Friday, December 10, 2010

Drywall Jungle, the book! 

Since hearing about my November writing project, many people have asked about my NaNoWriMo2010 novel. I may have seemed shy at the time, but I assure you that your interest in my project was motivating and inspiring. Thank you!

According to the organizing website and the challenge that I undertook, once I completed the 50,000 word goal, I would be considered as having "won" NaNoWriMo. Hence this "Winner!" badge:

If at first I seemed a bit embarrassed by your request to read it, forgive my reticence, but the reason is because I wrote 50K words, not 50K GOOD words.

But I did want to share some of it. I did want to post an excerpt of it for people who expressed interest. You don't have to read it. Don't feel like you have to tell me it is good. Don't be afraid to tell me that you think a certain part is weak or confusing.

Each day in November my goal was ~1700 words. One of my hardest days was Day 2. One of my most fulfilling days was Day 15 when I sat through 5 hours of Jen and her classmate's nursing presentations. That night I got home at 11pm with 1200 words to go, finished at 12:45am and felt ecstatic.

The basic plot of my novel is of Jake. He is a young college graduate, approximately 25 years old. He works in a dying suburban shopping mall, in a department store called Boscov's. His prospects are limited in all things: work, love, money, happiness. The mall consumes him in a lot of ways.

In this excerpt, Jake is reflecting on a person he had once dated named Cindy. She worked in the same mall as he, in the bulk candy store. The novel is in 1st person, so the "I" is Jake.


We had both been working a lot, not only during the buying season before Christmas but during the discount and return seasons after Christmas. In early January, we both found ourselves with a coincidental day off. And as luck would have it, I had hit a $400 winner in the daily pick-3 state lottery. I had been playing quite regularly around that time and it seemed like I had lottery ticket receipts in every pocket and on my dresser and magnet-ed to the fridge. I would check the numbers in the paper every couple of days when I thought of it.

Cindy had come in to Boscov’s and found this stunning black cocktail dress. It had been deeply discounted, on account of the holiday, and there was no way that she could not buy it. With my employee discount, it was practically free. She just needed somewhere to wear it. With my sudden and unexpected influx of pocket money, I asked around to everyone that I could think of about where I should take my girlfriend out to dinner. I bought a new tie.

An unlikely source of information about fine dining locations proved to be Leroy, the mall’s daytime security guard. I found out what I had not known before, that Leroy’s father was a chef and had, in the past, worked in several of the highest end hotel kitchens and restaurants in Philadelphia. So I had barely formed my question to Leroy when he announced, “Portobello. No doubt. Tell the maitre ‘d that Leroy Jackson, Sr. sent you.”

So I made a reservation at Portobello and paid to have my car detailed, which is sort of a pointless thing to do in a New Jersey January. My new tie picked up Cindy’s new dress and we drove into Philadelphia, something we hadn’t done before as a couple. Driving in on the short ride to the city, I relaxed back into the clean seat of my car. I felt that I could have driven all night, as long as the city lights remained in front of me, beckoning, and that the mall remained in my rearview mirror, wishing us a fine night.

I felt like an adult. I had a beautiful woman next to me, dressed impeccably. I was wearing one of my work suits, but the new tie and a fresh shirt made it different enough that it felt new again. I felt new again. The low pile of plowed snow at either side of the road seemed to have been set aside solely for us. It had fallen so spectacularly the day before. Having been raised in a beach town where snow was a rarity, I was still in a state of enchantment whenever the heavens opened up with a peaceful deluge of snow.

The inside of the car was quiet, no conversation and no radio. Cindy put her hand on my thigh and warm air bathed us with the promise of a late night tryst. I felt genuinely happy with the state of my life and my relationship and the employment that sustained both.

At the restaurant, I spoke with the hostess when we arrived and then after we were seated, Leroy’s father came from the kitchen to greet us. Obviously, the three of us had never met before. And at that, Leroy the security guard and Cindy and I were only passing acquaintances, but in the context of how my night was progressing, I shook the man’s hand as if he were my grandfather. I introduced him to Cindy as if she were my fiancée. I asked him about the house specialty and I requested that he cook it for us. I asked for his wine recommendation and ordered it straightaway.

The sommelier, a word and a job that I had not known of before that moment, arrived with the wine. He offered the first sip to Cindy. I could tell she wasn’t sure how to behave, but she proceeded with grace and the professionalism of the wine man was impeccable in leading her through the ritual of the tasting. When he left us, we toasted each other with a smile and relaxed into our chairs to soak in the ambiance of the old room.

Our chairs were deep plush and seemed manufactured to fit us exactly. The clinking utensils and glinting wine glasses and murmuring of contentment from the diners seemed to have been orchestrated by Bacchus himself. Cindy, who seemed to be thoroughly enjoying herself, had been quiet ever since I had picked her up outside of her apartment. She had kissed me on the cheek as I turned onto the highway, but we hadn’t been beholden to small talk or anything that might interrupt our enjoyment of the moments that were building this night. But now, she spoke.

“Did you cash the lottery ticket yet? Are you rolling with the $400 bucks in your wallet right now?”

