Being Dead - An Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus

BEING DEAD, A MOMENT AGO

 

Carmella Faye Nighthouse was dead, and because she was dead, everything that happened in dead-time happened at least a moment ago and in the memories of someone else.

 

Minutes and hours no longer propelled themselves with that familiar linear surge of living time. While at rest, Carmella was aware that she was stuck in some odd way-station between the living and the gone, and she knew she had halted the machinery—or at least disrupted the scheduled events—of what was supposed to happen to her spirit in the afterlife.

She liked to cause trouble, but this was trouble on a scale even she wasn’t used to.

 

Carmella Faye was not originally christened with the last name Nighthouse. She had chosen the name after divorcing her first husband, after—as she saw the matter—erasing her individuality to adopt yet another man’s name. She knew she couldn’t go back to being a Scherner; she wanted a name that was hers and hers alone. Nighthouse was homage to a great aunt on her mother’s side who had first introduced and then discarded through marriage a French surname. Carmella translated that French surname, twisted it until it evoked the image of a sole lighted house set atop a darkened hill and cast against a sidereal sky. A signal house. A beacon. A sole source of illumination beaming out from a bleak landscape.

Nighthouse.

 

She learned that because she was dead there was no proper ‘now.’ Now was for the living, and she lived only in the past tense, in the memories and remembrances of the folks scattered around the world who had known her. Those flashes and episodes played concurrently across the globe, meaning she was Carmellas of various ages and personalities to many different people at sporadic moments. She only existed in what had already happened. The world of the present had relinquished her.

 

Lolly Scherner had named her Carmella in a rare fit of whimsy. Carmella’s three siblings possessed practical, Mid-West appropriate names: Sue, Roger, and Brad. How her mother had hit upon the name Carmella, and why she had insisted on naming her second daughter this, was a mystery to all but Lolly Scherner. Only Lolly knew that while she was pregnant, she had had Technicolor visions of flamenco dancers spinning about her head, and the name—Carmella!—had shown in the marquee lights that illuminated her imagination. Carmella was the name of movie star, Carmella was the name of a woman who would be craved, wanted and worshipped, and Carmella would ascend to notorious heights even if it killed mother and daughter both to get Carmella there.

 

Not long after being interred on her parents’ farm, Carmella learned she could access a person’s memory of her and then use that memory to again perceive the world of the living. More than that, she discovered that she could also move from one person’s psyche to another, to shift from one location to another, because a single memory was linked to her by that memory’s every participant, and his or her subjective recall of that event. Remembrances splintered between people, and she could portage those tributaries and rivulets that separated one person’s experience from another’s.

She discovered this memory-hopping ability when Lolly Scherner made one of her daily visits to Carmella’s gravesite. Her mother struggled, and failed, not to weep. Carmella, resting with her body in the earth below Lolly Scherner’s sneakers, became aware of the older woman’s presence and without knowing how, she emerged from a silent, senseless but still aware state into her mother’s bright and loud memory: It was dinner time, and a pre-teen Carmella was demanding dessert.

“You’ll skip dessert,” her mother had said. “Nobody likes a fat girl.”

Lolly Scherner then scooped servings of the apple crisp and vanilla ice cream for Carmella’s father, her sister, her two brothers, and then saved the largest serving for herself. As an enraged Carmella grabbed her mother’s plate and Frisbeed it and the dessert to the floor, Carmella, being inside herself and her mother in simultaneous unison, felt her mother’s guilt, her shame, and her revulsion at her own daughter. Even the ghostly Carmella had to admit that she was chubby and kind of horrible looking as a preteen – a fat girl with crazy eyes who was too damned smart for her own good. Viewing herself from another’s perspective, Carmella had never before conceived that there might be more emotions beside her own at play. She had never considered that she might somehow have contributed to the pain of that episode instead of being merely the victim.

With a little re-orienting, Carmella replayed the same memory multiple times, and from multiple points of view – sometimes she was her distracted father Bobby, sometimes one of her bored brothers, either Roger or Brad, or sometimes she was inside her ever-judgmental sister Sue, who wished with her entire being that her younger sister would just get over herself already.

