Underside of Wars Chapter 1

~~You can find Underside of Wars on the main page, http://www.whirlpoolofcrows.net~~

I’m mid-swallow, staring at my computer screen when my cellphone rings. My ringtone is the default jingle that came with the phone. I sigh as I lean back in my computer chair, putting my beer between my legs. I reach back under Daisy—my cat, who has claimed the couch—to retrieve the handset. She stands up, stretches, and moves further down the couch—she doesn’t like her tummy touched. I tap the green button, put it on speakerphone, then drop it on the desk in front of me. I need that hand for my beer.

“Hullo,” I answer.

“Finally! Jesus Christ, don’t you answer the phone anymore?” It’s Amy, my literary agent.

“Who is this?” I’m torturing her.

“Oh my god . . .” There is a frustrated gap on the other end. In my head, I imagine her eyes are closed and head shaking. That’s usually how this goes. “It’s Amy. Amy! You fuck!” She huffs. Amy has represented me for about two years, though I haven’t heard from her for a blissful month. I know what she wants.

“You know that I vouched for you,” she continues. “But did you know I literally walked into Tony’s office and said he needed to sign you?” Of course I fucking know this. She tells me every time we have these little talks. Always a difficult conversation. “He hated those last chapters.” Tony is the head of Black Dog Publishing—my publisher—and he is also Amy’s husband. The first time I sent him my work, it was the uninhibited, inscrutably philosophical writing that made up the bulk of my first two, highly-unpopular books. He was not happy. Amy, though, was well aware of my writing style, so I think she only has herself to blame. “Whatever poison I can hear you slurping was bought with our money and my goddamn trust!”

“Amy who?” I gurgle through a mouthful of beer. Amy was once the best thing to ever happen to me. “Just kidding,” I swallow.

“I’m not laughing, Matthew.”

“I know. I’m sorry. I always pick up my phone. When did you call?”

“Oh, I don’t know, like every night this week.” That explains it. I’ve blacked out early each night that Jasmine, my wife, has been out of town. Although Amy doesn’t realize it, she should be glad I didn’t hear the phone all those times—the conversations would have been much more frustrating for her.

She sighs again. “How are you?” she asks, calmer.

“Same. I’m trying. I’m working. I promise.”

“How close are you to being done? Tony likes to keep the deadlines, especially on new authors.” I look at the bottom of my screen: 4,256 words. I promised 75,000, give or take. It was also supposed to be book one of a trilogy for some reason. I hate trilogies. Give me one book or give me ten—be concise or be ambitious. Above all, I despise the goofy fantasies and dystopias that are currently the province of children in bookstores and theatres across the country. 

“I’m close-ish. It’s . . . it’s a fantasy, set in a dystopian society. There’s werewolves, and uh, an evil corporation chasing them. Radiation. Mutants. And like we talked about, there’s, um, two guys, and they’re both into the same girl. You know, I don’t want to ruin it, but I promise, I’m going to be wrapping it up soon. I just have to, you know, polish it up.”

“Okay. Did you tone down all that flowery stuff like I asked you to? You know I love your writing, but Tony needs to be able to sell it.”

“I did,” I lie. I look at the document on my screen and the flowery drivel I’ve been writing the last two days. I put my head down in my empty hand. A beer in one hand, my head in the other—I’m not sure which is more valuable. Both are pretty much empty, but at least the can is worth five cents.

“Okay,” Amy pauses. Uh-oh. I have a feeling I know what’s coming next. “Hey, can we get together this weekend? I miss you.”

“Um, let me look at my calendar,” I stall, not bothering to lift my head. I never have any appointments in my calendar. My wife, Jasmine, will be back from her trip this weekend and will definitely want to spend some time together. “Yeah, looks like I have some free time,” I nevertheless respond, “what are you thinking?”

“How about dinner? The Orchid Grill. Do you know it?”

“No.”

