Monday, June 30, 2014

Lost at Sea

Our day off from work found us drifting along the sails and rails and avenues and streets from one quadrant to the next to the next to the next. There was no real direction. Adrift. Adrift on a day off from work. Lost at sea.

Why not? A day binge is one thing. A daily binge is something else. We stood on the pavement outside the neighborhood bar and smoked cigarettes. Liz worked a hotel restaurant. Jamie worked the lighting at the theater. Jerry worked the bar, his girlfriend too. Sarah wandered up the sidewalk from Burnside tamping a box of smokes. She worked the library. As for me, yeah, I worked a restaurant too. It's what we did, it's all we could do. Some people think Ronald Reagan started it when he said we live in a service culture.

All I knew, another spring day, longer light and just as much overcast. I also knew that I would not be polishing wineglasses on this day.

There is something to be said about work. Now, it doesn't much matter if it's your life's calling, or if it's meaningful or menial. Work is work, right? What it really is is a warm dry place where you can't do much damage to yourself or others. It's a place where you go and perform a set list of tasks, hopefully small, easily attainable tasks, for a set amount of time for a set amount of pay. And the longer the amount of hours you spend at work are the less hours you spend on the streets in front of your neighborhood bar, midday, smoking cigarettes with your friends.

Sarah held her cigarette up to her lips. “Sometimes,” she said. “I feel like things gotta change.” I lighted her cigarette. I got close enough to her to smell that first rush of tobacco. I smelled her hair. She exhaled. She started to tell us a story that I was unsure if it had happened to her, someone she knew or something that she had read. It was a racy story that involved a small bet, the removal of panties and fucking in a car. “Yeah, right in front of the Hotel Moderna.”

I had a few more moments outside to listen to her. Liz had already moved back into the bar. I was thinking about leaving the place, the whole neighborhood and walking to the distance out north to meet up with Toby. We were not having to work today, and he was always up for it. We could, in one night, walk from North Portland to Southwest, drink up fifty dollars, see a rock show, go dance at a nightclub, hide a body, go to an art show—and you never know what you'll get with those freaky artists, especially when you still have fresh grave dirty under your nails. If you talk fast, you can probably get one of those types of artists who have a fancy day job to take you home. And if you can talk fast enough, you can get her to to take you home and bring her blonde friend along.

I wanted to say something meaningful to Sarah. There was nothing doing. I could have told her that I have been both the victim of the smooth talk backseat fuck and I have been the smooth talker. It happens like this. And sometimes, some nights, after work, you just find adventure. It's best that the adventure is sex in the backseat and not digging shallow holes in Forest Park.

Then there's always tomorrow. They always say there's tomorrow. Who says this? I don't know, they. What's tomorrow? Who cares? If you're lucky you have a job that pays your way. Hopefully, your work doesn't take too much out of you. Hopefully, your job pays you what you're worth. Hopefully, your job is just that trivial: polishing wineglasses, stuffing envelopes, changing out spent light bulbs. Someone'll have a great idea, eventually.

If you're even luckier, you'll have tomorrow off, you and all your friends. You can stand around and smoke cigarettes. You can drink cheap beer and cheap whiskey. You can fuck in cars. You can do what you want. Perhaps, there will be sunlight. Perhaps they'll be sunlight on flowers, or cactus spines or palm leaves. If you're even luckier tomorrow, it'll be some other stiff doing your job and you'll be free.

Monday, June 23, 2014

Wine Knowledge

Wine Knowledge
In the quiet hours at night, I giggled uncontrollably at certain passages, certain descriptions in Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. They were the passages that would not be funny in the least to her when I tried to read them to her after my giggling woke her up.

The only thing I can think is that it was my disposition at this time: wintertime in Wood Village, Oregon. We were holed up in Mimi's basement mother-in-law apartment. We were living on the margin. We were just the two of us then. We had a few bucks, and we had no real work between us. Our days were nothing but rain, walks to the library, walks to the grocery store. We ate three solid home-cooked meals a day, we drank cheap beer and wine. We read books. We waited impatiently for spring and for work. For whatever reason Hunter S. Thompson tickled me, it was well worth the time invested in reading it.

Spring came.

