You mess with Harpo Marx, you get the horns.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter IV (Part I)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 16,000 words and is mumbling to himself in Welsh.)

Chapter 4
Haven’t I Seen You Somewhere Before?

As I drove the half an hour from the blog office to the Phoenix Corporation’s headquarters, I felt distinctly uneasy in the pit of my stomach. After I had tendered my resignation two years ago, I wanted to put Phoenix and everything that it does out of my mind. I was sworn to secrecy, of course, and signed all the relative forms. I was supposed to not tell another living soul what I had seen and done there, though I had, over the time I spent there, told my wife almost everything. I was happy not to be able to pass along the information, so strange and troubling it was. I was gratified not to walk up the long concrete pavement past the phalanxes of cameras, which I had danced for in more naive times. I was greatly relieved not to have to punch in and make my way past the massive layers of security. I was immensely thankful not to have to take the express, double-secure elevator up to the third floor wing where I worked as a personal assistant to my boss. Most of all, I was deliriously ecstatic to no longer have to work for the person to whose beck and call I was in thrall to for so long, my paranoid, manic boss.

You see, my boss was Richard Nixon.

Yes, that Richard Nixon.

The thirty-seventh president of the United States of America, the former Vice-President under Dwight D. Eisenhower, the man brought low by the Watergate scandal, the gridiron fanatic who sent hand-drawn plays to professional and college coaches, the man everyone called “Tricky Dick”, only not to his face or he’d throw something sharp at you. I worked directly for Richard Milhous “I am not a crook” Nixon.

I think the most shocking thing about the whole experience was the first day, when I walked in for the interview. It was shocking because Nixon was supposed have been dead for six years. I went in a special side entrance to the main building, because only fully authorized, security-cleared personnel or VIPs went through the front door. Nixon sat in on the interviews, wearing dark sunglasses, an LA Dodgers baseball cap, and a big, bushy fake moustache and beard. A Phoenix Corporation security guard, a bloke named Bob, gave the interview, reading from questions carefully prepared and handwritten by the ex-President. I found out later that Bob was chosen to handle the interview because it was his first week on the job and also because he walked on at linebacker for Ball State University.

I found out later that the only reason someone like me, with no government experience, a funny accent – as far as President Nixon was concerned, no military service record, and a career that had previously consisted of a variety of odd jobs in the grocery business, day care, computer training, and professional dancing …please don’t ask…anyway, that someone like me could get an interview at all at a place like Phoenix was that Nixon had decided that everyone with any governmental or military credentials could not be trusted. In other words, I was non-threatening enough to get the job. I was tremendously flattered, of course.

Nixon was very old by this time, and working for him was alternately entertaining and nightmarish. His legendary paranoia and narcissism had become more and more pronounced in a mind that was rapidly growing more feeble by the day. Frequently, before conversations of the most innocuous kind, he would have me check the halls and office bathroom, throw towels over the security cameras in the outside hallway, and turn on a portable radio to static and up the volume. This meant of course that not only could any eavesdroppers not hear what we were saying, but neither could we. This was compounded by the fact that, in his late eighties, Nixon had all the hearing of a Yorkshire pudding. Even at normal decibel levels, I frequently had to shout information to him. This was always followed by a stern rebuke and ruminations as to whether “Khrushchev was listening in.”

The one time I asked him about it, he said that his death had been faked so that he could get some rest and relaxation away from reporters and “***-damn Democrat pinkos still trying to get me convicted for something.” He also was fascinated with the idea of hearing all his eulogies, which he described as “very, very underwhelming…the pricks.”

He said he got the idea for the dramatic stroke from the Kevin Kline film Dave, released the year before.

“I could have won an Oscar for that performance, Merle! My housekeeper just about wet her pants when she saw me sprawled on the floor! She didn’t know it took me nearly 10 minutes just bend over and lay down!”

“Pardon me, did you say the film Dave, Mr. President?” was the only response I could come up with to that.

“The toughest part was being silent for three days. Merle, I almost lost it when Clinton came by for a secret visit to look in on me and spent half the time making out with a nurse.”

“Surely, he knew about the plan, Mr. President?” I asked.

“Nah! No one told him anything important. All that stuff went straight to Hilary,” he chortled. “He thought I was about to kick the bucket and wanted some last-minute pointers on secret White House rooms and exits. Merle, he actually tried to get me to write it down with my ‘good hand.’”

Yes, yes he almost always referred to me as Merle. I tried to correct him on the point several times, but I would only get something thrown at me in response. Fortunately, being a man in his late eighties, he threw like a man in his late eighties.

The only thing that kept him in a good mood was the occasional visit by a highly placed government official who needed advice. Nixon had planned to secretly retire to some remote isle in the Pacific, but he grew bored at the idea, and the government decided he had too much vital and classified information in his head to be allowed out of their grasp. So, he was given an “Emeritus” position at Phoenix. As his personal assistant, my job was essentially to manage his day at the office. The CIA arranged for his transportation home and someone there, presumably a former plumber or dishwasher, handled things.

As strange as it was to be working for the reputedly deceased, officially disgraced President of the United States, the Phoenix Corporation itself was a bastion of this kind of weirdness. It was, in fact, a secret wing of U.S. Intelligence designed to provide regular work for government officials and other personalities, both American and foreign, who had faked their deaths to escape the public eye.

I realised the sheer depth of this scheme on my first official day at Phoenix, when I did the company orientation. The personnel officer in charge of my orientation was none other than Jimi Hendrix. He took three stern looking intelligence types and me on a lengthy tour of the facility, at least to all the areas people at our security clearance level were allowed to.

We met the official “Greeter” for Phoenix, none other than legendary animator Walt Disney. Well, Walt Disney in part, I should say. It was actually only Walt’s head, suspended by some sort of magnetic levitation thingy, with large plastic tubes into his neck to provide oxygenated blood and nutrients to his brain. There was also a voice synthesizer that matched his original voice perfectly.

The feeding tubes were clear, so it looked quite gross. I found out later that this was one of the reasons he was the “Greeter.” The theory was that anyone clever enough to get past the complex security arrangements would run into this floating, blood-sipping severed, living head and in all likelihood make a quick decision to retreat. If they didn’t though, Walt was equipped with a high energy laser beam in his levitation thingy. Jimi had him display it during the orientation and he burned a hold right through the Coca-Cola machine in the lobby.

I decided then and there that I wouldn’t ask him to do the Mickey Mouse voice that he so famously originated. If I was to die at Phoenix, I hoped it would not be to the sounds of weak, male falsetto laughter.

I did ask him how he wound up in such a state. He sadly told me about the long illness, which was true, and then how the rumours that he had his head removed and cryogenically frozen were also true. However, the freezing process didn’t work out, but the government stepped in and had a better, more effective process involving… well, floating magnetic thingies. He wasn’t allowed to talk to me about the science of it all. The one beneficial side effect of the process though was that apparently it dramatically prolonged the life of human tissue, just as long as there wasn’t much more of it than about a human head.

The saddest part was when I asked him how he got his “Greeter” job.

“What else is a guy with no body going to do?” he said, shaking his head in a way that was both pathetic and highly disturbing.

Everyone at Phoenix who had faked their death had an interesting story. I asked Jimi after the orientation why he had chosen his especially gruesome death, asphyxiation by his own vomit.

“People don’t look too closely at that ****, man,” he responded, with a smile.

I could see his point.

Jimi later introduced me to his personnel manager, Janis Joplin, who had staged her own death to become an Amish farmer in Pennsylvania. She later had to give it up when a neighbor recognised her during a barn raising. Janis later told me all about the various personalities at Phoenix.

“…and Amelia Earhart was here back in the sixties before she died for real when she slipped on a banana peel in the cafeteria,” she revealed during a long conversation.

“So, let me get this straight,” I replied. “Elvis is on the security staff…”

“Right, because he was once deputized by your boss, the fascist, ****in’ warmonger,” she said with a laugh.

“…Jim Croce works in the cafeteria, Natalie Wood in the day care centre; Rajiv Gandhi is an accountant…”

“He’s an auditor, Earl. He doesn’t have his CPA,” Janis helpfully corrected.

“Right, sorry…River Phoenix is in the research department, Mobutu Sese Seko…”

“Mobutu Sese Seko Kuku Ngbendu wa za Banga,” she corrected again.