“It’s new. It’s in the lobby of the downtown Ramada. It’s beautiful. And romantic.” 

“The Orchid Grill it is,” I try to push my head further into my hand. I want to stifle all the light, all the sound. “Seven o’clock on Saturday?” I suggest. The anticipatory cheer in my voice is as convincing a creation as I have ever given birth to in any story, poem, or book I’ve ever written.

“Awesome!” I can hear Amy’s smile—I just don’t understand it. I mean, she is a pretty, twenty-five-year-old girl, and I’m . . . well, me. “I’ll see you then.”

“See you then.”

“Oh yeah,” she adds, “Tony wants to see the first three chapters by Sunday. Don’t worry, they don’t need to be perfect or a final draft or anything. He just wants to get an idea of your direction.” 

“Hey, no problem,” my tone is still chipper, but I sneer. That was a cruel little footnote she added after getting me to commit an entire evening and night to her in the interim. 

“Great!” She pauses again. “Sorry I got mad earlier.”

“Don’t sweat it. You have a job, too.”

“Thanks for understanding, Matthew. See you on Saturday!”

“See you then.” The call ends, Amy’s number flashing on the screen.

I lift my head out of my free hand. With my elbows on my knees, I sit staring into the distance through the corner of my room. The devil tattooed on my forearm is looking in the same direction. As always, I wonder what the hell Amy is thinking. She’s met Jasmine. We all had dinner together. I signed my contract on that very dinner table under Jasmine’s dark angelic eyes and Amy’s bright succubus eyes. Sadly, wistfully, I think about how that was my very best moment as a writer. I felt validated for the first time. Then, when I delivered my first pages, it was, invariably, as it has always been.

“I have to buy more condoms,” I say to myself. Since I have my phone out, I flip through a dating app. I don’t even know why I have it installed. There are a couple “hmmm” moments before I shut the phone off and toss it back onto the couch next to Daisy’s new spot. Her eyes open a crack, only for a moment. She’s totally unflappable.

I look back at my screen. It feels pointless. Amy is the anti-muse, stealing my inspiration and sending it south. I stand up and walk to my window. After a moment, I put the side of my face up against the cool glass, I can see almost down to the river. That long dark behemoth is the immense Dockmoor bridge. I have seen it a thousand times from this vantage. Of course, from here, it looks blurry—like a rusty, metal, apocalyptic horizon. You see, our windows are the original glass, and their waves and curves refract the light and distort the images. For instance, it is easy to imagine that the sun flashing off the lines of cars criss-crossing the street below is the sunlight shimmering on an ocean. Their slow and constant commute is contorted by the sizzling heat fluttering above their roofs and their hoods (and, of course, these old, shitty windows); so, for me, if I glaze out, I see the ocean waving peacefully.

I see that they have finished constructing the newest building in the area, which is just down the street from us. It’s a white cement behemoth that glitters in the morning sun. From where my face is pressed on the glass, the building sits in the thickest part of the window’s occlusion, giving it sharp, tall angles the building does not actually possess. Right now, it looks like a giant, lonesome iceberg breaking the zen waterscape shimmering beneath it. 

“What a lovely day,” I say somewhat sarcastically, my eyes twitching briefly to the blue sky, my face still on the window. I open my mouth wide and breathe on the glass, trying to fog up a section I can write upon. I have to write something today. As though these windows are bars, I’ve decided to barricade myself in my apartment until I do. And that’s okay. Outside is honestly not that appealing to me: the sunlight, which is still painting that metaphor of the ocean drowning the icy cement edifice, is like the sunshine in hell. It may be cooler than fire, but so what? I’m still in hell. 

I don’t stay at the window long. I have to sit back down at my computer to write. Though, first, I finish my beer and reward my anticipated efforts with a follow-up glass of bourbon. Then I write. Then delete. Then write, then delete, and soon the minutes turn to hours, and the afternoon into evening. I drink more bourbon and struggle even more. The summer heat descends on the room, misting my brow as I stare at my screen. Periodically, my eyes flicker back to the window, and to that quiet white iceberg outside, glittering in the light. That fucker is always in the corner of my eye when I’m at the computer. It is as shimmeringly white and bare as my page. 

