An Appetizer of Autobiographical Fiction

From THE PRECARIOUSNESS OF DONE,
the upcoming (and first) novel by Tony Houck

 

PROLOGUE

Las Rozas, Spain
March 1996

     “Eres un subnormal profundo—You are a profound retard.”
     The insult had burst through Ethan’s door just minutes into the new year, as he lay propped against his pillow, ingesting the Spanish edition of Ernest Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. The abuse had cut the eighteen-year-old, but it had not surprised him, despite his host mother’s resolution to “be more maternal.” He had given her an archaic smile and gone back to reading.
     But now, three months after slumping into bed with an old fisherman at twenty-two past midnight—for Spain, quite early but not retardedly so—Ethan wasn’t smiling. Anxious, the bright yet painfully shy teenager perched on the side of the bed.
     The bunk was designed to save space: a bookcase wall bed—the convenience of a twin Murphy bed, the storage of side cabinets with adjustable shelves. The unit had been a closeout, and it rocked slightly. Thankfully, it had never fallen on anyone, but no one had ever gotten a restful night’s sleep on the “mattress” either. Ethan didn’t blame his host parents for the miserable thing, tucking him into their house-rich, cash-poor lives however they could. Nevertheless, the room was a bedroom in name only.
     It was the tiniest space in a suite of rooms with parquet floors and stark white walls that occupied part of what Spaniards call the second floor but Americans call the third floor of the latest housing development. Regardless of the floor numbering scheme used inside the building, its anemic red brick exterior lacked style and grace.
     A walkway led from the buzz-in entrance through pea green grass watered and mined by Chihuahuas and a German shepherd, and then pierced a short wall separating the private lawn from the public sidewalk. The pedestrian-friendly street was typical of those in the burgeoning yet walkable town of Las Rozas. The name meant “clearings,” and though its origin was unclear (likely agricultural, as roza in Castilian refers to a place cleared for farmland), for Ethan, Las Rozas was home.
     The exception was his host parents’ apartment. It was the place where he disagreed most with the words of his exchange studies adviser: “Differences aren’t good or bad, just different.” She hadn’t been referring to an acrimonious couple but to general cultural differences (female nudity on broadcast television, for example), and he had agreed with her, for the most part. And though dealing with an adopted culture wasn’t always as pleasurable as watching a topless woman savor a spoonful of yogurt, Ethan did so like a trouper.
     He was a child of natural parents who were quietly living married yet separate lives under the same roof, so he was ill-prepared for the matrimonio’s biting words to each other. Ethan persisted through, fearing that someone would end his studies prematurely.
     Swallowing his complaints had done him little good, though. He sat back, heeling one of two large boxes his natural mother had shipped at great expense. God bless the woman for trying to buoy his withering waistline with non-perishable tastes of home: hot sauce, spray cheese, peanut butter, Triscuits, powdered milk.
     Or on second thought, maybe the Almighty should impose a little penance on her for turning a deaf ear to Ethan’s wish that she simply wire pesetas: “so many boxes” irritated his host mother, the caretaker of a Spartan kitchen with few cabinets. Where was he to put groceries in his postage stamp-sized quarters? Certainly not in plain sight, even if he stayed. And if he got the boot, he might simply trash them, although he hated the thought of tossing out good food almost as much as leaving.
     Ethan tucked his hands underneath him and stared at his host father’s mouth: Looking a person in the eyes was an ability that often eluded the introvert.
     “What’s clearer than water is that your behavior cannot continue,” the man who ran the roost declared, arms crossed.
     The walls closed in on Ethan. “I’m not sure what I’ve done wrong,” he managed to say with a Castilian accent that would be perfect if he hung on until June.
     “Not sure what you’ve done wrong?” the man asked, palming the greasy hair stuck to his scalp.
     “Not really,” Ethan said.
     The man leaned back in his chair and laced his nicotine-stained fingers behind his head. “I find that hard to believe.”
     Ethan caught a whiff of body odor: Soccer had been on the tele, and his host father had forgone his bubbly, weekly preening.
     Even the bathroom (tub shower, toilet, bidet—an odd fixture—vanity, linen closet) was larger than Ethan’s bedroom. At night, when his window and its rackety shutter were closed because his host mother “said so,” the room was claustrophobic. Only by the light leaking in under the door, which was also to remain shut, could he see the hand in front of his face.
     “Or maybe,” the man continued, “you’re just too much of a troglodita to see it.”
     As a child of a marriage disintegrating two thousand miles away, it hadn’t taken Ethan long to puzzle out his host mother’s behavior: Standing up to the rooster who strutted around his barnyard was an ability that often eluded her, so she brooded and pecked at her host son. But her husband’s demeanor had been apparent from the very start: Reveling in his own crowing, he was just an ecumenical cock.
