I think reading the Good Omens script book is helping me realize things about my own writing and how I’ve been sabotaging myself.
Of course, I understand, reading any and all books are helpful for writers in their own writing. But honestly, I recently realized that I’ve been taking myself too seriously. Not that I shouldn’t work hard. I need to buckle down and work more, write more, read more. What I mean is until about the last year or so, I’ve been imprisoning myself in a cage where my fiction has had to be one way because that’s the way.
For a long time, I’ve considered trying to publish humorous essays in the style of David Sedaris. His writing taught me that embarrassing personal experiences can make for hilariously good writing. My life is steeped in embarrassing personal experiences.
In the sort of “personal essays” I write for my blog, I use humor freely. My obstacle in my fiction writing is that I have been stuck in a mindset that I can’t be too silly. And to those who know me best, Donnell being not silly, is like “What the fuck?” Because the Donnell everyone knows is silly as fuck. There have been two things I’ve been told for a long time: That I’m funny and that I am good at story telling/manipulating language in a way that makes people want to read/hear my stories. It’s just that I’ve been too stuck the last several years on different editors’ submission requirements, and trying to shape my writing to fit particular magazines’/journals’ expected styles. However, reading Neil Gaiman using a phrase like “glares glarefully” and reading in his intro where he explains he added jokes into the scene descriptions that didn’t exactly amuse the TV production folks, made me realize I’ve been going about this all wrong for too long. I have been thinking this about my writing method for months, but reading the Good Omens script book has really opened my eyes about it. Of course, as always, there’s a Queen song that goes along with my story. (Because, in case I forgot to mention it a million times, I’ve been obsessed with Queen since I was a kid.)
“Oh, don’t try so hard. Oh, don’t take it all to heart. It’s only fools. They make these rules. Don’t try so hard.”
On the album Innuendo, recorded from March 1989 to November 1990 and released in February 1991, there is a song titled Don’t Try So Hard. Written by Freddie Mercury, when he knew he was at the end of his life. It’s an amazing song. For years I’ve listened to it and related to it in different ways depending on my current life situations. It’s been stuck in my head a lot lately. It’s been in my head on and off over the last 7 years during AJ’s illnesses and disabilities, thinking it was maybe telling me that I’m overworking myself in that arena- the role of primary caretaker. So many people tell me all the time how well AJ is doing and has done, and that it’s because of me. But, they also make sure to tell me to take care of myself, too.
In the last month or so, though, I’ve really finally opened my eyes to the idea that I’m hurting my writing by trying too hard. Don’t Try So Hard is a song written by a man who knew his life was ending, and who had one of the most prolific careers in entertainment ever. So what is the song telling me? Or more accurately, what is my unconscious telling me via Freddie’s voice right now at this point in my life? I really believe it’s that I have to relieve myself of the chains in which I’ve bound myself regarding my writing. I have to let my mind do its thing- be silly and tell stories. Not that I can’t or won’t write serious material anymore. It’s just that I’m not a dramatist. That’s not me. Comedy gets little recognition in entertainment, except from the audiences. I’m not writing for editors who want “literally fiction”, “speculative fiction”, and whichever of the other hundreds of preferred types containing some kind of deep meaningful societal dialogue; I’m writing for the audience. For you, the readers.
Monty Python has taught me that comedy can still make people think about deep shit.
You can laugh and contemplate the universe at the same time. Douglas Adams taught me that, too. And most recently, Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens (because somehow I hadn’t learned of it until 2019, which I’m frankly embarrassed to admit).
Still there are times you just have to go in for the laugh, and that’s great, too. Laughing is fun. I love making people laugh. It’s probably my favorite thing to do while interacting with others.
I’ve realized I’ve been trying too hard, holding my own head under water trying to fit a model that I’m not. It’s time to remedy that.
There are times when I think, This isn’t supposed to be part of my life. Somehow I ended up in someone else’s nightmare. When did I become one of those people things like this happen to?
Wasn’t it enough when my husband’s mistress outed him on the same day I was to leave with my own companion on our “business” trip? She found me in the grocery store buying a bottle of wine she assumed was for my husband and me. Idiotic bitch. Of course I knew he had a mistress. No man spends that much time and money away from home unless he’s fulfilling his needs elsewhere.
I didn’t care. I stopped loving him years ago. Right about the time I discovered his online dating profile claiming he was a widower. I forgave him like all foolish women do for their men. But after a while I got smart. I got a mistress of my own. Except a man. A manstress.
The girl, no more than twenty-five, accosted me right there on the wine aisle between the Rosé and the Merlot. In a resounding voice that came from somewhere beneath her breast implants, she announced she was sleeping with my husband. My response, “Sorry to hear it, Honey.” My husband was a terrible lover. Being touched by him was like being fondled by a fifteen-year-old. Why another woman would want to sleep with him, I’ll never know. I didn’t want to sleep with him. That’s why I found my manstress. He was half my age with the stamina of a varsity rowing team.
