Sunday, November 30, 2014

Well, I finally lost at something

This month, for the second time, I participated in National Novel Writing Month. In 2012, I reached the winning 50,000-word count with an incomplete draft of If That's What You Want.

This year ... I wasn't even close. Final count: 21,843.

I met the average one day. That isn't zero.
And of course that bums me out, because as I so often paraphrase Jerry Seinfeld, I want to do unbelievable on the hearing test. I hate to lose or come up short on anything, especially when it's something I put my heart into.

But it's not all bad, because the novel I wrote this time, Capitalist Letters, would be a stretch at 50,000 words. It's a story (or several intertwining stories) told through short narrative chapters, magazine and newspaper articles and through the point of view of inanimate objects. There's a journalistic economy to it. I joke that I can say 50,000 words' worth of something in 20,000 words, and this story might be 20,000 words' worth when it's complete. At this stage it's more of an exercise than anything, and some of it is frankly fluff. So we'll see how it goes. If nothing else, it gives me something promising to work on at a future time when life isn't so hectic.

Anyway, here's another excerpt from Capitalist Letters:

Lisa goes to heaven for a little bit

Well, that was weird.

The last thing Lisa remembered, she was driving, then she wasn't. She had apparently been picked up like her mother had picked her up as a child when she wanted to see things. Except that she didn't want to see what she was seeing — herself being cut out of what used to be car, but was now a jagged black tuxedo of torture.

The jaws of life, they called the freakish device they were using. It's the kind of machine you never see until you're too horrified to see it.


That noise! That noise should ever be near a person!

That blood! That blood should never be on a person!

Am I alive? I sure don't look it.

"Follow the light," her mom told her as she embraced her. Mom looked a lot like some old picture Lisa had seen a million times. Anyway, wasn't Mom a lot older and nowhere near here? And didn't she typically not sound like she was not real?

"What light, Mom?" Lisa asked weakly, weaker than she was feeling, almost half-asleep.

Mom pointed up. "The light you see before you if you look for the light." Huh?

Then there was nothing. Darkness. And a bright white light in the middle of it, like a polka dot.

Lisa recalled that she'd read how the "light" was a human function, a misfire of the synapses, perhaps, that many people in the process of death or near-death mistook for the beacon to heaven.

Overanalytical even in the process of death.

"Follow the light!" A disembodied voice, maybe her late uncle's, echoed from somewhere indistinct.

"Follow the light!" Was that a Munchkin? Well, they were dead.

"Follow your nose!" Toucan Sam?!!

Light … light… light … light… echo … echo … echo …

Lisa didn't recall actually taking the advice, but there she was, suddenly in a gigantic, ornate lobby, not unlike one you'd see in an upscale urban hotel. Didn't Truman Echeverria own a hotel like this?

"Hello, dear," the receptionist called out to Lisa through a teeming crowd of people. There might as well have been everyone who'd ever died here, but the receptionist's eyes aimed at her like a laser in a room with a single object.

Lisa ambled her way to the desk, wondering if that really was Phil Hartman she'd just seen. And Gandhi!

"What happened?" Lisa asked the receptionist, again suddenly groggy.

"You are currently dead," the receptionist, whose name was Pam, replied too cheerfully.

"Currently dead?" Lisa asked in disbelief. "What on Earth does that mean?"

"Currently dead means you're not quite dead, but you're much of the way there."

"So there's hope?" Lisa asked hopefully, regaining her energy.

"Yes, there is, but why not stay here in heaven? It's the best place in the universe!"

"So heaven's real?"

"Yes, dear," Pam said. "I know you are a skeptic, but I'm here today to prove to you that not only is heaven real, but that you'll want to stay a loyal guest with us forever!"

"But … but … I have a life down there on Earth. A good one!"

"Really? A good one? Are you sure about that?" The receptionist asked with a skeptical scowl on her face. "Now, see, that's what I'm skeptical about. You're a computer programmer who's constantly badgered and belittled for being a woman. You're shy, and the world is built for extroverts. You're lonely."

"I have friends and family there," Lisa objected. "Friends and family who love me and don't want to see me dead! And I don't want to be dead either!"

"Come with me," Pam commanded, grabbing Lisa's reluctant arm. "I want to show you something."

The two walked into a sprawling ballroom that was oddly empty and quiet, considering the chaos of the lobby. Pam pressed a button and a giant screen lowered quietly from the rafters. The screen then displayed an image of Big Burger Picnic.

"Look at this fast-food restaurant. You know how much business we get from it? A ton. Literally. Tons and tons of people. They kill themselves eating here. They kill themselves working here. And for what? To keep a roof over their heads. So they can stay alive another day to go keep working at Big Burger Picnic. And to take care of their kids, whose chances are so shot from the outset that they'll be lucky in 15 years to go work at Big Burger Picnic. That's a good life? You think that's what a good life is?"

Lisa didn't know what to say. Whatever assertiveness she'd found in the car with Truman Echeverria had apparently died in it as well.

"That's not my life," she replied meekly. "I have a plum gig as a programmer. It's not without its faults, but it's my dream."

"But really, it's no different," Pam admonished. "You're at the bottom of the barrel, with very little chance to scrape to the top. They treat you like shit there …"

Lisa was surprised to hear the word "shit" in heaven.

"… And even in the best of situations, you still have to scrounge to survive every day just to have the privilege of breathing that polluted air, drinking that diseased water and eating the food that slowly drags you toward death's door. You. Truman. Nearly 7 billion others."

"Truman! Oh my God, where is he?"

"He's currently on hold with another representative."


"Yes. You see, we serve as brand ambassadors to ensure that you select a quality experience in the afterlife over the miserable meat-grinder that is life below. Here, you will never have to worry about death, pain, loss or grief. It's something you should really consider. You're a great and strong girl, Lisa. You deserve a great and strong afterlife experience to go with it. And what better name recognition than heaven? Trillions of souls can't be wrong!"

"This isn't, like, an eternity of strumming a harp while flying on clouds as angels, is it?" Lisa asked timidly.

"Oh, heavens, no, dear," Pam replied. "No pun intended. Ha ha ha! You quickly find your place here. With more than 8 million career opportunities, you'll find the vocation that's right for you!"

"So you have to work in heaven?"

"But of course, dear! A community as magnificent as heaven doesn't just come together! You have to earn your keep, pull yourself up by your own divine bootstraps. But look on the bright side — no 401(k) and no taxes! You get to work as long as you want, and keep all your money! For all eternity! Maybe one day you'll work hard enough to climb the heavenly ladder and meet the big CEO himself!"

Lisa hesitated. She wasn't sure this wasn't actually hell.

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