Writing has been a part of my life since late one night I read a sentence by Stephen King: “You must not come lightly to the blank page.” I straight away grabbed my journal and wrote four pages of utter nonsense.
From day one Mr Christopher DiLeo, horror author and teacher extraordinaire, who taught my creative writing class, held my attention, every student’s attention, with the way he moved around the classroom as if it were a stage and we were an audience in the dark, far from his view but close. He read aloud short stories, poems, and plays, and every word jumped out in full, living color.
He required students to read a chapter from Stephen King’s On Writing. It was late, maybe 10 o’clock at night, but I wanted to finish the reading before class the next day. I was sitting up in bed, holding the photocopied paper to the bedside lamp. I read something fantastic. King wrote, “You must not come lightly to the blank page.”
It is a statement of boldness. It is a statement of fearlessness. It calls for you to explore whatever the fuck you want to explore when you write and make no apologies. On a blank page you can be as detached, forceful, present, quiet, disgusting, or as clever as you please. On a blank page you are nothing and everything. But whatever you decide to be you must take pride in your work, as King calls for you to enjoy the risk of a blank page.
Writing means whatever you want it to mean. There is no one reason why a writer writes. Some of us don’t even enjoy the knuckle-breaking work it takes to complete a work that will never really be “finished”. I am of the opinion that nothing I write will ever be “finished”. There is always some word that can be improved, a thought-thread that I can delve deeper into, or a paragraph that isn’t working. It’s part of the fun, at least for me. I write because I enjoy it. Furthermore, I enjoy the risk-taking it requires to put more than 30 hours of work into a story that may never be seen by anyone else. Carving out precious moments of before-work dawn to write is part of the challenge of persistence. I like to think that these moments I steal to write are working. ZAUMXS, The Manhattanville Review, Aurora, and Gandy Dancer have published my short stories.
I’m just the cable repair guy.
Can you please explain to me why Mr Newman had an hour-long conversation with me about how to run my business?
My phone rings and before I even look at the caller ID, I know it’s my boss. Lou’s going to chew me out for being late. It’s humiliating to get yelled at by Lou, not because he’s clever with his insults but because he’s so stupid that it’s degrading to work for him. Might as well get it over with. I take a deep breath and answer the phone.
“Can you please explain to me why Mr Newman had an hour-long conversation with me about how to run my business?” Lou said.
I’ve learned to understand Lou through whatever food he has in his mouth. This time it’s something greasy, something that really slimes up his vocal cords.
And Lou looks exactly as he sounds, a big guy with a gut, a wreckage of teeth, and a backstory about his wife divorcing him. Rumor has it that Lou lived in a ritzy house down by the Hudson River before they were divorced. Now he lives on Grand Street in the city of Newburgh. Being lucky to Lou means waking up to find that your tires weren’t slashed overnight. It almost makes me feel sorry for him. Almost.
“Mr Newman is a complainer,” I say. Mr Newman is a 78-year-old man who accidently switches the television to HDMI2 at least once a week and can never figure out how to get it back to HDMI1 even though I’ve shown him 17 times.
Mr Newman calls Lou to tell him that I arrive too early. I was only trying to get it over with.
Today I arrived a half-hour past the four-hour time slot. It wasn’t my fault though, not really. I stopped off for breakfast at a diner and the server was slow. That’s not my fault.
“Don’t be wise with me,” says Lou. Wet, heavy drops of cheese fall on wax paper. “You’re a smart kid. Start acting like it, otherwise we’re going to have a chat.”
“If I were smart you’d be driving around and I’d be the one sitting at a desk,” I say. I mean it as a joke but there’s too much bite in my voice. Lou can hear it. It’s too much to miss, even for him.
“How many jobs do you have left?” asks Lou.
“Just one, in Newburgh,” I say. I was going to stop off at a QuikCheck to grab a milkshake but it’s out of the question now.
“Stop by the office after that. We’re going to talk.” Lou hangs up.
My stomach twists thinking about Lou slurping down an Icee as he tells me how useless I am. The GPS tells me to turn right. I guess it would be fine if Lou fired me. There’s enough in my bank account to hold my apartment down for another month. And now that I’m thinking about it, cable repair is a special kind of shitty job.
It’s like you’re an unnoticed spectator to people’s lives. They yell at the dog, their significant others, or their kids. At one call the cable box was smashed to bits. When I asked what happened, the man said, “Television makes me lonely,” and then he asked my sign.
I see so many people who talk over their screaming children and so many sad old people who tell me their teeth have gone soft and they can’t drink soda any more. Their faces come to me late at night. I sink lower into the driver’s seat. I’m making myself depressed.
I pull up to the Douglas’s ranch, a long tube of a house perched on a hill, between the town and the city of Newburgh, but closer to the city. I can hear the sirens screaming through the car door.
