Monsters & Dolls: On Storytelling
“I could stay out here forever,” Adam says around a cigar. He squints at the lake and wishes aloud that the waves would pick up. “I was out here a few weeks ago with seven foot swells. Tell you what. That’s exciting.”
I shake my head. “No thanks.” I am working the rudder uncertainly, watching the red strings called telltails bounce around on the sails. The telltails are supposed to stay horizontal in the breeze but I keep jerking the rudder too hard and feel the sloop bounce in and out of the ideal angle. We’ve been out here two hours. I have had two shots of Shellback spiced rum and two dark beers. The most time I’ve ever spent on a body of water was on a tourist fishing vessel at Virginia Beach. I was twelve years and spent most of the trip below decks trying not to vomit. My sea legs have not improved with age, but I don’t want my brother to think I’m a bigger wimp than he already does, so I hide my nausea, pretend I’m just drunk.
He has had the boat for a year and a half. Wants to upgrade. It was a steal, but the compass is broken and he’s pretty sure he connected the batteries wrong, and the GPS goes in and out. The motor flooded late last year and he spent weeks fiddling with it in his garage before finding the fix on an internet forum. This is his project, his passion. If I weren’t here on my day off, I’d be sealed inside lying on my couch reading or typing away. I considered staying home to do just this. I need to complete my manuscript, but it’s late in the season and he’s been asking me to come out for months. I should spend more time with my family. I should spend more time outdoors.
Flies keep getting into our beers. We swat them from our bottles and wonder where the hell they’re coming from. Were they hiding in the sails, or did they follow us from shore?
I ask him how business is going. He went into masonry straight out of high school, the kind of person who’d go crazy at an office job. Now he’s a private contractor. He says it’s going fine. Keeping busy. I respond by describing my own latest project, a novel about blue collar spacefarers transporting a mysterious box to a dangerous location. Box comes open. Monster set free. All hell breaks loose. I keep my voice level, nonchalant, the way you describe your true love to a jaded loner: Yeah, you know, she’s cool I guess.
Adam leans back against the gunwale. He looks skeptical. “I’ll watch the movie.”
This is the answer I expect. I brush it off, but I’m not done. I’ve brought up my love, and I haven’t done her justice. He hasn’t seen her. You don’t get it. She’s not just a girl.
It’s not just a story. It’s complicated.
I do my best to explain. This manuscript is more fun than I’ve had writing in a long time. When I was getting my MFA, I turned my back on the weird sci-fi horror I grew up reading and watching. I started reading “literary” writers, honing my craft, imitating obscure but critically respected professors of Creative Writing. For my thesis, I wrote a dystopian novel with an experimental twist. The structure was deeply influenced by Ulysses. In other words, most publishers would rather eat it than publish it. I’ve got a stack of rejections that would agree.
But this new thing. This new thing is fun. Like I’m rediscovering my roots, a part of myself I’ve neglected.
Adam is still giving me a raised-eyebrow half-smirk. I imagine these concerns are as foreign and boring to him as hair salon gossip. Finally he says, “I could have told you what you’d be doing ten years ago. You were always into that weird monster crap.”
I mull this over for a time, wondering if I’m so transparent. But I know he’s right, and though I wasn’t always writing, I’ve always told stories. If only to myself.
At some point during the most impressionable years of my childhood, someone had the bright idea of recording Alien 3 on VHS when it was movie of the week. My parents did their best to shield me from this creature, but I was drawn to it. If I closed my eyes I could see the spinning blade of a cooling fan at the end of a long tunnel, a sweaty man in soiled work clothes leaning down to inspect a bit of—what is that?—slimy skin of some kind, a molted shell, and the man looking up only to find the Alien’s chrome teeth slick with drool inches from his face. I only caught a glimpse before someone shooed me from the room, but it remains one of my most vivid memories. The process had begun. My sensibilities forever altered by this wonderment of terror. I knew it was not real, and that was part of the appeal. Someone created this thing to scare me, and it worked. That is magic. That is the power of storytelling.
