher to put out the grease fire; or as the ambulance drivers strapped your brother onto the stretcher; or as your father carried you out to the car with one of his enormous, catcher’s-mitt hands pressed against your bleeding head. And besides being late afternoon, this light was cutting through a layer of haze so the whole world looked anemic and color-drained. And there was a helicopter flying low and close over the house, so close you could hear the slap-slap-slap of the rotors as they cut through the air. And there was a smell to everything, a chicken-soupy smell that made you think of Aunt Viola’s spice cabinet. And you were wearing the plaid shirt the neighbor-lady gave you after her son outgrew it, the one that had a crumpled-up photo of Jane Mansfield in the shirt pocket. And the skin on the back of your neck was touchy ‘cause you’d been playing in the noon sun too long. And there’s not a fucking doubt in your mind that this exact thing happened in this exact way ‘cause you remember more than just the thing itself. You remember the world it happened in.

Then there’s what you think you remember.

This stuff you don’t recall so much as suspect. Usually dark, not-so-nice things you think you could have witnessed, or had done to you, or – even worse — did unto others. Maybe there’s even a dim recollection – your cousin Johnny’s gray eyes with the bottom half flooded for instance, or your mother’s grim little smeared-lipstick smile, or the sound of your sister throwing up on the other side of the bathroom door. But really, these things are so shadowy and faint you can’t be certain of any part of them. You’d have forgotten these ghost-memories a long time ago were it not for one thing that seems completely unrelated and it’s this: there’s a dark and oversensitive stain on your heart. When anyone touches that stain, no matter how gentle or loving or well-intentioned that touch is, you will fly into a rage, or you’ll cry so hard you’ll almost suffocate, or you’ll get so terrified you’ll let loose a squirt of pee, or maybe you won’t do any of those things, maybe you’ll just think about doing them.

There’s a reason for the black and twitchy place in your heart. There’s an explanation for it. Of course there is. Only you don’t know it. All you can do is guess. So you turn to those half-remembered memories. You think about your cousin Johnny’s eyes, your mother’s grim smile, the sound of your sister puking, you think about these things that maybe happened, maybe didn’t. You look from these things to the blackness in your heart, back and forth, back and forth, trying to see a connection, wanting there to be a connection. Who can blame you? Who doesn’t want to make sense to themselves?

You find yourself making up a tiny little detail that fits into this thing that may or may not be a memory. The invention of this detail happens in a way that’s so fluid and automatic it doesn’t seem like an invention at all. Instead it seems like a revelation. Your cousin Johnny was about to cry ‘cause his stepmother just smacked him across the face. Your mother’s grim smile came right after you caught her kissing Mr. Katz, the super of your apartment building. Your sister was throwing-up ‘cause she ate too much hashish.

This new tiny little detail is a lie. You know this but it’s a really good lie, a really believable lie, especially if you add another tiny little detail. Maybe cousin Johnny’s stepmother slapped him across the face ‘cause he wet the bed again. Maybe your mother was kissing Mr. Katz ‘cause she was short on the rent that month. Maybe your sister ate too much hash ‘cause she’d been hanging out with Tony, the teacher’s assistant from the community college she went to.

This new tiny little detail is, of course, another lie. But, just like the first one, this lie doesn’t seem like a lie. It seems, it smells, it tastes, and it feels like a revelation, it feels like truth. It suggests other lies that feel like revelation and truth, which suggest other lies that feel like revelation and truth, which suggest other lies, on and on and on until you have the thing you were missing. You have a world. This whole world is a lie but that doesn’t matter. This world does exactly what you need it to do. It explains the blistered wound on your heart. It makes sense of you.

It just occurred to me that this is exactly what I am doing every time I sit in front of my computer and try to get the right words in the right order. This is exactly what I am doing right now, this second.

Maybe this would be a good time to introduce myself.

Hello, reader. My name is Frank DiPalermo. I have been lying to you.

I am not Carlotta. I am not Bartholomew. I am not frail, arthritic, isolated, or transgendered. I’m not as smart as Carlotta or Bartholomew. I’m not as wise or witty. I am nothing like them. I’m just, you know, some guy. Night after night I go out to my office and I lie Carlotta and Bartholomew into existence. I’ve been doing this so long I can’t recall the original, half-remembered thing that made me want to sit down and write in the first place.

Actually, that’s not true. I do remember the original, half-remembered thing but it’s so silly, so far removed from Carlotta and Bartholomew that I’m embarrassed to tell you. Sorry, won’t do it. I’m too vain.

These Carlotta and Bartholomew lies I’ve been telling, there’s something different about them than any of the other lies I tell. That difference is this: there’s only one right way to tell them. There’s an infinite number of wrong ways but only one right way.

This is a puzzle to me. Why can’t the next part of the story start with Carlotta listening to her neighbor whistle a Frank Sinatra song while he sweeps the porch? Why can’t it start with her seeing a robin picking through the twigs and cigarette butts under the sycamore tree the city planted in her Grandma’s front yard? Why can’t it start with her smelling the dog crap Uncle Solly just stepped in?

Carlotta isn’t paying attention to any of those things. That’s the only way I can explain it. She isn’t paying attention to the neighbor whistling, or the robin under the sycamore, or the smell of dog crap. Carlotta is the narrator of this story. If she isn’t paying attention to something it doesn’t exist.