“…is in the janitorial department…”

“But no one likes him, because he walks around all day telling everyone how he’s the ‘Supreme Savior Combatant of the People’ or something like that,” added Janis.

“What about Marilyn Monroe?” I interjected.

“No, I’m afraid she really did die the way people heard it,” Janis said.


“Hey, if you don’t believe me, just go upstairs to the Cover-Ups department and ask Jack and Bobby Kennedy themselves.”

Thursday, November 09, 2006

Sorry Earl...

I know you've been feverishly working away on the month novel thingy but I thought I should get my week and a half old Halloween post in. I'll probably pop in with another one before too long. Maybe even in the month of November. Great novel so far.

2nd Annual Halloween Spectacular (or Spectacle, Whatever)

Earl was wondering if I'd show up with another Halloween costume showcase. Fear not my friend, for I come to bring you mirth and good-hearted ribbing of celebrities. I culled a few costume sights to find fodder for my shenanigans and learned a thing or two about costumes these days. The first thing I learned is... RUN AWAY, you parents who love your children, run to the farthest mountains and flee this society that is going to hell in a handbasket. Secondly, I learned that you can't stuff a 280 lb. woman into a costume called Serving Wench 2.

I may follow this post up in a few days with other costumes because I'm having to do this after a night of trying to navigate a two and five year old around our neighborhood, then attempt to put their sugar-addled selves to bed. Let's hope the scotch takes effect quickly.

Without further ado... we are proud (some of us anyhow) to present:

Halloween Costumes 2006

Here is the little anticipated actual post.

Pauley Shore's career needs a boost. Again.

Ned and his best gal headed to the swimmin' hole.
Don't ask for an explanation.

Don't let this guy fool you into seeing the Oscar Mayer "weiner".

Ervis Plesley

There will be NO Steve Irwin jokes. Who
do you think we are, South Park?

Kids love it when the parents "go cheap".

Nothing says Halloween like a lame joke.

Look who got the short straw. Happy Halloween Haji!!!!

Mark Foley got in on the Halloween festivities this year.

Sorry, we forgot to tell you that
those 72 virgins were male.

Earl's Novel - Chapter III (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writing Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 14,000 words and has attained a state of relative bliss, which we believe to mostly be catatonia from lack of sleep.)

A panoramic shot of the Phoenix Corporation headquarters was the next thing on the video. It was a lot like the shots of Sleeping Beauty’s castle in Disneyland commercials, only without the giant rats, giant ducks, tourists and other vermin. The facility itself was nothing like Sleeping Beauty’s castle, first of all in that it had absolutely no windows. There was a large phalanx of security camera outside, lined up in rows around the building and on the long walk leading up to the main entrance. I remembered walking past them every day. On most days, I would just walk in a very inconspicuous way, with my eyes averted well away from the cameras. On Fridays though, particularly on the way out for the weekend, I would play to them like Norma Desmond at the end of Sunset Boulevard. I always hoped the security guards got a small laugh out of it, but I really didn’t care one way or the other. The beginning of a work free weekend is something to be celebrated. On Friday’s before a three-day weekend, I would moonwalk and gyrate past the cameras, occasionally doing the Saturday Night Fever moves, with a little Austin Powers mixed in for fun.

I would tell you what I did before one two-week vacation, but if anyone ever got their hands on that video, I’d never be able to show my face in polite society again. I should have left out the pogo stick.

The video continued and the camera slowly and majestically panned in on the facility. The insufficient electronic score swelled in volume, with much the same effect as getting to the next level in a Mario Brothers video game. As the camera panned down to the doorway, the sun moved into the background, creating a stunning visual effect that was not at all matched my the music, which now sounded eerily similar to a very old cell phone ring tone.

Suddenly, the screen went to black again, and the music died away. A man in a bone white mask appeared. It was a blank and plain mask, with no shape or features beyond holes for the eyes and a slit for the mouth. The man stared at the camera quietly for a long time. As I waited to see if he would say anything, I suddenly realised he was wearing one of those “Have a nice day!” masks. No wonder it looked so creepy.

He kept standing there, staring like Carol Channing at an awards programme. The silence and staring was profoundly unsettling. I got the creepy feeling that he wasn’t looking at the camera so much as he was looking right at me. I began to wonder if this wasn’t some sort of new computer game designed to make one as paranoiac as possible. If so, it was a smashing success.

Just as suddenly as he appeared, he spoke.

“Yangtze. Yangtze. Yangtze,” came his voice, quick, hoarse, and craggy.

“Yangtze! Yangtze! Yangtze!” he shouted, more slowly and intensely this time. He quickly shouted it again three times, almost screaming. He shouted it again at least a dozen times, in different cadences and lengths. Sometimes he would yell it out slowly. Other times, he’d shout quickly, and then he would alternate the speed in different patterns. All the time he was shouting out Yangtze. It was unnerving, this masked man, shouting out the word Yangtze again and again and again. His eyes could now be seen through the mask, bloodshot and beady. His head swayed alarmingly to and fro as he shouted. It was the kind of eccentric performance that only the truly mad can pull off. Even a method actor with the obsessive commitment of a Sean Penn would have self-consciously broken down in laughter or more likely tears at this point. He kept shouting, fervently and unrelentingly. Sweat was building up behind the mask around the eyeholes. His thin grey hair was becoming increasingly disheveled. He seemed on the verge of a nervous breakdown of apocalyptic proportions. At any moment, I expected blood to pour forth from the eye and mouth holes.

And then, just as suddenly as it started, it ended. He stopped shouting, did a neat, if hesitant little bow, and vanished from the screen. The Phoenix Corporation logo came up again, with the now ludicrous electronic music in the background, and then the video ended. Fade to black.

I sat there, dumbfounded. I’d seen many, many strange and even unbelievable things in my stint at Phoenix, but this was simply unhinged.

A noise in the room startled me, and I turned around to find my wife standing there. She had a look on her face that was as sweet a mix of bafflement and horror as you could imagine.

“What on earth was that about?” she asked, with just a touch of tremulousness in her voice.

“No idea,” I replied shrugging my shoulders.

“I heard the shouting and wondered what was going on,” she continued.

“I’m still wondering,” I replied.

I looked back at the computer screen. There was no window open except the DVD video player. I opened a window for the disk, but the only file on the disk was the video.

People always assume that mysteries in real life are like the ones in the films, particularly the film noir ones starring Humphrey Bogart. The protagonist, a detective, who more or less represents us all (except in rattier clothing and with a much cooler and detached attitude), takes a visitor. Usually, this visitor is a woman, often times lovely and of dubious character. This is most often so, to add onto an earlier thought, to suggest that the woman is sexually loose, and thus increase cinema grosses.

Occasionally, the visitor is a male, but this is uncommon, as it means the writers have to invent one more character to provide the protagonist with some romantic interest. Anyway, the woman has either a secret or a problem that she presents the detective with, rarely giving him the whole story, or for that matter, even the development. The detective responds by talking in a hard-boiled, but roundabout way, letting the woman know that not only does he not buy her story about her secret/problem, but also that he knows she is lusting for him and that he’s only interested in business, as if any human male could say that line and be taken seriously. However, the detective manages to make this sound entirely cool.

The rest, as I believe someone has observed at some point or another, is really a kind of prolonged verbal foreplay, only occasionally broken up by a fistfight or a kidnapping, usually the protagonist at the hands of one of the villains hounding the woman. The consummation of this sordid little courtship is either sex, death, or both. Occasionally, the result is that someone is porridge, sent up the river, goes to the big house, and I don’t mean the one on the British telly programme with George Galloway mewling about like a pussycat. Gunfire is sometimes involved, but only sporadically. These are characters who like to do their business close up. The shiv was invented just for these types. Brass knuckles to the head would just be dessert or the cigarette after boisterous shagging.

Real life mysteries aren’t even close. They are far weirder than anything Humphrey Bogart ever was in, with the possible exception of Beat the Devil. This was a doozy. I was saddled with a mysterious package, presumably from my previous employer, and the package was revealed to contain what was simply the most bizarre performance I’d ever witnessed. My wife was growing understandably nervous, and neither of us had a single clue as to what was going on. Humphrey Bogart’s head would have exploded under his fedora if he’d faced this kind of strangeness. Lauren Bacall would have to hold his head in her lap and massage his temples with a warm washcloth, whilst pouring sips of brandy down his gaping throat. All the hard-boiled, inscrutable banter in the world wouldn’t quell the numbing sense of terror that one viewing brought.

