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.”

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.

Life and Death in the Bullring

On July 9, matador Víctor Barrio was fatally gored in the chest, becoming the first Spanish torero to die in the ring since September 1985. Earlier that same year, I had first visited Spain as a high schooler and seen my first bullfight—Spain became my passion, the bullfight became my fascination.

In 1988, I returned to Spain as an exchange student in the burgeoning town of Las Rozas de Madrid. During the weeklong Fiestas de San Miguel (the Festival of Saint Michael), I attended many bullfights and ran with the bulls without incident. My passion and fascination grew.

I returned to Las Rozas in 1993 to visit my surrogate Spanish family, who introduced me to José Luis Ruiz Azañedo, a novillero (novice bullfighter) who fought under the name «Finito de Las Rozas» until his recent retirement from the ring. We became fast friends and remain so to this today despite the fact that my love for the bullfight has now mostly turned to disgust. My love for the Spain, however, remains strong.

In preparation for a book I was writing, I interviewed Finito in 1998, airmailing him a list of questions—“email? what’s email?” You may find one of his answers interesting in the wake of the death of Víctor Barrio. The original Castilian appears first (a little bit of classwork for new students of the beautiful Spanish language), and my English translation follows.

¿Cómo te sientes en el momento de matar un toro?  ¿E inmediatamente después?

Es muy complicado expresar con palabras lo que en ese momento se siente; porque cuando estás toreando existe una comunicación y un acercamiento entre el toro y el torero que es difícil de olvidar sobre todo cuando el toro es bravo y se entrega totalmente a la faena que le hace el torero, en esos momentos a la hora de colocar al toro para morir tienes que mirarle a la cara y sientes entonces el tener que matar a un toro que te ha ayudado colaborando estrechamente para el triunfo del torero, a lo largo de toda la faena.

Dependiendo de como haya sido el toro, los sentimientos del torero fluctúan entre la satisfacción de ver morir a un toro que ha luchado noblemente en la faena, la rabia si el toro no era lo que se esperaba y, en algunos casos la alegría de haberlo matado si no ha sido un buen toro para poder pensar en los siguientes.

(How do you feel at the moment of killing a bull? And immediately afterwards?

It’s very complicated to express in words what one feels in that moment because when you are fighting there exist a communication and a relationship between the bull and the torero that are difficult to forget, particularly when the bull is brave and it gives itself totally to the torero’s faena [final series of passes made with the red cape], in those moments when in comes to positioning the bull in order to kill it, you have to look it in the eyes, and you feel the need to kill a bull that has helped you, closely collaborating in the torero’s triumph throughout the faena.

Depending on how the bull has been, the torero’s feelings fluctuate between satisfaction of seeing die a bull that has fought nobly during the faena, anger if the bull wasn’t what was hoped for, and in some cases happiness of having killed it if hasn’t been a good bull in order to think about the next ones.)

The toro that killed Víctor Barrio was neither satisfied, angry, nor happy; it was simply being a fighting bull.

An Exchange Student’s Bittersweet Journey Home

I was eighteen years old and introverted. My Spanish host father was a retired porn director. My host mother had had her palm read; there was no sign of her husband in her future. My host brother was a spoiled, teenaged baby.

During my six-month stay, I had offended them in ways I still don’t understand, and they had kicked me out….

March 1989

A faded symbol on the ground outside the Puerta del Sol, a 19th-century square which is the heart of not only Madrid but Spain itself, marks Kilometer Zero of the system of national highways known as the carretera nacional. The major arteries of this network are six toll-free highways, or autovías, prefixed by “N” and numbered I to VI.

Radiating from the geographically centered capital to coastal provinces or the Portuguese border, the N-I-VI are more heavily traveled than the “R” autopistas (toll highways) they run parallel to since many Spaniards can’t afford to pay the high tolls. Anyone who has been mired in traffic hell during one of Madrid’s four rush hours knows all too well that “heavily traveled” understates things quite a bit.

The N-VI breaks out of the capital near the Mirador del Faro observation tower and passes through Ciudad Universitaria on its way to the suburbs and the northwestern port city of A Coruña. At Kilometer 18 along that major artery lies the burgeoning municipality of Las Rozas. Its proximity to the capital, which was on the front line during the Civil War that began in 1936, explains why the town stood in ruins when the war ended in 1939. The fact that it straddles the N-VI only twenty minutes from Madrid is an important reason why it and los roceños (the people of Las Rozas) flourish today.

Roceños are among the countless nicotine-addicted suburbanites with a penchant for the honking of an automobile horn who each weekday morning form a creeping Madrid-bound caravan. Even with five of the N-VI’s eight lanes, including its two center reversible HOV lanes, or carriles de Bus-VAO, open to inbound traffic, commuters making the 15-kilometer trek to the capital may be stuck in traffic for an hour or more. No wonder so many of them smoke.

As I taxied alone from Las Rozas to Madrid’s Barajas Airport, which lies almost 15 kilometers to the east of the Puerta del Sol, I became fixated on the growing total on the running meter and the blinking colon on the dashboard clock. It wasn’t long after we had been “parked” on the N-VI that I began to place mental bets on which would be gone first—the pesetas in my wallet or my mid-morning flight to New York. The woman in the maroon Volkswagon Polo to my left and her young backpack-toting passenger appeared to be on their way to a colegio (primary or secondary school) somewhere near Madrid. I just knew that little girl would be late for school, and I was quite sure that eventually I would be standing in the international terminal staring at an empty gate.

To my surprise and relief we made it to our exit in about thirty minutes and merged on to the outer carretera de circunvalación (ring highway) encircling the capital that provides access to the airport. Racing—well, it felt like racing, at least compared to the crawling of the last half hour—towards Barajas with that slowly moving parking lot behind me I whispered a long-distance thank-you to the upstairs neighbor who had called for my taxi just a few minutes early. About an hour after I got into the cab I stepped out of it, and after more waiting at the ticket counter, passport control, and security, I boarded the plane and was in my seat. I hoped that schoolgirl was in hers, too.