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Broken

By Rob Roberge

Original Fiction

The band was supposed to be on the road for two weeks, so I spent the last few days before we left Florida trying to get enough drugs to last the tour. We were booked up the East coast in some great clubs, the record had just come out on a good, albeit small, indie label, we were getting some press and it had the look of a good time on the road. At the time, at least before things turned bad, the band was getting along and the tour seemed like it would be one party after another in a new town every night.

Everything was fine until we hit Winston-Salem. We were about halfway through the swing up to playing Boston, where we’d then turn around and hit the towns we hadn’t played on the way up. But Winston-Salem put a snag in the whole deal.

We were playing this club called The Spotlight and the crowd was good. The place even had a lit marquee with our name in lights above the other bands.

TONIGHT: FROM FL. THE POPULAR MECHANICS

Some local paper had made us a “must see” and described us the bastard child ofHank Williams and the Stooges. It was a pretty fair description. We were a loud, fast and, on our good nights, pretty great Cowpunk band.

We sound-checked not long after we pulled into town around seven o’clock. As we were loading our gear in, I saw the bartender. She looked like a tattooed Clara Bow in a black latex dress and knee high go-go boots and I walked straight into a table staring at her. She noticed, smiled and went about wiping down the bar and rinsing glasses.

After we set up, I went over to the bar to get a couple beers and a closer look at the bartender.

“What can I get you?” she said in voice that sounded like cigarettes and whiskey.

I asked for two Bass Ales.

She laughed. “You’re in redneck central, cutie. How about a couple PBR’s?”

When she called me “cutie” my heart quivered. “Sounds great.”

She turned around and I watched her muscled ass and legs as she bent over to get me my beers. The latex dress rolled slightly up at her thighs and she straightened it out when she stood.

I said, “Isn’t it hot in that dress?”

She put the beers in front of me and smiled. “It’s always hot in my dress.” She opened a beer of her own and stuck out her hand, which was covered in silver rings. “I’m Simone. Let me know if there’s anything you need, ok?”

A couple hours later, with one of the opening bands playing and the other two bartenders covering for her, I was making out with Simone in the back corner of the walk-in cooler where they kept all the bottles and kegs of beer.

“Go down on me,” she said.

I started to lift her dress and she stopped me.

“Just so you know, I have alopecia,” she said.

I had no idea what that was. I wondered if it was some venereal disease, but I didn’t know how to ask that without killing the mood. I kept kissing her.

She pulled away. “It’s just that it weirds some guys out.”

And now I felt like it would be stupid to ask what it was, but I asked anyway.

“I don’t have hair,” she said. And then, as if to prove it, she took off her Clara Bow wig. I hadn’t looked that closely, but her eyebrows were painted on, too.

“You look beautiful,” I said.

“You’re sure?” she said, and for the first time she seemed vulnerable.

I couldn’t imagine her doubting how stunning she was. What kind of fucked up planet was this if even people who looked like Simone were insecure? What hope did the rest of us have? “Really,” I said. “You’re the most beautiful woman I’ve ever seen.”

She kissed me gently on my nose, then on each eyelid. Then, she pushed me down onto my knees on the cold floor covered in water and sawdust and she sat on a keg of beer with her legs spread and her latex dress up around her waist. She smelled like clean sweat and hospital gloves. She didn’t wear underwear. I had my arms wrapped under her legs and my hands on her ass. She had the first pierced clit I’d ever seen and I found myself hypnotized, running my tongue from one end of the barbell piecing to the other while I felt and heard it click rhythmically on my lower incisors.

“Not that this isn’t nice,” she said. “But speed up. I’m at work, remember.”

I sped up, sucking on her clit, feeling the stainless steel balls hard in between her soft flesh. She’d grabbed a shelf with her left hand and the back of my head with her right and she was bucking against my mouth, pulling me hard into her. When she came, she screamed so loud I worried someone outside could hear.

After she caught her breath, she said. “You are drinking for free tonight, Mister.”

I kissed her inner thigh. I felt like I could spend a long time kissing anywhere on her body she asked me to. “I thought I was drinking free, anyway.”

She leaned down and kissed me hard. “Well, I’ll just have to think of some other way to thank you.” She stood and rolled her dress back down over her legs. “Back to the salt mines,” she said.

I waited in the walk-in cooler until my hard-on went down, taking a bottle of Bud off one of the shelves and drinking it, listening to the din of the opening band.

By the time we took the stage, we were all pretty drunk. At that point in our history, the Popular Mechanics were just about as well known for drinking as for our music. But on a good night, and this was one of our good nights, it felt like we were one of the better bands around. The crowd was pretty riled up and the place was packed, but I spent most of our set looking up at the bar and watching Simone. Every once in a while, I’d catch her eye and she’d blow me a kiss or have some kid at the bar bring me another beer.

Near the end of our set, Rocco, our bass player, fell down drunk and dropped his Fender Jazz onto the stage, creating an eruption of feedback from his amp. The singer and rhythm guitar player Mickey helped him up. We got through two more songs, one of our own and then a crazed up-tempo sloppy but fun cover of Dylan’s “Absolutely Sweet Marie” and then we were done.

The crowd has us back up for two encores. It might have been three, but after the second one Rocco passed out under a table in the green room.

After I broke my gear down and loaded my stuff into the van, I let Mickey and our drummer Jack take the rest of the stuff out so that I could have as much time as possible with Simone.

Simone said, “Look, I was trying to figure out some coy way to ask you where you were staying and then see if you wanted to come to my place instead. But, I figured, what the hell?” She took a drink. “Come back to my place?”

We had to hit the road. I couldn’t believe this. I hadn’t ever met anyone like her and now I had to leave.

“I wish I could,” I said.

She looked like she didn’t believe me. “You can just say no.”

“I don’t think I could say no to you,” I said. I explained we had to drive to Roanoke where we’d booked one room at some shitbag motel. It was only a hundred or so miles, which normally meant we could stay in whatever town we played and hit the road in the morning, but we had some in-studio live college radio spot we had to be in for around noon the next day, so the plan was to drive on and stay the night in Roanoke.

Most nights, I wouldn’t care one way or the other. I actually liked being in the van late at night, having Rocco drive to the next town wile I drank beer or dozed in the back. Most nights, however, I didn’t meet someone like Simone.

“You sure you can’t say the night?”

I thought about asking the guys to play the radio station as a three piece. If they could do that, I could just hitchhike to the show later in the day. “You don’t know how much I’d like to,” I said. I looked for the band. “Let me see if I can.”

I thought about asking, begging the guys to stay in Winston-Salem. If we got up early, we could still make the radio station. I found Mickey and Jack talking to some woman at the merch table. Rocco was still passed out in the green room. I told them what was going on.

Jack said, “We already booked the room, Dude. We can’t pay for two motel rooms.”

“There’s got to be a way,” I said.

“Dude, it’s just some fucking chick. Get over yourself.” The woman he and Mickey were talking to told him to fuck off and walked away.

“Nice,” Jack said. “You see what just happened there? Thanks.”

“What did I do?’ I said.

“You scared her off.”

“I didn’t call her ‘some fucking chick.’”

Mickey lit a cigarette. “C’mon. We need to hit the road.”