The ranch has beige vinyl siding and black shutters, the kind that open and close. African violets wave in the window boxes hanging off the railing of the steps. Everything about the house looks like someone’s been trying to keep it nice except for the lawn. It died during the winter and hasn’t been cared for yet, even though it’s July.
“I’m supposed to tell you that you’re late,” says a barefoot woman standing at the top of the steps. A gauzy skirt winds around her waist and clings to her like fire on wood. Her black tank top falls just short of her hips.
“Actually, I’m two hours on time,” I say. The woman shakes her head and smiles. Her cheeks glow in the sun and the glare brightens her eyes.
“I guess you’re Mrs Douglas?”
“You guessed right,” she says. “You look a little young to know about cable boxes.” My instant love for her falters.
“Paid training is included in the hiring process,” I say.
Mrs Douglas tilts her chin toward me. “Well then, I guess you’re qualified. Come on in, youngster.”
Youngster. She couldn’t have been that old. Maybe in her 30s? But 30 is a far cry from 22.
I follow her into the house. The entrance opens on a living room painted from a can probably labeled Robin’s Egg Blue. The furniture is done in tawny leather. Everything is pushed to the corners as if trying to not be bothersome.
“My husband was a little miffed you weren’t here earlier. You may not get the pleasure of meeting him. He had to go to the office and he wants the television fixed when he gets back.”
Mrs Douglas flicks on the television. It’s tuned to a retail show, the one where women living on SlimFast model jewelry. Mrs Douglas runs through the channels. The television goes through five channels before clicking back to the Slimfast models.
“We’re paying for 200 channels,” says Mrs Douglas.
“I’ll have to fiddle with the wires, but this isn’t a huge problem. It won’t take long to fix.”
“That’s great to hear,” says Mrs Douglas. “I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything. Just give a yell.”
“I will, Mrs Douglas.”
“Just Amy, please.”
“Of course, Amy,” I say.
Her name spelled out on my lips, she goes into the kitchen, probably to continue whatever she was doing before I got here.
If the television went back to its basic five channels then it needs new connect cables.
I’m getting into the groove of the work. I can push away my meeting with Lou and every other little thing that complicates my life as I focus on fixing the television.
“You decided to show up,” Mr Douglas says. A brisk cologne hits my nose. Mr Douglas shakes my hand hard like a dog ripping at a chew toy. He’s wearing a crisp suit with creases running down the legs of his pants so straight they look like they were made with a ruler.
“Sorry sir, I was caught up on my other jobs.” I blink. I’ve never called anyone sir in my life but something about Mr Douglas made me.
“Don’t worry about it,” he says. Mr. Douglas sizes me up. “You’re just a sprout, aren’t you?”
“I guess you could say that.”
“Just out of high school?”
“A couple years out now, yeah.” Even though it’s been only two years I feel different, now I get the theme song of Friends.
“Is this your plan?” Translation: Is cable repair instead of going to college?
“For now, yes.”
I don’t like Mr Douglas. It’s not just because he’s looking at me like I’m gum on his shoe. It’s because he looks but doesn’t see me. I know his type. Mr Douglas has been a bully all his life. He claps me on the shoulder. “Well, I guess this is a good job for you.”
He goes into the bedroom. I can hear him opening dresser drawers and shoving them closed so the trinkets on the dresser rattle.
Amy comes in and when I see her I have a hard time she’s married to someone as gritty and shallow as him. His personality must swallow her whole, I think. “I’m sorry. He can be abrasive,” Amy says.
“It’s fine,” I say. In my head, I’m reconfiguring Amy every which way I can think so that she’s a match for Mr Douglas. I picture her young and mean, a biker chick, a manic pixie dream girl. But everything looks wrong on her except the version of Amy that’s standing in front of me apologizing for her husband’s behavior.
“I think I’m almost done here,” I say. “It shouldn’t be more than 10 minutes.”
“Great,” says Amy. She smiles again, but it’s not as bright or wide as before. Something is causing her to wilt. “Do you need anything?”
“Actually, some water would be great.” I’m still jazzing for something cold because I couldn’t stop for a milkshake, and Mr Douglas made my body heat rise. “With ice?” she asks and goes into the kitchen.
The bedroom door opens and I snap back to work, switching wires in and out of slots. Mr Douglas is now wearing a crewneck T-shirt and pajama pants but he still looks like he’s the boss of everyone. He sits down on the couch and grabs the remote.
“It’s not done yet,” I say.
“Won’t be too much longer though, right?”
“I guess not.”
He settles on the couch, spreads his arms across the cushions.
A sweat breaks out on my neck. My head turns cloudy. Why does he have to sit there? My chest begins to feel too tight to breathe. I want to leave, get out of this house as soon as possible.
