1999 Graduate Fiction Winner
Michael John O’Donnel
Fenius Blach The
Writer of Vorplay
Jonz The Director
Mia Jof’s girlfriend
V The stalking lyricist
Raval Ex-plastic surgeon turned scavenger
Facilitating Influence Michael John O’Donnell
A warm glass of port brings little repose from the angst of the workday, and by midnight, THE WRITER, Fenius Blach, spreads his tired frame across his spruce desk, eyes wide-open and bloodshot. Blach pops a few yellow pills from an unmarked bottle, then sighs. Nearby, with cigarette stabbed between thin lips is THE DIRECTOR, Jonz. He sits nervously on a mock antique barrel, feet kicking against its side, arms crossed defiantly. Unearthly gasps of air emerge from his throat. Blach sips the port and runs his fingers through his hair, from back to front. Jonz stops the incessant kicking of the barrel, smoothly maneuvers the cigarette from one side of his mouth to the other in a practiced sweep and stares at Blach who stares into the computer monitor, and into the fading word-resonance of his stage play, Vorplay--his final draft. He falls to his knees to click the machine off from under the desk and mumbles a few barely audible words to himself The last of the radiant pixels fade, and he envisions an electronically-generated sunset. He stands and turns around to face the fully-constructed, scarcely-lit set of his stage play on the eve of its premier: a multi-media, computer-aided, technelligent, modern-day-and-beyond love story set against a backdrop of severed metaphorical synapses and unproved theories. Blach narrates his own story.
It took ten months to get a director to even glance at my stage play, Vorplqy. When one finally decided to give it a crack, I hesitantly agreed that it would be produced in the basement of the downtown Maryland Hotel, a turn-of-the-century firetrap with exposed wiring that streaked the length of its dimly-lit corridors. Asbestos fibers danced in the light of a fluorescent lamp, with visible carpet seams, and a strong musty odor rounding out the room’s fixtures. It was providentially perfect; the main character, a linguistics professor, meets his death at the hands of his stalker ex-girlfriend, programmer/web page designer/Marilyn look-a-like in the basement of a burnt-out faux castle once owned by a Keebler Foods VP. Cute shit—a juiced-up boy-meets-girl-during-academic-conference-girl-excites-boy-boy-overacts-says-stupid-things-seeks-I-step-HMO-approved-program-girl-digs-this-becomes-possessive-experiments-with-self-mutilation-boy-runsscared-considers-gender-alteration-girl-stalks-boy-boy-gets-off-on-this-stalks-girl-sends-computer-viruses-over-the-net-she-starts-chainsmoking-they-have-child-she-kills-him-then-leaves. ..normal stuff.
The director was a young kid, early-twenties, dyed orange goatee, bandanna, a chain attached from something to something else and buried within shredded jeans. Carried a knife. He called himself Jonz. White as a sheet. Apple pie anglo, but with some tough-to-peg Swedish accent thing going on (it came out when he talked about world suffering, famine in underdeveloped nations, Baudrillard). Thin. That Train-Spotting look: gaunt, heroin. Big for awhile. He claimed to be working on his MFA, fiction, but had “taken the semester off” to “pursue more meaningful projects” and “get back to the trenches.
“Teasing. I’m actually working on my graduate degree, too. Jeezus, look where it’s gotten me,” I said, plunging my index finger into my mouth to mimic a hooked fish. “I’m glad you’re taking a look at Vorplqy.” He seemed satisfied at my prostration and gave me the grand tour of what he had already perceived as the initial layout for the play’s production.
“Nice touch. Perfect to symbolize the purposeful and allegorical apathy of the characters, and their desire to resurrect a forgotten era because of their own dissatisfaction with a post Generation-X vacuum. Very culturally pastiche and identity-politics-crushing.