The nosey wife of a mutual friend witnessed the event in the grocery store and told her husband who told my husband. When I got home, my husband was waiting for me. He wanted to talk. I wanted to pack my bags and head to the airport. We had a long conversation during which my husband spoon fed me all the same bullshit. He was sorry. He loved me. He didn’t know why he was so selfish and inconsiderate. He didn’t love her. Whatever, Honey. I got two tickets to Phuket and a tanned, toned twenty-three year old waiting for me.
Thanks to my husband’s attempt to keep his ass out of divorce court and free of alimony payments, my manstress and I missed our plane. I used the excuse that I was fed up with my husband’s lies to pack a bag and get the hell out of there. On the way to the airport, I called my lover and we met at a nearby hotel. We couldn’t get another flight until the morning.
“If all the world’s a stage, then this was not part of my script. Somewhere, someone else is reading my lines, playing my part, and I’ve been stuck in their role, for surely this role is not mine. My character was never supposed to turn out this way,” said I.
“But, perhaps it was, and you’re simply unaware because you aren’t able to read ahead,” answered he.
“I don’t like this part of the production at all,” I said as I covered my head with the sheets. “It’s downright miserable, morose and depressing”
“The scales are striking a fair balance; many parts of the production are very good. No production can be completely merry and light. Who’s interested in seeing a performance in which the characters are ideal and perfect?” he asked, pulling the covers from my face. “That wouldn’t be interesting at all.”
“No, we want suffering. We long for it; it’s why we create our own miseries. We loathe them, but they thrill us. I suppose it’s why we strive for imperfection,” I said burying my face in a pillow.
“Perhaps it’s the reason we justify our short-comings. We don’t want happiness; we do everything in our power to remain unhappy, then complain about it.” It was obvious what he was getting at.
“My observations have led me to believe I am not alone in my human imperfection. I would say humanity, but that connotes goodness. The human race is quite lacking in humanity. Myself included. Surely, I understand the failings of my human brethren represent an overall flaw of the species,” I said.
“No one is exempt from these biological, evolutionary, socialized short-comings,” he replied.
“In an ideal world,” I began, ignoring his response, “the term human could be linked with humanity, but in reality – which is never ideal in any way – the term human can be better linked with adjectives such as cruel and bizarre . ”
“Self-pitying, faithless . . .” he interrupted.
“Rude, and worst of all, ignorant,” I finished. “And these are our flaws, as humans. There are more, but I think these cover a pretty wide spectrum of our sadistic, self-serving human behaviors.”
“Are there any human behaviors that are not self-serving?” he asked.
“No,” I answered before rolling over and falling asleep.
Been waiting on my appeal for thirteen years. Thirteen years of cold steel toilets, lumpy thin mattresses, and eating slop from metal trays probably made from recycled toilets. I been sitting here waiting to know if I’m going to die. It’ll probably happen before they ever give me the chair, me dying I mean. But they don’t give you the chair no more. Supposed to be more humane, but they can hang me for all I care. I’m dying either way, so who gives a shit.
They got a guy just came in last week, Clyde Burser. He’s probably twenty-five, about five-eight, curly blonde hair and bright green eyes. He’s the whitest person I ever seen. You can see blue veins at his temples and on his hands and by his eyes. He cries so much his eyes remind me of when Mallory got the conjunctivitis once. Her eyes were green like Clyde’s.
Clyde’s cell is next to mine. He prays real loud all night asking God for forgiveness. It makes me laugh. “God’s forgiveness ain’t going to help you,” I say to him. Because God don’t forgive you ‘til you die anyway, right? He better pray his appeal goes in front a sympathetic jury, I tell him. One that believes he killed his own momma in self-defense. His own momma. I ain’t even that sick.
Frank Aucoin’s cell is on the other side. He’s been waiting on his appeal for twenty years. He’s sixty-two, got prostate cancer. One night he woke us all up hollering and screaming his cum was bloody. Doctors gave him six months. That was two years ago. He’s six-two, weighs about a buck ten, can’t barely hold himself up some days, and he shits himself. He’s got a sister who comes once a week after Sunday services. She says it’s a miracle he’s still alive. I say it’s karma.
I was twenty-one when I came to The Farm. Since then I only known one man been sent to Camp F, and that was Howard Saucier-The Crescent City Cutter. Murdered twenty-two prostitutes by slicing them down the middle. He carved each one starting right at her diseased hatchet slash and ending at her chin. He used the same serrated knife for all of them.