And I still had at least 50,000 words to write for a bloody novel that I didn’t have an iota of a plot for.

I took the DVD out of the machine, lest our daughter wander in, accidentally listen to it and have a nervous breakdown before even reaching middle school.

“What are you going to do with it?” asked my wife, as I put the DVD back into the case.

“I’m not sure,” was all I could manage to say. I simply didn’t know what to do. I thought about it for a moment and then decided that a mystery shared is a mystery better understood. “Maybe I’ll take it into the office tomorrow and see what Stew thinks. Who knows; maybe even Nuffy will turn up and have an opinion.”

I could tell that this was hardly the soothing balm I’d hoped it might be. My wife looked at me with great love in her eyes and quietly told me to be careful.

“Well, at least it wasn’t a bomb,” I optimistically added.

The rest of the evening was rather tense and moody. However, I did churn out 3,000 words in the quiet gloom. The story was still sketchy, but the opening scene involved a very laconic detective who played guitar receiving a long-winded visit from a buxom ex-model who was being followed by suspicious package delivery men. I wouldn’t say I felt exhilarated at the end of the session, but I was relieved to know that the file with the title “big_novel.doc” was no longer empty, at least of words.

Monday was the day before the American national “midterm” elections. I voted regularly, being a citizen, patriot, and civic-minded sort, but I was completely uninterested in the results given this new development of mysterious masked people on multimedia, casually interrupting my life with bizarre exhortations of great Chinese rivers. The bi-annual tit for tat, no pun intended, between the Republicans and the Democrats was a blip on the edge of the radar screen of my life.

Stew was of little help at the office, though he tried mightily in-between polishing his Titleist irons and dialing up the Drudge Report to get a chuckle out of the headlines there. “Bush Gets Thrust of American Anger” and “Kerry Swallows Foot Whole – Craps Gucci Boot” were my guilty favourites, although Stew enjoyed “Bat Boy Unites Libertarians and Green Party” which was linked directly a detailed Weekly World News story.

“Maybe it’s a late Halloween prank?” Stew opined, after viewing the video for the first time.

One comforting thing about showing Stew the video was that he was not as disturbed by the work. Stew was rarely disturbed by anything, with the possible exception of Gary Coleman’s and Danny Bonaduce’s runs for the California Governorship, and only on the principle that whilst one world-famous actor running for public office is unusual, two troubled former child actors running for control of one of the largest states in the U.S. was a pathological cry for help. Even then, he briefly considered traveling to California to counsel the two to step back and let Arnold “I’m a Kennedy, Now” Schwarzenegger and Arianna “Zsa Zsa” Huffington rip each other apart, and with similarly musical accents.

Stew watched the video at least a dozen times that morning. It was like Green Eggs and Ham. He watched it from up close. He watched it from the other end of the office. He watched it lying on his side, from each side, and he watched it upside down. He played the video without looking at it, listening to the sounds of the shouting for details. He played it with the sound turned down, carefully studying every detail of this faux-smiling lunatic in demented action. He watched it in slow motion and he watched it in fast motion. He loaded the video into a film editor application on his PC and ran the video in negative image mode. He even watched the video whilst having a phone conversation at the same time. This was unavoidable however, as it was Nuffy calling into let us know he was still at work on that article of his at home. Stew said that he was certain he heard a bullfighting crowd in the background, although he did add that Nuffy asked him what all the shouting was about.

I had to sit outside the office for most of this. I was convinced that, whatever this raving maniac was trying to prove, he was trying to prove it to me. It was a bit much to take, especially in the many varieties Stew was trying out.

When I came back in, stew was sitting in front of his PC with a quizzical look on his face.

“I think I’ve come to a conclusion,” he said tentatively.

“Let’s have it, then,” I said.

“The fellow in this video is a complete loon,” Stew concluded, after a dramatic pause, during which he later admitted he was trying to decide between the words “loon” and “nut job.” Stew took great pride in his choice of words.

“Well, that was helpful,” I muttered.

“Go with what you got,” he wisely retorted.

Indeed, that was sound advice. I realised then and there that I did have one good option, though I was loath to use it. I had no choice though. I turned to Stew and curtly excused myself for the afternoon.

“Where’re you going?” he queried.

“The Phoenix Corporation Headquarters,” was my stony reply.

“Well then, I’m going out for a round of golf,” responded Stew. I couldn’t blame him. That was my second choice.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter III (Part I)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writers' Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 12,000 words and has attempted to remove his own spleen at least once without the use of anaethesia or surgical implements.)

Chapter 3
The Incredible Lightness of Swearing

Church was nice the next day. I play and sing during the service and the lovely bit is that they let me. It is a small church though, so I’m always torn between the notion that I am blessed with some talent, and the notion that I am blessed with not being entirely tone deaf. The best thing about the music was that it kept me from thinking once about the novel. Had this not happened, I almost certainly would have missed twice as many chords on the guitar part than usual. People there are nice about it, though. There’s always someone who will come up afterwards and offer a compliment. When I mention that I missed quite a few chords or got off a bit here and there, they will smile, muster some small sense of awe, and say, “I never noticed at all,” even though their hair is still wildly out of place from where their head jerked rapidly at my playing a G-sharp add 11 when I should have been simply playing a G. This is a profound expression of brotherly love.

Playing music and singing in front of people is a very strange feeling. At church it’s not so bad, because the people are supportive and no matter how clumsy the music, the sense of worshipfully reaching out to God creates a nice reverie that places things in perspective. Plus, God clearly loves a joyful noise, not simply a tuneful one. God’s not only loving, but very, very patient.

Busking on the square or playing in other locales though, it’s all quite weird. Some people walk by and say they liked a song or toss a bit of spare change in your case. Others walk by and look at you as though you were the weak member of a skiffle band, playing at a hoe-down. The weirdest thing, I think, is the unspoken competition between musicians. It’s not so much a battle to win anything tangible, so much as it is a contest for respect. When two musicians sit down to play together for the first time, no matter how relaxed they seem or enjoyable the results, inside there is a little musician fighting for respect.

You can see this most plainly in music stores. At any given time in a fairly busy music store there will be up to 3 or 4 guitarists, all sitting around playing versions of Stairway to Heaven. However, after this old tradition (and joke), each guitarist will then launch into two or three things they know that best show off whatever skills or range they have. As this will all be happening at the same time, to the casual listener, the results would not be much different than if Alban Berg, Anton Webber, Arnold Schoenberg and Sid Vicious all formed a band. For those of you who have no idea who the first three gents are, just remind yourselves of the end of Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure.

The goal is not that one guitarist can suddenly stand up at the end, throw his guitar aside and declare victory. In truth, almost no one in a music store playing a guitar actually owns it, so this would be quite reckless indeed, especially if the musician in question were playing a 50’s era Gibson Les Paul Classic, which was the model I was trying out when I made that mistake for the first and only time. Fortunately, it landed on the clerk who dove 9 feet through the air to save it. I made a special point to compliment him on his agility as he escorted me out of the store.

No, the goal is respect. Musicians, like any other practitioner of an art form, writing being the only notable exception, long to be taken seriously by other musicians, particularly those they respect. If this becomes unlikely, due to an obvious gap in technique and talent, then the only self respecting thing a lesser-talented musician can do is to annoy the better musician. A great example of this was when I was in another music store in the acoustic guitar section. The only other bloke in there was playing a classical guitar and playing quite well. His right hand technique was quick and precise, but he brought a sophisticated sense of feeling to the music as well. He knew his difficult piece by heart. At one point the store manager even came into express his appreciation at the skill and quality of the music.

So, being self-trained and quite unfamiliar with the classical guitar repertoire, I felt quite inferior, despite my own familiarity with a variety of guitar styles and songs. Therefore, I did the only thing a self respecting guitarist could do. I pulled an electric off the shelf outside, plugged it into the biggest amp I could find, and played the famous riff from Deep Purple’s Smoke on the Water. My classically trained counterpart suddenly decided there was another music store he needed to visit. I helpfully suggested the one a half mile south on that street, pointing out that they didn’t allow me in there anymore.