The tsunami destroyed Japan, and it gently rocked the Pacific Northwest shore. I hung mirrors for a living. I was a professional mirror hanger. There are only so many mirrors you can hang before you start to look at yourself. And there is only so long you can look at yourself before you start to learn something about yourself. There are only so many things you can learn about yourself before your realize that so little of it is good.

I took to the streets. I took to the streets in the distant city of Portland. I wandered into one restaurant after another with my resume in hand and my best suit on. Between the hours of 2 and 4 I could visit 4, sometimes 5 places. Sometimes when hunting for a job like this you can get all the way to the owner of the joint for the on the spot interview. Sometimes you don't get further than the 18 year old hostess.

The cloud of late winter/early spring hung over the valley. The Willamette river ran with swollen levels through the city dissecting the place east from west. I worked the west side. I worked through the Nob Hill district on the best grid imaginable: avenues, ordinal and streets, alphabetical. The slowing rain of late winter/early spring made the place smell like hope, something like new blossoms and mold. I worked through the southwest portion of town, downtown. Downtown smells like leaf rot, mold and car exhausted.

I had lost all confidence in humanity. I would never regain much in the years to come.

The place had been called Atwater's the last time I had been in there. I had been in there with a dear friend who had confided in me during a lunch break some years earlier. This new restaurant in the old Atwater's was my last stop of the afternoon.

When asked about my wine knowledge, I gave a very convincing bullshit sort of answer. I have been giving the same sort of answer ever since. If you need to know what it is, watch a few youtube tutorials and read a few wiki articles. Whatever you do, learn the proper way of opening a bottle, and don't spill a drop.

In the early afternoon hours at this restaurant, the views are so complete. To the north: Mt Rainier, Mt St. Helens, or what's left of her. To the east: Mt. Hood. These are on the clear days. On the cloudy days, sometimes you cannot see across the river some five blocks away.

The distance from Wood Village to this Portland restaurant is sizable. One hour on the #12 bus. It's also one hour if you take the #12 bus to Gresham and then take the light rail in.

The Smiths played in the headphones. I read books: Willa Cather, Haruki Murakami, Graham Greene. I ignored the freaky meth addicts on the outskirts of town. I shrugged off the potheads closer into the city center. All the others I knew as potential adversaries, it didn't matter. It didn't matter because I had a job, and a good job at that. There was nowhere to go but up.

Monday, June 16, 2014

When the Subconscious Calls the Shots: An Interview with Dale Bridges

It was with great pleasure that I read Justice, Inc. by Dale Bridges late last winter. I first met Dale when Umbrella Factory Magazine ran a short story of his back in 2010. I think he is a remarkable writer. I loved reading his book, which is available through Monkey Puzzle Press.  Please pick up your copy today.

When the Subconscious Calling the Shots: An Interview with Dale Bridges

AFI: First, congratulations on the publication of Justice, Inc. Second, thank you for participating in this interview.

DB: Thank you and thank you. I appreciate the opportunity to talk about myself.

AFI: As we get started, I have to ask: how do you feel about Justice, Inc. now that it's a finished product? This is a short story collection, but in many ways it reads like one single narrative. Did you write the short stories with the overall product in mind? Do you have favorites among these short stories?

DB: Fear. Anxiety. Excitement. And maybe a little nausea. That’s how I feel.

I definitely did not write these stories with any kind of over-arching narrative in mind. In fact, it did not occur to me until the collection was complete that the stories were connected in any way whatsoever. Perhaps that makes me appear sort of dense, but I was too focused of writing each story to notice any larger themes, which was probably for the best. It wasn’t until I was editing the entire collection that I noticed the stories were interconnected. And then all I did was add a few details here and there to make it seem as though that was my plan all along. Sometimes your subconscious can make you seem more intelligent than you actually are.

Picking a favorite story is a bit like picking a favorite child. Of course, I have one, but I’m not going to admit it. Their feelings would get hurt. There are things a like about all of them. I think “Welcome to Omni-Mart” is the most complete, “Justice, Inc.” is my favorite idea, “Life After Men” was the most fun to write, and “The Girlfriend™” is the most original, whatever the hell that means.