By switching points of view, which was as easy as sliding her ghost form into the body of the other person, Carmella learned how to first perceive and then follow the various flows of reminiscence back to that person’s collected store of Carmella memories. There existed an entire wet framework of these recollections connecting each person with the other, and the brain or mind or whatever you want to call it used a liquesent energy—part churning salt water, part snapping bioelectricity—to maintain those recollections. Within these remembrances, she found that she could again taste food, she could quench her thirst, she could feel the sun sear her skin. As long as she remained within the confines of someone else’s memory of her, in the past and in dead time, she could slide along the wetworks to anyone else’s memory of her and live again in the scene that they provided. So what if she were trapped in the past tense, at least she was alive back there. Back then.

It didn’t take long for Carmella, who was never content with anything, to decide that traveling and living in someone else’s memories of her wasn’t enough; she wished to enter the living present, the now, where she could act and speak with the independence she so valued. That was how she learned if she pushed herself into the present, she depleted the energy contained within a person’s memory and then erased that memory from the person’s mind -- forever.

Unfortunately, she discovered this when she had tried to appear in the present to her son.

The Hauntings - An Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus

Three a.m., a day after Charles McManus had seen his dead ex-wife for the first time in eight years at a Portland dive bar. Three a.m., a day after Carmella’s ghost had trashed his apartment. Three a.m., when dawn was far away, more a factor of distance—miles from here—rather than a factor of time. Three a.m., and Carmella came for him again.

Unaware, McManus lay on his futon in an alcohol-induced slumber.

The floor-plan of his studio apartment was like so: a single door led inside from the hallway of the 1920s, five-story, brick building. Upon entering and to the immediate left, through the closet, was the bathroom with its authentic claw-foot tub. Straight ahead lay the bedroom/living room, where he kept his futon, desk, dresser, stereo and collection of vinyl records. A massive window looked out on the drab Section 8 apartment building across the alley. Left turn at the window took you to the dining area and kitchen. The studio still possessed its original crown moldings, hardwood floors and the telephone intercom system, which all added to the vintage, funky cool of the place.

Back to the haunting. The smell came for McManus first. A moist, pungent, upturned earth aroma. He was allergic to mold, which was unfortunate given that he had chosen to live in the Pacific Northwest, and he was sneezing and hacking before he was awake and conscious of what was happening.

A tickle on the hair of his right arm. Another tickle. Just the lightest brushing and scampering on the hair of his left leg. Was that another one in his beard?

Then came the noises from the window-wall. Swish swish galumph. Swish swish galumph.

At this McManus finally cracked an eye and lifted his head from the pillow. The darkness in the apartment made inky shapes of his belongings against the window’s gray glow. There was illumination enough to spy the shadow just then sliding in the window’s upper panes. Sliding along the inside of the glass.

Swish swish galumph. Swish swish galumph.

There was another noise, too, or maybe it was the same noise but better clarified:  the arrhythmic bark of flesh skidding along glass. The same noise he made when he was wiping down the windows with cleanser.

Whatever it was, the mass dragged downward in an angle along the window, descending with slow, jerking motions from ceiling to floor.

McManus sat up.

The shape on the glass spun—was that a leg?—and slid back up into the black, concealed safety of the ceiling.

He reached on the wall above him for the light switch and flicked it on. Brightness blared throughout the room, momentarily blinding him.

All at once, the smell changed over from molded earth to the sticky spoil of garbage. His trashcan, which he stored under the kitchen sink, had somehow traversed the room and emptied all over the comforter that lay atop him. Undulating heaps of cockroaches were orgy-feasting on top of him. Some had gone foraging beneath the sheets.

He leapt from the bed, still watching the window and the ceiling. Whatever mass-possessing shadow had been up there was gone.

McManus would need to be up in a half an hour for his shift at the bakery, anyway, so he brewed coffee and cleaned the garbage. Then he killed all cockroaches that had dared enter his bed-sheets. It would take several showers, and several loads of laundry, before he could make that tickling sensation on his arm, leg and face go away.

Carmella’s ghost, it turned out, was just warming up.