I would have followed up this quiet triumph with the riff from Blue Oyster Cult’s Don’t Fear the Reaper, but it didn’t have the same magic after the store’s proprietor explained that he was all out of cowbells.

When I arrived home from lunch after church, my first inclination was to take a nap. As I dropped off my guitars in the computer room, my eyes were quickly drawn to the mysterious DVD. It sat on the computer desk where I had left it. Its very blandness seemed to taunt me. In all honesty, I’d been totally disinterested in the thing since I’d discovered it wasn’t a bomb and had decided I had bigger fish to fry, douse in vinegar and salt, and serve up with a side of fat, crispy chips. Yes, I was still hungry after lunch.

I walked over to the desk and picked up the disk. It was quite new. There were no underside scratches, and so far as I could tell, no fingerprints or smudges of any kind on the disk or case, aside from the fajita grease I was currently leaving on it. I decided I ought to have a look at it, so I reached down and opened the DVD drive, put the disk in, and turned to sit down. In the chair, was my daughter, who in the time it took me to load the DVD had entered the room, sat down, logged into her Windows account, and started up a session of Runescape. As the DVD software came up, she deftly canceled it.

I made a loud, obvious coughing sound. She looked over at me, smiled, and without missing a beat said, “Dad, do you mind? I’m trying to play my game here.”

So, I got my nap after all.

The phone woke me a few hours later. It was Linus Coconut, our other contributor at the blog. He had called because someone had told him that Zimpter had called the day before. He was afraid Zimpter was working out a plot to get ahead of him in post totals. Linus and Zimpter had an unofficial contest to see who could post more. Linus was ahead three to two.

As this was about .2 percent of my own posting totals, it had long ago become obvious to me that this contest was merely about who could avoid being the contributor with the least amount of posts. I also realised that Zimpter cared a great deal less about the contest than Linus, but that it did add a bit of spice to their conversations with each other and me. Once I confronted Zimpter on the phone with the observation that he had fallen behind to Linus. Zimpter responded by saying, “Huh?” and then changing the conversation to the likelihood that Martin Scorsese would ever win an Oscar.

“Linus, Zimpter called to apologise for not having written anything in over a year,” I revealed.

“I’m not buying it,” Linus replied coolly, “That’s just his way, to create a sense of false security and then suddenly post twice and upset all the efforts I’ve put in.”

“Linus, the two of you haven’t put half a dozen posts together,” I protested.

“It’s the principle of the thing,” Linus insisted.

“Well, then why don’t you simply post a few times this week, then,” I suggested. “Given both your work rates on the blog, Zimpter wouldn’t even begin to catch up for at least a year.”

“You just don’t get it, do you Earl?” replied Linus.

He then offered his best to my family and excused himself to go and have a nap of his own.

I sat there with the cordless phone in my hand, ruminating on why the blog was in the state it was. I almost dropped the phone when it rang again. This time it was my Dad, making his weekly call to see how things were. After about 60 seconds of listening to me muttering things like, “Don’t they see the potential of what we’ve got here in this comedy blog?” and “I wonder if they sit around Instant Messaging during the bleedin’ day on the nearly effortless ways they can make Earl mental?” Dad asked to talk to my wife and daughter. I sat there still contemplating the blog. At least three times my wife said something along the lines of, “Oh no, he’s just fine. He’s just a bit tired. No, I don’t think therapy would help much.”

A few minutes later my wife called my daughter in to talk to her Grandpa. I thought this would be a good opportunity to check out the DVD but as my daughter passed by she sternly advised me that she was busy collecting berries south of Varrock for a special pie to feed a dwarf, and that she needed to finish or she’d fall behind on quest points. I made a mental note to myself that while I appreciated Tolkien as much as anyone, enough was enough. Then I sunk into the couch and watched the telly until my daughter strolled into the room and calmly notified us that she was done with the computer and did we mind if she changed the channel because a new episode of Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide was on. Not only did we not mind, I watched both episodes with her and my wife.

After supper, I strolled back to the computer room, taking careful notice of my surroundings to make sure my ninja-like child didn’t slip by me on the way. I settled in the chair and momentarily panicked when I noticed that the DVD case was empty. I erratically shuffled some of the papers on the desk, hoping the disk might fall out.

“Has anyone seen the DVD I had sitting back here on the desk?” I called out, irritably.

“You put it in the computer, Dad!” called back my daughter.

I pretended to not hear the sympathetic laugher that followed this observation from the living room. Instead, I opened the DVD-CD drawer, and closed it again. The DVD software came up in a window on the monitor screen. The DVD started to play a video. It began with a black screen and then the Phoenix Corporation logo faded in, accompanied by a really cheap electronic version of the opening movement of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. I could have sworn I heard a cowbell in the mix.

Earl's Novel - Chapter II (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writers' Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 10,000 words and one writing-related hernia.)

30 minutes and one ice pack later, I returned to the computer desk and slowly sunk into the awkward chair. I gingerly laid my head down on the table, taking care to keep the side with the bruised dent in it turned upwards. From this uncomfortable angle, something familiar and slightly alarming popped into view.

It was the package from two nights ago. There appeared to be two of them at first until my vision settled down.

I raised my head up and picked up the parcel. I hadn’t noticed how light it was when I carried it in the other evening, but then again, I was holding in gingerly, just in case some alarm went off inside and I had to throw it through a window.

I looked it over carefully. It still had the blurred address from The Phoenix Corporation. The strange thing was that it was handwritten, not at all like their typical laser-printed fancy logo return address with the fiery bird betwixt two hourglasses, one freshly turned over and the other completely spent. What was strange was that our own address was nowhere to be found in the delivery address portion of the front label. Instead, there was just the word “FANDO” written in large, thick permanent marker.

It also had an inordinate amount of sellotape on it, like the kind of wrapping job my mum would do for any package that couldn’t be stuffed into an envelope. Mum was spectacularly inconsistent in this, in that she seemed to consider envelope glue to be sufficient for anything, no matter how distended the envelope holding it was. However, should anything go into any kind of box, mum usually wouldn’t stop the taping until she’d spent a complete roll or air could no longer enter the box. Usually, the easiest way to open one of mum’s packages was with a skill saw, which explains why a few of my daughter’s stuffed animals have some really nasty stitches.

The parcel looked far less threatening in the light of day, even when surveyed by the bloodshot eyes on my still throbbing head. I went into the kitchen and got an old box knife. It took several careful slices to cut through the layers of tape, but finally I was able to get the box open.

Inside was another box. This one was unmarked and relatively light in tape. The plain anonymity of this box brought my paranoia back up again, but the blow to my head kept things fuzzy enough to where I opened it straightaway anyway. It was a rather thin box and came open easily, despite the tape. It was filled with tissue paper, presumably to protect what was inside. I dug a bit out and my fingers came up against something hard and plastic. I groped around a bit, with all the ineffectiveness of an oversexed teenager in mixed chapel and managed to get my fingers around the plastic thingy and wrench it out.

It was a DVD-ROM. I knew it was a DVD-ROM instead of a CD-ROM because it had DVD written in black marker, much like my name outside the parcel. It also had one other word written on it: “Yangtze.”

This was perplexing because the only Yangtze I knew of was the Chinese river, the Yangtze Kiang, and I was only familiar with it from an old Monty Python bit on one of their record albums. The bit was all about how English soccer goalkeepers of a certain era (Peter Shilton, Ray Clemence, Pat Jennings, etc… all right, Pat Jennings was from Northern Ireland, but he was pretty good at that) and their obsession with writing poetry about the Yangtze River. There was also a rather rollicking football song included. I always though that if I ever founded a football club, I would call it Yangtze Kiang FC, just so we could sing that song. Other than that, I knew precious little about the Yangtze and certainly not enough to diving why it would appear on a package that also bore my name.

It all started to feel like some practical joke again, except that this was a fairly lame one, if it was. Of course, I had no idea what was on the disk, but even if it were video of Stew and Nuffy dancing around in full Peking Opera House attire and singing the Yangtze song in question, the payoff was hardly worth it, especially since they’d done a similar bit just two months ago, when they suddenly appeared on the local square where I sometimes play guitar, singing “Good Mornin’” from Singing in the Rain and dressed as Gene Kelly, Donald O’Connor, and Debbie Reynolds.

