Support Beam Excerpt

Hello. As promised, here’s an excerpt from the short story I entered in Glimmer Train’s New Writer’s Competition. Maybe you can find out where I went wrong! 🙂 Enjoy!

 

Support Beam
by Daniel Rocha

1

When I traced the thread that ended with my suicide, I found it began in an art class. Sculpture, in fact. Beginning Sculpture. Big, tin-shit studio with high ceilings and harsh fluorescent lights. It in was that ugly place that I discovered I wasn’t an artist. Yeah, the train kind of jumped the rails from there.

My mother is an artist. Born artist. By that, I mean it goes all the way down to her cells. Back in 1999, she exhibited and sold a gigantic sculpture, and she’s still famous for it. Hell, the thing is so huge, it looks more like some archaeological relic than any piece of modern art. She spent years on it. Nights, weekends. My brother and I were in high school at the time, and we had to fend for ourselves some weeks.

The first time I saw it in her studio, I thought she was walling off a new room in the corner. It’s a two-level iron cage standing twenty feet tall. On each level is a stone figure, one male and the other female. They’re exquisite. Lean and muscular, like the stuff you see when you’re studying Michelangelo. The male figure is on the bottom level, and it’s sitting on a stool, staring into space and smiling. The woman is on the top, and she’s standing with her hands on her chest. She’s looking in the opposite direction as the man, also smiling. They had to crate it up and load it on oversized pallets when they took it to the gallery.

Folks took a lot of photos of her in front of that cage. I kept the newspaper article. I can visualize her modest smile and stance. Her hands are clasped in front of her. The ends of her scarf hang from her shoulders. Her long, thick, gray hair falls around her. The sculpture looms tall and black behind her.

Colleges wanted my mom to work for them, but she despised the thought. She said it would only distract her from her real purpose here. That’s how she put it.

My mother and I look alike. It’s uncanny, really. When I see pictures of her as a teenager, with her wide hips and droopy eyes, I see myself as I am now. I enjoyed doodling and cartooning as a kid, and when my mom dropped me off at the library, I always went to the back of the children’s section to look at the Peanuts treasuries. I never created anything on the scale of my mom’s works, but my family and friends still saw an artist in me. Knowing less about myself than they did, I followed the plain trail.

A few weeks into the sculpture class, a gangly girl with thin blonde hair approached me. She had poor posture: a permanent slouch that made her ribcage sink inward. She always wore black, which accentuated her gaunt look. I imagined that hugging her felt like hugging a plant.

“You’re mom is Myra Levins, huh?” she said.

“Yeah,” I answered. I got asked this a lot.

“Oh,” said the blonde girl. She picked at one of her nails. She wore black fingerless gloves with cartoon skulls on them, and the polish on her nails was black. I was surprised she didn’t wear black sunglasses and black contact lenses. She paused after that, as though expecting some embellishment on my part. “What’s your name?” she asked.

I thought this was strange. “Tara Levins. How’d you guess who my mother is, without knowing my last name?”

“I saw the resemblance,” she said. “Your mom is amazing, you know.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m Acceptance,” she said, and held out her hand. It was cool and limp, and she didn’t put a lot of effort into the shake. “Most people just call me Cept.”

I wanted to ask how many nights she stayed up before she decided on that name. The person I am today would have said it. It was my first semester in college, though, and I didn’t have any friends, so I slid the thought away. “A pleasure,” I said.

“I like your necklace,” said Cept. She pointed at the little gold cross I used to wear. “What denomination are you?”

“Oh, I don’t really have one,” I said. “It’s kind of different from all that.”

“Yeah. It still hits me from time to time.”

I thought that she was referring to the tendency of young people to vacillate to and from God. I was never serious about God. When my mom gave me the necklace, she told me to think of it as a reminder “that there are always greater spirits around us.” That was how she put it. I never knew what greater spirit to follow, and it didn’t seem wise to me to take a random guess, so I just wore the necklace.

“I guess we all turn to religion at some point or other,” I said.

“No,” said Cept. “I mean I still get the marks. You know?” She looked at me very seriously. She had big blue eyes with heavy purple bags below them.