AFI: I love the piece “Life After Men.” To avoid sending a spoiler to those who haven't read the story yet—I love the notion that only men become zombies and it's all due to a sexually transmitted disease. It's a very funny premise, but it's not really what the story is about, right? The story, it seems, is about failed relationships and the patterns of failed relationships which is something we can all relate to. How did you come up with the idea of a zombie virus as an STD? Incidentally, the short-short story “Texting the Apocalypse” is perfectly placed before “Life After Men.” Was that intentional? And as long as we're on the subject, “The Girlfriend™” is a stunning if not disquieting short story and the main character plays a video game called Life After Men, a video game involving zombies in Newport. Did one story influence the other? Did you just find it fitting to connect these references? Or were you consumed with these themes during the writing of these short stories?

DB: You got it. The zombies in “Life After Men” are sort of incidental to the plot, despite the fact that the central conflict appears to revolve around them. I thought it would be interesting and challenging to create a world where men exist only as monsters. The story is definitely about dysfunctional relationships, but it’s also about biology. Much is made in our culture about the positive qualities of romantic love, but we’ve all known people who are abused in the name of love, as well. Love isn’t always a many splendored thing. Love doesn’t always lift us up where we belong. Sometimes love is a tyrannical bastard that has its hand wrapped around your throat.

I have no idea where the zombie-STD idea came from. Another example of my subconscious calling the shots, I guess. The idea tickled me, so I just went with it.

I definitely put thought into the order of the stories, but they did not influence each other. Some of the stories took me years to finish, others were completed in a few weeks. The process was all over the place. However, I do think I obsess over certain themes, and that becomes apparent in this collection.

AFI: You and I became acquainted a few years ago when Umbrella Factory Magazine (Issue 2, June 2010) ran your short story “Denim Virgins.” I doubt I told you at the time, but the entire editorial staff loved that story. I think in the literary magazine world, especially on the editors' side of things, we love love a story that makes us laugh. How do you think you've grown as a writer since “Denim Virgins”? Your list of publications since mid-2010 is impressive. How do you think working with magazines and editors has influenced your writing? What was the best experience you had with a magazine? Which magazine was the worst?

DB: That’s so nice to hear. “Denim Virgins” is actually part of a memoir that I’m currently shopping around to publishers. I started writing about fifteen years ago, and at that time I was not a good writer. I’m not being humble; I was bad. I wrote minimalist, testosterone-fueled rip-offs of Hemingway and Bukowski. But I’m a stubborn SOB, so I stuck with it. After about ten years, my writing started to improve. Finally. I began dabbling in nonfiction, mostly humorous essays about growing up the son of a small-town fundamentalist preacher. That’s when I wrote “Denim Virgins.”

Somehow in 2007 I managed to land a job as the A&E editor at an alternative newspaper in Boulder. I didn’t really want to be a journalist, but the experience definitely improved my writing. It forced me to give up my “fancy” sentences (I was going through a Capote stage by that time) and get straight to the point. And deadlines can be a great motivator. The story is due at four o’clock, whether you think it’s ready or not.

Eventually, I decided to return to fiction but the years I spent as a journalist were important. That’s when I started publishing more.

Most of my experiences with editors have been positive. I published “Life After Men” in The Masters Review, and that was a nice experience. The editors I worked with there made a few changes to the story that definitely improved it, and they listened when I took issue with some of the other alterations they wanted to make. The only truly bad experience I’ve had was with a long article I wrote for a magazine that no longer exists. I worked on the story for almost a year, and when it came out, I discovered that they completely butchered the introduction without consulting me first. I was pissed off. I called up the editor and ranted at her for twenty minutes, but it was too late by then. Ironically, that was the most I’ve been paid for any single piece of writing. It wasn’t worth it. Assholes.

AFI: When did you first decide to become a writer? Was there one moment when you knew you were going to be a writer? Do you recall the title of your first short story?

DB: I was raised in a small-town, lower-class household, so the idea of being a professional artist was completely foreign to me. I was an avid reader from a young age, but it didn’t even occur to me that a person could choose to be a writer until I was twenty-two. I remember exactly when it happened. I was finishing up my undergrad degree in history, completely confused about what I was going to do with my life after graduation. One day I was walking home from class and I saw my good friend, Chris, taking photographs of a tree. I asked what the hell he was doing and he said that he was putting together a portfolio to apply to film school. I was completely blown away. Of course, I knew that film schools existed, but it never occurred to me that real people went to them. I was shocked—and a little bit angry. I’m not sure why. Something about his artistic ambitions upset my Protestant sensibilities, I guess. How dare he follow his dreams while the rest of us pursued boring, practical goals?