“No. I have the ticket still. You have to take a high value ticket like that to a regional office to get it cashed. I’ll probably drive to Cherry Hill tomorrow and get the check. And then straight to the bank! To pay for tonight….”

Cindy thought about that for a second and then her eyes lit up. “Do you have the ticket with you? Can I see it?”

I pulled it out of my wallet and handed it to her. I probably should have left it at home. I might get mugged tonight, I could fall in a puddle and soak it through, or it could fall out while I was digging for my coat check voucher. But if I had left it at home, I would have spent the evening nervous that it might get incinerated in a fire or burgled or eaten by a cat. Even though I don’t have a cat.

I studied Cindy as she studied the ticket. The number was a randomly generated one. I had bought it at the newsstand in my mall. Our mall features two outdated remnants of decades ago: a newsstand and a shoeshine. I try to patronize both when I can, but increasingly, their utility is waning, both for me and in general. The man at the shoeshine is dreading the day that my employer liberates my dress code.

“So this lottery ticket is from last week? I thought that you had said that it was from Monday.”

I laughed quickly and then the laugh caught in my throat. What was she saying? What nonsense was she saying?

I tried to remain calm. I reached for the ticket. She placed it in my hand and when I looked at it, I saw that I had made a horrible mistake. I had definitely used this ticket, bought the previous week, to match the numbers in the newspaper from the day before. I had made a terrible error and the $60 bottle of wine that we were currently enjoying was now thumping me over the head. My chest was tight but if I can pay myself a complement here, I don’t think I let anything on to Cindy. If I could at least allow her to enjoy her meal and the night without knowing about my stupidity, then that would be just as valuable a gift as if I had actually won the lottery in the first place. But I immediately started thinking of how to kill the dessert question. I regretted the filet mignon.

The ride home was different, a now rainy city in the rear view. I kept glancing at Cindy, drowsy in the passenger’s seat. I was checking. Did she have her glasses? Did she have her purse? Her coat? Had she been wearing a scarf or a broach? If she had left something behind, or maybe I had, I would have to turn the car around. It would feel like a do-over. I was desperate for a chance to go back. I might have suggested an after dinner cocktail, except that I was driving and I had already spent over $250 on dinner. $250 that I didn’t have.

Mr. Jackson had visited our table again just as we had finished our entrees. In the back, out of our sight, he was most likely a harried and sweaty acrobat of pans and knives. I know what it is like back there; I’ve seen the TV shows. But with us, he was composed, friendly and deferential. The adult feeling that I had felt in the car driving in to the city had all but vanished at the realization of my $400 mistake. But I felt a flicker of it again, there, talking with him.

The snow along the side of the road was mostly gone now. In truth, it existed mostly as salty road spray, mingled with the rain and oil dripping from decrepit cars and with pesticides washing into the street and bird shit and dog shit and matted fur from squirrel road kill. The black rain falling, absorbing the night, might feel cool and clean on my face if I were to open the moon roof. Roll down the window, however, and the back spray from the 18 wheelers in front of me would be poison.

Up ahead, past the boundaries of my headlights but visible nonetheless, a sign glowed red. I tried to ignore it, but forcing my eyes to avoid it and tuning out its message completely were, of course, two different things. It was the Boscov’s sign on the façade of the mall. I checked Cindy for recognition, but she was now fully asleep. I wasn’t sure what it was telling me. It was saying welcome back to the real world, buddy. It was saying, don’t forget about me and don’t worry – I’ll help you pay for that meal. It was saying you deserve to be alone.

I dropped Cindy off at her apartment. She seemed a bit put off that I was not asking to come in or not taking her back to my place, but I did want to be alone. Maybe if she hadn’t fallen asleep on the ride home, things might have progressed differently. Maybe if she had gotten frisky while I was driving or started talking dirty to me as we crossed the huge bridge back into New Jersey, I might have been convinced to extend our date. But the huge credit card charge and the sleepiness of the card ride, in ways more than just literally, and the recriminations of the store’s red sign had me longing for my own sleep. Could I just tune out for a few hours? Please?

So why was it my favorite memory of us and the time we spent together?

I don’t often feel like much of a grown-up. My friends from high school and from college are lawyers and engineers and are receiving promotions. I’m happy for them. But I still work for barely more than minimum wage and have no prospects that my situation might change. Does my work define me? Maybe, but there is no reason it has to. Work could be just a way to pay the bills. Work to live, not live to work, right? Great! Except that there is nothing else. I am not someone’s favorite person. I am not responsible for anyone besides myself. I do not create. I do not improve the world. The realization of these things keeps me feeling adolescent.

The night that Cindy and I had gone to dinner, amid the snow and darkness, had given me a feeling, however fleeting, that I might be destined for something bigger that anything I had known. Maybe it is simply the inherent inspiration of the big city that was responsible – so many different people so close together. But there was a point that night, in the car and in the restaurant, even after I had discovered my mistake with the lottery ticket, when I felt that I was more just a grain of sand. There was a ray of light that said, stick with it, pal. Cindy was a big part of that feeling. She had helped me get there. Some day I’m going to explain that to her and thank her for it.

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