You may ask me how they pulled that off, and I will just reveal that “Debbie’s” head and at least one half of her bosom fell off repeatedly during the performance. It got so bad that Stew and Nuffy had to hold them on with both hands as they danced, and were finally interrupted by a police officer who wanted to know why they were groping their dance partner so openly in a public place. He let them off with a warning after realizing that the lady in question was 60 percent packing foam and only 5 percent Debbie Reynolds in the form of an ink-jet printed picture from her appearance in Will and Grace. My mum would have been horrified at the lack of good taping procedure, which explained why poor faux Debbie looked as though she had a makeover supervised by Cujo.

I finished my set a few moments later with an impromptu cover of Radiohead’s How to Disappear Completely.

Anyway, the idea that someone would send me such a mystifyingly strange package left me so dizzyingly perplexed that I sat it on top of the computer desk and turned my attention back to my novel. This was dismaying enough on its own, given that my plot so far consisted of a detailed explanation of why my neighbor was a Cuban agent, and a short addendum explaining how it was all a horrible mistake and promises of a riveting story explaining why it was all a mistake. I quickly added a subtle hint that part of the answer to this mystery would consist of a very hot scene with a Swedish flight attendant.

Now, I was faced with a dilemma. I had already made at least one half-dozen references to the potential appearance of sex in my quirky little book. However, my conscience was beginning to gnaw at me. Here I was a committed church-going Christian, casually dropping hints that my first novel was going to frequently go in the direction of a Zalman King straight-to-video film. I was even embarrassed that I knew who Zalman King was to begin with. Of course, after thinking about it for a moment, I realised that there are probably people in the pornography business who are embarrassed to know who Zalman King is, so while it wasn’t company I had much in common with, my guilt lessened a great deal at the thought.

Sex and violence are the two things that writers must struggle with most of all, as far as content goes. I say as far as content goes, because the real things that writers must struggle with are character, plot, structure, and in Dan Brown’s case plausibility that makes Anne Rice look like a documentarian. What I mean to say is that whenever people consider the content of a book or a film, they often ask themselves if any of the content was gratuitous to the overall aims of the story. In the case of sex and violence, the answer in 98 percent of all cases is “Hell, yes,” which is especially impressive, as that wording is almost never on the surveys.
I was just beginning to get a feel then for why so many writers were tempted to add a splash of sex to their books. Actually, you can generally replace the word “splash” with “Gatorade bath at the end of the Super Bowl.” The answer to this little question of the human psyche is simply that sex sells the way hotcakes could only dream of even with a multi-million pound marketing contract. So, the irony is that although the vast majority of human beings are fascinated with sex, White House correspondent Helen Thomas excluded, most writers add the stuff for the money that this instant appeal brings. Which is why if you ask a writer whether a controversial sex scene in a novel they wrote was valid, they would first look at their six-figure advance before fervently nodding yes.

Violence is another thing entirely. I’ve never gotten it quite frankly, besides barely comprehending the “ick” factor of some films, where some people attend just to be grossed out. This is of course the same reason sideshow “carnies” do such regular work. Still, violence is everywhere in books and films and even music, as Ashley Simpson’s lacerating vocals will demonstrate on the average human eardrum. The thing is though that we are equally bombarded with the admonition that violence is harmful, destructive, kills people, etc. So, we’re really a society that seems to think that blowing someone’s brains out accidentally with a large revolver is terrible, unless it happens in a Quentin Tarantino film, in which case it’s hilarious.

This wasn’t helping me write the book though. It didn’t help that I couldn’t think of a way to work any sex and violence into a specious mystery regarding my neighbor’s fascination with obtaining our clipping shears for socialist revolution. Also, I became very aware that there were legal implications to this kind of plotting, even if our neighbor didn’t have access to a tenth of Oprah’s phalanxes of lawyers. So, for these purposes, our neighbor’s name is actually Marigold.

The phone rang right around that time. It was Zimpter Fiforg, another writer for the blog. He was calling to apologise for not having written anything for over a year. Zimpter was gainfully employed elsewhere and only maintained his membership on the blog in the off chance that he would have a spare moment to quickly type out one of the 1,500 or so bits that he kept in mind, in-between his daily work. We knew he worked in Hollywood, doing something or other, and that he regularly encounter celebrities. We had a little office pool going on about Zimpter’s profession. I had television writer and/or agent. Stew had actor or caterer for film sets. Nuffy, during the one call we could get him to commit to the pool suggested celebrity stalker or paparazzi, which we all agreed was more or less the same thing.

I exchanged a few pleasantries with Zimpter and helpfully suggested ways in which he could go without sleep for extended periods of time, if that would help him get a post or two in every six months. I also tried to get vital information for the office pool.

“So, how’s work, Zim?” I cleverly asked.

“Oh, it’s the usual hectic madhouse,” he cheerfully replied.

“So, sign any big contracts lately?” I cheerfully inquired.

Zimpter laughed deep and long and then skillfully changed the subject to the new Borat film. This left me convinced more than ever that he was an agent or an entertainment lawyer, which unfortunately for me was far closer to Nuffy’s guess. After a highly detailed analysis of the mise-en-scene in Borat and how it differed from that of The Legend of Ricky Bobby, Zimpter had to go, as a Survivor repeat was on.

The day was starting to wind to an end for all practical purposes. My child had a football match and was itching to try out the new indoor soccer arena, and I had plans to play myself. A busy morning at church lay ahead the next day. Precious time was burning away faster than Jacque Chirac’s credibility.

In the twenty five minutes before we left for the match I managed to write 2,500 words introducing a story about two reporters who discover that the government is covering up the takeover of all the world’s banks by giant mutated squid. I erased the whole thing that evening under the logic that my earlier head injury was the primary inspiration for such a crappy plot. I was back to naught.

Tuesday, November 07, 2006

Just in Case You're Wondering...

...Part of the reason I'm writing this novel is to have a ready-made excuse not to follow the U.S. elections too closely. I voted, of course, having a deep sense of civic duty and responsibility (unlike some I could mention), and I will check in on the results later. Quite frankly though, the idea of watching middle-aged men and women congratulating themselves over how well they managed to shake people's hands and convince voters that they weren't radicals or preening, self-satisfied, arrogant, cynics only interested in political power and money, while perfect fodder for this blog, is a little too much for my stomach, even only once every two years.

So, I continue to write. No, this isn't part of the novel.

Favourite race, based just on the names: "Judy Baar Topinka vs. Rod Blagojevich."

I've always found the name "Rod" quite silly. Also, does anyone know if Judy Baar is related to Huggy Bear?

Sunday, November 05, 2006

Earl's Novel - Chapter II (Part I)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writers' Month Contest. As of this post, he has managed 8,000 words and at least two nervous breakdowns.)

Chapter 2
Wind Chimes and Basil Scented Candles

I didn’t get back to the novel for almost two days. I woke up the next day not even thinking about it. Work was the usual drudgery, which is to say it wasn’t bad, but nothing spectacularly cheerful happened either. People sent me e-mails. I responded politely. Papers were moved. I took a shot at a few pieces, but I was feeling strangely unfunny. It’s all very personal, really. Being a professional writer and maintaining a busy humour blog is a nice gig, but it’s not all prank writing the Friends of the National Zoo or making fun of Tom Cruise’s propensity for behaving like a rabid baboon. Mostly, I was contemplating whether Oprah would sue us if I implied in a piece that Steadman Campbell was a hermaphrodite. He’s not, but humour is whimsical in that way.

Stew trudged in at about 8 a.m. just after I arrived, wondering aloud whether or not he should write something that morning or should go out and hit the links. He made several references to his new driver, a Callaway model made out of the same material as the new F-22 fighter jet. I’d seen Stew use this model on the course in person, including smashing one drive a full 320 yards over water. As Stew is taller and has arms a full six inches longer than me, my only chance in any match was the unlikely strategy of hitting a ridiculous amount of putts from outside 30 feet, which explains my extensive losing streak and my lack of a spiffy nickname on the course, like “Crenshaw.”

After about twenty minutes of rhapsodising about his club and going through 3 frappucinos, Stew settled in to begin researching a comedy piece on why pirate and ninja costumes had fallen out of favour this year, giving him a reason to visit several “pirates vs. ninjas” sites on the web, at least three of which were quite nice.