I know how crazy this sounds. It implies I have little control over Carlotta and can’t force her to do anything she doesn’t want to do. It implies Carlotta, who is a lie I am telling, has a kind of independence and is in some way separate from me.

Yes, reader. That’s exactly right.

Once I figure out the thing that has Carlotta’s attention the world will open up around her and whatever is going to happen can happen.

I think it’s going to be shoes.

I’ve been stuck on shoes lately. Women’s shoes. Cheap women’s shoes in a too-shiny patent leather.

I’m pretty sure I saw these shoes somewhere in the real world. Maybe someone at that hipster restaurant I went to for lunch was wearing them. Maybe someone wore them to a meeting at work. Now that I think of it, maybe I didn’t actually see them. Maybe I read about them in that book I liked, Let the Great World Spin. If that turns out to be the case does that make me a plagiarist?

Plagiarist or no, I’m stuck on shoes and I’ve started lying to myself about them.

They’re Carlotta’s shoes, but then you’ve probably figured that out by now. They’re a size too small and are just starting to cut into her flesh. Only cut is the wrong word. What’s happening is something between a cut and a burn. By the end of the night there won’t be any running blood but there will be a spill of pinkish lymph where the edge of the shoe meets the skin above Carlotta’s heel. This pinkish lymph will work its way into the shoe and it’ll stain the chintzy white lining of these low-heeled pumps.

See? Now they’re low-heeled pumps. Low-heeled pumps in a white patent leather that’s way too shiny. They have rounded toes and a series of small holes stamped into the front that are in the shape of a fleur-de-lis.

These shoes are looking pretty good. I can see Carlotta bending over to get closer and wonder about them. But still, I could be wrong. Could be something else entirely. Sometimes it’s like that. Sometimes a thing that looks really promising turns out to be no good. All I can do is start writing about the shoes and see what happens.

I want to get back to something I said earlier.

I really do believe I’m trying to explain myself with this story I’ve been whispering in your ear. But I don’t understand the mechanics of it. I can’t tell you who or what Carlotta or Bartholomew represent. I’m equally clueless about Uncle Solly, Gregory, Stefan, James, the town of Pasternack, any of it. But they do represent something. I figure they’re a kind of vocabulary in a language I haven’t mastered, a language I’m teaching myself and you, both at the same time.

I’m going to tell you a secret: I am in love with Carlotta and Bartholomew.

I know how crazy this sounds. I know Carlotta and Bartholomew are both lies. But they are really good lies, really believable lies. I have never in my life told a lie that felt nearly as revelatory or as truthful as they do.

I’m starting to think Carlotta and Bartholomew might be all three things at the same time – a lie, a revelation, and a truth. The only part I’m currently acquainted with is the lie which I’m trying to tell as good as I can. The rest, if it exists at all, is yet to be discovered. By me. By you.

I hope it exists. I love Carlotta and Bartholomew. I want them to be more than lies.

Want to know something funny?

I have been lying to you non-stop since I started telling you this story. Except this section. Well, hang on. I suppose you could say I lied a little even here. Remember the beginning where I talked about the grease fire, the epileptic seizure, and the puking? None of that happened. Aside from those hypotheticals I’ve told the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help me god.

I haven’t liked it. Usually I do. I’m one of those rare writers who actually likes to write. But I haven’t liked this part. Which, now that I think of it, makes sense. The sound of my own voice has always annoyed me.

Still, I’m writing.

Why?

Could be I’m writing this annoying section because I don’t want to tell you what happens to Carlotta next, which, I’m sorry to say, is nothing good.

This is a possibility I’m not ready to dismiss. But I don’t quite accept it either. It doesn’t seem, smell, taste, or feel like the truth. Here’s what does: I’m writing this as an act of obedience.

To what?

To the lies I’ve been telling. For whatever reason, these lies, that are in some way independent and separate from me, want me to step in and say this stuff. These queer, strange, profane, pious, beautiful, obscene, debased lies that I both love and love telling, these lies I hope will explain me to myself and to you, these are sacred lies and must be attended to.

There, I said it. I think these lies are, in some way, sacred.

I know how fucking crazy that last sentence sounds. I know how fucking arrogant it makes me seem. I am fully-fucking-aware I just gave anyone who wants to talk smack about me a hydrogen bomb’s worth of ammunition.

I’m betting it’s the shoes.

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frank dipalermo writer nailed magazineA long time ago, Frank DiPalermo wrote and voiced and essay for the National Public Radio show Living On Earth which you can listen to: here. Frank titled this piece State of Grace. The producers gave the unfortunate title Diver Dan. Not quite so long ago Frank wrote a piece of short fiction that appeared in the on-line literary Journal Slow Trains. You can read Body of Christ: here. Frank currently studies with Tom Spanbauer and is hard at work on a messy, sprawling book-like thing.

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Matty Byloos

Matty Byloos is Co-Publisher and a Contributing Editor for NAILED. He was born 7 days after his older twin brother, Kevin Byloos. He is the author of 2 books, including the novel in stories, ROPE ('14 SDP), and the collection of short stories, Don't Smell the Floss ('09 Write Bloody Books).