Howard wasn’t scared to die, or he pretended not to be. But he sure never let on if he was because he was one jovial motherfucker, that’s the truth. I used to think if Howard wasn’t so deranged he’d be a cool guy to hang with. But he was lofty as a loon, and that’s the truth, too. He had clear blue eyes, the kind you think belong to the Devil. There wasn’t no repentance in them eyes. Not like the petunia next door with his crying and begging for God’s mercy all the time.
Howard wasn’t no dumb ass, either. When he got his book allowance he always picked the real long ones. I used to think of Mallory telling me I should read more. “If you read more you’d broaden your vocabulary,” she said. I didn’t need to broaden my vocabulary. I did just fine with the one I got, I said. Mallory was always making like I was a dipshit. Well maybe I am a dipshit. But her reading didn’t do nothing to save her, so fuck her and her vocabulary.
Howard’s people had money, and they sent him to some rich kid private boys’ school until he was sixteen, he said, and then he was kicked out for assaulting the school nurse. “She had tits this big,” Howard said holding his arms out from his chest. “I just wanted a taste.”
He went to juvenile but they had to let him go when he was twenty-one. While he was locked up he got his G.E.D., and he went to college when he got out. Then he went to medical school, because he liked to dissect things, he said. He told me a story once about the first time his class cut open a cadaver. “I came in my pants,” he said.
I’m not too sure about Howard’s religion, but he read the Bible a lot. He always liked the stories where God smote mankind because He got pissed off for one reason or another. Some of them I remembered from Bible study, sitting in the rectory with twelve other kids and my thighs sticking to the plastic chairs in the summer. It was hot as hell because they only had one of them window air condition units. In the winter we would fight over who was going to sit closest to the space heater. “I can get behind a God who tortures His own creations,” Howard said. “Divine retribution.” He smiled.
Howard liked to screw with the guards. They ignored him most of the time. Sometimes he went too far, and they had to handle up on him. They don’t like to do that too much because it riles everybody up. Like this once when he was let out for gate time, Howard attacked the guard and bit him on the neck just like Dracula. Five guards jumped him, and they threw him in isolation. We was all on lock down afterwards.
Howard was in there a while, and he was a little calmer when he came out. That wasn’t too long before he moved to Camp F. We didn’t know because they don’t tell us that kind of stuff. Only the warden knows, but one day Howard was taken out for his shower time and never came back. They could’ve plugged him and threw him out in the cotton field to the crows for all I know. But I figure he went to the chamber. We all got a little quieter after that. I guess it sounds weird to say somebody would miss a guy like Howard, but I did a little. He never done me nothing.
Every Sunday the chaplain comes to give Communion and for confession. I don’t trust him. Looks like he probably jerks off to kiddy porn. I don’t got nothing to confess, anyway. I already gave my confession to the cops. And when the judge asked me how I plead, I said guilty. So I don’t got nothing to say to no stupid chaplain. I tell him to go see Clyde.
After the chaplain leaves we’re let out in the yard for an hour. I don’t keep a calendar, but sometimes I can tell what time of year it is by the weather. Sometimes. But down here it can be eighty in the winter, so I don’t never know. I don’t want to know. I just know three times a week I get to go outside, and sometimes it’s hot and sometimes it ain’t. If it’s raining we got to wait for the next day. And if the sky is clear and the sun is beating us down, we sit there holding our hands over our eyes until the guards say it’s time to go back in. Some guys exercise or jog around the yard, but I rather just sit by Frank and breathe the fresh air. What I got to be in shape for?
My lawyer, Art, usually comes once every couple weeks. It depends on how much he’s got court. He said he can’t get me off but he can get me out of the death penalty. He thinks. But I been here thirteen years, and I don’t want to be put in population. I don’t share my cell with nobody, and I get to shower by myself, except for the guards watching me.
I ain’t going to lie. I was real scared at first when I got here. Especially because they was giving me death, and I didn’t want to die. But I figure ain’t nothing to live for anyway. What I got to look forward to? Prostate cancer and bloody cum? I might as well die here. Got to die some place.
“Vince, I’m working hard on your appeal,” Art always says. “I’m not giving up on you. I think I can get your charges reduced to manslaughter. With time served you might only be looking at ten or twelve more years.”
Ten or twelve more years, like it’s a consolation. Not that I wouldn’t want to be free to walk right out of here and go home. If I had a home. But I ain’t. And I don’t think Art’s going to get me out, but my momma keeps paying him with my daddy’s social security, and he keeps taking her money. I don’t have the heart to tell my momma I’m going to die here. So I don’t say nothing.