Stew was downloading a picture of Vice President Dick Cheney, dressed as a ninja, and fighting Senator Patrick Leahy, who was dressed as a pirate, when Nuffy phoned in at about 9 a.m. He explained that he was working from home that day and not on the actual blog but another writing assignment that he felt had plenty of possibilities, if not actual paying sponsors. Nuffy remained rather mysterious to Stew and I, not least because he was absent for vast periods of time. By absent, I don’t mean that he would disappear completely to the point were the police and search teams would need to be called in. Rather, he would always call in purporting to be working from home, but we would always hear aeroplanes or large waterfalls in the background. Often, we would hear people conversing in other languages as well. At least once, I could have sworn I heard someone refer to a section of the International Space Station, as in, “Mr. Noe, we need to meet in the aft section of the ISS now, before NASA sends us the reentry data for the shuttle.” As it was spoken with a heavy Russian accent, I could be mistaken about the whole thing.

In fact, today’s conversation was as mysterious as ever. The phone rang and I hit speaker phone, so Stew could listen in and make the usual static noises if it were a bill collector.

“Is this Earl?” intoned Nuffy’s familiar baritone voice.

“Speaking,” I replied.

“I won’t be there today, as usual. I’ve got an article I need to tend to here at home,” Nuffy replied.

In the background, I could hear what sounded like an elephant trumpeting.

“Is it something we can expect to see on the site later?” I asked, hopefully.

“Afraid not,” Nuffy replied quickly, “but if this works out, I should be able to give the blog about a month’s attention with the time this paycheck will bring.” In the background someone said something in what sounded like a Swahili dialect.

“Sounds like a good opportunity then,” I replied. “Who’s commissioned the article?”

“What’s that?” Nuffy replied, as what sounded like a large propeller plane flew past in the background. “Gotta go! I’ll get back to you on this when I know more.” A loud blast of what seemed like cannon fire and then the click of the phone followed.

And that was the last we heard of him for the day.

At about noon, during lunch, I briefly considered going back to the National Novel Writing Month web site that had spawned this torturous dilemma I found myself in. The slowness of Internet service at my office put a quick stop to that. After about 2 minutes of slowly gnawing on my microwaved savoury pastry pocket pie and watching the status bar on the web browser turn various shades of green, I decided to concentrate on answering e-mail, including the dozen or so messages a colleague from the West Coast had forwarded about a political issue, having found out I had an opinion about the subject and wouldn’t respond to his own mail with sustained curse words and suggestions that the official documentation of his ancestry was in any way specious. I felt proud in doing my part for a sensitive and healthy political discourse, even if for all practical purposes we were two people in a small, inflatable lifeboat riding the Johnstown flood of political incivility.

My own approach to e-mail is a specific one. I believe in answering all mail sent to me, unless it is automated spam or viruses. Therefore, if someone should be so unwise as to send me spam from a working address, they would almost certainly get a response almost completely opposite from the polite discourse described above. I would scrupulously avoid swear words, but I would take great pains in building a logical arguement that they and their family were descended from large, ill-tempered slugs. Usually, these appear on the blog.

Also, I never throw e-mail away unless I’m absolutely certain I’ll need it. This means that I have massive amounts of e-mail, including meeting notes from over three years ago, in the off chance that one of my previous employers my phone or e-mail me and insist that I tell them exactly what the Senior Vice President of Marketing said to the Associate Vice Chairman of Research on or about the morning of October 13th, 2003, or severe legal consequences might be involved. In all honesty, I’ve only ever gotten one of these calls, and strangely enough, that turned out to be a wrong number.

I got home that evening, having decided that Oprah could bloody well sue anyone she had a mind to, and was unlikely to leave Steadman hanging in the wind on such a crucial thing as the nature of his DNA and wobblies, leaving me contributing nothing to the blog that day except for a tepid 500 word treatise on how my child received a Sonic peppermint in her Halloween candy. I couldn’t muster up much that was amusing about this other than to suggest that some local cheapskate had been saving mints from their visits to Sonic drive-in restaurants for a year, just to avoid buying a few bags of peanut butter cups in October. I did speculate that it was one of the guys from the completely wretched Sonic television commercials, who was saving money in the obvious awareness that, after those commercials, an acting career was all but dead.

As we had plans to eat dinner that evening at a local Chinese buffet, any additional writing would have to wait. This was a particularly nice one for our area, with a Mongolian grill and passable sushi. The California Rolls were particularly scrummy, with the bitter cucumber left out altogether and only tasty crab and avocado to savour. The bit with the deep fried coating and the cream cheese center was passable as well. Unfortunately, I over did the buffet and arrived home with an insatiable desire to sleep. As it was Friday, I felt that I could easily churn out 4,000+ words the following day, even if I had absolutely no idea what I was writing about. My head hit the couch and I languished there until late into the evening. When I woke up, my wife and child were sound asleep, so I staggered to bed too, without so much as glimmer of a thought about novels, Hemingway, or three part structure.

The next day, I woke up rather early. My first thought was immediately of the impending novel and the fact that for everyday I missed writing on the thing, I had 2,000 extra words to jam into the rest of the month. This was so overwhelming I immediately went back to sleep for another hour. When I woke up again, I cleaned up, ran out for a take away breakfast consisting mostly of crumpet or “muffin” related products, and then finally made my way back to the computer room.

I opened the file with the “novel” as it was and realised to my surprise that I had actually hammered out a prologue two nights before. I concluded that I must have managed a few thousand words between theorizing about Western plots and the buzzing in my brain from fashion details in detective stories. I wondered for a moment whether this kind of automatic writing could carry me through a whole novel and decided that yes it could. This was followed by the realisation that of my 2,243 words in the prologue, one hundred and eighty-four of them were misspelled and at least four paragraphs were given to the sincere conviction that my neighbor was Fidel Castro in disguise, which was hard to justify as her name was Sheila.

“No,” I said to myself in disappointment, as I repeatedly tapped the “Change” button on the spell-check, “this kind of automatic writing will not do the trick.”

The despair of two nights ago began to take over, so to quell it, I immediately wrote 1,500 words explaining why, although my neighbor wasn’t Castro, they could be distantly related, and that was as good a reason as any to avoid lending her our garden shears.

About that time my wife entered the room to see how I was doing. She looked at my florid prose for about 30 seconds and then calmly announced that Sheila was Dutch and that she loaned her the garden shears a fortnight ago. She left the room gently humming a Coldplay tune as I held down the backspace key, whilst slowly banging my head against the sharpest corner of our computer desk.

Earl's Novel - Chapter I (Part II)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writers' Month Contest. He will be publishing the novel in serial format as it is written, rather than writing goofy posts, which is his actual job here.)

I walked back to the door and picked up the package. The return address was smudged a bit but I could just make out “Phoenix Corporation,” my former workplace.

“It’s from Phoenix Corp.,” I announced. My wife rolled up her eyes a bit, remembering the difficulties I had fitting in there and the rancor surrounding my resignation.

“Why on earth would they be sending you anything? It’s been two years,” she wondered.

“No idea,” I replied. “Maybe it’s some sort of delayed, severance package, notice thingy?”

She shrugged her shoulders in a perplexed, yet alluring way.

I carried the package back with me to the computer room. I was remembering about that time that I had a 50,000 word book to be getting on with and here I was burning time worried about a silly package. The lateness of it was still strange but so was anything to do with the Phoenix Corporation. I sat the package down besides the PC and turned back to the glowing, still relatively empty virtual pages of my novel.

I began to think about writing a mystery novel but mysteries always involved a lot of plotting. I had a month, really less than a month as I’d started a day late. Strangely though there was no sense of panic. After the odd business at the door, I was feeling more relieved than anything else.

Perhaps a romance novel, then? If Nora Roberts can churn out a book each month, certainly I could muster up one just once. I began to imagine a young, beautiful, English lass, rushing up the heathery meadow, her long and full dress bundled up in her hands so she could run through the tall grass. She runs in the sunlight of a spring morning, her dashing lover waiting at the top of a hill. He is sharply dressed, with a bow tie, ruffles, a waistcoat, and riding boots. She reaches the top and throws herself into his arms. Their torrid lips meet and they slowly spin, locked in a passion that neither had ever felt before. Below the hill, the old mansion that her lover owned was ablaze, just as they were in their hearts on the hill…Really, really ablaze.

