It's taken a long time to write my first collection of stories, and as I get closer to finishing it, I'm realizing how necessary it is to have extended periods of uninterrupted time to write, think about, and live with these stories. With this NEA grant, I plan to take some time off from teaching to finish my book and get a solid start on a second. I'm grateful to the NEA and the reading committee for offering me this opportunity.
From the short story "Monstress"
It was still early evening, and Gaz suggested we drive to the set. ""MGM?" Checkers guessed. "Twentieth Century Fox?"
"My mom's basement in Pasadena," Gaz answered.
Freeway traffic was slow; it was near dark by the time we pulled up in front of Gaz's mother's house. It was an old, peeling Victorian with a shingled roof that had almost no shingles left, and the shutters dangled from the uppermost windows like limbs attached to a body by one last vein. That house would have been his dream set. But on our CocoLoco budget, we had to make do with tin-roofed shacks and three-walled huts in shanty towns far beyond Manila, where we paid impoverished locals with cigarettes and sacks of rice to play our victims for a day. "If we'd had something like this to work with," Checkers said, "life back home would still be good."
The basement was like an underground studio set, sectioned off by plywood partitions and cardboard walls: each room was a different part of The Valedictorian - the bridge, the science lab, the weapons bay, the space sauna. We hadn't been on a set since Squid Children five years before, but Checkers made himself at home, examining each room from different angles, as though he was behind a camera, filming right then.
I wandered off alone. "Explore all you want, but don't touch anything," Gaz said. But I didn't need to touch anything to know its cheapness: the helm was made of Styrofoam and cardboard, painted to look like steel; the main computer was a reconfigured pinball machine; the Intelli-Bot 4-26-35 was an upside down fishbowl painted gold atop a small TV set, and its bottom half was a vacuum cleaner on wheels. I was used to this lack of marvelousness, because Checkers worked this way too, attempting magic from junk: wet toilet tissue shaped like fangs was good enough for a wolf-man or vampire, and our ghosts were just bed sheets. For the Squid Children, Checkers found a box of fireman's rubber boots, glued homemade tentacles (segments of rubber hose affixed with suction cups) on them, then made his tiny nephews and nieces wear them on their heads. "On film," Checkers used to say, "everything looks real."
I found Checkers and Gaz in the space lab, the contract between them: Gaz would pay twenty-five hundred dollars up front, then pay five percent of the profits. "Jackpot-eureka!" Checkers said after he signed, though neither of us knew how much that would be worth back home.
Gaz and Checkers wanted to celebrate, so we went from bar to bar on Hollywood Boulevard, then walked up and down the Walk of Fame. "A trio of visionaries should have the stars at their feet, right Chex?" Gaz said. Checkers nodded, zigzagging down the street. For so long, Checkers had resented Hollywood, convinced it was American movies that drove us out of the business. Now, here he was, lolling about in enemy territory, drunk from beer, bourbon, and all the inspiration surrounding him - the Hollywood Wax Museum, Mann's Chinese Theater, even the life-size celebrity cut-outs in storefront windows. I tried keeping up, making sure he didn't fall.
Hours later, Checkers and I made love on Gaz's couch. At first I told him we shouldn't, not there in a stranger's home. "He's so drunk he'll never wake up," Checkers assured me. He nibbled my neck and nuzzled my breasts, let out a low guttural growl. "Gently," I said, running my fingers through his pompadour, "softly." He obeyed. I knew Checkers was drunk, but this was how I wanted us to finish the day: it was the longest of our lives, thirty-seven hours since we left Manila and I had stayed awake through all the non-stop coming-and-going. So I gave myself up to this moment when we could finally slow down, and I imagined us as Deborah Kerr and Burt Lancaster in From Here To Eternity.
"Monstress" first appeared in The Atlantic Monthly.