 

She got him again the next morning, again at 3 a.m. He awoke with a start, scanning the darkened room and testing his skin and bedding for intruders. He found nothing amiss, but he flicked on the light just in case. Believing he had the all-clear, he rose from his futon, and stumbled through his hanging clothes to the toilet. Although the toilet seat was up and he had a clear shot for the bowl, his urine splattered against his knees and onto his bare feet. Something was blocking access to the water. With a painful clench, he suppressed his stream.

A wavering movement to his left. The sleeves of his shirts were dancing, as if pulled from above by strings or webs. Strings or webs that he couldn’t see. Then the shirts slid off their hangers, tangled together, whipped and snapped, formed a shape, a shape with many arms and legs.

McManus watched all this in a frozen stupor, his cock receded from his hand as blood flowed to the fight or flight reservoirs inside his brain and body. Time to go!

He flicked on the bathroom light, remembering that doing so had helped shoo away the haunting the previous morning, and that was when he saw that he had pissed all over his cherished vinyl copy of Fun House by The Stooges. Carmella’s ghost had wedged the album beneath the seat so that it covered the bowl.

“Bitch,” he shouted at the mass of undulating clothes, but the shirts now lay in a quiet heap as if they had been piled there all along.

 

The next morning, at 3 a.m., McManus had set his alarm so that he would be awake to anticipate Carmella’s attack.

He thought that by being fully conscious and less susceptible to his dream state, the power of her haunting would be less severe, but her attack wasn’t abated in the least. One moment the room was dark and still, the next, every light bulb in the studio lit brighter than they had ever burned. His breath rushed from his body as a darkened mass dropped onto his chest. He shoved his arms at whatever had planted itself atop him, but his arms pushed through air.

Snap! Snap! Snap!

Every light bulb burst in a small explosion of glass and smoke until he was in the dark with the thing pinning him down, the mass that was impeding his airflow but that he was somehow unable to grasp or shove. He was certain that this was the same shape that had been crawling across his window a couple nights ago. Now it slid around on him—was that a leg?!—as if clamoring for better footing. He struggled to free himself. That deep earth, molded over scent caused him to hack and sneeze. He was going to suffocate. This was how he would die.

In the next moment, the inky shape rose off him, floating upward as if on a web-line, and retreated into the shadows of the ceiling. He gasped. Bright spots flashed in the periphery of his vision as oxygen made its way back to his brain. He rolled off the futon and onto the fir flooring. He lay there until the strength returned to his arms, then he lifted himself up and lit a cigarette.

Groggy and yet partially insane from three nights of little to no sleep, he thought, OK, this haunting shit is pretty damned persuasive.

Novel Update and Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus

In case you've forgotten, I am first and foremost a fiction writer. A fiction writer whose second novel is nearly complete.

The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus is my 'fast' novel, meaning that it has taken only four years (and counting) to get to where I am now. Like I said. Fast. Absolutely screaming.

And where am I?

In the next couple of weeks (I'm planning for the end of the calendar year), the current draft will have exhausted my ability to edit/read/tolerate it any longer, which means that the thing will need to be released in its entirety out into the wilds of actual human readers. 

A few of you--OK maybe one of you--might be interested in what I've been working on, so I'm going to devote some more of my blog posts to novel excerpts. If you have the inclination, please let me know what you think.

Thank you, as always, for checking in.

***

Despite the hauntings and the random trashing of his possessions at his studio apartment, McManus still managed to arrive at the bakery, prepare the flats of bread, muffins and pastries, and hit his delivery times. After work, he found himself staying at the bars later than he wanted because, thanks to Carmella’s ghost, his apartment wasn’t the sanctuary it had once been. So he took to wandering the streets of downtown Portland, chain-smoking cigarettes and waving off the dealers who approached. He spent hours staring at the Willamette River, the same oft-polluted waterway where he had years ago tossed his wedding band when Carmella and he had lived downriver in Eugene. He watched traffic crawl across the Hawthorne or Marquam bridges, feeling as if he existed in some parallel dimension that lay alongside the living world. He simply didn’t know what else to do, or where else to go, so he gave himself over to wandering the night.

