The Novel: Update #8 – Poverty Blues

January has been a shitty month in many ways. At the end of December 2016, I was feeling very good about 2017. I still am, roughly speaking. But it’s more a matter of threadbare hope now, rather than reasonable and well-founded expectation.

For one thing, I lost all work and got an eviction notice in the same week, and for another…. I guess, really that was the main thing.

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All my savings are now gone. I’m desperately trying to hold onto what little money is in my bank to cover the looming costs of bond, first month’s rent, moving companies, and our last round of utility bills. All while racking up debts and providing for my daughter. Not to overstate my condition†, but I have been thinking a lot about James Baldwin’s line about how terribly expensive it is to be poor. It is, and not only financially and temporally; spiritually and physically as well. I have been having nightmares every night that leave me exhausted each morning, just as the constant stress leaves me bodily drained and braindead every day by 4 in the afternoon.

More generally, though, I’m suffering from the jahiliyya – as Sayyid Qutb would put it* – for nothing makes a person so money-driven and narrowly self-centred (so neo-liberal) as poverty experienced in a society of and for the rich. This alienation has drained my sane and wholesome inner life – creative focus, generosity of spirit, broad perspective – to feed their counterparts – survival focus, meanness of spirit, tunnel vision.

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Image not directly related, but captures the mood.

As a result, very little creative work has occurred. I’ve finished one very sad song, 1000 words of my novel, transcribing and critiquing one of my brother’s short stories (written in stream of consciousness from a prison cell), a little work on a magic realist screenplay, and two detailed sci-fi short story concepts. Actually, all written out like that it sounds pretty good. But that’s over the course of a month and a half!

By way of apology for the lack of content and my false promises of the same, here’s an unedited excerpt from Tabula. Presented with deepest thanks to the beautiful humans who have supported me and helped keep my head together enough to function, y’all know who y’all is.

It’s a flashback, but beyond that you get no context, deal? Deal.

“We’d heard rumours that raiders from beyond the wall – well, what we’d built so far – had been roaming the city, killing people. Quiet, quick, we’d heard.

So, we’re patrolling near the wall, walking down a fairly suburbia street when we see this guy walking towards us. Notice him straight away, and straight away I get this wrong feeling. He was white as snow. About 50, but still very robust and healthy looking, and he’s carrying one of those things” — he stretched his arms apart and made a face like straining — “you know?”

No one knew.

“You know, it’s like elastic, but really fucking strong and with hooks on the ends?”

“What, you mean bungee cords?” said Humphrey.

“Yeah, a bungee cord! But not long, you see. Just about two feet long. Red it was, or closer to burgundy.”

Chuckles.

“Anyway, as he walked up, we’re looking him up and down, sizing him. He’s a tall one, about sixfive, sixsix. Has on a light beard with a lot of white in it. His sleeves are rolled up and forearms are thick, look capable. No tattoos that I could see. My eyes lingered on that cord. The way he held it — hanging circular with the hooks together in his hand — it was hard not to think ‘garrotte’, although it was such a bad choice for such a weapon. Still, I didn’t like it.

As he got closer, I noticed a fabric strap across his chest and my muscles tensed. Then I saw the laptop bag, swinging and banging against his leg as he walked. The sun glinted harsh off something on his wrist, above the hand carrying the bungee cord. Gold watch. As he got closer I saw his beard was neatly trimmed and he was talking softly, his forearm glowing gently. I caught his eye and nodded hello. The man paused and held my gaze for a moment and made quiet apologies to his conversee. Then he lowered his gaze and smiled broadly. He looked us over and noticed our military lapels and his smile broadened.”

Mo paused, remembering.

“His eyes, they reminded me of my dad’s eyes. Rounder, but the same look, you know? He asked us how we were going. Kinda leaned on his hip, like he was settling in. I couldn’t help but smile back at him. I tell him the street’s been real quiet but the heat’s been real loud. He likes that. Then, after a moment, I tell him we better keep at it.

‘Me too’ he says, raising the bungee cord a little. I remember when he did that I got a mental picture of a plumber’s van we’d passed a block or two back. I was suddenly so sure this guy was that plumber. It just clicked. I relaxed.

Anyway, we say goodbye and keep walking. Two blocks later we turn down a side street and after about a hundred and fifty metres I hear Yusuf grunt and suddenly he’s gurgling violently. He’s choking. I thought maybe he inhaled his gum. But then I see the strip of burgundy across his throat. It’s been mere seconds, but the bungee cord is so tight the flesh close by is purple and grazed. Little flashes of bright red blood. My partner’s eyes were wide and terrified. Burst vessels, bulge. I knew he’d be dead soon.

So, I move to the side to try and stop whatever is happening and, sure enough, it’s the white guy from before. He was holding something to the back of Yusuf’s neck. Looked like a strange gun, but that didn’t make any sense. I pull my sidearm and the guy’s hand comes toward me with a taser. So quick, you know — trained — and the only escape I have is backwards. So I fall, meaning to I mean, straight back into the road. As I land he’s facing turned towards me and I fire on instinct. The round goes straight through the middle of his chest and he stares at me, real sad, then he crumples. That was the first time I fired my weapon. Nothing but training and adrenaline and luck.”

“What was the gun?” asks Audrey.

“Wasn’t a gun, it was a drill. Modified drill, powerful one. The hooks on the bungee cord locked into a mechanism on the chuck, so when he slooped it around Yusuf’s neck and started the drill it tightened fast. It had already crushed his windpipe before I even shot the guy. He’d had it in the laptop bag. Doubled back and outpaced us running through backyards jumping fences. Kept an eye on us, seen us turn away from the main road, and made his move.

We figure the plan was to incapacitate me with the taser then kill me the same way. You can buy a taser from any pawn shop and they don’t ask for ID, and a drill and bungee cord you can buy a hundred places and no one will bat an eye. He probably even bought each one somewhere different. Untraceable, no links back to any specific store or craftsperson. Everyday items we could never restrict. It was partly about security for them, but also it was scary.

In the early days, the kills were all done different ways like that, so you never knew what it would be next. You couldn’t look for signs someone was packing a weapon. They’d walk right up to you with a pen and jam it through your eye, or they’d be working a building site and crush your skull with a pipe or a hunk of rock.”

“Fucking white cunts,” said Humphrey, his face set.

“Fuck man, that’s not cool,” Mo said. “It’s caucasians, and I fought with plenty, hell there’s a few here tonight. Have some respect.”

† My poverty is wealth compared to the ghettos –black and white – which Baldwin writes about.

*Incorrectly, I would argue – it’s postmodern alienation, and a tribal god descended from Ahura Mazda has nothing to do with it.

!!! BONUS F E A T U R E: While writing this I got a rejection letter from a job I dearly wanted after a very promising interview… Time to meditate, I think.

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