About a half hour later, the guys were in the van while I made out with Simone in the parking lot. It was cold, down into the 40’s and she’d put her wig back on. She felt incredible. Finally, Rocco hit the horn and Mickey leaned out the passenger side and said, “Let’s go, Romeo.”

I kissed her again and she slipped me a piece of paper with her number and what she said was a gram of coke in some folded magazine paper.

“I had some more at home I was hoping to do with you, but this guy just slipped me this at the bar.” She smiled. “For the road.”

I thanked her and kissed her again. Rocco hit the horn, several times in a row.

When the van pulled out of the parking lot, she was still standing there, lighting a cigarette and waving goodbye. I thought about just getting out. The band was great, but I found myself thinking maybe this was one of those moments in life where you roll the dice. Maybe this was as close to love at first sight as I would ever get and my chance for happiness in this world was standing waving goodbye in a cold parking lot in a town I’d never been to and might not see again for a long time.

Why we’d let Rocco drive would be a valid question in any normal situation. But a band on the road isn’t, by definition, a normal situation, and he was the one who always drove. He was more fucked up than usual, but Jack didn’t have a license, mine was suspended and Mickey couldn’t drive anything more complex than an Autopia car. Plus, we were all drunk and it was, for better or worse, Rocco’s job.

We weren’t ten minutes away from the club when I saw the cop’s gumball lights throwing colors all over the interior of the van. I was in the backseat, drinking a beer.

“Fuck,” Rocco said. “Lose the open containers.”

I had, in addition to the open container, around ten bags of heroin left in my guitar case, but I couldn’t worry about that right then. The immediate concern was the open beer and the gram of coke I had in my jeans pocket. I quickly unfolded the paper, dumped it into my beer and swallowed the whole can as fast as I could. The first gulp went pretty easily, but by the second, the coke was already numbing my mouth and throat and I may have spilled nearly as much as I swallowed. I did, however, empty the can and I’d stuffed it deep under the seat by the time the cop wrapped on the driver’s side window.

Rocco had that studied drunk-trying-not-to-sound-drunk casualness. “What’s the problem officer?”

He asked for the standard license and registration and headed back to his cruiser, telling us to stay put. The cocaine dropped like a calming depth charge into my guts. It felt great, despite my fear. Like I could cut out my own appendix if I wanted to.

Jack was next to me. “You had blow, dude?”

I tried to answer him but found my throat wasn’t really working. The coke had numbed and frozen my vocal cords and I started to panic a little when I realized I couldn’t tell if I was swallowing or not.

“Asshole,” Jack said.

I looked down at my shirt and saw I was drooling all over it. I reached for my lips but only my fingers could feel. My lips might as well have been a doorknob. I wondered if I’d be able to breathe in a minute.

Rocco dropped his paperwork as he handed it to the cop and before I could realize what was happening, the cop had him walking the straight line and trying to touch his nose with his eyes closed.

Then, the cop had Rocco on the backseat of his cruiser.

I still couldn’t talk, but Jack had gotten out of the van and was talking with the cop. They were walking back to the van together.

Mickey turned to me and said, “Dude, would you say something?”

I could barely croak out a noise from my throat.

“What is wrong with you, Rod?”

The cop and Jack made it up to the van. I wanted to hate the cop, but he seemed like he was being pretty nice about the whole thing.

“Ok,” he said. “Any of you rock stars sober enough to get this van back to town?”

I was trying not to make eye contact and hoped I wasn’t drooling.

Jack said, “We don’t have anywhere to stay. We’re supposed to be in Roanoke in the morning.”

The cop gestured to the cruiser. “Well, your buddy there’s got a room courtesy of the county. I’m sure we could fit the rest of you.”

Mickey said, “I can drive.”

We had no idea what to do or where to go, so we drove back to the bar and the guys slept in the van all night while I stayed awake and paced the parking lot and chain-smoked in the cold air. The coke had finally mellowed enough so that I could talk and feel myself swallow. But there was no one to talk to with the guys asleep. Around five in the morning, I found a payphone at a gas station about a mile down the road and called the number Simone had given me.

A woman answered. “Yeah?”

I asked for Simone.

“She’s asleep,” the woman said. “What kind of fuckhead calls someone at five in the morning?”

I started to explain, but she’d hung up.

I bought a cup of watery burnt tasting coffee and another pack of smokes at the gas station and walked back to the van. The sun was coming up, starting to warm the day, but it was still cold enough to see my breath as I walked down the highway. My eyes felt hot, my jaw ached from clenching it all night against the coke and my throat was stripped raw from all the cigarettes.

At noon, the guys were still sleeping in the van and I was shaking in the cold when Simone pulled up in a Toyota pickup. At first, I didn’t recognize her because she was wearing a Twiggy-style blonde wig instead of the night before’s Clara Bow brunette one. She parked two spaces away from the van and I waved. She shook her head, smiling, and got out of the truck.

“Hey there, you,” she said. “What happened?”

“You said you wished I could stay,” I said.

She lit a cigarette. And even though I’d probably had two packs overnight, I lit another. She said, “What about the radio show in Roanoke?”

“Not as important as you,” I said, smiling.

She seemed to tire of the flirting. “Seriously.”

I told her about Rocco getting a DUI and us turning around.

“I tried to call you,” I said. “But I think I woke someone up.”

“Feather.”

“Is that a person?”

“She owns the house I live in.”

“She sounded pretty angry,” I said.

“She’s always angry, whether you wake her up or not.”

“Good to know.”

Simone said, “And you slept in the parking lot all night?”

“They slept.” I gestured toward the van. “I drank that gram of coke when the cop showed up.”

“You drank it?”

I nodded.

“What a waste.”

“It felt kind of cool, actually,” I said. “Except for the cop. And being worried I’d stop breathing. And being up all night. And it being kind of cold.”

“Yeah, except for that.” She had a bunch of keys hooked through her low-slung jeans with a carabiner run through a belt loop. She pulled the clip off and started toward the door. “Let’s get you inside. You must be freezing.”

I followed her to the door. Just before she was about to open it, she turned around and kissed me.

“Welcome back.”

“Happy?” I said.

“I’d say this falls into the pleasant surprise category,” she said and opened the door.

My jaw was actually chattering. I couldn’t stop it. Simone gave me two shots of whisky and made me a cup of tea. Then, she let me crash on the couch in the green room. She brought in a space heater and took a couple of coats from the lost-and-found box and put them over me as blankets. One of the coats smelled liked my grandmother’s perfume. The couch was moist and reeked of stale beer. She tucked the better smelling coat under my chin.

“Better?” she said.

I nodded.

She sat on the end of the couch. “So how long are you in town, stranger?”

I realized I had no idea. “Until we can get Rocco out of jail, I guess.”

Simone said she was going to get the bar set up for opening. I thought that I should get off the couch and call the police station and then Danny at our record company and try to figure out what to do about Rocco, but drifted off to sleep instead.

Around 4PM, I stumbled out of the green room, feeling edgy and toxic from being up all night on the coke and cigarettes. The rest of the guys were at the bar, along with what looked like some daytime barflies. Simone tended bar alongside a guy whose name, I found out when I sat at the bar, was Tim. Neil Young & Crazy Horse’s Everybody Knows This is Nowhere was coming out of the speakers.