It was on one of these nights that he passed the storefront of a psychic reader. He had wandered past the cobalt, neon sign several times before, but on this particular night, after he had gotten home from work, he had discovered his clothes strewn about the bathroom floor, piled inside the tub and even crammed into the toilet. He called Carmella’s ghost ‘a crazy fucking bitch’ and stormed out. Why him? Of all the many people she could have confessed the desired location of her burial to, why had Carmella chosen him? Entrusting him with this information was a curse, and that was probably why she had picked him. In fact, he knew that was why she had picked him. Imparting personal knowledge was Carmella’s ultimate act of aggression, because once you knew a single fact about her, she could hate you for possessing this sliver of knowledge and lash out with no restraint.

Without thinking on the matter further, McManus entered the psychic’s shop.

Candles the width of mailing tubes lit the space, and ornate cloth riddled with paisleys draped along every flat surface. In the center of the room sat a round table surrounded by chairs that had been carved with stars, moons and serpents. A heavy curtain blocked access to the back, and florescent light leeched behind the gap between floor and fabric. He guessed that was the office behind there. He cleared his throat and asked if the business was open. The florescent light switched off.

A woman threw open the curtain. She was taller than McManus, and all skinny angles and bony lines doused in a clingy silk outfit; he guessed she was in her fifties.

“I am Saskia,” she said. “Sit.”

He hoped there might be some negotiation of price so that he could politely back out, but she sat and scrutinized him. An open expression of shock crossed her bony face.

“You are haunted,” she said, her voice rising in both pitch and volume, “a spirit clings to you. Someone who shared time with you…you and she were not close but you were trapped together. Caged.”

McManus settled in and said, “My ex-wife. She’s been at me for over a week now. Haunting me, like you said.”

Saskia studied the space just above his right shoulder.

“She has no peace,” the psychic said as if Carmella were telling the other woman her mind. “She has nowhere else to go. Spirits usually cling to a place. This one has attached herself to your memories. She feeds on them.” Saskia slurped her lips into her mouth to make the accompanying sound effect.

“I need to send her a message. She wanted me to remember something. I have. Now I need to tell her what I’ve remembered so she’ll go away.”

Saskia said, “I trust that you have already told her what it is she wants to know.”

“Fuck yes.”

Saskia quit the table and returned with a green, glass sea ball the size of a volleyball and used to float the nets of Japanese fishing vessels an ocean away. She set the sphere atop a kickstand-like wood perch at the center of the table and slid into her seat.

“Give me your hands.”

“Is that supposed to be a crystal ball?”

Saskia glared at him and said, “I know my trade, and I know the tools of my trade. Sea-forged glass is the most powerful there is. Would you like to communicate with your ex wife now?”

McManus slid his hands to the woman’s. She clenched them and said,

“Look into the green.”

He watched the orb cloud over, not with smoke but with condensation. What had moments ago been transparent was now opaque and impenetrable. Fogged.

“I don’t see anything.”

She squeezed his hands again until they hurt, imploring him to shut up. He continued to study the sea ball.

He half-expected Carmella’s disembodied head to appear, like the crystal balls in the Haunted Mansion at Disneyland, but what he saw in short order was his apartment. The view was from the ceiling, gazing down on the futon. Records cascaded to the floor, his stereo tipped and fell, and his bedding zipped this way and that as if a giant, invisible, and pissed off toddler had been loosed upon his sheets and pillows.

“Goddammit,” he said.

“Tell her,” Saskia said, “tell her what she wanted to know.”

“Fine,” McManus said. “Carmella, I know where you want to be buried.”

The dervish dance of destruction ceased. Saskia gasped and then convulsed as if by seizure.

He wasn’t sure what was afflicting the woman, but McManus pressed on and said,

“I can contact your new husband. Your current husband, I mean. Let him know the specifics. Everything will be OK.”

Saskia spoke between ragged breaths, “No, no. She says that you must do it.”

“Do what?”

“You must be the one to move her body.”

McManus tallied the reasons such a scheme would not be possible. He picked the most salient from the dozen or more that presented themselves.

“She isn’t my problem anymore. This doesn’t need to involve me.”

The image of his apartment within the sea ball receded, and the condensation cleared, giving way again to transparent, emerald-hued glass. Saskia, who was apparently free now from whatever affliction had seized her, slumped in her chair.