I realized two things at that moment. The first was that there was really nowhere to go from here except a really questionable sex scene in the itchy, tall grass, whilst their dream home burned down in the background. That might make for interesting cinema, but as a novel it lacked realism and a fire brigade. Secondly, I suddenly realized how often romance novels and films contained a really scorching blaze. Think about it for a second: Jane Eyre, Rebecca, Body Heat, The Towering Inferno… the only one I could remember off of the top of my head that didn’t contain some sort of conflagration was Emma, and even then, we all wished that the Elton’s house would burn down at the end, with Mrs. Elton in it.

A third thing came to mind as I wondered just how I could get to the saucy sex scene with the heroine wearing one of those big, Victorian dresses. Those things were made for self defense, not unbridled, spontaneous passion. Finally, I gave up the idea of a romance novel, remembering that for every passionate embrace in the Austen/pick-a-Bronte mode there were at least four formal dances and twelve dinner parties. I didn’t fancy my chances of writing one dinner party scene, much less the 480 I thought it would take to get a really scorchingly sexy romance novel. I briefly contemplated just making the hero and heroine members of a fraternity and sorority, respectively. I finally discarded that idea, deciding that, as a religious person, I couldn’t bring myself to write porn.

It was getting late and I was still self-negotiating plots. I was fast realizing that there’s a tremendous amount of sex and violence in today’s literature, usually both in enormous quantities. I decided to steer away from much of this, after all. I was writing for speed, and I didn’t want anything that would slow me up from working out all the mechanics. What to do then?

I began to try and think outside the box. Perhaps a western would work? Most people these days didn’t know the first thing about a western. The average fiction reader in this day and age thought that Louis L’Amour was one of Nora Roberts’ alternate pen names. Could I write a good old fashioned horse opera? There would be violence, but it would be straightforward and relatively simple to plot. Cowboy comes into town, meets other cowboy, saloon girl gets between cowboys, cowboys meet to gun it out in the street, saloon girl starts to get between cowboys but thinks better of it when she realises they are both armed with large, grapefruit-sized hole-making revolvers, cowboys gun it out in the street anyway, one cowboy dies a slow agonizing death in the street, the other cowboy confesses his admiration and respect for his opponent, saloon girl runs off with the saloon pianist.

I all felt wrong for me, except the part about the saloon girl and the pianist. Let’s face it, it would be pointless for her to ride off with one of the cowboys, because he’d only run into another heavily armed bloke who fancied his girlfriend and the whole thing would start up again. Plus, as a long-time guitar player, I always rooted for the musician in any story anyway.

Could one do a musical as a novel? Writing the dance scenes would be interesting. Johnny slid across the floor to the beat of a ferocious big band number. Susie shimmied over to him, gyrating her hips like the beaters in a fancy mixer. As she jiggled around Johnny, he did a dazzling tap step in a slow circle and then leapt up over Susie in a back layout. The music sizzled like bacon in a microwave, whilst Susie and Johnny danced about in circles. The clarinetist warbled a high, darting solo, and Susie slid through Johnny’s legs, coming up on the other side with a spin. The trombonist did an impressive glissando to a low note and then the band came together in full tutti as Susie leapt into Johnny’s arms for a passionate embrace. In the distance, the piano was ablaze.

I mean, that’s how you’d have to end the thing. The dancing just doesn’t have the same life a film does, where you can actually see the movement and hear the music. Without all that visceral sound and motion, at some point you’ve got to melodramatic, and if a fire is good enough for one of the Bronte sisters, it should be good enough for a cheap pulp knockoff of a Gene Kelly and Stanley Donen film.

So, a musical was out. I suppose I could add a page of songs at the end, but then I’d have to compose them, and that would cut into my precious 2,000 words a day schedule.

I was starting to run out of genres. A horror novel was a possibility. Vampires seemed pretty easy to write about. It occurred to me that they have very orderly lives. Rest each day in the coffin filled with dirt from your grave, rise up and sundown, stretch, brush the fangs, slick back the hair into a greasy do, stalk a virtuous young woman who just happens to be out on the streets after dark in the worst parts of town, bury your fangs in her neck, drain every last drop of blood from her body, enslave her as your vampire concubine, beat a hasty retreat back to the coffin, spend the last few minutes before sunrise despairing over your wicked, undead life and brushing the fangs again, and then back to sleep in the coffin. It all seems neat, in a gruesome, sociopathic way.

The fact that vampires lived for hundreds of years made me realise that they were all in an awful rut. This was obviously the reason that they were so surly all the time. Also, vampires had to deal with some pretty unique problems. For example, during daylight savings time in the summer, they were bound to not get out of the coffin until well after 9 p.m., and this had to really cut down on the number of virtuous women who foolishly get stuck out on the streets. Also, what happened to vampires who got stuck above the Arctic Circle in summer? 24 hours of sun a day would be horrible on a vampire’s feeding routine. You’d have to lure young women into your lair and that wouldn’t be easy with all the ice breaking up around you.

I’ve never really gotten the whole mirror thing down either. Supposedly, a vampire cannot be seen in a mirror, but why would this be so? Light refracts off a mirror in pretty much a uniform way and this reflected light is no different than the regular old light that hits our retinas. So, are the writers of the old vampire tales trying to convince us that the light that bounces off a vampire has been changed in some weird way that we can see, but the mirror can’t refract? Clearly Bram Stoker was no physicist.

I thought about the hair for a moment and wondered if Miami Heat coach Pat Riley was a vampire. I didn’t think so, but if he was, the hair was a dead give away.

Vampires seemed too gruesome though to deal with for too long. Plus, the plot of a vampire story is all too predictable. We all know that three things will happen in such a tale. The vampire will terrorise a borough of London or some other major city for a time, including an assault on the hero’s wife or girlfriend. Then, an eccentric vampire hunter will come along and convince the hero that the vampire is cuckolding him, the poor boring, live bastard. Finally, the hero and the eccentric vampire hunter will track the vampire to his lair and find the hero’s significant other with the vampire. The vampire hunter will dispatch the vampire to the fiery bowels of Hell, and the hero and his gal pal will enter counseling.

The beer was empty by now. My wife had gone to bed, leaving me the only one awake in the house. I could hear occasional noises from my child’s room as she rolled over in bed, sending one or more of her stuffed dolls unto the floor. The dog was nowhere to be found, but this was normal, as she hated and feared me as though I were a vampire and wanted to drain the blood from her body. What she was too stupid to know is that I was allergic to her and would easily flee her presence if she ever had the courage to so much as walk up to me.

I’d eliminated the romance, the sci-fi, the mystery, the horror story, the western, and one 12 ounce bottle of amber ale. Other than that, the results of the night’s work were thinner than Ted Koppel’s protestations that he did not wear a toupee.

I got up and stretched my back. The chair in the computer room was one of those “specialised” computer chairs that came on casters so you could wheel it about the room. The only problem with the casters is that they were so small that they wouldn’t effectively roll on any carpet thinker than about two millimeters, which our carpet had beat by nearly twice that much. The chair swiveled as well, which was pointless as it was supposedly designed for use at a computer. The only reason to swivel that I could think of was if you were really in a happy typing mood. Then, I suppose you could flip on some music, type away and every so often spin around completely in the chair, coming back to meet the keyboard and churn out another happy few sentences.

The excitement of earlier in the evening had now worn away, replaced with a sense of foreboding and despair. How was I supposed to finish this bloody thing? How can I get 50,000 words if the opening page left me dumbstruck looking for just a hint of a story?

Maybe I could dazzle with detail? Many authors use this technique. They take a relatively small plot point, such as “the detective stops by the client’s home with the news that they are taking the case” and spend ninety percent of the time describing things.

“The detective wore a dark suit, the lapels wrinkled as though he’d been roughed up by too many husbands caught on film in dalliances they’d later thought better of. The dandruff flakes on his shoulders were like flurries on a black sand beach. His shoes were old leather, polished more times than one could easily count, with laces that were worn and thin, like their owner. His client stood in a corner of the old ranch house, between a threadbare ottoman and an overly ornate sofa. She was wearing a short black dress with a “V” cut down to just above her navel and matching black “V” earrings. Her shoes were Italian, stilettos delicately fashioned in black leather as well, but classically constructed, in sharp contrast to the harlot’s dress she looked very comfortable in. She shifted back and forth on her toes, looking precariously balanced. The detective moved steadily towards her, his steely blue eyes locked in on her soft hazels. Her chestnut hair bobbed at her shoulders as she nervously returned the hard, cold stare. He cocked his head at her ever so slightly, revealing the edge of the faded white collar of his shirt. She could count the bits of stubble on his rough face as he quietly said, ‘I’ll take the case.’”

