Black Bill Part 3

There was no plot. Before he said it, he knew she would say this didn’t matter, not that this was the point. It was childish to reply this way to a reasonable observation. “Mom, there’s no plot.” And after her hesitation, “It’s not a value statement.” “It doesn’t matter.” It’s not what she asked him for. “It’s a choice you’ve made here and I want to understand it is all.” She thought the point of having a child and raising them warmly and patiently but not by way of smothering was that there could be unspoken communication between them, but what the hell. “I want you to ignore what you expected, and tell me about what you’ve actually read. Don’t mind the gaps. Take the plunge. You know, et cetera.” “OK. Yeah. Let me read it again.”

It was hard with her because she had such a flagrant approach to doing and yet was so private, didn’t say much in the in between time. He had of course dealt with some version of this as a child, but he actually felt baffled as an adult. Who was this woman? He sort of asked his sister Linn, who said, “Oh mom’s hilarious. Like, we all know it. And kind of smart, right? But she likes to kind of surprise people with all that because she’s always a little socially mortified, right? And maybe that’s from growing up in an immigrant family.” He couldn’t make much sense of this. The other twin, Olly (she’d been Minn, then changed it to avoid torture in school, then removed the M he guessed to reclaim some edge), on the same call, had nothing to say. “I don’t even know what the problem is. What’s the problem?” “She’s also alone a lot, I think,” Linn offered. They were such generous psychologists and that’s why he spoke to them. “I’m just not sure what to say sometimes. Especially when she asks me to do something and then it becomes this big drama.”

“Reading her stuff is a big drama?” Olly’s questions were never issued from a place of confusion but ruthless curiosity. Her asking was of the most earnest kind, never rhetorical; it’s why she did so well at math. “Not for me, but for her. It’s a momentous occasion for her it sounds like, and I just have no clue where that all comes from or why it’s coming at me.” “OK, but have you considered that she may be asking a bunch of people to read her stuff, and that she’s come to you last, because you’re in it?” Bill hadn’t known Linn and maybe Olly had gotten manuscripts too, but he didn’t think too deeply about it, or the fact that they had withheld this information so far, because that would be meaningless conflict. “There’s no objective way to say that I’m in it.” “Ooh, Billy, you’re in it! You’re innn it.” The sisters laughed on the phone, on mute, and the sudden absence of miscellaneous background noise might have clued Bill in if he too had inherited the gift to ignore what he expected. As they laughed, “OK, so there’s a ton of subtext, I get that. Maybe that’s what you mean? But she spends so much time painting a picture that you’re finished and then think, ‘But what was I looking at?’ I don’t want to tell her what to do. But I don’t undeniably see myself in it and I don’t think any reasonable person, reasonable person who’s not in our family, would.”

“OK so that’s the kind of feedback you could give her. You could say that you think it’s a little too specific, and that she needs to spell things out a little.” How mortifying. He had gone to college, where he remembers learning expressly that you didn’t tell an aspiring writer to “Spell things out a little.” He was sure his sisters had created some sort of fascinating twin world that didn’t make any sense and maybe mom had somehow always been a part of it. He didn’t feel ganged up on, per se, but lamentably superior. Olly: “Do you think you’ll read it again?”

Black Bill Part 2

It had been a good time to get pregnant. She was in the middle of everything at once, and it was going OK. It was best to be distracted while pregnant, have things to do, to say no to. She was running a little online shop, selling shelves. Why were most shelving systems so ugly? Badly constructed? She’d spend hours, with a mix of power tools and hand tools making her own systems. No Dieter Rams, but she understood how to make something affordably and well, mostly alone. She’d put them up on the store. They’d sell out in a few days. Her boyfriend had a buddy who ran a company that would deliver them in his truck within 100 miles for a flat rate. Some people would even pay freight fees to get them across the country. She was asked to participate in a few local pop-ups by an attractive woman who had recently begun renting a beautiful house down the road; the origins of this woman’s own tight community connections unknown. Chez Chez Chez Chez Chez started selling her stuff, too, and featured her in a magazine ad. She bought five copies of the magazine and sent a few to her parents with a postcard that said, “Look at at the back. My shelves!” Her own home was bizarrely unfinished, mostly charming and incoherent Craigslist finds a few years past expiry. Her boyfriend had low expectations of what their lives would look like aesthetically and was impressed with her woodworking skills. He’d invested instead in a fine hand plane, a mini-shop installation in the garage with a table saw and filtration. He would inherit a cattle ranch from his father that he would sell immediately upon acquiring in order to buy a house, but for now, he worked remotely as a product designer for a major building supplies company. They got a hook up on shipping materials.