As he continued, I
only remotely paid attention. He seemed to have things reasonably under
control. No, he wasn’t born and bred Broadway, but he had an eye for that funky
small space, low-budget quality I was looking for; the stuff that audiences who
think they’re hip, or cool, or “with it” like to see, and who want others to
see them as hip or cool or “with it” in an effort to somehow prove that they’ve
attained a level of something they themselves have no idea how to describe, but
they simply know it when it happens type of shit, like an unplanned zone,
although it usually takes someone else to tell them they’ve arrived at this
point, but the person who tells them they’ve arrived has probably already been
there for awhile and wants to either leave or convince the phony that it’s not
worth the ride or that there’s no more room, so they give them some false steer
and convince them that it’s a natural thing, like Tommy’s blindness, void of
cultish followers, untainted, divine—pseudo Zen with a self-esteem chaser. The
same group who swears by foreign films until the next “back to the flicking
future” sequel hits the mainframe marketing juggernaut
“...I said, do you want the oxidized brass chandelier in the corner or dangling from the middle of the stage? And remember, no candles in this one-fire code violations are a real party killer.” He fired another smoke ring to the ceiling
I liked how she drank her Guinness, leaving a slight, creamy mustache on her upper lip. She playfully licked at it as she took a deep drag from her cigarette. She was between two friends, the three of them sitting elbow-to-elbow girl-giggling, chain-smoking and glancing seductively playful looks off one another. They’d kiss cheeks like girls always do in those Mentos commercials while holding their drinks and cigarettes. I stared at them for a few minutes and became absorbed into this cute, playful little feminine interplay unfolding before me in a smoky bar. She was like Queenie in Updike’s ‘A & P”: she owned the other two. Maybe it was the Goth hood she wore, the deeply-set eyes-very Euro’—the high forehead, or maybe it was the way she manipulated the other two like chess pieces that got to me. I decided to do something bold, something potentially stupid, something very out of character.
No, I wasn’t a bad looking guy dependent upon cheap gimmicks; just one of those guys dripping with armor who never developed a rap with women. But heaven help you if your plumbing should go out, or your cat should need surgery, I’d be there to console. I was always constantly over-analyzing shit, always waiting for the end-of-the-semester parties to saunter up to the cute brunette who I thought knew something about abstract expressionism only to find out she happened to read something about it on the way to a multi-level marketing get-together with her boyfriend who was a stock broker downtown and they both just closed escrow on some condo-their second-in the beach area. Middle class Southern California bourgeoisie types that I failed to spot because I was blinded by the power suits she wore to class and the omnipresent smile, low bangs and whisky voice that all men like but are afraid to admit. I grabbed a cocktail napkin, borrowed a pen from a colleague, and hastily jotted a message:
“...I said the design guy could only slap six medallions on the front of the faux bible. Blach, are you gripping?” He lit up another cigarette and I watched his lips move through the curling smoke. It glided over his face like dry ice on the gymnasium floor of a really tacky high school prom ‘with a worn-out theme of Enchantment Amidst the Mist, or some damn thing. I must have answered as I watched him walk away, flicking his cigarette into a day-old box of drying bear claws. I thought of V:
A week passed-no e-mails from her—and I chalked the gesture up to yet another series of failed nothing-ventured-nothing-gained feminine pursuits. Maybe it wasn’t my time back from the Crusades yet. I reminded myself that the confinement and prolonged spate of bad luck encounters with women were actually contributing to the creative side of my life. keeping me indoors writing and reading literary theory when the rest of the losers were meeting for drinks with strange women, engaging in meaningless conversation, then returning to their cold, passionless lairs for sex. Vile existence. At the time, Vorplqy was nearing the first draft stage, with this mysterious woman omnipresent in the shadows of my creative subconscious as co-creator in absentia.
Three months passed before I heard from her again. At first I was concerned. Jealous? But of what? A woman with a lighter and a high forehead? Her message was cute, but harmless. She became a stranger to my memory. Besides, Vorplay was nearing completion; the director was making slight script changes, I finally secured funding (old friend of the family who had hit the Microsoft stock upswing just right), and the slow grind of self-promotion was under way-mostly flyers, small ads in the weekly, a late-night slot on K-PBS. I was exhausted, and the play was still two weeks from opening.