Shortly after that, I started writing. First it was bad poetry, then bad prose. I don’t recall the title of my first short story, but I know the narrative took place in a grocery store and it had too many religious metaphors and not enough plot. Terrible, terrible stuff.

AFI: Who are your influences? Who were you reading in the formative years as a writer? Who are you reading now? How do you think other writers influence you?

DB: In my formative years, it was Hemingway, Carver, Bukowski, etc. Tough manly writers. The problem is that I’m not all that tough or manly. Then I discovered Vonnegut, and I tried to copy him for a long time. Sherman Alexie was influential, too, and later George Saunders, Jincy Willett, Stacey Richter, and Philip K. Dick. It’s natural to imitate other writers when you start out, but it’s necessary to move beyond that phase in order to find your own voice. Currently, I’m reading a lot of Austin writers because that’s where I live now: Owen Egerton, Mary Miller. I read for enjoyment now, not research, and that’s nice.

AFI: Going back to Justice Inc. for a moment, I notice a few recurring themes in these stories. For instance, it seems that you challenge the idea of procreation in both “Welcome to Omni-Mart” and the title story, “Justice, Inc.” In the first story we meet a simulation baby and in the latter we meet clones. Although, each story has a slightly science fiction or dystopian feel to them, the child-adult relationship is very real. What are your impressions of the vulnerable (the baby) and adults pushed unwillingly into parenthood? Am I seeing more to this than you intended? Or is the presentation of the child-adult relationship simply there to progress the plot or perhaps leave us somewhat unsettled as readers?

DB: I think you’re right, that theme does exist, but once again I didn’t consciously choose it. I definitely like to unsettle the reader, so that’s probably part of it, but I also enjoy the juxtaposition of putting an innocent child in a dystopian environment. As you probably noticed, there aren’t a lot of traditional heroes in my stories. No one swoops in to save the day at the end. They can’t because they’re powerless, hopeless, broken. The children in these stories demonstrate what these adults were like before they were chewed up by the cultural machinery.

AFI: I enjoyed Justice, Inc. very much. When can I expect the next installment? Do you have another project in the works? Another collection or a novel?

DB: Thank you! I’m currently working on my first novel. I read somewhere that Ray Bradbury wrote the first draft of Fahrenheit 451 in nine days at the library. Well, that kind of pissed me off. What a dick, right? So I decided to take a crack at it. I plugged out a rough draft in seven days (take that, Bradbury!) and I’m currently revising it. The revision process is slow, and I expect it’ll be about a year before it’s ready. It’s an extremely weird story. I have no idea if it’s any good, but at least it won’t be formulaic.

AFI: Thank you very much for your time Dale. It was a pleasure reading your book. Where can someone find a copy of Justice, Inc. for his library?

DB: Yeah, this was fun. Thank you. The book will be available in both physical and ethereal form at Amazon and on the Monkey Puzzle Press website, It will also be available at Book People in Austin and hopefully Tattered Cover in Denver.

Dale Bridges is writer and journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work has been featured in more than thirty publications, including The Rumpus, The Masters Review, and Barrelhouse Magazine. He has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his feature writing, narrative nonfiction, and cultural criticism. His essays and short stories have been anthologized. When he's not writing, he works at a used bookstore. He is currently working on his first novel.
Anthony ILacqua holds a Master of Fine Arts of writing at Goddard College. His third novel Warehouses and Rusted Angels is forthcoming from Ring of Fire Publishing in late 2014. His former novels, Dysphoric Notions (2012) and Undertakers of Rain (2013) are both published through Ring of Fire Publishing. His screenplays have been made into widely praised films at Rocket House Pictures where he directs as well as writes. He currently functions as editor in chief for Umbrella Factory Magazine that he co-founded in 2009. Meet Anthony at his blog:

Monday, June 9, 2014

Such a Sunny Day

Such a Sunny Day
It wasn't really meant to go on for long. The duration is something like the length of side A of your favorite 45. It cannot last longer than the instant it takes the sun to travel between one blanket of clouds to the next. One small instant.