The phone rings and Mr Douglas gets off the couch and goes into the kitchen. “Hello?” His voice booms through the house. He’s a man who’s never been told to be quiet or use his “inside voice”.
“The bill? I thought my wife sent the check. No? Well pal, I’m glad you told me. Amy’s going to get the beating of her life when she gets home. What do you mean, of course I’m serious,” says Mr Douglas, huffing. I think it’s supposed to be him laughing.
“Are you sure you have the wrong number? All right then, your mistake. Good talking to you, too.” The phone clatters to the counter.
Amy says, “Henry, it’s not funny when you do that.”
“You know I’m only kidding.”
“You shouldn’t do that,” says Amy. Her voice is nothing more than a weak wind rustling through the reeds of her throat.
“I forgot to mail the checks,” says Mr Douglas.
“Is that really the reason?” Amy asks.
“What other reason would there be?” There’s a quiet challenge in his voice, a low rumble that seems to say go ahead, try me.
I wonder what other reason it might be that Mr Douglas hasn’t paid the bill. It’s probably some seedy reason. I imagine him in one of those stupid visors, the ones with the green transparent rim. He’s sitting under a single, naked light bulb in a circle of card players. They’re all sweating in the clammy basement. Yeah, I think. That’s it. Mr Douglas is a scummy guy who blows his money on poker games.
Amy’s voice cuts through my imagining, cold as a blade. “If you let me see what we have, maybe I could help. But you don’t let me see anything.”
“We’re not doing this now,” says Mr Douglas. “We’ll talk about it later. I promise.” A wet smack rings through the air. I wince thinking of Mr Douglas kissing Amy. “Is that water for me?”
The ice cubes rattle as Mr Douglas takes the glass. He’s so loud, I can hear his throat working down the water.
I make a few more adjustments to the cable wiring, turn on the television and 200 channels appear in the menu.
Mr Douglas grunts at the noise of the television and comes out of the kitchen. I hand him the remote. “We’re done here,” I say.
“Great,” he says. He starts flipping through the channels. I take out the bill pad. I write down some charges to an amount that equals $135.93.
“You’ll have to write a check for the bill or someone will call to take your credit card number,” I say. It’s what I say to every customer. But he’s not going to pay now and we both know it. Some poor cable bill collector who also works for Lou will call Mr Douglas and he’ll probably hear the same thing I did, just louder.
“My wife will handle the bill information,” says Mr Douglas.
Amy comes out of the kitchen. “Let’s go outside,” she says. I follow her onto the front porch. Mr Douglas settles himself in front of the television and goes brain dead.
Amy shuts the door behind her. It’s hard to meet her eyes, so I’m reading off the cable bill explaining to her the charges. Amy can sense my nervousness. Who wouldn’t? When I reach the end of the list and I don’t know what to say any more, Amy tries to give me a smile.
“I’m sorry about him,” she says. “He has a raw sense of humor.”
“It’s none of my business,” I say. “I’m just the cable repair guy.”
Amy says, “He would never actually do that.”
“Like I said, it’s none of my business.” Only, I feel like it is. I see bruise marks, the nylon strap of a sling, dead dollar signs
Then I look at the bill in my hand. It’s just a stupid piece of paper. If I rip it up, no-one will know that I was even here. I like that idea. “Don’t worry about the bill,” I say.
Amy’s face grows darker with all the shadows gathering. “What do you mean?”
“You won’t get charged. It wasn’t that big of a problem. I was only here for 20 minutes.”
“Look, we don’t need any charity,” says Amy. “And I’m sure your boss wouldn’t like you ripping up repair tickets.” She snatches the bill and leaves a burning papercut.
“You should go,” she says. She’s right. We’re done here.
“Goodbye, Mrs Douglas,” I say.
By the time I get to the car, Mrs Douglas has gone inside. It’s still bright out, but the blue wash of the television is making the curtains glow. I think of Mr Douglas pulling Amy down onto the couch with him, placing a heavy arm across her shoulders. I bet she sinks into the cushions of the couch and almost becomes buried. I shudder. It feels like it would suck.
As I pull into traffic and the GPS talks the route to the parking lot of Lou’s cable company, I grab my phone. I roll down the windows and turn the radio off so that maybe, if I stop at a light, people will hear me. I wish Amy could hear me. I wish she were sitting right next to me, watching as I hit Lou’s number. My call goes to voice mail. “Hey Lou, it’s me. I quit.”
I throw the phone in the back out of reach, just so I don’t redial Lou and apologise, “Just kidding, I’ll be at your office in 20.
The GPS is trying to talk me back to the office. I have to go back. I have to return the company car. But I’m ignoring the GPS, “Turn right now.”
I’m kind of floating, suddenly aware I’m untethered. I could drive around in this car for however long I want. Or until Lou calls the cops.