Jack said, “You get a good nap there?”

“Ease up,” I said. “I was up all fucking night.”

“Because you were hoarding your blow,” Jack said. Mickey nodded.

“I wasn’t hoarding the blow.” I wasn’t sure if this was true or not. I probably would have shared it with the guys. My heroin was mine, but I didn’t even like coke that much. “I just didn’t want the cop to find it on me. I had to do something.”

That seemed to satisfy them enough to stop scolding me.

Mickey said, “We need two hundred and eighty bucks to get Rocco out.”

I doubted we had anywhere near that even if we pooled all our money. And if we did that, we wouldn’t have gas money to get out of town. I shook my head. “What did Danny say?” Danny was the head of our record label—a dinky but respected indie in Boston. If he was rolling in money, he was keeping it a good secret.

Jack said, “He’s fucking pissed. He’s already cancelled the next two gigs.” He took a sip of his beer. “Didn’t sound like he was darting off to Western Union to send us the money.”

Simone handed me a beer from behind the bar. “If you guys need to raise some money, you could play here and we could pass the hat.”

“Don’t you have other bands coming in?”

She said, “Tonight’s some local band, so it’s booked. But tomorrow and Tuesday are just the jukebox and Wednesday is Karaoke.”

We looked at each other. There seemed to be a group shrug that suggested we didn’t have a better way to make the money.

Jack said, “I’m hoping we’re out of this shithole tomorrow.”

I was split on that one. We needed to get back on the road and make some money. We needed Rocco out of jail. But I could think of worse ways to spend the next couple of days than in this particular shithole. “Well, if we are here tomorrow,” I said, “thanks.”

“I got your back,” she said.

She went down to the other side of the bar to talk to some of the locals and the guys started in on me, mimicking her. Jack sing-songed “I got your back.”

I told him to give me a break.

“Winston-Salem’s treating you ok, man.”

The door opened and the faint winter daylight came into the bar for a second. A barefoot woman, wearing sweatpants and a 70’s style halter top came toward the bar. She was clearly drunk and very angry about something. And we found out, pretty quickly, what she was angry about was Tim.

The drunk woman pointed at Tim, “You want to know what this motherfucker’s into?”

Tim didn’t sound angry. Or embarrassed. He seemed calm, like this might have happened before. “Go home, Tammy.”

Tammy had a beer gut with deep, dark stretch marks that looked like worm fossils in her skin. You want to know what a sick fuck he is?” she yelled, pointing at Tim. She pulled her sagging breasts out of the halter top, stepped up to by the stools and started spraying breast milk onto the bar.

“Jesus,” Jack said.

Tammy said, “That’s what this fucker’s into. I don’t even have a kid anymore. They took my kid away five years ago and this fucking pervert he keeps me like this.” More breast milk sprayed and dripped onto the wood.

Simone shook her head.

Tim said, “Go home. You’re only embarrassing yourself.”

Tammy put her top back over her breasts and the moisture darkened the halter. She cried. “You fucking bastard.”

Tim told her to go home again. She looked at him for a moment. Then she lit a cigarette and walked back to the parking lot. Nobody spoke for a minute and I heard Tammy rev her engine and tear out of the parking lot to the sound of spinning tires and gravel being tossed.

“Where the fuck are we?” Mickey said.

At eight, Simone got off and asked me if I wanted to stay with her.

“I’d love to,” I said.

“What about us?” Jack said.

“My roommate is kind of nuts.”

“We’re kind of desperate,” Jack said.

Simone seemed to be thinking. “Let’s get the space heater out of the green room. If she throws a fit about you guys in the living room, you can stay in the garage.”

Mickey said, “The garage? It’s freezing out.”

“There’s no heat in the house, either,” Simone said.

She explained that her roommate Feather had the only room in the house with heat and that she slept there with her Harley and her teenage girlfriend who they were hiding from her father.

“Her father?” I said.

“Allegedly he abuses her, according to Feather at least. And the cops keep coming by to look for the kid and she hides in the crawl space under the house until they leave.” Simone put out her cigarette. “I’m warning you guys. The house is kind of nuts.”

I wondered what qualified as a house that was nuts after the day at that bar. When we walked out, Jack carrying the space heater I saw that no one had wiped down the bar and Tammy’s breast milk had dried to a faded cloudy film on the top of the worn wood.

The guys were settled and drunk on the couch. I’d brought my guitar and amp into Simone’s room which was cold enough for us to see our breath until the space heater made the corner of the room warm enough for us to take off our coats. I took out my Telecaster, unscrewed the pickguard and took out two bags of heroin.

“Do you want some?” I said.

“Coke?”

I shook my head. “Heroin.”

“I’ve never had it,” she said. “You sure you have enough?”

There was never enough, really. But this was pretty early in my opiate addiction and I wasn’t even using every day at that point. Still, I would have preferred to save it all for myself. Especially since we were stuck in Winston-Salem for who knew how long and I might not have enough to get home. “Of course.”

Simone pulled a box out from under the bed. “I have a bunch of this shit, if you want some.”

I looked in the box. There were about fifty bottles of liquid oral analgesic, stuff for toothaches that is twenty percent benzocaine.

“Where’d you get all this?”

Simone lit a cigarette. “Feather’s ex ripped off some pharmaceutical truck making a delivery. She thought she could get Percocet or something, but all she got was ten boxes of this shit.” She opened a bottle and downed the whole thing.

I held the bottle up to the light. It was a pale orange and it burned a bit going down my throat and into my stomach. Then the burning increased on the bottom of my tongue, the taste buds shouting fiery screams for a moment. Warmth and numbness spread through my chest and stomach, like a milder version of swallowing the cocaine.

“Like it?” she asked.

I nodded.

“Have as much as you want. There’s a shitload more in the garage.”

I thanked her and drank three more bottles. We snorted two lines of heroin. A few minutes later, I was starting to peacefully nod and Simone said she needed a nap and flopped back on the bed.

A couple hours later, I was working on fixing some of the solder joints in my amp. The room was so quiet, the only noises were Simone’s deep breathing and the pffft my soldering iron would make every time I cleaned it on the damp sponge. I felt good, floating on a mild heroin high. Felt warm and calm with my head quiet of all its normal tape loops of self loathing and anxiety.

She sat up, looking sleepy and beautiful and asked me what I was doing.

“Fixing my amp.”

“You good with electronics?”

“Pretty good,” I said.

She opened a drawer by her bedside and came out with a vibrator. “This is my favorite vibrator in the world and it stopped working.” She handed it to me.

I held her vibrator. I’d already gone down on her, but somehow this seemed like an even more intimate moment. “Sorry it broke,” I said. “I don’t know much about them, though. I mostly know amps.”

“If you could fix it, I would make it so worth your while.” She smiled while she lit a cigarette and blew smoke toward the ceiling. “Do you think you can fix it?”

I said, “I can die trying.”

It was a loose wire. Easy enough to fix. I handed it back to Simone and she held the end against my lips.

“Taste it,” she said. “It’s only been on me.”

I licked the end.