     “Never in my life have I seen such an odd young man,” the old bird said.
     Ethan stared at the floor, wondering if he would still have somewhere to perch come dawn. “If this is about the Krispis . . .”
     His host father laughed at him. “This is about much more than cereal.”
     “I don’t—”
     “You weren’t the only student we could have chosen, understand? Do you know what I’m telling you? There were other choices, but we chose you.”
     Ethan’s slate blue eyes watched his wristwatch tick away the afternoon.
     “Of all the teenagers in Estados Unidos, we chose the one who doesn’t like cereal.”
     “I like cereal,” Ethan assured him yet again; “what I don’t like is the taste of the milk you buy.”
     “The milk tastes fine,” the cock said.
     “Brick milk is quite different from what I’m used to.”
     “What kind do you—” The man caught himself: “That’s right; you drink milk that’s sold in bottles.”
     Ethan nodded. “It’s perishable but doesn’t taste funny, at least to—”
     “We don’t buy that kind of milk,” the cock declared. “Don’t ask me again.”
     I didn’t ask you before, Ethan wanted to insist.
     “We don’t eat Krispis. I bought and paid for them for you.”
     Ethan had little doubt that his host mother had actually done the shopping. Besides, they were compensated for his day-to-day expenses. “If I had known the Krispis were so important to you, I would have eaten them dry. I’ll eat them dry.”
     “And could you check the gas bottle before you shower every day?”
     Ethan couldn’t believe the man was harping on the butane again. “I do check it,” he said, “and I only forgot that one time . . . way back in September. I apologized—”
     “But your apology didn’t buy a full gas bottle, did it?”
     Ethan felt like a puppy that had once piddled on the rug and was having his nose rubbed in the invisible stain.
     “The wife couldn’t make dinner; Burger King doesn’t give away Whoppers and patatas fritas, understand? You’re strange but smart. I know you know what I’m saying.”
     “I understand,” Ethan said faintly, “and as I said before, my house in Bir-he-nia (Virginia) has pipe gas, not gas bottles. Without a gauge or a scale, it’s hard to judge how much is left in one of those things.”
     “Didn’t you pick it up?”
     Ethan wanted to scream. “Again, it felt about half full.”
     “But it wasn’t,” the cock said wryly.
     “No, it wasn’t. Sorry.”
     Additional rebukes and apologies lasted until the door creaked open. A woman’s voice ventured through the crack: “I’m going to mass.”
     Her husband wiped the saliva off the corner of his mouth. “Fine.”
     “And don’t forget to have the late-afternoon snack, you two.”
     “Make it before you go,” the cock said, “and I’ll eat it later.”
     “I don’t have time.”
     The man glanced at Ethan’s watch. “It’s only six fifteen, and mass doesn’t start until seven o’clock. There’s plenty of time.”
     “No, there isn’t,” the voice insisted.
     The cock left oily fingerprints as he pushed back from the table. “Why not?” he asked, swaggering forward.
     “Because I’m taking a sanity break.”
     The cock clutched the doorknob, his knuckles reddening. “So you have the time, but won’t take the time.”
     “No . . . no, I won’t.”
     “What about the café?”
     “You’ll have to make it.”
     “Why haven’t you done it?”
     “Because God frowns at sinners who are late to mass,” his wife said. “There’s yogur in the refrigerator, behind the milk.”
     Dispirited and hungry, Ethan began to push back his cuticles, tending to each finger in exactly the same way as he gazed out the window. Outside, the light was turning soft, but inside the mood was already hard. He rocked forward and watched his host mother retreat. “And there’s cereal to go with that milk,” he said, thoughtlessly trying to lighten the mood. Or maybe he knew exactly what he was doing.
     The cock shoved the door open and chased after his hen. The two exchanged idle threats of divorce—nothing unusual—and then the front door thudded shut. The man locked and chained it, waltzed into the kitchen, and clanged together the makings of a small pot of coffee.
     After cursing his cigarette lighter, he lit the burner with a match as gas flowed plentifully from the gas bottle on the balcony. Waiting for the water to boil, he opened a package of fairy cakes and ate one of the light, spongy cupcakes as he stood at the stove.
     Minutes later, the aroma of stovetop coffee drifted on the silence. It was followed by the sporadic tings of a glass espresso cup settling into its saucer. Another fairy cake, a warmed cup of café con leche, the return of the opened brick of milk to the refrigerator, the rustle of a new pack of cigarettes. The cock strutted out of the kitchen.
     Kneeling on the bed, Ethan banked the memory of the mountains to the north silhouetted a deep reddish-purple by the sunset. After four tugs on the belt built into the wall, he was insulated by the roller shutter from the hominess of Las Rozas. He turned to face the starkness of the situation.
     The cock stood in the doorway, legs apart, hands on hips, a lit Marlboro pinched between his lips. “I have made my decision.”