In that instant, there were the winks and blinks of those who were cut down too soon in life, accidents, murder and suicide. Perhaps, worse still, cut down by sickness and cancer and freakishly rare viruses.

Hey, hey, flip the record.

The brevity of it is severe. It is. Here it was, some time back, shortly after the war when you wandered into the VFW with an old vet. By the time you walked back out again, there were no other vets older than you.

Your house is your house, but you do not recognize it. It's filled with a lifetime of living: furniture, china, empty beer cans. There are distantly familiar photos of family members who you spawn, your progeny who have grown from little league to college degrees and homes of their own.

What the hell happened here. On the way to Iraq, the Vietnam guys seemed so fucking old. When you were on your way to Vietnam there were the old soldiers who seemed ancient and their Great War was diminished to WWI. And on the way to fight the Germans, either time, there were those Spanish-American War vets.

On the corner by the college, the pigeons pooled around the upset trashcan. The people milled around looking a bit like the pigeons. It was not an easy day. It was not an easy day because no day is particularly easy. What do these people know about it? What do these people know about anything?

Two deep breaths later, exhaust of cigarette tar and stale beer, the moment of forgiveness came. It was not my fault that in my youth I opened fire upon raghead-gook-jerry-spic-mother-fuckers. It was not my fault that the ghosts hung on my fading uniform during the lifetime of rain. It was not my fault that I made it through the war alive and learned to love the people I fought. It was not my fault. I joined the cause before I could vote.

It only takes one instant on a sunny autumn day, by the college, all the leaves having fallen from the trees in the night, for this realization to happen.

Eventually, everything dies. Eventually, every scoundrel will confess his trespasses and beg for forgiveness. The true scoundrel will ask for redemption from God. God does not need to grant forgiveness.

For every soldier who fell, and all of those who did not become engendered, these are the ones we need to ask for forgiveness.

For every soldier who did not fall and who never recovered, everyone should asked them for forgiveness and beg mercy from all who they engendered.

It's easier to do this on a sunny day when suddenly you've waken up so much older.

Hey, hey, flip the record.

Hopefully there is a nicer song on the other side. Some song about love or the love of love. Love songs seem more universal than love itself.

Such a sunny day is well deserving of a love song.

Such a sunny day is well deserving of love.

Such a sunny day is well deserving.

Such a sunny day is well.

Such a sunny day.

Monday, June 2, 2014

Justice Inc., A review

Justice Inc., A review

Justice, Inc., the new short story collection by Dale Bridges, came to me in the most unusual way. I suppose it might have been a very unusual way had the book come to me via zombie messenger, Omni-Mart International official courier or tucked in between the brassiere and the luscious breasts of a human simulation. And after reading the book, as unsettling of a thought as it might be, I questioned the very existence the doomed world that perhaps is dominated by the Smith and Johnson Corporation as Dale Bridges has suggested in Justice Inc. Truth is, Dale sent my a copy of his manuscript, and asked me very nicely if I'd read.
Justice, Inc. - Front Cover
In many ways, being an editor of a literary magazine, and in my case, Umbrella Factory Magazine, is not a particularly sexy job. It's oftentimes boring, sometimes too boring and that is offset in the days leading up to publication when deadlines threaten loss of sleep and hairlines. More often than not, my experience with the writers we run at UFM is brief. After we accept a story, we exchange a few emails and that's it. That's the system, and I have the same experience with the magazines where I submit my short stories. Occasionally, and it happens very rarely actually, a writer who I've worked with at UFM will contact me and we get to work together again. This is the situation with Dale Bridges and his upcoming book, Justice Inc.

The opening story “Welcome to the Omni-Mart” sets the mood almost instantly. In fact, you cannot get to the end of the first sentence without knowing that something is not quite right:

Barry wants me to terminate the babies in the morning before the customers arrive, and he’s the District Manager, so that’s what I do.

In many ways, the first sentence of this story really sets up the mood for the entire short story in the same way that the first story sets you up for the rest of the collection, the rest of the book. Dale Bridges introduces us to Omni-Mart and many societal themes that are ever present within the confines of the world of Justice, Inc. and these themes are perhaps not only in the boundless imagination of the writer himself. Whatever more can I say? Terminating babies was just not really what I expected as I began reading this book.

