(The following is an excerpt from Trialogue.)
“Never begin a story with dialogue.”
“It sets unrealistic expectations for the rest of the tale. It says to the reader, ‘Hey reader, so listen. This is going to be a character-driven effort, and the character who’s talking now is going to be paramount to the plot in some way.’” Rainer leaned back in his chair, tilting back onto two legs, the metal so cheap it moaned under his negligible, scrawny-twenty-something-Indian-kid weight. “And that’s not always the case. Not in a good story.”
“Why? Wouldn’t you want to open with something important, and someone important saying it?”
“Not necessarily.” Rainer spread his arms wide, exhibiting the expansive-but-rundown warehouse in which we sat, every square inch of shelf- and floor-space covered with boxes of books. He slapped the nearest example — a graphic novel displayed on the wall behind him — with the back of his hand. The victimized publication was held in place by a transparent piece of acrylic shelving, which almost rattled free upon impact. “These things have made it pretty clear that you need to be able to roll with the punches. To change mid-stroke. To kill people off when necessary, and to adjust expectations of who’s the hero and who’s the villain.
“In short,” Rainer slammed his chair back down onto all four legs. “You’ve got to leave the reader wondering. Leave them unable to decide where the story’s going. Will the person I’m rooting for end up letting me down? Will the villain turn out to be the good guy? Will the piece segue into something more large-scale and concept-driven, or will it hone in on the minuscule — some kind of relationship that was unimportant at first, but turns out to be the most vital thing in the world?” Rainer folded his arms and kicked up his feet onto the display case behind which he spent most of his days. “It’s the nature of a good tale.”
“I’ll keep that in mind,” I said, standing up from my own chair, positioned against the wall, just across the narrow entrance from Rainer’s spot next to the cash register. The chair was Rainer’s idea, so the people he cornered with conversation would have someplace to relax while he lectured. “What do you have for me today?”
Rainer jumped from his chair, startled from his rant by my reminder that I’d stopped by to collect my ‘subscription.’
“Oh yes.” He scuttled from behind the counter and tore into box kept separate from all the other boxes. “Yes yes, this one will blow your mind. I just finished it, and I’m still picking up brain pieces from the experience. Brain pieces everywhere.” He handed me a thick-bound graphic novel, the cover a black matte cardboard, with a tiny yellow triangle about the size of a thumbnail in the center as the only graphic element. The triangle was accentuated with gold foil.
“What is it?” I turned it over, looking for a title or some kind of information about the book, but there was nothing else on it, save for a barcode on the back. I flipped the book again and started to page through it.
“Wait wait wait,” Rainer reached out and held it closed, the book pancaked between his hands. “Not this one. You don’t want to jump ahead. It’s special, man. Really special. It’s called Pyramidand it’s one of those books you just have to…” he seemed to be at a loss for words, sucking at his teeth momentarily before finishing his sentence. “Absorb. You know?” He seemed unsatisfied with his description. “Like really soak up. Take it in.” Rainer’s face almost seemed panicked, the way it looked any time he was having trouble making himself understood. “It’s just good, man. It’s good.” His mouth twisted unattractively and he turned away, retreating back behind the counter.
“What’s it about?”
“Oh stuff and things. Just read it. You’ll like it. Guaranteed!”
I left the warehouse before Rainer could tell me all about his special-friend guarantee, which apparently was attached to all of my purchases, part of the ‘Rainer’s Recommendations’ subscription program I’d somehow gotten talked into.
As far as I knew, I was the only subscriber.
Which was fine. It was how our relationship worked, mine and Rainer’s. He spoke and I listened. He got enthused and I rode the wave of his enthusiasm. He sold me on whatever he was obsessing over at the moment, and I bought what he was selling. Or at the very least stood silently, nodding my approval.
It was actually nice to listen to Rainer, even at his most manic. At the very least, it kept the Narrator at bay. For a while.