At this same period of my life, Saturday morning cartoons were the highlight of my week. If I missed them, I forced my mom to record them, and if she forgot—well, she had better not forget. I did not bother with those educational kiddy programs like Sesame Street. No, I stuck with the fast-paced action-driven shows like Spider-Man, X-Men, The Tick, Beast Machines, and occasionally even VR Troopers, a Power Rangers knockoff that—according to the critics at my lunch table—had better fights and just wasn’t as cheesy, you know? But it was not only the shows that made this time special. My older brother and I had amassed boxes full of action figures over the years. My personal favorites were the GI Joe with a metal arm, the one with the bald head, my hyperrealistically flexible Spider-Man, and most precious of all, the Alien.
These things were not dolls. They were characters. I called them Guys. Leave me alone, I’m playing Guys. The living room with the red carpet was the floor of a volcano. The bookshelf was a cave. The sofa cushions were the metal floors of an abandoned spaceship. And the Alien was always lurking, ready to drop from the ceiling, clamp its jaws around someone’s neck and pull them into a vent. While Adam grew out of this phase, learned the dangers of firecrackers and the glee of remote controlled cars and riding his bike around the neighborhood and eventually the heady rush of smoking cigarettes before graduating to pot, I was there in the living room with my Guys, telling stories.
Truth is, I was addicted to them. If my friends asked, I told them I stopped playing with toys, like, way long ago. It was shameful. Abnormal. No longer 9 or 10 years old but 11 years old and then 12 and 13 and still in love with the feel of plastic between my fingers, the way I could control my Guys like puppets, the dominant fighter in my right hand, the one getting pummeled in my left, modeling fight scenes after Schwarzenegger movies, pacing things out like a professional choreographer. I took them to my room and whispered their stories at the edge of the bed, eyeing the door and waiting for Adam or one of my sisters to barge in: Oh my God, were you playing with your Guys?
My brother Marty is nine years younger than me. He was my excuse to keep playing out in the open. He inherited the Guys, but I hovered nearby, clucking my teeth and finally stepping in going, “No, no. You don’t just bash them into each other. You slide your thumb under one arm and your pointer finger under the other and your ring finger between the legs and that’s how you get them to punch and kick, see? Like this. Bshhh! Ahh! My knee!”
He began to request me for his playtime. He couldn’t do it right, he said. It was never as cool. He was my audience, always willing to put up with my on-the-spot revisions. “Um, this guy’s family was killed by mobsters, and this guy is the main bad guy, but he’s hiding on the ship with the Alien. Actually, no, I think it’s his best friend on the ship, and they need to escape.”
In our backyard, my dad had built what we called the Sky Fort, a platform on 4×4’s set into the ground, a sort of freestanding treehouse. A favorite trope of Marty’s was the fist-fight-on-the-edge-of-a-cliff. We’d hunger down at the open side of the Sky Fort, bad guy kicking the crap out of the good guy, both of them backing closer to the ledge until at the last second the good guy grabbed the other’s foot and swung him around and said something like, “Hope you can fly!” and there goes Mr. Bad Guy, careening to the grass below. Marty would sit there grinning, thrilled, then say, “Again!”
It occurs to me on the boat that I never outgrew playtime. Playtime has wrapped itself around my life. Those Saturday morning hours have evolved into work. My Guys are not plastic figurines from the store anymore. They live in my head, occasionally wiggle into my dreams and hound me to find their audience. I’m working on it, I tell them. I’m trying. I really am.
The wind has died down and it’s my turn to suck at a cigar. It’s old and falling apart so I don’t have to bite a hole in the base. I don’t know anything about cigars. Adam says these are pretty good. I nod. “Yeah. Not bad.” Whatever chemicals hide in this smoke make my head spin faster. I practice holding it with my molars the way my dad used to when playing cards with his buddies, sucking it down to a slimy turd. Out here just for today, I can pretend at a life I never lived. One not occupied by conceptualization, but physical realities, action.
A favorite quote from a friend’s blog drifts back to me: Writers do not lead interesting lives. We sit at computers and we stand in classrooms and we type and think and that is all.
So why monsters? If I am going to spend the rest of my life transcribing imagined events into Word documents, why can’t I focus on something banal, like romance? Or children’s stories with talking animals? Something innocent. Something nice.
Of course, I can still turn to them in the future. Some day. But not now.
Cormac McCarthy once said that he does not understand authors who do not write about death. Henry James, Proust, what the hell are they getting at if not our mortality? Something tells me McCarthy was having fun at his interviewer’s expense, but maybe not. He has a point.