It seemed so exhausting. Plus, I knew less about clothing styles than I did about imaginary number theory, so I was in for a lot of research, which I simply didn’t have the time for. I also had no desire to peruse the web pages of clothing boutiques, all of whom whose ideas for online marketing bordered between soft core porn, Andy Warhol films, and romance novel covers, at the same time.

I closed my eyes. I was tired and my brain was buzzing. I decided that the story would have to wait until tomorrow. The sweet softness of my pillow beckoned. The night was deep and heavy. That and the beer had gone through me like a Brasilian forward through a San Marino defence, so I needed plenty of time in the loo before bed.

I was also seriously hoping that I would have a doozy of a dream that night, and could then write about it the next day.

Earl's Novel - Chapter I (Part I)

(Editor's note: Earl Fando is currently writing a novel as part of the insane National Novel Writers' Month Contest. He will be publishing the novel in serial format as it is written, rather than writing goofy posts, which is his actual job here.)

Chapter 1
The Gathering Storm

The knock at the door was the UPS man. He stood there a moment, in his regulation brown trousers, regulation brown long sleeves, regulation brown shoes, and regulation brown hat, his face shadowed by the roof of the house. I’ve always assumed they were required to wear brown underwear, too, just in case they were in an accident. In typical fashion, he waited a moment, package in hand, just in case some human presence should appear at the door suddenly. Then, at approximately five seconds before a normal human might get up off the couch and amble over to the door, he quickly set the package down and dashed off to his van. Very rarely have I actually met a UPS man at the door. Usually, I just get a glimpse of them, waving amiably as they drive off down the street, a wave that says both, “Thank you for your business,” and also, “I’m so glad I didn’t have to speak to you in person.”

I got up and walked to the door. As I passed the living room, my wife looked up at me and commented, “That’s strange, someone knocking at the door.”

“It was just the UPS man,” I mumbled as I passed.

“Earl, dear… It’s 9:30 p.m.” came back her voice, calm, but evidencing concern.

What was the bloody UPS man doing here at 9:30 p.m., anyway, and more to the point, why hadn’t I realised it was so late in the midst of my novel reverie? It could be that he was running behind. Perhaps he’d stopped off at a local pub, got to talking to the barman, lost count of how many Michelobs he’d sipped on, and quietly passed out on the stool. Then, waking after a few hours, realized he’d better make some late runs or he was certain for the sack.

I mulled this over for a bit but it was quite unconvincing. UPS blokes are known for their astounding promptness. Like their spiffier-dressed brethren, the Fed-Ex blokes, they would pass by regularly at set times. Hobos in the street corners could set their broken, fake Rolexes by them, then, the very next day, as the UPS man passes, look down at the smudged and cracked glass and smartly remark, “It’s 2:30 p.m.,” from where the watch had not moved the entire 24 hours, and they’d be absolutely right.

I also have always wondered why UPS chose brown. It’s not a bad colour at all, being the colour of chocolate, coffee, tea, and well prepared smoky chops and steak. Fed Ex always used white and blue, with a bit of red trimming. It seemed more business-like and also rather patriotic, which fitted with the “Federal” part of the name, I suppose. I’m sure that children though would look at it and immediately think of poop. However, children tend to look at most things and think of poop, poop being the height of hilarity for a small child, second only to “toots.” This reminded me of a story Gary Sinise told on the Letterman show, not two nights before about how, whilst doing a Broadway performance of “Of Mice and Men” or perhaps it was “The Grapes of Wrath,” word had come that the great actress Katherine Hepburn was to be in the audience that evening. At one of the most dramatic points in the performance, when the character of a minister is killed, the actor playing the minister falls forward onto the stage, and as he falls, a fairly large amount of gas passes from his body, and loudly so, according to Sinise. He went on to say that at the moment precisely afterwards, an aged, strong but tremulous female voice, the great lady herself, could be heard throughout the theatre exclaiming, “Oh…My…God!” Sinise went on to say that the corpse lying onstage quietly trembled in mirth the rest of the performance.

So, clearly many people find amusement in toots, and I suppose poop as well, with the notable exception of Kate Hepburn. However, were I in charge of UPS, I would rapidly seek out an endorsement from the Hershey’s company and slap the Hershey’s label on the back of every UPS uniform in existence. Yes, this might alienate the good people at Cadbury (my favourite chocolatiers) and Mars, but it was worth the risk to avoid the sense that this unnatural shade of brown that UPS drivers resplendently wore was something sweet and favoured, instead of something wretched and regularly expelled from the human digestive system.

I realised that the package was still sitting out there and it was still ruddy strange that a UPS man would suddenly appear this late in the evening in a residential area. Now, a healthy sense of paranoia began to take hold of me. I began to wonder if Osama Bin Laden hadn’t disguised himself as a UPS man and cleverly planted an explosive on my front stoop. I had after all made a tremendous point of ridiculing the vicious murdering bastard on the blog a number of times. Even though our readership was well below what I thought it should be, there was the very strong chance that Osama had “next blogged” our site, saw the verbal ripostes aimed directly at his sneering face, and declared personal, eternal jihad against my person.

I shook off this idea as nonsense, realising that Osama had bigger fish to fry, including working out how to step out of his cave on the Pakistan/Afghani border without the U.S. Marines blowing his head clean off. So, was this an actual UPS package, delivered at an odd hour of the evening by peculiar chance, or some other strange and foreboding event. I wondered if one of my compatriots at the blog could have set this up as some sort of practical joke. It would have to be someone who lived nearby, as the others would have used regular, daytime-delivering UPS service.

That narrowed it down to Stew and Nuffy. Stew Miller is my co-editor on the site. Stew however was far to busy with family, having two young kids. The idea that he would suddenly hatch a plan to deliver suspicious packages in the middle of the evening for the purposes of a modest practical joke was like suggesting that President Bush would suddenly direct the FBI to harass and investigate the crackpot at the local farmer’s market who kept insisting that the President and every president before him were delivering secret cocaine shipments to a local aero field. Just because the bloke at the market thought that was the case, didn’t make it so. It did however make it quite enjoyable to wear dark jackets and sunglasses to the square the market was held on, just to watch his eyes slowly bulge out of his head and to hear him quietly mutter, “I know what you’re up to, you lousy government fascists.”

Nuffy was out of the question as well. Nuffy Noe, was a writer for the blog who specialized in a system of self-betterment called “Five Times Better” and obsessive investigations into the life of the late Mark Northover, a bit player in the Ron Howard film Willow. It wasn’t that he wouldn’t find such a gag amusing or that he didn’t have the energy or time to pull it off; rather, it was that Nuffy was one of those blokes who tended to wander in and out of the blog for long periods of time, and having set up such a prank, would quickly become fascinated with some other activity and would miss the payoff. Such a gag would simply take too long for Nuffy to get any real enjoyment out of it.

There was only one thing for it. I walked to the front door and opened it gingerly, peeking around the edge of the door to get a glimpse of this mysterious package. It wasn’t particularly large at all. In fact, it was in one of those ordinary, standard UPS packaging boxes, the kind that pretty much anything smaller than a board game could come in.

I listened closely for ticking. There was none to be heard. I briefly contemplated that, were it an explosive device of some kind, it might be radio controlled. Our door was solid metal, which offered some protection, so I opened it up and then quickly closed it again. I did this two more times, just to be sure. Nothing happened. Surely, were someone sitting up the street with a pair of binoculars and a radio switch, they would have thrown it by now…Unless they were waiting for me to take it inside

“Earl, close the door! You’re letting the cold air inside,” shouted my lovely wife.

I gingerly picked up the package and brought it inside the door, closed the door and then sprinted into the living room. My wife looked at me as though I were a loon.

“Where’s the package?” she asked.

“In the foyer,” I replied.

“Why?” she smartly reasoned.

“Bomb…maybe?” I dimly replied.

She lowered her eyebrows ever so slightly, but just enough to pierce the fog of paranoia and half a beer that was presently clouding my brain.

“Oh, right,” I replied, sanity once again taking hold of my brain, much like tasting an ice cube in an otherwise warm spoonful of chicken soup.