Of course, I didn’t know what she was talking about, and I shook my head.

Cept pulled off her right glove and presented me with the back of her hand. Her skin was pasty, and the blueness of her blood vessels leapt out at me. “See?” she asked.

I squinted at it, but no, I didn’t see. I shook my head again.

She withdrew her hand and studied it herself. She furrowed her brow and said, “Well, they usually heal pretty quickly. I wake up with wounds in my hands some mornings.”

At this point, I decided to take an interest in the block of clay I was supposed to be working on. Cept didn’t notice, though, and she kept talking. “I asked my spirit guide what it means,” she said, “but I still can’t hear him. That reminds me, I need to practice my listening again tonight.” She pulled out a small notebook (black, of course) and scribbled something in it. Then she looked back at me as I sized up my clay. “What are you going to make?” she said.

“Not sure yet,” I said. “I’ve never worked with clay before.”

Cept’s eyebrows jumped. “You haven’t? Where did you hide while you grew up? Didn’t your mom share anything with you?”

“No, she didn’t,” I said. “She was always kind of protective about that stuff. She didn’t even let us in her studio until we were teenagers.”

“Who’s us?”

“My brother and I.”

“Oh. He an artist, too?”

“No, he’s not.” My brother Mark wanted to be a policeman.

“I’ve been working in clay since I was four,” said Cept. “I made a dreidel for my Jewish friend. I wanted to surprise him with it, but I needed his help to write the Hebrew, so I couldn’t.”

“You did this when you were four?”

“Yeah. Do you ever think about getting your clit pierced?”

I blinked for a couple of seconds, computing. “Excuse me?”

“I’m thinking about getting a stud in my clit this weekend. I have a friend who can do it for me. I’m having second thoughts, though. Have you ever thought about it?”

I can’t say I was entirely shocked. My mom asked bizarre questions like this, often without prompt, and right now Cept was channeling her. “No,” I said. “Never occurred to me.”

“It’s more for my boyfriend than for me. My sister got three, and she told me she’s very happy with them. You should see the patterns she makes with her piercings. She has these amazing clusters in her ear cartilage that swirl, kind of like a nautilus. She’s also got these rivets in her back that look like the waves in an ukiyo-e painting. She got a picture of it in our magazine.”

“What magazine is that?”

“We call it Tits ‘n’ Tats. It’s about body modification. I work on it with a few friends downtown. My friend Shell does the photography, my other friend Kari writes most of the articles, and my other other friend Rad does the printing at his Dad’s shop. I’m the editor. We even have a pretty big readership here on campus. Yay!”

Yeah, Cept bounced around a lot. She wasn’t afraid to let her mouth drift, and I found that perplexing. Had no one in her life at least give her a funny look?

I still remember my first lesson in socializing. I was four or five, and we lived in a new neighborhood with about a half-dozen undeveloped lots. I spent a lot of time in the dirt and ditches, daydreaming and searching for bugs. One afternoon, I listlessly grabbed at a passing grasshopper and was shocked to feel it struggle in my grip. I was terribly excited. I ran to a couple of girls making chalk drawings on the sidewalk down the street, holding the little bug in my cupped hands. I smiled and hopped in place, squealing about my achievement. A chubby girl with clipped black hair looked up at me, unimpressed, and said, “Good for you.”

I guessed that, in all her years of floating and flailing in the river, Cept had never heard someone say “Good for you.” Or maybe she had, and she didn’t care.

All these thoughts marched through my head as Cept made her introduction. The last one made the tumblers fall into place. I heard them. The sound they made was this: artists express. They share, they shout, they scream. They think they can pierce the noise, and not just add to it. My mother expressed.

I’ve been going on about Mom a lot already, so I suppose I should talk about my father too. He died in a car crash before I could remember him, and he left my mom a hefty life insurance policy. My mom’s first act was to cash out a third of it for use in a ten-foot-tall collage. At the center of the piece is an enlarged overhead photograph of her lying naked in the dirt. Dozens upon dozens of real hundred-dollar bills surround her, pasted onto the board at mad angles. It looks like a parody of a rap album cover, though I’m sure Mom would tell you that wasn’t the point at all.