As Cain walked from the warehouse, he kicked at the brownish clumps of grass churned up by the immense windstorms that had passed through town days before. The clumps, he thought, were much like the town of Smithton: small, beige, and soft. Once a sturdy mining village, the people of Smithton had become provincially minded and morbidly obese; a combination that had Cain clinging to Rainer as his only friend; a fellow castaway trapped on an island of lethargy.
To Cain, Rainer seemed to be the only other person in the world who understood what it was like to be cooped up in the back corner of nowhere wondering what ‘somewhere’ was like.
The worst thing about the Narrator was how often it was right. It wasn’t enough that there was a voice in my head — two, actually, but only one that still spoke — documenting every decision and misstep with sniper-sight accuracy; the thing also had insight into the motivations behind my actions, along with an inhuman perspective that sometimes felt cold, detached, and strangely focused on my, and everyone else’s weight. Its voice, monologuing inside my brain, wasn’t as distracting now as it had been when I was younger, scaring the hell out of me when it first started yammering on my tenth birthday, decimating my social skills, and worrying the psychiatrists as I entered my teens. But despite my increased ability to block it out, I could still hear it, chattering away at the edges of my conscious mind, most especially when I was alone.
An unfortunate thing, compounded by living in such a small town and not owning a car. I often told myself that great, creative men and women would kill to live in a place like Smithton — mountain-adjacent and rugged, in a Hemingway-esque fashion — but my arguments always felt damp and too heavy to fly as I slogged through the muddy, dirty, awkwardly humid streets. It was only a thirty-minute walk from one end of Smithton to the other, but I could feel every second moistening my soul, causing it to mold. I weighed and measured every moment spent plodding through that hell-hole of a town, and the resulting figures made for some melancholy math.
Cain glanced in the mirrored window of the old Cinemark Theater, noting that he had gained a few pounds since he last chose to acknowledge his reflection. Once quite athletic, the years had not been kind to Cain, and he reflected that the stagnant Smithton had perhaps taken more from him than just his youth; it had also taken his health.
Sonuvabitch. It was like having a gossip magazine in my head sometimes, though okay, sure, maybe I’d put on a few pounds over the past few years. Or months. It’s not easy keeping yourself motivated when working for tips at the only diner in town, where the only real benefit of employment, outside of the almost-minimum wage I pulled in, was access to the unsold pastries each night. Maybe, just maybe, I had started to look forward to the moment I tucked them in my backpack on the way out the door, after sweeping and mopping and scrubbing the tables.
Being honest with myself, those half-stale pastries were the highlight of my existence. They were the boost that kept me going. They allowed me to make it through another night, charged with sugar-based enthusiasm so that I could wake up the next day, heave myself out of bed, and walk back to the diner, scraping my shoes of mud and clumps of dead grass on the doorframe on my way in, maintaining what little dignity I retained from my status and geographic location by telling myself that someday, someday I’d get out. Go to college. Do the things a twenty-five-year-old is supposed to have already done, none-the-worse for my tardiness.
A slight drizzle enveloped downtown Smithton, and Cain pulled his windbreaker jacket tighter, knowing his clothing would be soaked in seconds and his umbrella had been left at the diner; two blocks and too much ambition away for him to bother retrieving it. There was nothing left for him to do but trudge home through the lukewarm spray, and hope that tomorrow had more in store for him than the past twenty-five years had provided.
I stopped mid-stride after the Narrator’s words registered.
No ambition? I have ambition. I could have ambition.
I took a sharp left and headed toward the diner, aching to win a tiny victory against the voice in my head. One block left to go, I looked up the street toward the outskirts of downtown, and stopped to stare.
Lights. Everywhere, lights. Forgetting my umbrella, I headed toward the dazzle of civilization — the literal luminosity of the unknown — and allowed myself to focus, for just a moment, on everything except the world around me, and the tiny, muddy, country-fried portion of it I occupied.