In Support of Local Authors and Independent Booksellers

Browseabout Books in Rehoboth Beach, Delaware, began sponsoring “The Rehoboth Beach Reads Short Story Contest” in 2013. That was also the year my family first visited Rehoboth Beach and the Poconos, during a surprise, early-summer trip I had been planning for more than six months. I had known nothing about the short story contest prior to wandering into Browseabout Books, and after returning home to Virginia, I had started working on my contest submission. The theme that first year was “The Beach House.”

“The goal of the Rehoboth Beach Reads contest is to showcase good writing while creating a great book for summer reading. One of the most popular activities for residents and visitors is reading on the beach, and the contest seeks to collect the kinds of short, engaging stories that help readers relax, escape, and enjoy their time at the beach.

Each story must incorporate the chosen theme and also have a strong connection to Rehoboth Beach (writers do not have to live in Rehoboth). A panel of judges select the best entries, which are published in a professionally designed and edited paperback book.

Contest Guidelines [for 2017]

 1. Submission must fit the theme “Beach Life.”
 2. Submission may be fiction or nonfiction, but must be plausible as a “beach read”
     (engaging, entertaining, and/or humorous).
 3. No poetry, erotica, children’s literature, or religious material.
 4. All work must be original, unpublished, and free from libelous material
     (a signed release will be required).
 5. Length must be 500–3,500 words.
 6. Work must be submitted via email, preferably in Microsoft Word.
 7. Work should be publication-ready (in final form and free from grammatical,
      spelling, and structural mistakes).
 8. Writers retain copyright but must grant first publication rights if their work
      is selected.
 9. There is no guarantee of publication.
10. Limit of three entries per person.
11. Publisher reserves right to edit for grammar and spelling; writers will be
     given an opportunity to review changes before publication.
12. No entries will be accepted after the deadline: midnight, July 1, 2017
     (entries received at or after 12:01am July 2 will be disqualified).
13. Each entry must be accompanied by a $10 fee.
14. Writers do not have to reside in Rehoboth, but the written piece must
     include a substantive connection to the area.
15. Work will be judged on creativity, quality of writing, suitability as a
     beach read, and fit with the theme.”
(Source: http://catandmousepress.com/contest/)

Beach Life cover
Beach Life cover image used with permission from Cat & Mouse Press

I didn’t make it into The Beach House, or into The Boardwalk in 2014, Beach Days in 2015, or Beach Nights in 2016. But after four years of disappointment, self-doubt, and knee-jerk reactions not to enter the contest anymore, the fifth time was the charm. My Judge’s Award-winning “Lefty and the Empty Bucket of Fries” begins on page 189 of Beach Life, which is now available at Browseabout Books and on Amazon.com. In celebration of surprise trips, local authors, and persevering through rejection and self-doubt, mosey out your front door and into your local or not-so-local independent bookseller. If you’re looking for a book that’s fun, engaging and beachy, I can recommend one.