Bill would be born into a world of small business and a big salary. Maybe a bastard, because mom had been hanging out, from time to time, with an old friend, saying she was visiting potential retailers. Her intention, subliminally, she thought, was to have sex with this friend, and this time she did not make an effort to sabotage was going on behind the scenes. But they had used a condom, so who knew. And anyway, Bill was like his parents. The twins would not come with the same cosmic grace.

And oh well it had been fun to think that maybe he was not her boyfriend’s son. None of her wrongness had ever come so starkly to light. And she loved her friend, who was happy to have an affair with her, bored as he was of being right, and only being vaguely wrong in reciprocating the sidelong advances of a woman he had been fond of for a long while and whose boyfriend was a bit standoffish. She called him maybe five months in. “This is so weird to say on the phone. And I know it sounds fake. I just have to get it out so I’ll be callous but I’m pregnant. It’s probably not yours but who knows, because I don’t we can be sure about the condoms.”

He wanted to know if there would be a paternity test. “If you like.” Had she been having sex with her boyfriend in the last year? “A little. It was not passionate.” Who did she want to be the father. “I imagine either of you would be up for it, but of course I’m calling you to tell you something I could’ve kept from you forever. I realize I’ve been stupid.” He didn’t know what to say. What did she want? For him to drive up and confess the affair to her boyfriend, who thought his girlfriend was pregnant with their child, and might be anyway? “I can tell him.”

So, in this world, she had chosen love, and a lesser salary. It had been a different kind of convenience. And he also had health insurance, teaching undergraduate chemistry to career-changing post-grads. And if she wasn’t asking for child support, her, in this world, ex-boyfriend said, there probably didn’t need to be a paternity test, because it would probably be expensive. He had been cold the way she expected, but suddenly certain the child was not his in a way she hadn’t. Her mom was all over the place helping her move in with her new guy. “Why wouldn’t you just get married? Having his baby?” “Well, we don’t know whose, yet.” “I can’t believe this. This is not right,” she said, in these circumstances. Dad was on the phone with the delivery company, who had not given them a window. “It’s not right. Your dad and I are worried. What if he leaves you, eh? After the excitement is over. And you have to find them both and get this test?” “But what was I supposed to do? Stay with him?” “What you were supposed to do is not get pregnant living with a man like that, mmhmm.” But now she was living with a man she liked, pregnant. Her mother didn’t see her resourcefulness, her craft. But Bill would, if only he could have seen her then.

Except it was unclear to her which father he had been born to, and under which set of circumstances. The soon-to-be-very-wealthy one or the lapsed PhD student? Her memory zapped between at least three, often six versions of events, and nothing happening to her currently could confirm which had taken place. You see, there had been no test, and she had never gotten married.

Black Bill

A series of data points, an array of successes

Bill was certain that there were two points he always fell between in his analysis. There was, as he told anyone who revealed even a little curiosity about him, a bothersome tendency to place big ideas in the categories of too radical or too conservative. And then there was a third extreme, the troublesome area of perfect compromise—the satisfaction of no one, not even those who claim to aspire to perfect compromise. He saw himself, his way of thinking, which were the same things, hewing any which way in between any two of those points at any time. He never compromised and yet he never became passionate. He was not restrictive, loose, or mild-mannered. He was flagrantly confident and quietly moneyed, yet generous, open, even talkative. People gushed about him without knowing exactly why and naturally he was the object of several tortured crushes at once.

The way he thought was everything about him. It was the way he talked, wore a shirt, straightened his sunglasses, sat assertively in poor posture in a big chair. He knew, almost from the point of consciousness, that he would have a great time in school. Look forward to going, always. He was, for a moment, depressed when college ended, but then became busy again with his future. Could easily feign “presence”, made a great boyfriend. Had no feeling of absence, of lost identity, thought he looked smart, good bone structure. Got along well enough with his mother. Good at listening to his sisters talk over each other on the phone and holding secure enough their confessions to strike them as a gem. Knew enough about each of his postures to feel to be sure they were sustainable, he could always keep them up, none of them wearing at any part of his spirit, because he never placed any of his expectations exactly anywhere.

