Charles Bukowski always comes to see me at my lowest points.
He never comes when I’ve received some constructive criticism in a rejection— we enjoyed your story, especially its imaginative sweeps— or when I’ve dreamed up some clever title— Major Transgressions, Corporal Punishment, for example.
He only ever comes when I’m sitting in my apartment, at my desk, around 2 a.m., one hand supporting my head while the other combs through my hair, scattering dandruff over my laptop keys.
Charles enters the room. No door slams, no footsteps, he’s just here. I smell those foundry-chimney cigarettes he smokes before I see him. They send me into a fit of coughing. I reach for my tobacco in the desk drawer and roll a cigarette out on my knee. I light it in an effort to diffuse the tarry stench of what he’s smoking.
—Any luck today? Charles asks. He stands behind me. I can feel his eyes searching the Word document on my screen. The cursor blinks, awaiting my next sentence, word, letter.
—Did a nice bit today. I shut the laptop lid before he can read enough to become smug.
Only extinguishing the bleached-white sun of the laptop screen makes me realise I’ve been sitting in the dark. That explains the frequent misspellings, the squiggly red lines running across the screen like crime scene photos.
I stand up, go to the wall, switch on the light. The bulb fizzes and flickers into life, bathing the room in a maddening yellow glow. Charles’s shirt matches the lemon shade given off by the bulb. He is, as always, unshaven.
—You don’t sound like a man who did a nice bit today, he says. He sits on the couch, groaning as he makes himself comfortable.
—You want a beer? I open the fridge. The smell of half-empty takeaway boxes makes me take a step back.
—Does the Pope—
I drown him out by re-arranging the pyramid of green beer bottles. I pull out two, open them with a swift hand-tap against the kitchenette countertop, and hand one to him. My method of opening bottles never impresses him. He usually tries to one-up me by opening a bottle with his teeth.
He sucks on it, pulling the bottleneck away from his lips with a smacking sound.
—Don’t think I’ve forgotten my question, he says.
There was no bin in the apartment when I moved in, so, consequently, there’s none now, just a black off-licence bag hanging from the cupboard under the sink. I drop the bottlecaps in. The bag is weighed down by caps, bulging like a beehive.
Charles drops his cigarette butt on the floor. It leaves another in a series of scorchmarks on the wood-panel.
—What question? I tut dismissively. I sit at my desk, turning the chair to face Charles. He doesn’t like being ignored, and will needle at me unless I give him my unequivocal attention.
—How much did you write today?
—What’s ‘enough’? Ten pages? 5000 words?
—Half a page.
Charles laughs. It shakes the walls. He never described his laugh in his books, and I can see why. It’s harsh, cutting through the night like a scream down an alley, like a siren on a deserted street. It makes me jump even though I had expected it.
—Half a page? he splutters. He gesticulates wildly, beer leaping from the bottle. It splatters across the floor. —You writing a grocery list?
—It’s all I could manage.
I still haven’t figured out the secret to not feeling ashamed when Charles is around. It’s hard to describe, but he has this way of speaking to you that pushes all your resolve out the window. You lose your ability to defend yourself, and become pliable. He makes you feel small, ridiculous.
—You know your problem? He kicks off his shoes and puts his feet up on the coffee-table. The cliché: his toes should be poking out, they’re not. The heel, however, has been eaten away by sweat, yellow flesh protruding through it.
—I’m sure you’ll tell me.
—You’re too soft. Spend too much time up here, he points to his head, —when you should be down here.
Thankfully, he taps his chest, not his penis.
Charles continues: —You’re worrying about what people think. Screw what people think. Your story is yours. You think I cared what people thought about Women? No, I wrote what was true, what mattered to me, not what I thought some editor would find clever. You’ve fallen at the first hurdle if that’s what you’re doing.
—In fairness, Women is inherently problematic.
Charles has this habit of parroting certain words with a French accent, accompanying it with a hand flutter.
—Problematic? You’re reading those internet forums again, aren’t you? Spend less time listening to everyone else, and more time thinking for yourself. Besides, you enjoyed Women, if I recall correctly.
—Yeah, but. I mean, I enjoyed the— the factotum stuff. I didn’t like the— the—
—The screwing? I mean, Jackie boy, it’s a part of life. You need to stop being so prudish.
—No. No. I didn’t— don’t— like the way the women are drawn. Insidious, deceptive. Err, Machiavellian.
—By that rationale. The French accent is grating. —By that rationale, Post Office is crap. Factotum is crap. Hot Water Music. South of No North. He counts titles on his fingers. The nails are bitten down to mere slits across his fingers.
—No, no, they’re not— they’re not the same.
—Because no one on Twitter or whatever has gone after them yet.