We are hounded by death. If we are willing to look, we can find it waiting for us around any number of corners. At the foot of the driveway, the car we don’t see. In our morning cereal, the piece our teeth miss lodging in our throat. In high school, the psychotic pulling his father’s pistol from his pants, aiming at the back of our head. Or there inside your own body, a traitor cell splitting and growing and clogging your organs. And if we evade these traps for a number of years—say 70, say 80, 90, 100—there is but one destination at the end of this path.
That is the monster.
The wind has died. We point this out several times. We think we are two miles off shore. There is no one else around. Except for the flies, we are alone. We’ll need to head back soon.
My cigar goes out and I relight it, puffing my cheeks, exhaling through my nose, savoring the burn.
Adam goes below decks to test the engine.
“Wouldn’t it suck if it doesn’t start?” he says.
He flicks the switch.
There is nothing. Not even a clicking sound.
“Shit,” he says.
I am watching the limp sails, holding the rudder steady but we are not moving so there is no reason to hold it. I say, “Hmmmm.”
Adam flicks the switch. Flicks the switch, flicks the switch.
“Fuck,” he says.
When it comes to horror, there is one film that had a more profound effect on me than any sci-fi could. I was eleven when Saving Private Ryan came out, and had seen very few movies in the theater. So when my dad got off the phone with his buddy and asked if I wanted to go, I jumped at the opportunity. This was at 11 o’clock at night, mind you, well past my bedtime. Everyone else was asleep. And my dad was not the kind of man to spring a surprise movie on you. He was the kind of man who bought gifts he thought you should want, not what you said you wanted. He was the parent who forbid MTV, asked about ratings at the Blockbuster checkout. It wasn’t because of the violence, but the swearing and kissy lovey stuff. For this reason, even the horror movies I consumed like so much candy were the censored versions, the gore limited to what I had in my PG-13 kid brain. Something was up. He believed this movie might be valuable. Important. Blegh.
I knew it was a war movie, but that was all I knew. I expected very little. Something black-and-white. Slow and boring.
It started that way. Old man walks through the graveyard. Kneels down, cries. Looks up.
Fooled again, I thought, eyes getting heavy. Suckered into a Dad movie.
The film introduces us to its violence with the opening of a door. A boat on a foreign shore. Bullets snap through the air, zip by hot red. Blood jumps like rain in the wrong direction, hits the camera lens and sticks—a physical thing with texture. The soldiers who moments ago were puking from nerves, kissing their crucifixes and crossing themselves, now shimmy and shake and fall backward, dead. “Clear the murder-holes!” someone screams.
My father sat to my right. He turned to check how I was holding up. What he saw was a young boy with his jaw in his lap, glued to the screen, brain scrambling to process this new information. Dad turned back. I was alright. I was better than alright.
I was not thinking, Oh my God, this is terrible.
I was thinking, Oh my God, this is it.
This was what adults shielded children from. This insane dazzling violence, human bodies coming apart like overripe fruit. Men on the beach calling, “Mama!” and clutching their purple guts. It was not gratuitous. It was not Arnold Schwarzenegger spouting one-liners on a rooftop before kicking his arch nemesis over the ledge. It was the real deal. It was war.
On the drive home, my head felt light and airy and hollow. I was tired. Overstimulated. Still processing. I had always been quiet, but Dad was studying me, assessing. Finally he asked if I was alright. “I saw you covering your eyes at one point.”
I knew what scene he meant. The young medic played by Giovanni Ribisi bleeding to death under the steadying hands of his fellow soldiers. It was the only part that bothered me, but I still watched, the slots of my fingers only covering a bit of blood. “Oh God, my liver,” he moaned. I felt my own liver. An organ in my body. Not an imaginary thing. Not a cartoon image in a textbook. A thing that could get shot, would hurt like hell when shot.
Shot. A small piece of lead zipping through the air. Smashing into flesh, bone, organs.
“It looked really real,” I said. “It was sad.”
Dad nodded, thought a moment. “People really went through that.” He said this not with his sometimes lecturing tone, but with wonder, awe. We felt it together. A small piece of truth.
I said, “It was a really good movie.”
He drove us home.
Adam is sweating, nervous. I aim a flashlight into the storage compartment where the batteries are, wires turning this way and that, a rat’s nest we can’t figure out. He curses and says he should have brought a diagram. Maybe the batteries are dead, but how could they be dead? We were just playing the radio. He reaches down and jiggles the batteries, removes the wires to see if they’re corroded. They are not corroded. He sips at his beer, which has been sitting in the sun. His sours and he leans over the side and spits. “Fucking gross!” he says, tipping the rest of the beer into the lake. “There was something floating in it.”