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All the Ailments of the Artist

The anniversary of Ernest Hemingway’s suicide just passed. It put me in mind of an NPR interview with John Waters, in which the director lamented the losses of his creative friends and colleagues. The interviewer said that many of these people died from drugs, suicide, and general mental illness, which Waters summed up as (and I’m paraphrasing), “all the ailments of the artist.” It touched me, the way he said that, and it made me wonder about the curse that congeals on the flip-side of creativity.

There’s even a Wikipedia article about it.

I’m no Hemingway. Not even close. I haven’t written a novel, but my mind whirls with ideas and images at all hours, and I feel guilty when I don’t answer my muse. So guilty am I that I often contemplate sharing Hemingway’s end. More than once in my life, at times of boundless despair, my toes poked over that edge. I was lucky: I had people in my life that loved me enough to pull me back from that chilly cliff, but they never learned how to stop me from wandering back there. I don’t even know how to stop me from wandering back there. It’s a mystery, a drive that I cannot fathom or even control at times.

Many of the artists that I’ve known are cheerful and friendly, but also easily depressed. They aren’t miserable, unpleasant people, they just feel the faults of their lives, and the lives of others, more acutely than the “bros” and “babes” that I know. Those folks only seem to think about car and nail styles.

Artists soak up the pain and guilt of life far too readily, but they absorb it, channel it, and discharge it in ways that can both warm and wrench the heart. They are skiffs with cannons: vulnerable to the ravages of the sea, but with a ferocious ability to tear down the ships around them. I’ve sadly found that my darkest nights, the nights when I was lying before the bathtub with blade in hand, were the nights I could be the god-damned cruelest person I ever knew. I know how to hurt because I know where it hurts.

On the other hand, I also know how to heal. I know how to build, I know how to make merry. I know because I’ve done it before. For many years, I thought I knew real recovery, I thought I felt free from the grip of suicidal depression. I tumbled back, though, and other people are paying the price with me. It takes the strength of many to push someone up a hill when he doesn’t want to go.

I’ll find my legs again, though, and I’ll get climbing. With any luck, maybe a few people will see me once I get back up there.

Platform Game

It looks like success in writing is about building a “platform.” That’s the word I see everywhere now. A platform is a foundation of connections and achievements, and the more of these that you have, the stronger your platform is.

I don’t know how I feel about this. It sounds to me like writing has turned into a popularity contest. It’s not about storytelling, it’s about bankability.

This is the way things go nowadays, I suppose. It’s an age when any clown on YouTube can find fame and success simply by vlogging about what he buys at the store each day. Whether you’re writing a novel, reviewing a video game, or sharing the minutiae of your life, you are involved in “content creation,” a term so clinical and so far removed from artistic value that it’s depressing.

It’s most frustrating because I saw it coming. I didn’t have some psychic vision. I saw the successes of certain webcomics over the years as the internet grew. The most popular webcomics were wildly inconsistent in quality or meaning, but God damn it, they updated everyday.

That’s how you build a platform, I guess. You keep cranking things out. You stay in touch. It doesn’t matter if you don’t have anything important to say, or if inspiration has struck you. You just keep putting your chips out there.

Could I live with myself if I posted a daily vlog on YouTube that discussed excruciating trivialities with little to no value? Could I feel alright with that? Lord knows I don’t much like to talk unless I have something good to say, and then I like to be sure I express myself to greatest effect. If you want to build a platform, though, you need fans, you need to clamor for Twitter followers, you have to beg for YouTube subscribers. You have to be an online attention whore.

My friend Brenna and I had a short discussion about how we feel that human civilization has passed beyond the Information Age and moved into the Attention Age. Attention, it seems, is the most valuable currency of the generation. Now that we all have the capacity to plaster our faces on millions of screens, we’re in the midst of a veritable Attention Rush. Stake your claims now, folks.

Is that what writing is all about anymore? I suppose that if you want to make money doing it, then it is.

The world changes, but the results don’t change all that much. The most successful will the be the ones who love to show themselves off the most. I can only wonder how true writers — excuse me, “content creators” — like Sylvia Plath would manage in a day like this.