On Getting No Response to Queries, Licking Your Wounds, and Then Querying Again

About a week ago I received an email that made me tremble with excitement. Here’s how it began:

“Mr. Houck:

Thanks for your kind patience while we reviewed your submission. We’ve had a flood of submissions over the past year plus, and have been giving each one a fair reading.

I’m excited to let you know that we’re interested in publishing your book…”

(To read more, visit The Precariousness of Done.)

It was a thrilling, anxiety-provoking, life-changing moment that validated my years of lonely, hard work and briefly quieted the self-doubt that has always plagued me.

Throughout the writing process, I had become a better writer and believed in the book, but not so much in myself. And growing a thick skin was painful.

Three of my critical readers didn’t finish reading the manuscript. One that did had several “running quarrels” with me throughout, including “over written descriptive passages” and my shifting gears into “what seems to become a travel guide, thus confusing the point of view and the unity of the text, not to mention endangering the dramatic tension.” I could go on, but won’t.

After licking my wounds, I listened to their criticism, reworked the manuscript as I saw fit, and sent out my initial round of email queries in early September 2015.

October came and went. So did November and December.

I heard nothing.

But I still believed in the book. In myself, not so much.

So, after licking my wounds again, I spent the winter working on a new query letter, getting help with my approach, and re-re-retooling my manuscript. In April, I stepped well outside my comfort zone by attending my first writers’ conference and subjecting myself to live critiques of my submission during Slush Pile Live!

I survived and thrived, and then put what I had learned to good use.

Here’s the opening of the email queries I sent out in May:

“Dear [names omitted],

Ethan is bright yet painfully shy. A milk toast, he rarely stands up for himself, and when he manages to say no, he feels guilty or anxious. But when it comes to his passion—Spanish—he is an absolute and unflappable crack. His Castilian accent was honed while studying after high school in the Spanish town of Las Rozas. He has fond memories of living there, but not of his host mother, who called him a “profound retard,” or of his host father, who told him he was a “troglodyte” and then threw the teenager out of his apartment.

My novel, The Precariousness of Done, opens years later, when Ethan, now in his twenties, has returned to Las Rozas to visit the family that took him in after his eviction. It’s early October. The town’s holding its annual fiestas—runnings of the bulls, bullfights, carnival, concerts, street vendors, pickpockets, and crowds of teenagers puffing on cigarettes.

And it’s been nearly two months since Ethan lost his natural mother…”

So I started waiting again, knowing my queries were better. But were they good…or good enough?

My wife and I spent the summer months packing moving trucks, selling the house, taking our son to and from lapidary arts school, and starting a new job, but the queries were never far from my mind. At least I got a few personal rejections.

And then that email came last week.

So stay tuned: I intend to take you, the followers of this blog, through the hard work ahead with me. I’m sure it, too, will be exciting and anxiety-provoking, and I hope my journey can be of use to you as you push toward your goal(s), especially if self-doubt is also your constant companion.

Maybe we can work on that together.

Another Rejection, but I’m Still Writing

“Dear Tony,

The judges have chosen the stories for [title omitted], and your story, “The Queen,” was not one of the stories selected. This is not a judgment on you, or even on your writing, but simply a result of the fact that these particular judges, this particular year, did not choose your story.

I encourage you to keep writing and submitting. This very year, we had an author resubmit an entry that was not chosen last year. Rather than give up, the author went back, revised the story to fit this year’s theme, looked for ways to improve the story, and resubmitted it. This year, it was selected.

I am a writer myself, so I know getting an email like this never feels good, but I do congratulate you on having the courage to complete a piece of writing and put it up for judging. Many, many writers never get that far.

Best of luck with all your endeavors,

[name omitted]”

 

Although rejection hurts and sucks, it gives you a much-needed thick skin.

Here’s my short story. I hope you enjoy it.

But even if you don’t, I’m still gonna keep writing.

 

THE QUEEN

As far as Tori was concerned, she and her father had been “managing just fine, thank you very much,” but Daddy had let “that nag” wheedle herself into the family, anyway. It had all happened in a flash, and all of it had been flashy: the ring, the invitations, the dress, the nighttime beach wedding, the reception. What Regina wants, Regina gets.

A rare exception was the delayed honeymoon, but even that had helped her get her way. Despite the builder’s polite discouragement, she had often dropped in unannounced on the new house—a project begun in the bittersweet year prior to Regina’s arrival—and ordered changes costing thousands of dollars.