“...I said, when you refer to “beasts” in the program, what kind of “beast?’ are you referring to?” I waved him off as I grabbed a drying bearclaw from the pink box, brushed off the ash from its clouding glaze, and refilled the glass of port. He walked off again, mumbling something about unions, and I revisited hardships over the last few months:
The play’s physical space and set designs were nearing completion. Hotel management briefly threw a wrench into the works by staging a banquet in the adjacent room for a Baptist weekend retreat. They nearly blew their collective spiritual gaskets when they saw the giant paper machè breast propped against the pressboard penis near the espresso bar shaped like a giant cut-a-way ass. It looked like a Woody Allen script directed by Roman Polanski. The mousy night manager had us lock the doors at night to avoid future misunderstandings. I didn’t have a problem with this. The less people knew about the inner workings of Vorplay, the better. Maybe word would get out about the closed set, the illusive nature and moodiness of its producer, and the macabre habits and brooding mannerisms of the play’s chain smoking director. Yea, locked sets and scant information from here on out.
Besides, V was now back, seemingly possessed, and my obsessions were beginning to emerge from their dormancy.
The director took sick for a week which gave me some time to work out some of the bugs in the dialogue between Jof and his university persecutors. It helped to rehash the genesis of the play’s creation and revisit the few erotic encounters over the wire with V. I began looking at this communication, this impersonal wire/cable/plastic barrier/microchip fusion as a type of electronic diaphragm with the translucence of the monitor’s screen as my scrotum to another world. A black hole. She was drawing me through this electronic conveyance of information. I studied my online theory feeds to try and put some semblance of meaning to my growing preoccupation with V her manipulative messages, and her appealing taunts: Carnegie Melon did a study that proved Internet users were lonelier than the average joe—a certifiable decline in psychological well-being. I envisioned social scientist types holed up in their collective think-tanks spending tax payer money, lonely, unsexed, balding, coffee-sucking, low-sodium nut n’ honey health bar nibbling men forcing “troubling” questions on the nature of virtual communication, its potentially incendiary aftermath, and disembodied relationships formed in cyber space. I could see them with clipboards brow-beating starving undergrads with a litany of “revealing” questions: How much time do you spend on-line? How much time do you spend with your significant other? Do you find pleasure in on-line interaction? Then, as satisfied allegorical information-gatherers, Depression and Loneliness, they would retreat to their dirty little R & D dens for further analysis. Plotting on scales from I to 3, with 3 signifying the height of depression, they would come to the grand conclusion that relationships maintained over long distances void of face-to-face contact ultimately do not provide the kind of support and reciprocity that typically contribute to a sense of happiness.
It reminded me of some far-right, puritanically-steeped sect who looked at the sexual organs as strictly a means of reproduction and that the man and woman were not even allowed to sense pleasure in the intimate touch of another’s body. So a large sheet with a hole cut out in a strategically agreed upon location was used in the act of sensuality, effectively separating the lovers from the evils of intimacy. Was it this computer-as-sheet barrier that prevented V and me from proper copulation (a game of chess in the cruelest sense of the metaphor)? Why was I even fantasizing that this was a possibility? There had been no proposals, no suggestion of intimacy, yet there was an implication. “Technophile Romance,” she called it—a glass sheet of denial? The link-up was the hole. Frustrating, but oddly alluring. Or was it the mirror of the monitor that was distorting my better judgment? Yes, I had fantasized about V this past year, but I had no expectations. Or had the erotic desires I envisioned manifested themselves within the circuits of the computer-a simultaneous and tentacled snaring of the first passer-by in to my Net net?—like an electronic Venus fly-trap? But now, who was the fly? Chess-narratives, she called it. I was growing ever more fatigued and confused. I must break away! She responded again:
have you forgotten our game your visually artistic constraints seem too limiting for an e-mail fuck my language is the real thing you are automated simulacra i will still take you but let me ask you is it possible to simulate death i take your knight knight
I returned to LuLu’s for a drink and for a bit of overheard bar-chat inspiration. Chess narratives.... I despised that term! Vorplay was basically done. There was no way I would let her distract me. One more dress rehearsal, a few prostrations before the producer, some final tweaks to the script and it would be time. What did she mean by death simulated? Was I trying to simulate death? Where was the connection? Was I running? From what? Computer screen as mirror? The emptiness is a mirror turned toward my face. I live in a world of phantoms.