“Open your mouth,” she said.

She shoved it deeper into my mouth, sliding it in and out, smiling at me the whole time. I closed my eyes and felt the hard plastic against my lips and front teeth. When I opened my eyes, she pulled it out and licked it herself, holding it like a Popsicle.

I saw a red scar, criss-crossed with thinner milder stitches scars across her wrist. Perpendicular to the scar was a tattoo with some text I could read.

“What’s your tattoo say?”

Simone stopped licking. She stopped smiling at the same time. She lowered the vibrator to her side and looked away. “You mean did I try to kill myself?”

I did, I suppose, mean that, along with the question I did ask. But her tone suggested it wasn’t a topic to explore.

She said, “That tattoo says ‘The Clash.’ My favorite band.”

I didn’t know what to say. I’d overstepped the bounds of our intimacy. Pushed too hard in some way and caused her to shut down. “Great band,” I said.

She nodded. “You want to fuck?”

I said yes, then briefly wondered if I’d ever said no to that question in my life.

Simone said, “I’m going to trust you with something, ok?”

I’d been in love before. Fallen hard and lost all sense of common sense in the swirl and storm of emotion that left nothing but a confusion of desire without words. But I’d never been so swept up in the momentum of a person as I was then.

“OK,” I said. “Of course.”

Simone told me het favorite was to get fucked in the ass from behind while she masturbated herself, by hand and vibrator. “I hope that doesn’t weird you out.”

“I don’t think you could weird me out,” I said. “You’re the most amazing woman I’ve ever met.”

She put the vibrator on the bed. She took off her top. I saw silver barbells for her nipples and realized I hadn’t seen her naked yet, even after our time in the walk in cooler. She opened her button-fly jeans and left them in a pile on the floor and crawled up on the bed. Out of the nightstand drawer, she grabbed a small tub of Elbow Grease and turned to me.

“Strip,” she said.

I did and came up on the bed. My cock was hard and she started stoking it with the elbow grease. I groaned.

While still holding my cock, she said, “Don’t get too excited. We need this for a while.”

Simone got on her knees on the bed and started to spread the lubricant over her asshole with one hand while she balanced on the other one.

“OK,” she said. “Now go really slowly. And when you’re in me, don’t fuck me. Just stay in my ass and do as I say.”

“Whatever you say.”

“You always say the right thing.”

She wiped her hand on the sheet and put her head down by the pillow.

“Now,” she said. “Just follow me.”

She reached around and put the tip of my cock against her asshole.

“Now, stay there until I say.”

She removed her hand and picked up her vibrator. I heard the whirl of its motor start and then the rattling of the tip of the vibrator against her clit piercing.

“Now,” she said. “Slowly.”

I had my hands on either side of her ass, just where it joined her waist. Her waist was tight and hard and her ass was soft. The space heater was a few feet away on our left and my left hand and her skin were both much hotter on that side than the right. I slowly entered her and felt a slight resistance and stopped. Then I felt her relax and she moved her ass backwards until I was fully inside her.

She groaned and said fuck in a deep throaty voice. “Perfect,” she said. “Don’t move.”

My cock felt surrounded. Warm. I pulled her hips toward me gently. She turned the vibrator up and started groaning more. Whenshe started coming, her ass seemed to spasm around the base of my cock, growing tight and loose as she buck backward against me and her back arched like she was throwing up. She seemed to come several times, though I didn’t feel as if I had much to do with it, still I was thrilled to be allowed so close to so much unhinged pleasure.

When we finally flopped on our backs, Simone was breathing hard. After a while, her breath started to slow.

“I did,” she said.

“What?”

“Try to kill myself.”

I didn’t know what to say. The moment seemed to call for honesty, so I told her about my mother’s suicide.

“How old were you?”

“Eighteen,” I say. “Just started college.”

She stroked my chest. “I’m sorry. You don’t have to talk about it.”

I’d never really told anyone the whole story. I didn’t tell her much about my dad, other than he was a violent savage. But I told her about my mother and how she left us.

“My mother left when I was thirteen or fourteen. She joined some cult out west. She’d said she’d send for me when she got settled, but she never did.”

Simone lit two cigarettes and gave me one. “That must have been awful,” she said.

“I thought it was,” I said. “Then, later, a few years after she died, I found out this cult, The Family or some such shit, was full of child molesters. They fucked kids.”

“Your mom was part of this?”

“Not for long. She left when she found that out. But I always hoped she didn’t send for me to protect me, but I don’t know.”

“She probably did.”

“No way to know. After that, I don’t know where she went. But when I was in college, I got word that she’d jumped off the Rt. 66 bridge in Connecticut. Right after Christmas. The water was seven degrees and they gave up trying to find the body. That’s the way it is with winter suicides in the river. They just wait until the bodies float down river in the Spring. She washed up on mother’s day.”

Neither of us talked for a while and I listened to the whirl of the space heater and to Simone ticking her cigarette against the ashtray.

“Kinda fucked up Christmas and mother’s day,” I said.

“She probably wasn’t thinking about that.”

“No,” I said and took a drag of the cigarette. I’ve thought for years of what she might have been thinking. Of how lost and unconnected she must have been in that moment of only one remaining option. I wanted some more of the heroin, but I didn’t see a casual way out of this conversation. Plus, I needed to make it last, as I had no idea how long we’d be in town, not that I was in any hurry to leave at this point.

Simone said, “Do you ever think about it?”

“About my mother?”

“About killing yourself?”

I did. Not all the time, but often enough to scare myself. Fifteen years later, I would intentionally overdose and only survive because a friend came by my apartment when they weren’t expected. I kissed Simone on the shoulder. “Sometimes,” I said. “But now right now.”

The space heater burned my side and droned in the quiet of the room. Simone held her scarred wrist in front of my face. I saw the tattoo that read The Clash.

“They’re my favorite band,” she said. “Something I love. I figured I might think twice next time if there were something I loved there.”

I kissed her scar.

We were in bed, making out, with side two of the 3rd Velvet Underground album on repeat. I’d lost count of how many times the arm had reached the end of the record and the needle made a scratching sound, then the arm recoiled and started the record over again.

A door slammed, followed by a woman screaming in another room. “Who the fuck are you?”

Simone said, “Shit, that’s Feather.”

A sound, like a plate smashed against the wall, came from the living room.

I heard Mickey say, “We were invited.”

“I invite people into my fucking house! Did I invite you and just fucking forget? Is that what you’re saying, asshole?”

I got into my pants as fast as I could. Simone wrapped a towel around her and we went out to the room.

Jack and Mickey were backed up into a corner and a woman who looked like Joey Ramone stood a few feet away from them, holding a golf club. I took a step toward Mickey and she swung the club at me, hitting me in the arm. It hurt like hell. I dropped to the couch that Mickey had been sleeping on.

Feather held the club above her head and readied for another swing at me. I moved just in time for her to miss. The club passed through where I’d been and, without me to take its blow, smashed through a lamp on a table by the couch. She was clearly high. Her eyes were nearly all pupils and she staggered with her balance after every swing. At the door, across the room, I saw a teenage girl, maybe fifteen, in a cheerleading skirt and letterman jacket.