Perhaps a break will reinvigorate me. I leave the jail cell and go to the kitchen. I sit with my cat. I watch television for five minutes. Then I’m back at my computer with a fresh drink. I waste hours this way. And each time, a few minutes after sitting back down at the computer, I’m standing back up and I’m at the window. In the evening, the wavy old glass make the newly constructed iceberg look as if it’s pressing on the glass, like how my wife says my bones seem to be pushing through my skin.

It has grown dark outside. The ocean of cars on the street don’t shimmer anymore, and now I can see myself in the window like it’s an obsidian mirror: I’m a skeleton modeling a baggy grey shirt and jeans. My long black bangs don’t reflect in the black mirror, so the darkness above me cuts jaggedly into the recesses of my dark eyes. I watch this weird ghoul looking back at me. I watch the half-full glass of bourbon travel from his hip to his fuzzy jaw, again and again. The glass refills. I have always known what that man in the window wants to say, but no one seems to want to hear it. Whenever I allow myself to write without conscience, it is like an Irish knot, or the pretzel of on and off ramps just outside the city: every word is a car circulating like blood through veins, going miles but ultimately ending up back at the heart. And I mix metaphors like crazy.

Another refill of my glass slackens my grip on the evening. I am still watching myself in the window, sniffing at the silence in my room. What would someone on the street think if they looked up here? Another full drink goes down, all at once—that was once a lot for me. And I used to have a therapist to tell me that. He didn’t understand, though. It’s not like I am sitting around, watching television and playing video games. I am a writer. I’m a reincarnation hundreds of years old, wading in the same oil as Hemingway and F Scott Fitzgerald; on the same adventure as Hunter S Thompson; at the same table as Dorothy Parker; and chasing the same dragon as Samuel Taylor Coleridge. This is not a vice, it is a badge, a fellowship

Standing at the window, contemplating my dead brothers, I can feel my purpose sharpening with each spill burning down my throat. When I get enough down there, the water rises above the line of rust on the hull, and I’m ready to go back to work. I return to my computer and, in minutes, I vomit up a page, then two, then three. Each word is another stone skipped across my strange pond, and each is more nebulous than the last. The helix of rational intent has long disappeared, and all that is left is that Irish knot inside me. In this moment, I truly believe I am liquefying the eyes and demystifying the flesh—but in the morning, I’ll probably realize it was just the poison on my breath.

I’m mid-sentence when my fire burns itself out, my fingers hovering, shaking above the keys for a moment before they fall to my sides. I adjourn to the couch in my study. It’s quiet and I’m still alone. My thoughts come slow and blurry. My eyes, half-shut, see empty whisky bottles lined up along the wall like a Seal team sneaking to the door. It’s not so bad fighting them night after night, then seeing them steal away one by one. As I imagine an ocean and iceberg outside in the cars and the white building, so have I also mistaken this artificial light inside me. But even if this existence is less romantic than I want to believe, soldiers like me always die anyway, and then I win for sure.

One more drink and I am ready to tip. Then I’m lying on the couch like a fighter on the canvas, and I’m sinking into a dreamy rift. All the soldiers have fallen tonight. They’re ghosts now, quivering on my shelves, each with an echo of themselves inside me. The apparitions of another wasted day surround me like a chorus of sinking, Russian dolls. I smile at them. It is not the first time I have batted away their hands as I struggle. But the thing about failure is that it makes it easy to die. Because those ghosts up there said so. And if their whispers aren’t telling me the truth, then there’sno such thing as truth and lies.

And with that, I’m KO’d. There are no cigarette burns, no soft fade into black. My head simply droops on the leather as if it has fallen through one dark ether . . .

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