The place was reasonably empty except for someone sitting to my left in a high-backed circular booth, smoking-only the top of the head showing. A listing aroma-therapy candle burnt slowly near the cash register, but was slowly getting its waxy ass kicked by the exhalation of cigarette smoke.
‘What’ll you have?” the bartender asked. I took a drag of my cigarette, blew the smoke on to the top of the bar, watched it scatter like the ripple effect off a pond, then looked up.
“Something you probably can’t give me...knowledge, not supposition, not faith. Life has been an outrageous horror-a futile pursuit.”
‘Well, why don’t we stick with a strawberry brandy?” he walked away, shaking his head.
“Yes, that’s fine,” I answered, carrying on my dialogue with the top of the bar. I had started talking to myself since the first draft of Vorplay. I thought of V and her talk of death, her aversion to my propensity for visual accuracy in the language, her eerie game of chess over the net. I wasn’t used to being challenged on this level. The language. How could she dare exist in the world of the abstract? She was still on the defensive. “Just the way I like it,” I said, and forced a stream of smoke through my nose. Vorplay was too close for outside distractions. I would need to break off this correspondence, rupture this thickening diaphragm. “This concrete knight will descend upon her lyrical bishop, then shatter each flank, slowly.” I crushed a pistachio shell into the bartop.
Just then, a flash of fast-moving femininity. I thought I saw her— the “head” I saw in the darkly-lit booth to my left. Through a cloud of cigarette smoke I thought I saw her as she stomped off toward the bathroom, laughing to herself. She gave the bathroom door a good kick as she entered. No, it couldn’t.... I waited at the bar another fifteen minutes for her to come out. I was working too hard. It couldn’t be V. My V. Our anniversary, she called it. Was I so foolish as to think that she wouldn’t be here? I waited for her to come out. Nothing. There was work to be done.
Opening night was only twenty-four hours away and the full dress rehearsal was chaos; two of my actors showed up late, fighting (I found out they that had had a thing going.) The lighting guy came down with a rare strain of infantigo, the caterer suspected the egg salad may have sat too long under the hot lamps of the bar Set (“we’ve let snakes bite us, flies sting us, wild animals eat us, heathens butcher us, women give us lice, fever devour us, and you want fresh egg salad?” He had a knack for the fantastic. I thought about offering him the vacant p.r. slot) and the producer decided that today would be a time for a visit. He was a short man, dressed in brown, with a horse face, high voice, and loved to affix nicknames to my people: you there, with the swollen nose and the stupid grin. Meanwhile, Jonz was getting into it with the set designer about backdrops:
-Why do only 1/3 of your angels blow horns?
-it is written . . .
-And what is this supposed to represent?
-The Dance of Death...an alfresco.
-Why do you paint such nonsense?
-I thought it would serve to remind people that they must die.
-That’s a pleasant thought. They’ll close their eyes and stare into their programs.
-Oh, they’ll look. A skull is more interesting to look at than a naked woman.