Simone grabbed Feather and took her a few feet away. I started to breathe easier when she was out of striking distance. Simone spoke with the calm reason of a hostage negotiator. “Feather. These are my friends.”

“They’re not my fucking friends. I want them out of here!”

Simone shook her head. She turned and mouthed sorry to me, and then asked Feather if they could talk in the kitchen.

I brought the guys into Simone’s bedroom.

Jack turned to me. “What the fuck was that about?”

“I guess she didn’t know we were here.”

Jack said, “We? Who the fuck is we? You were in a bedroom getting laid. We’re the one’s getting screamed at by the ugliest chick on the planet.”

Mickey nodded.

I said, “You’re getting screamed at? I just got hit with a golf club, man.”

“OK,” Jack said. “Fair enough.”

The three of us lit cigarettes and waited for the storm to pass in the house. The Velvet Underground still spun on the turntable.

Finally, Mickey said, “Dude, did your girlfriend shave her head like in the last two hours?”

I told him she was bald.

“I could have sworn she had hair at the bar.”

I was too tired to explain so I just told him it was a wig and left it at that.

The voices outside the bedroom had come closer and sounded calm, so we risked checking it out. The girl still stood by the door, looking frightened leaning into the corner the way a cat does when it’s in a pet carrier. Feather and Simone sat on the couch.

Feather made a kissing noise like she was calling a cat and snapped her fingers a few times. The cheerleader crossed the room and sat on her lap. “How’s my baby?” Feather said, running her fingers through the girl’s hair. “No need to be scared,” she said. “Daddy’s here.”

Me and the guys exchanged looks. Daddy?

The next day, we went to the police station and tried to see Rocco. They wouldn’t let us see him and again told us that only two hundred and eighty dollars would get him out.

We spent most of the day at the bar and then played that night with a coffee can in front of us for tip money. Simone introduced us, told the small crowd of regulars why we needed the money, and we started playing. The first set, I played guitar and Mickey sang and covered Rocco’s bass parts. We didn’t sound bad, but the crowd was totally different than the one we had for our first show there. For that, we’d been a pick of the week in the papers and the local college radio station had hyped the gig several days in advance. The place, then, was filled with college kids who loved us. The normal crowd, however, wasn’t in love with what we did and the tip jar barely had any money in it at the end of the night.

Some guy with a mullet shouted, “Play some fucking Eagles or something,” as we finished the set. Back in the greenroom, we decided that the next night, we’d try all classic rock and country standards. Maybe that would make us enough money to get out of town. We counted the tip jar. We’d made twenty-two dollars.

Back at Simone’s house after two in the morning, we were greeted by three police cruisers and their flashing lights in the driveway. They wouldn’t let us in the house. Apparently they were there for Feather’s girlfriend, but they hadn’t been in the house yet. Her father was with most of the cops, yelling in the driveway. Feather stood on the porch, yelling back at the father, while a cop seemed to be trying to calm her down. She wore bike leathers and smoked a cigarette, blowing the smoke above her and away from the cop.

I knew they were here to find the underage girl, but I worried that if they went inside they’d stumble over all the drugs in Simone’s room. If Feather was on the porch, that meant the cops, at least some of them, were in the house searching rooms for the cheerleader. I was almost out of the heroin—Simone and I had been doing more of it than I anticipated, but I’d hid what was left in my backpack. I’d hid it just because I didn’t know Feather and didn’t trust her after her crazy outburst, but now I felt good that I’d tucked it away with the cops here. Simone had some blow in her night table. Mickey and Jack had been smoking pot in the living room, and I didn’t know if they’d left it in the house or not.

I said to Jack, “You didn’t leave any drugs out, did you?”

Jack shrugged.

Mickey said, “This is fucked. We can’t get into anymore trouble in this town.”

The four of us leaned on the front fender of Simone’s truck. The engine was still hot from the drive and made pinging noises as it cooled. Mickey tossed his cigarette down and said, “I’m taking care of this.”

He started toward the house and one of the cops stopped him. I couldn’t hear what they said, but Mickey seemed calm. He nodded a lot, held up his hands like he was giving ground and then he and the cop shook hands and Mickey started up toward the porch where Feather and the cop were still arguing.

The father yelled, “My daughter is in that house! Let her go!”

Feather gave him the finger. “Fuck off, you fucking rapist.”

I was drained and starting to get a little dopesick. I needed to get in that house. Simone slipped her hand into the back pocket of my jeans.

“Sorry,” she said.

“Not your fault.”

Jack said, “Is this whole town crazy? Or just wherever we go?”

Up on the porch, Mickey and the cop were talking now. Feather sat down on the porch steps and stared with hate at the father who was still herded in the driveway by three cops. Mickey and the cop on the porch talked calmly. It lasted another couple minutes, and then the cop walked toward the driveway and huddled with the others.

Mickey came over to us at the truck and said, “OK, let’s go in.”

I said, “What did you say?”

“Told them I lived here and asked them if they had a warrant. They said they didn’t need one for a kidnapping, but I told them there was no girl here.”

“And they believed you?” Simone said, quietly.

“They seemed to,” he said. “Cooler heads prevailed.”

Mickey became Feather’s favorite person after he’d rescued her from the cops. The cheerleader, whose name, it turned out, was Sally climbed out of the crawl space under the pantry in the kitchen, still dressed in her high school cheerleader outfit, now covered with dirt and bunched spider webs from her hiding place.

Feather said, “You guys get high?”

Mickey said of course. And the four of them started a meth bender that, from the sound of things went on all night long while Simone and I went back to her room.

There was less heroin than I thought, and we did all that I had, which was for me only a maintenance dose. This wasn’t good, as I’d been doing so much, I was bound to get dopesick pretty bad. But I couldn’t think about that then, as I was in a good mood and in Simone’s bed with the first Violent Femmes album playing in the background.

I thought about telling Simone I loved her. I wondered if that was even possible. What had it been, three days?But, I thought, it was possible, wasn’t it? The world was so enormous, so complex. People could know each other for years and never love each other. So, why couldn’t someone you just met seem like someone you’ve known for years? I didn’t know what to say, so I kissed her. We made out for a couple minutes. She looked at me with a frightening vulnerability and said, “Do you really think I’m beautiful?”

“I’ve never met anyone more beautiful than you.”

She didn’t cry, but her eyes started to rim with tears. Not quite enough to fall down her cheeks. “You’re the only person who’s ever made me feel beautiful.”

I ran my hand over her arm, feeling the cool skin. I kissed her over each eye, where her eyebrows would have been if she had them. Then, gently, I kissed each closed eye. How could I leave? I started to cry and put my head in her lap while she stroked my hair.

Later, she tied me to her bed, spread-eagled and blindfolded.

“Trust me?” she said.

I said yes.

I heard her leave the room. I worried for a moment that one of the guys or Feather could come in. After a minute, I relaxed and felt the blindfold sitting tight and comfortable, pressing my eyes into darkness. I tried to see, but I could only get a shard of blurry light from the corner of one eye. My cock was hard. The restraints felt wonderful as I pulled against them.

I heard the door open and close. Quiet, barefoot footsteps on the hardwood floor came toward the bed. Simone grabbed my cock and then gently stroked it. As she slowly reached the tip, I arched my back, trying to stay in contact with her hand and she laughed as she pulled out of reach.