I've always believed that reading a book is such an intimate experience. It's often a commit of time. After all, when you sit down to read a book, don't you want to emerge from it somehow different than when you started? This may seem like a strange way to define the reading process, but I have to ask, why bother with a book that isn't going to make you see the world, or the human condition, or yourself any differently? I have read books that have made me want to read more. I have read writers who have made me want to read more. Then there are the writers, the rare ones, who make me want to be a better writer. I've met a few of these books over the years: Etgar Keret's The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God and Julio Cortazar's Cronopios and Famas and just about everything I've ever read by Philip K. Dick.

It leads us to question what is an original voice? I feel like recent years have given us a wash of bad writing repackaged as new stuff. I mean, you know, the decline of western civilization and the closing of bookstores and the onslaught of homogenized crap parading around as perverts or adolescent vampires. We've seen in recent years a tired economy and this affects books too, after all, a publisher will only run books that sell, it's business. Yet in a time like ours, there is so much more than what we may meet in our neighborhood corporate bookstores. We have seen a rise in small publishers because the on-line marketplace as well as print-on-demand have cut costs for book production. What this means is that the time is right for a printed variety that we have never seen before. It means that small publishers, like Monkey Puzzle Press, can courageously influence the field of American Arts and Letters with books they see as pertinent and necessary. And these books, these writers and these publishers are now making room for voices that we need to hear.

Is Justice Inc. pertinent or necessary? You bet. Thematically there are very pertinent facets to Dale Bridges's work. Many of the stories in this collection reference a major corporation that seems to own everything from production of sundries and girlfriends to the very outlets where customers purchases such items. The weave of the Omni-Mart and Smith and Johnson Corporation in many of these stories become so familiar to the reader that we can't wait to see what these corporations are willing to do next. I don't see how it's much different from the monster corporations we see in our world today.

The arrangement of Justice Inc. is perfection. These are short stories, but to read the book cover to cover—which you can't help doing—that feel like a single narrative. For instance, “The Time Warp Cafe” and “The Generation Gap” are arranged together. In the first story we meet a very compelling character, a teacher named Ferguson, who we might define as an aging Gen X-er. He may well be a Gen-Xer, but because of science, he gets to live for hundreds of years into the future. His students think of him as dated and silly, perhaps the same way we all thought of our teachers. Not surprisingly, Ferguson falls victim to nostalgia, hence the time warped themed restaurant where he dines regularly. The writer puts this story before “The Generation Gap” which also deals with people living too long and the younger generation willing the older generation to simply step aside.

I don't think I'm alone when it comes to the underdogs. Everyone wants to see an underdog win. Isn't that what so many heroes are, underdogs? The underdogs of Justice Inc. come in strange manifestations. Low-level company men are one thing. They are likely heroes, I suspect. When we meet both the narrator, Mr. Omni and his supervisor Barry in “Welcome to the Omni-Mart” don't we already want to see Barry (or perhaps the Omni-Mart system as a whole) go down? We want the narrator, the underdog, to win.

The story “The Girlfriend™” is, in my opinion, greatest achievement of Justice Inc. In this story we meet one such underdog after another. We instantly have empathy for at least two characters. When one of them decides to invest in a “girlfriend” human simulation, our empathy quickly shifts. In a more conventional idea, how do we define human? There are people who define human as anything with a heartbeat. What happens when artificial intelligence becomes more than thinking but feeling too? Can we have empathy for a machine? “The Girlfriend™” challenges our empathetic impulses.

Again, there are the writers we meet who make us think or feel. There are the writers I read who make me want to read more. Then there are the writers like Dale Bridges who make me want to be a better writer.

Buy Justice, INC. here.
 Dale Bridges is writer and journalist living in Austin, Texas. His work has been featured in more than thirty publications, including The Rumpus, The Masters Review, and Barrelhouse Magazine. He has won awards from the Society of Professional Journalists for his feature writing, narrative nonfiction, and cultural criticism. His essays and short stories have been anthologized. When he's not writing, he works at a used bookstore. He is currently working on his first novel.