I retreated to my space off-stage and flipped on the computer while Jonz read the group the riot act. I had mail. Seven straight messages would follow V:
fyi rented four romantic flicks last night watched them all alone took a long hot bath slept naked on satin sheets the breeze from my open window sweet with gardenias no i did not touch myself although that is possibly what you would like to read right here and not that i don’t or would not consider telling you about such times in the future but last night my head was in a different light different space i know your strategy in our game of chess narratives you must refrain from talking into bartops i will leave you now but continue our match later i will fantasize about stolen kisses meals on rooftops unexpected candlelight daisies buckets full out of the blue the usual girl fare after all the sun is closer to this part of the earth and i do have some time on my hands you will never see vorplay performed a rider on white horse takes a peace
She tricked me! It was she who was dearly on the offensive. What did she have planned for my play? Over the next several hours, the messages came at random intervals; no rhyme or reason to their trajectory Relentless taunting. She was on the tease trip, baiting me. But I wasn’t falling for it. Damnit! I was falling for it, fast and hard. Some of the messages were flip, others serious, while others intoned a deeply disturbed obsession with her desires, her needs. But what were they? Her moves were often incalculable, her messages cryptic-a lyrical labyrinth. My counters were countered. Vorplay must survive! The messages grew provocative, overtly sexual. (I was still concerned about her lack of colons in the salutations, however-very sterile and lacking in formality). She was drawing me closer, and I was falling. I was becoming her experiment over the net, a cyber cock ring cinched too tightly. Another message:
ahh summertime unfortunate/v romance at this stage is something i feel i can pencil in this shoots me down in the fugitive air space of spontaneity which i learned at one time but managed to forget as a necessary component to romance 101 even my response to this possibly romantic gesture was put off till this afternoon still I like to think i can be taught new tricks given that i’ll continue our play i’ll test my wings with or without moonshine theres no danger in flying too close to artificial light why must you hide in a mist of ha/f spoken promises a red bishop declares war your move
Jeezus Christ, what a rush! The words danced across my screen and into my brain-probed memes. It wasn’t the message itself that excited me, but the way she allowed the words to speak to each other across an electronic messenger. Her words owned this beam of technology. I could see them re-scrambling, processing, deciphering thousands, no, millions of lines of code....
ps.. .did i mention in one of the films the protagonist(a writer)told his female antagonist or love interest that he ordered the moon for her I fell for it teary eyed hook line sinker the cliché a must by the way im hopelessly straight a few lesbian dreams that inevitably ended with a man entering the room emerging from behind a two way mirror or camera or someone pulling the mask off the woman to reveal a man like the way the villain is revealed in the end of scoobydoo youve seen me so you know what youre getting
I craved refuge. I purposely avoided off answering her messages. I needed to slow her momentum. Her words were becoming obsessions. They wrapped my terminal like a blanket infected with some undetectable virus seeping through its weave awaiting human touch. Her words were thousands of excited points of light-suspended milli swirling around the resonance of my terminal—static shock waiting to leap to the nearest finger that strayed too close—a thirsty and unrelenting virus with indiscriminate tentacles of deceit and wordplay.
I left for the weekend. Old friends in San Francisco. I didn’t tell them about the girl. We drank. Her name never came up in conversation, but still that resonance. We smoked. Got up late. Drank heavily. Spoke in fragments. Smoked more. Ate dim sum. Slept. Fucked. Meaningless. Didn’t bathe. Finally relented. Spoke her name. Female friend tried to give me insight on feminine mind games. Jokingly, I asked, “Have you seen the devil?”
“He is all around us...there, behind you,” she said. (It was a Bibi Andersson look-a-like in fuchsia clogs, vermilion nipple attachments, and torn jeans. I should have known better than to ask her. She had her own crosses to carry.) At times, I desired nothing more than to be a pleasant young man who’s never had but clean thoughts, while at others.... The airport. Home. E-mail. Her:
in this realm questions are little more than a few extra words on the monitor tell me who you want to be and ill see how intrigued i am beyond my unusually frank but lengthy introduction do not inquire of god or knowledge i know not these answers a black rook brings famine
The night of Vorplqy’s debut, and V was on the hunt. She picked up my scent and kept on the trail. I was running. What had I done? What had I gotten myself into? Distractions were the last thing I needed. She said the play would never make it to the stage. Odd. How would she conduct her sabotage, this word sniper? I furiously scraped together a message before her next strike:
Listen Miss V,
I really am enjoying these clever switchbacks and I’m honored that you‘ve chosen me to bounce them off. Who knows, maybe in real time we’ll do more than pass each other in smoky bars! :). Do you really mean to derail my play? You would have better luck with me! Hahaha. Listen, gotta go. All for now....