“Now, this won’t hurt. But trust me and don’t move too much, ok?”

I nodded.

I heard the sound of some electronic motor starting up. It sounded like her vibrator, but stronger. Louder. Then I felt cold metal laying flat against my pelvic bone and I realized she was shaving my hair with an electronic razor. She ran it across my balls and I flinched a bit.

“Don’t worry,” she said.

When she shaved around the cock, she’d hold it away from the razor to gain access to whatever area she worked on. I felt the space heater intensely on the right side of my body. Cold air on the left side. The space heater oscillated and every time it passed my cock, I felt a rush of warm breeze.

I heard the glottal whoosh of a shaving cream can and then felt the cold cream spread over my cock and balls. I shivered. Simone laughed.

“Almost there,” she said.

I tensed at first when she ran the razor over my skin. But, soon I fell into a hypnotic trust unlike anything I’d ever felt before. The blade ran down the sides of the base of my cock. Over my balls and inner thighs. The skin above my cock. After every couple of razor strokes, I heard her tap the razor against the side of a bowl with water in it. A couple of times, she toweled me off and inspected her work and then used a little more shaving cream and ran the blade over a small area of skin. When the breeze from the oscillating heater crossed my cock, I felt the air like I hadn’t before. The skin was more attuned, more sensitive to everything—touch, heat, motion.

She toweled me off one last time with a dry washcloth.

The next thing I felt was her lubed hand stroking my cock for a minute or two. She’d bring me to the verge of coming and then stop.

Then, she fucked me, reverse cowgirl at first before she ended up laying with her back on my chest, grinding her hips up and down as she stroked herself. I felt her fingers, whenever she rubbed herself, at the base of my cock. I came and she kept rubbing her clit. When my cock slipped out of her, she used it to rub against her clit until she came.

My wrists hurt from her weight causing me to pull at the restraints. I had cramps in my hips. She’d collapsed on me for a while. She rolled over and kissed me.

She untied me and took the blindfold off. I blinked, adjusting to the candlelight in the room. My wrists tingled as the circulation returned.

I looked down at my shaved cock and balls. Simone bent down and kissed my cock a couple times softly. She came up and kissed me on the lips, tasting of her pussy and come.

“Thank you,” I said.

“Was that ok?” she said. “What I did?”

I didn’t know exactly what she was asking. Was it okay that she shaved me and fucked me? Or that the act of shaving me made me, in some small way, more like her, more like what I had told her was part of her beauty. Either way, the answer was yes and I told her so.

The next day, I was starting to feel the effects of running out of heroin. The flu-like symptoms had started and I was hours away from a misery that would last at least a few days unless I did something.

I drank ten of the small bottles of dental analgesic and that helped for a while. But by mid-afternoon, I was starting to get cramps. In a few hours, I’d be throwing up and shitting myself in agony. There was no way I’d be able to play at the bar. There was no way I’d be able to do anything but roll on the floor and wish I was dead.

Simone had gone out for coffee. When she got back, she saw me sitting on the end of the bed and said, “What’s wrong?”

I told her.

“I didn’t realize you had a habit.”

“I’ve been good about never doing it too often before this tour,” I said. “Never more than two days in a row.” Which wasn’t entirely true, and I felt bad immediately about lying to her.

“I have no idea where I can get you heroin.”

“I need a script for something, then.”

She rubbed my back. It felt good, as good as anything could feel at that moment. “I don’t know any doctors who’d write one.”

The only way to get opiates at a Emergency Room was to have a real injury. You could scam a GP or pain doctor with some phantom back pain if you were thirty-five and wore a suit, but for people who looked like me, you needed to be broken or bleeding.

“I need a big favor,” I said.

Simone kissed my cheek. “Jesus, you’re sweating.”

“It’s going to get worse,” I said. “Please. If I ask you to do something hard, will you do it?”

“What?”

I dropped to my knees and crawled over to my amplifier. “I’m going to put my pinky under this amp and I need you to sit, quickly and really hard, on it.”

“What the fuck are you talking about?”

“I need to break my finger.”

“That’s crazy.”

“I need some pain pills,” I said. “I promise, I’ll use them just to keep from getting sick. But I can’t be like this on tour. If the guys see me this bad, I could be out of the band.”

She smiled. “If you were out of the band, you could stay here.”

I looked at her with pleading eyes.

She lit a cigarette. “I can’t do this.”

“Please?” I said. “Please do this and drive me to the ER. I need this.”

“I can’t hurt you, Rod.”

“Trust me,” I said. “You’d be helping.”

She smoked and looked away for a minute. Then she ground the butt into the ashtray sitting on the bed.

“This has to be fast,” she said.

I lifted the amp off the floor and slipped my right pinky under the corner of it. If I broke the right pinky, I could still play guitar. Any other finger and I was fucked, but this one I could work around.

“Okay,” I said.

Simone shook her head a few times. She paced from one side of her small room to the other. I closed my eyes, waiting for the pain.

I was just about to say please again when I felt an electric shock on the big knuckle of the pinky. It sounded like a stick, popping and cracking under a boot in the woods. The pain went all the way up my arm. I instinctively pulled away while she was still on the amp and tore the skin off the top of my finger as I did. The amp clunked on the floor when I got my finger out from under it. I screamed and curled up in the fetal position. After I’d screamed the first time, I caught my breath and screamed some more.

“I’m so sorry,” Simone said. “Oh, god.”

Sharp pain throbbed all the way down my arm, exploding into more pain in the hand. I’d fucked up the finger more than I’d meant to. At least it looked that way. Skin stripped down the second and third knuckles, down to bone. And it seemed broken at the third knuckle, already swelling to twice its normal size.

At the ER, after a three hour wait, we got in to see a doctor. A doctor who didn’t seem to care very much and who, after a quick look at the finger, cleaned it up and put it in a splint. He seemed like he was going to leave it at that and I started to get desperate.

“Can you give me something for the pain?” I said.

Simone looked away. I couldn’t tell if it was from embarrassment or if she was angry at me in some way for all this.

The doctor said it should be fine in a few days.

“I’m a musician,” I said. “I’m on tour. I need to play tonight.” I thought for a minute and lied, “I’m on the road for another month.”

He nodded and scribbled on his script pad and handed it over. I didn’t look at it while he was there, fearful that by appearing desperate, he might snatch it out of my hand.

Out in the parking lot, I finally checked the script.

“Fuck,” I said.

“What?” Simone said.

“It’s for Tylenol 3. With codeine.”

“Codeine’s good.”

“Not break your finger good,” I said. But, it was something, even if it was only for sixty pills. Only good for a few days if I wanted to get high, but they could last longer if I used them to avoid getting sick.

It wasn’t until Simone pulled in to the parking lot at the pharmacy that I realized I had another major problem. I had four rumpled singles and some change in my pocket.

“I’m really sorry,” I said. “But I’m broke.”

She looked over at me for a second, then she closed her eyes and shook her head. In a clipped voices, she said, “Give me the script.”

She slammed the car door and went into the pharmacy.