The sun does not bother these flies.
I am squinting one eye at the flat surface of the water. Not a ripple. No wind at all.
“Hmmm,” I say.
A gritty realism worked its way into my playing after Saving Private Ryan. The man with the metal arm often died before the end of the journey. He took chances, tried to save the day. Got hit. Lay down moaning, “My liver!” Quieter characters with patience and brains did better. There were still monsters, but they came to represent something else. My kid brain working it all out, putting pieces together. Picking and choosing and combining. What if the Guys from that movie met the Alien and didn’t have their guns, and it wasn’t the glossy action movie style but the gritty gray skies with mud everywhere and the kind of story that would make my dad say, “People really went through that.” The Alien became a stand-in for a violence too big to fathom. That is the reason we tell stories. That is why Cormac McCarthy does not understand books about class and marriage and whatever. Those things hold no meaning once the Alien descends.
I started writing stories my junior year of high school. Dark things. Cliché things, but wholly sincere, wholly entertaining, inspired by Stephen King and the worst of Dean Koontz and Richard Matheson and Arthur C. Clarke and Steve Perry. I gave the stories to my friends at lunch time and at lunch time of the following day I would ask, “So?” and they would say, “Creepy, dude.” And I would grin. Success.
I had not yet decided to pursue Writing as a thing with a capital letter, but I was smitten. This was playtime for adults. And I didn’t have to hide in my room to do it, though it did require a familiar and comfortable solitude. The process itself filled me with warmth. Helped me to make sense of this baffling universe. Held back some creeping darkness—for now, for now.
Adam’s friend invited him to go water skiing a few hours ago. He calls him up, taps his feet and paces, willing his friend to answer. His friend answers. He can bring jumper cables. Boats need jump starting too, on occasion. Adam hangs up, continues to fiddle with the wires, the throttle, the switches, looking over manuals, cursing. Nothing to do but wait. Godot will come.
His friend arrives in twenty minutes, slides up on a shiny jet ski.
“What the hell are you doing way out here?” he says. He wears a bathing suit and life vest. Oddly distinct from our Sperry’s and jeans. He bobs beside the boat.
“We were just cruising. How far are we?”
“About seven miles. That’s what took me so long. Made it easy to find you, though. You’re the only boat this far out.”
He hands Adam a jumper box. A black object with neatly arranged cables. Adam takes it, still on edge. If this does not work, then the issue is not the battery, and his boat is big time fucked. He will have to call the Coast Guard for a tow. How much does that cost? A thousand dollars? Two thousand? Shit.
He hooks it all up.
Takes a breath.
Flicks the switch.
The engine gurgles. Idles. Steadies.
Adam deflates. “Hell yes.”
His friend invites us to a party at the docks. We say we might go, but we don’t mean it and he can tell. It’s getting late and we are tired and I have to drive back to Syracuse in a few hours. The friend takes off. We watch his wake, admiring the mobility of his vehicle. Those things are expensive. Twice as much as this boat cost, probably. Just leisure things. Adam thinks they’re boring. I wouldn’t know. I’ve never used one. Writers do not lead interesting lives.
The little motor nudges us along. We reach the pier in an hour. Stone structure reaching into the lake. I realize with a start that the pier is there to break the waves before they reach the dock, creating a channel of calm water. This never occurred to me before.
Adam is shaking his head. “I was pretty worried back there,” he says. “Really.”
I nurse a bottle of water. I feel steadier. “I know you were.”
We slide under the bridge. Our mast clears by less than four feet. To our sides now, boats and docks. Sailors busy themselves with this and that. I want to capture them. Paint them with language, but I know nothing about them. All I can do is study them. Think my way inside their heads. What do they look forward to? What do they fear?
Adam throws me a crooked grin. “You weren’t worried cause it’s not your boat.”
“No,” I say. “I just thought, I don’t know, it’s not like we were gonna die out there.”
Benjamin Allocco lives and teaches in Upstate New York. He received his MFA from Minnesota State University, Mankato. His work has appeared in The Conium Review, Prick of the Spindle, and Fiction Southeast. For more on his work, check out www.benjaminallocco.com