Her stamp on the brick-accented bungalow had been heaviest in the hallway, a now bright and glamorous space thanks to a skylight, modern light fixtures, and luxurious purple carpeting.

But not even the densest carpet padding could hush Regina’s footfalls as she stormed toward her stepdaughter’s bedroom. She pushed the door open. “7 o’clock,” she crowed.

As she had done every morning since graduation, Tori pretended to be asleep.

“Playing possum again, huh?” Regina asked, arms akimbo, her shadow stretching into the room. “Well, you are an annoying and unpleasant creature that’s out all night.” Her shadowy hands lifted off her hips and wrung her new daughter’s neck.

Tori smiled inwardly as she listened to Regina try to find the light switch.

“Screw that,” she said, annoyed by what seemed to be a prank. She marched to the bed and jerked the duvet off Tori. “7 o’clock,” she repeated even more shrilly.

The teenaged lump was unresponsive.

“Rise and shine.”

An exaggerated sigh and a crack of the toes.

“Get up, Tori.”

Only Daddy and my girls call me that, the nineteen-year-old wanted to insist. You can call me Victoria.

Regina kicked the latest shoe trends under the bed and headed for the window. “High school’s over, and this ‘dance’ we’ve been doing ends today.” She yanked the curtains and blind open.

Sunrise had melted into morning, and eager rays struck the dark circles under Tori’s eyes. She pulled the sheet over her head.

“No, ma’am,” Regina snarled, stripping the covers off the bed. “If you can’t drag yourself off the beach before 2:00 a.m., then you’re gonna have to go to class tired.”

The beach closes at 1:00, not 2:00, clueless nag.

“You had two choices…and chose college.” She eyed Tori’s pageant sashes and tiaras. “I guess getting a real job was beneath you.”

Tori cracked her toes again.

Regina slapped them in disgust. “If it were up to me, you’d be out of my house altogether,” she said snottily.

Your house? Tori sneered. Daddy bought and laid each brick.

“Daddy” was a mason whose public face was as hard as his private one was soft. Steady work on a “fresh start in a brand new house” had gotten him through the grief of losing his wife to cancer. Tori used to sneak inside the old place while it was on the market, until the odor of fresh paint killed the scent of the woman who had made it a home—coconut milk body wash and light vanilla-lemon perfume.

Regina, however, smelled like a hair and nail salon. “I would have kicked you out right after graduation, like my parents did me.”

Even they couldn’t stand you.

Regina inched along the side of the bed. “But, of course, your father let you stay,” she huffed, jerking the down pillows off Tori. “Going to Wilmington University here in Rehoboth was your choice, so don’t blame me because you didn’t realize their summer classes start at 8:00.” She stared at Tori’s perfect skin before stomping over to the desk. “You’re just lucky those classes aren’t for credit, with all the times you’ve been late.” She rapped her gold-glittered fingernails on a new tablet. “But you being tardy stops now.” She tossed Tori’s backpack on the bed and then fumbled with her MP3 player, turning up a now “uncool” tune until the docking station’s speakers crackled. “I won’t tell you again to get up.”

Then don’t, nag.

“I mean it,” Regina insisted as she strutted toward the door.

Tori lay in wait with one eye open. Do it; I dare you.

Yesterday morning, before slouching off to her “Writing Your Memoirs” class—“who wants to read your life story?” Regina had scoffed—Tori’s spitefulness had trumped her brattiness.

After lazily attending to each of her toenails, she had used the file to back out the screws on “that thing that covers the light switch.” And then last night, before collapsing into bed, she had collaged the wall with fashion magazine pages using rhinestone tacks. Like the models, Tori was a rail-thin fashion plate, but only her ears were pierced; she was saving a more shocking piercing for when her new mother really pissed her off.

“You better not be in that bed when I come back,” Regina declared, groping for the switch under the magazine pages.

Tori opened the other eye.

The payoff came quickly.

“You don’t wanna be in that bed when I—”

Regina tore the pages off the wall and clicked the light on. She glared at the exposed screw heads, at her chipped manicure, and then at Tori.

Victoria smiled. Gold digger.

 THE END