This was already a pattern of my life. Depending on women to save me, take care of me, heal what was broken and make me feel, however briefly, like I was worthy of love. But here I was, in under a week’s time, a creature so needy that I was starting to wear thin. To tax the compassion of the woman rescuing me.

I lit a cigarette and waited for Simone. I shivered in the car. The sky had turned the color of aluminum and it looked like there might be a storm. The air felt heavy and wet and I wondered if it was so cold we might see snow.

Simone got in the car and tossed the bag with the pills on my lap.

I took two and waited for some relief.

“Do you want some?” I said.

“Don’t worry about me,” she said. “You need them.”

“Did I do something wrong?” I said.

“You made me break your fucking hand,” she said.

“Finger.”

“Oh, finger. That’s totally different.” She cracked her window and blew angry smoke in front of her that pulled and sucked out of the car. “Sorry to overstate. It was only a finger.”

“What is the problem here?” I said. I still felt sick. The codeine hadn’t kicked in yet and my insides felt like some beast was playing cats-cradle with my intestines.

Simone looked at me, then back to the road. “You really don’t see the problem?”

“No.”

“With what you made me do?”

“I didn’t make you do anything.”

“You begged me,” she said. “And I fucking cared about you, so yes you fucking did make me do it.”

I looked down at my splinted finger, wet with bloodied gauze. I held it up. “I’m the one who got hurt here.”

“No,” she said. “You’re the one with the broken finger.” She tossed her cigarette out the window. “You’re not the one who got hurt.”

Back at the house, I found out that Feather had driven Mickey to the Western Union, where our record label had wired us the money to get Rocco out of jail. When Simone and I got out of her truck, Rocco was there and the band van was already packed. The guys stood around, seeming to expect me and Simone to have long drawn out farewell. But I could tell from the way she moved and the look in her hurt eyes, that we’d already parted in some fundamental way when I’d made her break my finger.

I went into the house, grabbed my guitar case and backpack and came out on the front porch, where she was waiting, smoking a cigarette and not meeting my eyes.

I wanted to say I was sorry I’d done it. Sorry I’d hurt her in some way I still didn’t fully understand. I wanted to say I loved her and I wasn’t sure it would have been a lie. But I knew, truth or not, the chance to say it was in the past.

There seemed to be some small forgiveness though, when I put my guitar case and bag down and she put her arms around my neck. I had my hands around her waist, holder her firmly with my left hand and as gingerly as possible with my broken right one. She wore the same Clara Bow wig she’d worn the night we met and I tried to study her face, to remember it, knowing even in the moment that no matter what else life had in store for me, I wasn’t going to meet anyone quite like her.

Over twenty years later, to say I think of her all the time would be an overdramatic lie.

But to say that I never think of her, never get whiplashed and breathless with loss and regret, never fall in love with her again and again—that would also be a lie.

The van was running and the guys were waiting. And if Simone didn’t seem filled with love and destroyed to see me go, she didn’t seem mad anymore, either. There was something enormously kind, but also relieved to see me leave, about the way she kissed me and then broke our embrace and let go.

Before I turned to go back to the van, she said, “Please. Take care of yourself.”

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Rob Roberge ROB ROBERGE Rob Roberge's fourth book, the novel The Cost of Living, was released in Spring 2013 on Other Voices Books. Previous books include the story collection Working Backwards From the Worst Moment of My Life (2010) and the novels More Than They Could Chew (2005) and Drive (2001). He’s a core faculty member at UCR/Palm Desert’s MFA and has taught at several universities including University of California Riverside’s main campus MFA, Antioch, Los Angeles’ MFA program and the UCLA Extension Writers’ Program, where he received the Outstanding Instructor Award in Creative Writing in 2003. He’s a frequent question writer and lecturer and has judged, among others, the Red Hen Story Prize and the University of Ohio/Athens PhD writing award. Currently, he is serving as the advisor for the PEN Mark program. His stories and essays have appeared in numerous journals and have been widely anthologized. He plays guitar and sings with the LA bands The Danbury Shakes and The Urinals.

8 responses to “Broken”

  1. Ballsy piece, Rob. It’s so hard to write about bands pretty much in any respect, but I like how in this telling it’s sort of peripheral to the love (love?) and drugs (dental analgesic?) angle. It also amazes me how pretty much any writing that drug usage figures into is inevitably compared to Denis Johnson. It used to be William Burroughs, but I guess the easy comparison has graduated. Maybe next it’ll be Elizabeth Wurtzel. Anyway, I enjoyed this, especially because it reminded me how universal the pleasures to be found in a good amp-soldering are.

  2. Rob Roberge says:

    Thanks so much for checking it out, and for the comment, Sean.

    You bring up a great point about the Denis Johnson thing. While I was pretty pleased to get compared to him in a recent PW review (since I’ve been compared to much worse…and I DO love JESUS’ SON–I think it’s one of the finest story collections I’ve ever read…though I’m not much of a fan of any of his other work…maybe half of ANGELS), it IS funny how he’s become the “if it’s got drugs, it’s like so and so” writer.

    But, that seems to be the nature of the beast, no?

    Write about booze, and you’re Mary Karr if you’re a woman and/or memoir writer and you’re Bukowski if you’re a guy (even if the world view shares little with either writer).

    Write a good true crime book, and yours is the best book of its kind since IN COLD BLOOD. Write a bad true crime book and you’re not as good as IN COLD BLOOD.

    It’s odd how there are major, seemingly unavoidable, references depending on subject matter/characters or other easy-to-spot features. It is, as you say, people falling prey to “easy comparison.”

    It’d be fun to try to think of other major “comparison” writers that writers of reviews seem to fall back on…it’s like the book-reviewing equivalent of a ‘reference-cliche’.

    That is, if you’re a woman, you write short stories and you’re funny, you are inevitably compared to Lorrie Moore.

    If you’re a woman who writes well-crafted stories that are kind of long and have snow in them, clearly you’ve read a lot of Alice Munro. But if you’re a man who does the same, you’re probably more like Russell Banks or Richard Russo.

    If you’re female and funny, but slightly darker, more elliptical and less narrative-driven than Lorrie Moore, you’re Amy Hempel. (Perhaps I’m dating myself/my influences…maybe there’s someone more hip now–though she’s a knockout writer).

    Gross subject matter (no matter the narrative context) gets compared to Chuck Palahniuk.

    A funny male writer (extra points and easier comparison if he’s gay) is like David Sedaris.

    A less funny and not quite as good as Sedaris writer (but who’s still gay) is Augusten Burroughs.

    A very funny and very smart writer about music could be Steve Almond.

    A somewhat funny, but a clunkier prose stylist who isn’t nearly as smart as Steve Almond is Cluck Klosterman.

    A woman who writes graphically about sex (especially if it’s unapologetic, somewhat distant, cool and non-judgmental of its characters….and extra points for BDSM content) is compared to Mary Gaitskill.

    And subject matter seems to be more important than narrative style. That is (prior to Denis Johnson), ANY junkie book was compared to William Burroughs, even if it had nothing to do with Burroughs work other than that a character shot dope in the pages.