“You are not telling me something,” she said. “This spirit is powerful. Vengeful.”

“She visited me,” McManus pointed in the direction of the bar. “During Happy Hour. She sat down and talked to me. She looked OK, you know, for being dead.”

Saskia sat forward. “That is not good for you.”

McManus told her about how Carmella’s every appearance would result in the loss of one of his memories of her, but hauntings, hauntings were free.

Saskia pushed out her bottom lip.

“She is reckless. Stealing someone’s memories will have unintended consequences for her. And as for you, she has no qualms about putting your sanity in danger. She must truly despise you.”

McManus waited for the woman to say more or perhaps contradict the information he had received from Carmella, but Saskia didn’t.

“I thought you were going to help,” McManus said.

“I have done all I can tonight,” she said, “Fifty dollars, please.”

“Hold up. We can’t, I don’t know, exorcise her or some such shit?”

Saskia studied the empty air to his right again, and said, “She’s already decided what it is you must do for her, and she’s committed that request to a Universe that means to enforce that decision. Neither of you will know any rest until you do this thing for her. You can ignore her request at your own peril. That is all.”

He made for the door.

“Wait.”

McManus turned; Saskia’s expression had gone again to that stoned, constipated pleading.

“A sole offering sacrifices one but saves two.”

“What was that?”

Saskia shook off whatever force had enthralled her and slid behind the curtain. McManus waited a moment longer just to be sure the psychic was done with him, then he walked home to his ruined apartment.

 

NaNo-What Now?

November is NaNoWriMo.

What the hell is that, you ask? (I did.) You can find out more about it here: http://nanowrimo.org/ but the gist is that it's a writing contest where participants strive to write as much of a novel as they can in one month's time. 

Maybe the rest of you aren't as erudite and cultured as I am (ahem), so I'll admit that I was initially skeptical (perhaps even dismissive) of the idea. NaNoWriMo embraces anyone who has a month to throw word count after word count at it, and there's a hint of favoring production over almighty art. It's purposefully democratic. And one could extend its philosophy to the rise of self-publishing and e-books.

I wasn't sure of this at first. I carried with me a very outmoded idea of what the art and craft of writing should be. 

But I was wrong. Wrong about self-publishing and wrong about NaNoWriMo.

The awesome and insanely prolific Beth Shelby introduced me to NaNoWriMo a couple years ago. Along with Stephen King's On Writing, I credit the NaNoWriMo primer  No Plot, No Problem for prompting me to actually complete my novel The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus. This is my mea culpa.

For those of you who aren't writers and who don't care to be, you should know that we writers often have neurotic tics. (Understatement.) Most of us ritualize the act of writing. This is an understandable adaptive behavior when you consider that writers spend much of their time caught within the mystery of their own writing process - be it in their own heads or at a computer or some combination in-between. Sometimes the ideas and words flow with ease, sometimes they flow and we can't stop them, and sometimes the words never come and we beg and we plead for any scrap of an idea.

One of my favorite examples of writing neurosis in action is that of the great TV writer David Milch. In a very excellent New Yorker profile, those of you unfamilair with why writers are such freaks can marvel at Milch's tale of his time in a creative writing program when he would type and re-type the same pages, word for word, over and over again. Sadly, Milch's struggles make perfect sense to me.

One of my tics is that I will endlessly revise. Endlessly. I have revised my first novel, which is still in process, for over ten years. This isn't good. Yes, it's possible that I'm a great writer of the Donna Tartt variety who just takes forever to get a novel complete. But the much more likely scenario is that I'm stuck, and I'm too afraid to make the necessary changes or cuts or, the worst option, admit defeat and move on. 

NaNoWriMo changed me. So, OK, Ten Vanished Memories has so far taken me almost four years, and it's a short novel with a pretty clear narrative through-line, but the beauty and genius of NaNo is that it pushes you to draft without looking back. Just write and keep going. I couldn't have gotten the novel to where it is now without adopting and embracing NaNo's philosophy.

I've mentioned elsewhere that, to me, the art of writing is in the revising. Once the words are on the page, that's when work transcends to art. But getting the words onto the page, getting an entire novel down before you revise, that's a difficult but necessary challenge. I want to go back and tinker. The urge is compulsive and so seductive. And I can tell myself--lie to myself--that I'm writing when all I'm doing is snipping and pruning. Endlessly.