Charles goes quiet. He drinks his bottle and smokes some more cigarettes. It’s coming up on half-three in the morning, and I’m getting tired.
That’s a lie. I was tired before midnight. Now I’m running on fumes and caffeine, typing with fingers that move five times faster than my brain, eyes twitching sporadically.
Since going quiet, all we’ve done is smoke and drink beer. There’s a void left over, and we fill it with matchstrikes and beer-belches. The absence of any sporadic late-night traffic only makes the apartment seem more desolate, a microcosm removed from the rest of the universe.
The chain-smoking makes my bowels rumble, and the beer pulses against my bladder. I want to get up, go to the toilet, go to bed, but I know Charles won’t let that happen. If I’m not writing, then I can listen.
He’s done it before. He stands in the hall while I brush my teeth, recounting the days when he used to come home from the post office, write and drink until 4 a.m., barely sleep, rinse and repeat. He has this ability to draw out my weakness by referring to his strength.
I type on. I don’t write anything concrete: half-starts to stories, scenes and dialogues without a skeleton, philosophy without narrative. Charles would hate it.
It’s probably gibberish by this stage. I haven’t looked up from my fingers dancing around the keyboard for must-be fifteen minutes. Pure spite is keeping me going.
The first— the only— time I got published, before Charles started dropping in, I was 21. I was emailed a link to my story, and the first thing I did was trawl through the other featured artists looking for someone younger than me. I did that before I even read my story on the website.
Being published was probably the worst thing to happen to me, as I’ve spent two years trying to recapture that success and the sense of validation it brings.
Charles was first published at 24. That’s good for me, I beat him by three years. However, he was published in Story, which ran until 2000, unlike the ill-fated online magazine that published me and folded three months later.
His first novel was published at 50, which gives me just over 25 years. I have so much time that I haven’t even thought of a novel yet. I stick with the short story, hoping I’ll write something complex enough to be featured in The New Yorker, or Granta, or The Atlantic.
—Your sentences are too long, Charles says. He’s standing behind me. I didn’t even notice him. I shut the lid down. Too late. He’s seen it.
—What? It’s more a ‘what’ of incredulity than of mis-hearing.
—Your sentences. They’re too long. You need them to be punchy. Charles lifts his hands. He’s an orthodox fighter.
—Imagine it like a prizefight. Your opponent is the editor. You need to floor him—
—Or her, I say.
—Or her, OK. You need to floor them with your sentences. Bim bim bim, bim bim bim. Charles dances around the room in an ellipse. He shadowboxes.
—That means no weather. No cloud descriptions. No big psychobabble moments. Just action. Lay it out on the page.
Charles goes to the fridge. I follow him. He hands me a bottle. I take it. I go back to my desk. Charles strikes a match.
It’s nearly dawn. I check my email. A magazine has sent me something. A rejection. Dear Mr. Cranly, thank you for the opportunity to read ‘On the Sunnyside of the Street’. Unfortunately, we will not be able to use your story at the present time. Thank you for the opportunity to read your work.
Opening a rejection email isn’t bad. It’s the norm. The bad thing is the little jolt of hope you get when you see a new email in your inbox.
—Your title is too fancy, Charles says. —You need something quick. Fast. He clicks his fingers.
—Punchy. Yeah. I know. I shut down my laptop and stand up. —I’m going to bed.
I leave my half-drunk beer behind.
I don’t listen to Charles as I brush my teeth. I’m too busy staring in the mirror. There’s a blue tint under my eyes. I look like I’m wearing eyeshadow.
The toothbrush slips from my grip and stabs at the tender patch around my erupting wisdom teeth.
Charles is gone when I leave the bathroom, not even the smell of his cigarettes lingering to validate his presence.
I spill into bed, the springs rocking and creaking beneath me. The bed ripples on invisible waves, up, down, up, down. A glass of water from last night, the night before, who knows? is on the nightstand, the water stagnant and filled with bubbles. White smears around the rim of the glass.
I close my eyes and watch the red film behind my eyes as sleep begins to envelop me.
—Experience, that’s what you need, something to forge itself on your soul.
I open my eyes. Light streams in through cracks in the curtains. Tendrils of dust twirl in the beams. I’m hungover, my mouth tasting of ash, prison-bars of saliva distending as I part my dry, cracked lips.
James Joyce sits at the end of the bed, peering through his glasses.
This post is brought to you by
How to Stop the Burning
by Zubaida Bello
In How to Stop the Burning, Zubaida Bello’s poetry focuses on themes of womanhood and inheritance, offering the audience an intimate portrait of herself through her words.
About The Author
John Higgins is an Irish writer. His work has appeared in Crannog, Honest Ulsterman, New Pop Lit
& more. ‘On Coming to Despise a Literary Idol’ was previously shortlisted for the Mairtín Crawford Short Story Award.
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