    It’s interesting how gender seems to play such a role in these easy comparisons, too. For instance (and not for a minute suggesting that I’m in their league, achievement-wise, but just using them for examples) Amy Hempel and Mary Gaitskill are two of my biggest influences…I all but copied them (and Francois Camoin and Darrell Spencer) for years until I learned to write my own stories. But, because there are male criminals and wise-cracking dialog in my stuff, I get compared to Elmore Leonard (who I’ve never read, so I have no idea if I like him or not–though I’ve been accused of “ripping him off” in one review, which was funny, since I haven’t read as much as a paragraph of his work).

    Because there are drugs in my work, I get the Denis Johnson thing (which, at least, is somewhat fair, since he DID do one book I love and that influenced me).

    But, there ARE writers who are such close influences, I feel I AM repeating their territory/their narrative aesthetic at times–but no one ever seems to see it in reviews–Hempel, Gaitskill, Camoin and Darrell Spencer. For me, so much of a writer is in the way his/her sentences enact themselves on the page. I see sentence construction/verb choice/rhythm and metaphor EASILY as much as I see character and subject matter. But these are not things that get mentioned much in reviews. For instance, Darrell Spencer is a writer who VERY often uses a metaphor where another writer would use a simile–and it changes the feel of his work tremendously.

    That is, a line of an average writer would play out on the page this way (to use a cliche, just to show the nature of the line, rather than the content): “Me and him fight like cats and dogs.”

    Whereas in a Darrell Spencer story (though he wouldn’t use the cliche, again), the line would read: “Me and him are cats and dogs.”

    But sentence construction, rhythm, pace, strength of verbs, originality in metaphor…whether sentences employ Hypotaxis or Parataxis construction…that’s the stuff that makes a writer’s style for me..but it never seems to get mentioned in reviews.

    It’s an interesting topic to me.

    I hope I haven’t rambled on here too much, but I’m curious–from other readers and writers out there:

    Who are some of the other often-referenced “easy comparison” writers you tend to see? Either in reviews of your work, or in reviews of work you know well?

    And–I hope it’s clear–I’m not for a second complaining about the way I get reviewed…I’m still pretty flattered I get reviewed at all. But I DO think it’s interesting how reductive/easy many reviews (of ALL writers’ work–not just mine) tend to be.

    Talk amongst yourselves 🙂

    And thanks, again, Sean.

    • Very interesting topic, Rob. Please don’t apologize for taking the time to dig in.

      Yeah, of course, being compared to Denis Johnson is great in any context and I don’t blame you for basking in it a bit. That’s a quote that will upgrade your table at the right restaurants. And I totally agree about Jesus’ Son. What prompted my comment, even though I liked your piece, is that I didn’t actually see any Denis Johnson in there. So, it seemed a facile comparison. I guess, as you say, like most comparisons.

      One of the trades called my book Fade to Blue “Infinite Jest for teens”. While I was happy with that remark, I’m not under the impression there’s really any David Foster Wallace hiding in the prose. He’s another guy whose name is tossed around for anything meta, challenging, or larded with footnotes. But, really, is there anyone at all that he’s comparable to? Isn’t that why he holds a certain exalted position, because no one writes like he does?

      I love Amy Hempel as well. Was sort of disappointed by Lorrie Moore’s last, but only because she’s so ridiculously talented that it could have been better. For anyone else it would be a triumph. I’ve been up and down with Mary Gaitskill since I started even thinking about writing. I feel like she’s the wild aunt I wish I lived closer to. I’m a huge fan of Deborah Eisenberg. If you haven’t read her, check her out, as I will Francois Camoin.

      Henry Miller was a guy that any sex book had to be conflated with. Raymond Chandler’s name has to come up in reference to all novels with molls, whether they use that word or not. Misanthropic and translated? Celine. Young and biting off a piece of ironic misfortune? Dave Eggers. Vast armies of sappers and archers and thundering cavalry? Thucydides.

      Despite his general dismissal by the part of the lit community that looks down on all things populist, I think Elmore Leonard is really talented. If you stole from him without ever having read him, I think you’re onto something and there’s a good chance you’re going to sell a hell of a lot of books.

  3. louise m says:

    Great piece Rob. I thought of Mary Gaitskill at one point– but more tender–. (she’s a favorite, so it’s a good thing). But I don’t know why we have the need to do that– compare etc. Well, for me, maybe it comes from my obsession with taxonomy– so just like with birds and butterflies, I have a sort of “field guide” for writers in my head. So you might be in the same loose family as Gaitskill, but are definately your own unique species.

  4. Yep, for me it’s always Gaitskill. My work’s been compared to hers for nearly 20 years. Sometimes it’s a “more intimate” Gaitskill, because my writing’s less cool/distant. But I won’t kick this comparison out of bed, since I pretty much worship Mary Gaitskill and, like with you, she was a huge influence for me. When I first read her in, like, 1992, I was blown away to think that my writing actually fit into any kind of “tradition” or school, if a fledgling one. It made me feel valid, writing away in rural New Hampshire, where I didn’t know a single other writer and had never yet been published, and I’ll always be grateful for that.

  5. Rob Roberge says:

    Louise-I LOVE the notion of it as a “field guide”…that makes it so much more interesting to think of that way (rather than a system of reductive labeling, which is what I fear a lot of critics do…now I’ll give them the benefit of the doubt and think of them as using their field guides).

    And Gina, I see the Gaitskill in your stuff (but, yes, more intimate…your characters tend to be more passionate and less deadened by icy despair than hers)…and Kundara (and not just because he gets mentioned here and there)…”What You See” reminds me, in tone and narrative distance, of “The Hitchhiking Game” from LAUGHABLE LOVES. Though the subject matter and number of moving parts/characters are different…his is a really binary tale, while “What You See’ is more exponential in the way the characters affect each other.

    Did I ever tell you about one of my first writing teachers (who was so old he had won “The Stalin Prize” for literature for his first book…!?) was an exiled writer (by Stalin, oddly enough…I wonder if anyone else has had their life threatened by a person who an award you’ve won was named after…like did Pulitzer ever try to kill someone who won a Pulitzer?) who was living in Paris in the late 60’s with a then freshly exiled Kundara–and my teacher hated Kundara because he got laid all the time and my professor did not. I suppose, “Hey baby, I’ve won the Stalin Prize for Literature,” is not one of the great literary pickups of all time 🙂

  6. You know, this guy I knew once wrote a paper on Kundera, and then sent it to Kundera’s publisher and was surprised to find that Kundera wrote him a letter back about it. They ended up exchanging many letters and becoming friends, and one of the things Kundera supposedly told this guy was that when he was a young man, every time he took a new woman to bed he bought a tie. Then, I guess, when he had something like 200 ties he stopped the tradition. So I guess not only was he getting laid all the time when your ex-prof wasn’t, he was probably also taking up all the closet space with his damn ties.

    But then again, I dunno, I think, “Hey baby, I’ve won the Stalin Prize for Literature” might work all right for procuring sex. (Maybe weird sex?)

    And, “Hey baby, did you know Stalin tried to kill me?” would get you a LOT of sex.

    (Of course “The Hitchhiking Game” is pretty much my favorite story of all times.)

  7. SAA says:

    This is my favorite thing I’ve read on here, no shit.

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