It didn’t take her long to respond. I wondered whether she ever left the sanctuary of that incessant terminal, chasing me through a forest of circuitry. Ten minutes to curtain. I couldn’t pull myself away from the terminal. I stared at the screen as I waited for the messages from V. Another:
faith is a torment and so is your stall did you really believe i would forget bow the pieces in our game of chess narrative were arranged now that you have knocked them to the ground i will become that someone out there in the darkness that never appears no matter how loudly you call between us all these things called words i adore to take in a noun touched by your prose is too tangible than what i have known what i have breathed swallowed what i have held with and without passion in my arms my thighs my eyes the adjectives of one days scenic drive a cellos adverbs my delight in your ellipses gently draped across our white sheet canvas at last no past make me linger so hard on a prepositional phrase that my body quivers i rise i rise and gently i do not fall a pale pawn is ripe for death
I was battling my obsession to re-visit the screen while she lay in wait. The play was beginning but I couldn’t leave the allure of her lyricism. Sacrilege! Curse Jonz for having things under control! The mechanical, rote voice of the computer became an untiring refrain: You have mail . . . you have mail . . . you have mail! At one point, I reached for the power, but failed to close the portal with V. A simple motion, I thought. But no! Vorplay was beginning. I ran the opening scene over and over in my mind as I reached for a warm glass of port, shaking as I drank, then looking into the monitor:
I ride the loops of your w slide down the growl of your y catch my sweet mouth in an o with the intelligence of your q and then sleep like never before with u my clever alphabet god the solitary prize in a tangible noun is no longer a primary color our semiotics are like braille and I readfeel my way to the somatic i respond to everything i even purr persecution on the backs of martyred souls altered altars and snatch a pawn
“I know I’m not delusional!” I shouted at the screen. I had yet to experience non-bizarre thought sequences. Or had I? I am experiencing things still in the realm of possibility: I see my hand, I hear the chatter of the theater crowd as they locate their seats. Yes, a crowd! Jonz knows what to do. I must keep V interested. She will take me before my work. But the words! Vorplay is surviving. Jonz periodically checks on me. He can’t understand. He is a silhouette:
we pen our own spectrum stranger dear and it is true the full moon she will return and i know a billion white waves will push themselves into a billion grains of sand and a billion familiar lovers will find each others bodies in a blanket of dark but in our sweet sheet space and time these words know not the restraint of a billion on/y the magic of one and won let them win 4fr on your tongue i give you words then sit back glowing read them aloud yes my words must find their way to your lips yes your teeth yes your powerful tongue yes you yield sealed catastrophic changes
indecipherable passage of time deafening applause i stare into the monitor it is blue screen meld Vorplay is complete jonz is elated there is energy here but i am on the outside or am i inside looking out limited to the company of players passing through the monitor view i see myself seated though my pixel retinae a cursorblink link with the screen you mate me but i met you severe master tell me to dance as i reach the dark to clutch your hand your flashing scythe your hourglass your seventh message is read by the lamb the play of my mind is now crushed
now caught in a never ending vortex
i am relentless i am stretching back arched gently rolling over in your mouth leaving you with a flavor unforgettable destructive and unknowable i taste you this way i leave you this way and for now you should know my hands are your hands on me dance with me now on the other side seven trumpets herald our entrance and delete is only a key away check and mate
THE WRITER, Fenius Blach, stares lifelessly into the fading light of his computer monitor. Laughter and admiration fill the hallways of the tiny space as theatergoers filter away The crew has gone home, the lights have dimmed...
And when the lamb had opened
The seventh seal-there was silence
In Heaven about the space of half an hour.
And the seven angels... with the seven trumpets...
Prepared themselves to sound...
Michael John O’Donnell is finishing up his M.F.A degree in fiction at San Diego State University. He is currently at work on a historical novel that takes place in Shanghai prior to the outbreak of WWII. O’Donnell is this year’s recipient of the Touchstone Graduate Fiction Award.
All rights reserved. Copyright KSU Touchstone 2003
Last updated April 30, 2003