Full disclosure: I don't participate in the NaNoWriMo contest, nor do I limit my drafting to November. Given the constraints on my time, a little every day is the only workable model. (Although I can understand why writers hole themselves up in order to get their drafts down.) But in terms of freeing me from the prison of my own process, NaNoWriMo has been an invaluable asset.

It is for the self-described non-writers that I think NaNoWriMo is the true revelation, though. You will never be the same after you let yourself write hour upon hour, day after day, for an entire month. Give it a try. 

 

Excerpt from The Ten Vanished Memories of Charles McManus Memory 1 - The Sierras

McManus said nothing until nightfall when Carmella wouldn’t turn around. Without breaking stride, she cinched a headlamp about her head so that he was then following his lover’s shadow form and a bobbing circle of light that didn’t prevent him from stumbling on the stones embedded in the trail. He was tired. He was hungry. They had stopped conversing a couple of hours ago when he suggested they turn back for their camp.

“You always take things away from me,” she had said and stormed off, fully prepared to leave him alone in the wilderness. He knew that he had to keep his mouth shut.

Now, however, as the grand expanse of the high Sierras' vast granite and pine tree landscape disappeared behind a darkness so black it felt as if he were drowning within it, he asked her,

“When is this going to end?”

No answer.

This was just like her. Whenever they ventured into the natural world—an activity that was occurring with less frequency as their relationship aged—she was always proving herself to someone inside her head. Any hint of her feminine softness disappeared, and she became more man than him. She would chide him, insult him, tell him that she wished he were more like the other men she had dated who reportedly took her on all manner of thrilling and death-defying expeditions about the West. The trips she loved best, the ones she was always going on about, were the adventures that had ended with her sobbing and broken. If the man she was with had berated her the entire time that was a bonus.

“Find your balls,” she said now over her shoulder.

The path angled with a sharp incline, and his legs burned. A blister had been born, lived and died on his right heel and was now just stinging, raw skin that rubbed against his shoe with every step. His heart rattled not only with the exertion, but also from the familiar rage she reliably lit within him. McManus knew he could never measure against the other men who had tromped through her life nor could he drown out the voice inside her head that was constantly telling her how awful everything was, how much better life was elsewhere and far away. In fact, he was confused about how he even came to be here with her. Yeah, he liked the outdoors just fine, but he saw no reason to kill himself. His appreciation of the natural world was much more aesthetically-driven, and if he could admire the beauty of the West from behind the safety of a large window with a cigarette in one hand and a beer in the other, well, that was perfect.

McManus stumbled and fell to one knee. He cursed the darkness, the trail, her. She didn’t stop. Didn’t even slow down. He was forced to scramble to his feet and trot after her; otherwise, he would have been left to the darkness and to whatever creatures might be hunting within it.

The trail got steeper, somehow. His anger actually helped him catch up to her and push on.

“I’m fine,” he told her, even though she hadn’t inquired.

Then, when it seemed that the trail might never end and that the dark forest might blot them forever from existence, the trail leveled and descended into a small, granite-rimmed valley. The immense pines that had been towering above their ascent, parted now to the full moon, which had been hidden from him in its rising. The moonlight cast a light nearly as bright as day, and everything shone with a miraculous blue-white. When had the moon risen? He had been so focused on keeping up with her, he had missed its brightening presence.

 “My God,” Carmella said with an impatient grunt. She groped him, bit him, yanked at his clothes. Soon they were naked, save for their hiking boots. Oh, and Carmella’s headlamp. She hadn’t bothered to remove that, either.

She did things to him that she had only done rarely before and never since. She wouldn’t look at him, wouldn’t kiss or nuzzle. When he spoke her name, seeking some connection amidst the wilderness, she turned away from him, slid him inside her, and showed flexibility he had never seen her exhibit before.

In the midst of their heaving tangle, within the huddle of that slick jousting, she moaned over her shoulder that she could live for all eternity in a place like this. Her bones scattered amidst the cleansed silver forest, these fortresses of granite. This, this was home.