Everything he looked at turned on bright. Bill was not merely reflective. That’s why he would be rich. A series of debts he collected in his mid-twenties would easily turn to dust once he decided what to next, turned away from twinges of nostalgia and irrational pangs of connection to inanimate objects with a shrug. His way was the stuff of self help, if self help were respectable in pedigreed company. Bill only ever got angry in writing. He would write short sentences, rendered with a blunt musicality. Sharp notes, all chords. Everyone desired his most tightly riled messages as a kind of platonic domination.

His mother looked at him with muted wonder. She’d start to think deeply about little things he had done since childhood but then get overwhelmed, trail off, start boiling water for tea. She was the writer of the family.

Black Bill is a new series of stories. The regular Mildly Yours will continue irregularly as usual.

The beautiful people are all dancers

I was soaring down the 33 on my way home from the dry cleaners, blasting Sam’s Town by The Killers. A self-help album intensely beloved by me. When we were suffering in high school my sister and I had the album burnt to a CD, or maybe it was an original disc, in our family’s early aughts Jetta sedan with crank down windows and a Best Buy media player. The last line of When You Were Young, “He doesn’t look a thing like Jesus, but more than you’ll ever know.” Haunting. Then, I thought it was a wistful line about bad boys. Now, I see it’s a much darker warning about predators, everywhere, looming amongst the moony-eyed, the soft, the fanciful. I come up with a good impression of Brandon Flowers, he’s sort of doing an Ian-Curtis-meets-Freddy-Mercury-meets-(of-course-)Bowie thing but American, which somehow shakes down to something Grace Jones adjacent. There’s nowhere else you can howl out the songs of your wretched suburban experience but in your Jetta wagon, with a sunroof, the lefthand backseat passenger electric window button broken, exiting town, where, at the cleaners, the system was down, and for the first time in your life you had exact cash. In the back of the car is a vintage beige plaid polyester skirt suit, which, I don’t know, there has to be, at some point, some reason for. To look depressed and coquettish, and bear legs.

Every day someone wonders whether popular yet unserious cultural objects ought to be defended. I don’t think The Killers are joking, but they were very popular. But to just the right degree. The kind of music that endlessly brings stuff up, lyrics you can listen to while tucking and rolling dramatically onto the floor, spreading your wings like Ann Reinking. Help yourself to these rhythms, they tell you, there’s enough for absolutely everyone. No reason to defend this sort of thing when it’s just out there, wringing you out.

I’m still bewildered by popular music. I feel like I went into a coma in 2007. I’ve the skin of a 20 year-old yet I don’t know what they’re on about. Barely sure where to find new music. I know for sure where to get the old stuff. And like book publishing, I can’t understand why people complain so fiercely about the state of the industry when we will never, in our lives, consume all of what already out. Maybe it’s because I’m too lazy to write a novel, and comforted that so many other people already did. The only reason to write a book is so that I could make the speaking fees. I already like myself too much, no real incentive to finish a bound text unless in some deeply out-of-character turn, I wrote something so potentially popular that it sparked a bidding war, and landed me hundreds of thousands if not millions of dollars up front. I could finally get ahead of my love of fine decor and textiles, pay for my CV.

Listening to Sam’s Town by The Killers gives me hope for my so far minor self-discipline because if I could make that album, I’d be making it. There has to be a book like this, that hasn’t been written (or, more likely, hasn’t been written in English), and could operate like the flagrant self-help of fiction. Would it be serious? Would it be literature? I already paid some very wealthy people to certify me with the authority to give you an answer but what’s in fashion now is to never say so exactly.

In which I tell you what it all means

Because I don't want you to try to figure it out for yourself

It’s good not to write for money, but here we are. Well, not here, here. I’ve made this newsletter free. Imagine if I charged you for this?

(I don’t say that in a self-deprecating way but just to say that I would do it even if you didn’t read it. )

(There do have to be things you would do even if nobody incentivized it. It’s not the “do what you love and…” cliché that riddles the most insufferable creative minds. But, for me, if it all came down to whether or not I could churn the thing—this thing, for example—into success, it would cease to be the thing.)

I’m not precious about this thing except for as I’m writing it. Then everything is so small and so special. I hold the words in my hands. I open my hands and let the words flutter onto the screen. I know, disgusting.

But that’s my life.

Most of what I do I love and makes me no money. I slide the rest into crevices, hope it makes me rich.

Things could change and then I’d have find a way to write about that. And on and on.

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