I went to court about six months ago. It was the middle of summer, and so hot that most times we asked to stay inside when it was time to go out. One day the needle on the outdoor thermometer the guards hung by the door was wobbling between one-ten and one-twenty. We went out for about fifteen minutes, but Frank fell out and we came back in. Nobody complained though. My balls was wet and hot as cotton panties on a virgin at a Bourbon Street sex show, and sticking to my thighs.
My momma bought me a new suit because my old one didn’t fit no more seeing as all the weight I lost. It was a tan color and the tag said it was seersucker. It probably cost more than my momma could afford. I got cleaned up and dressed and brushed my hair and shaved and waited for Art.
The courtroom was real cold compared to outside. My fingers felt like frozen fish sticks. Art was talking to the jury, and my momma was sitting behind me. I could hear her sniffling the whole time. I wanted to turn around, but I wasn’t supposed to. Art gave me a yellow legal pad and a rubbery, bendy pen. They make them like that for safety reasons, to make sure you ain’t going to jab it in somebody’s neck or nothing. I didn’t have nothing to write so I scribbled some drawings like you do when you’re bored in school and the teacher won’t shut up. Plus I wanted to look busy and not like I was just sitting there doing nothing like a psychopath. Because I ain’t one.
I thought of Mallory. I drew her face, the way it was when we met. I colored in her dark hair. She kept it long back then. I bet that asshole Nate is the one told her to cut it. “He stimulates my mind,” she said. It wasn’t the only thing he was stimulating. He might’ve had a broad vocabulary too, but it shrunk up real good when I put my Beretta between his teeth.
“Your honor, members of the jury,” said Art, “I think we can all agree that what my client Mr. LeRoche-a man with no prior criminal record-experienced on the date of June seventeenth nineteen-ninety-eight was an unconscious rage, a type of temporary madness if you will, brought on by blind fury and passion.”
I scratched out Mallory’s face. I didn’t want to see it no more. I was still mad at her for running around on me, and for being such a bitch about it, and on our anniversary. “What do you expect, Vincent?” She always called me Vincent even though most everybody else calls me Vince. “Nate makes me feel . . . sexy.”
“And what I don’t?”
“No. You make me feel like I’m being pawed by an inexperienced prepubescent.”
I didn’t know what she meant exactly, but I knew it wasn’t no compliment. Something thumped against the closet door. “No,” Mallory gasped when I swung the door open. Some dude was kneeling right between my Dickies and my Levis. I figured he was Nate. The shoebox where I kept my pistol was open on the floor. I looked at Nate again. Maybe he was hoping it was in there. Maybe he was going to shoot me. But it wasn’t in there. It was in my hand, and then his brains was all over my Levis and my Dickies. I felt calm in a strange way.
Mallory screamed and tried to run out the room, but I caught her by the hair and threw her in the closet right next to her boyfriend. Her mouth was stuck open like it froze that way. It reminded me of when my grandma died and we didn’t find her for five days after. Her mouth was opened like that. Mallory lifted her left hand to cover her face, and I seen she wasn’t wearing her wedding ring. “You dirty slut,” I said. Mallory’s eyes was wide and tears was flowing out of them like a busted spigot.
I reached down and grabbed a fistful of her hair and pulled her out the closet. I threw her on the bed and held one hand over her mouth. The other hand held my Beretta. I crushed her body against the mattress with my body.
“Psychopath!” She was crying, curled up in a ball in the middle of the bed. She was staring at her boyfriend in the closet. I grinned and raised my gun again. Mallory tried to run but I was quicker. Maroon slime and something that looked like oatmeal splattered against the wall. Long streams ran down to the sand colored carpet. I thought of Mallory always complaining how she hated them white walls. “These walls are so bland. You need to paint them.”
I heard sirens and guessed the neighbors called the cops. They pulled up while I was sitting on the porch smoking my Camels. They had their guns on me while I finished my cigarette and threw it in the grass. Two of them snuck me and tackled me out my chair. One of them crushed my face into the cement with his boot while another one cuffed me. Cops were crawling all over the house. There was about twenty cop cars in the street it seemed like. I just sat there until they put me in the car. I didn’t say nothing. Wasn’t nothing to say.
Mallory and Nate’s family members got to talk to the jury after Art was finished his speech. Nate’s momma showed them pictures from when he was a baby and pictures of him when he was in school. I thought about how much she loved him, and my momma sitting behind me in the courtroom crying, and of Clyde killing his own momma.
Nate’s sister wrote a poem she read to the jury. His dad stood up and told me I deserved to be murdered, and he wished he could be the one to do it. My momma started crying real hard then, and Art went to calm her down.
Mallory’s parents stood up together and asked me why I did it. Her best friend that I always hated told the jury I condemned Mallory and Nate to death for their adulterous misdeeds, and asked them if they didn’t feel I deserved to be condemned to death, too. She had pictures and articles with headlines from the papers blown up to poster-size. She showed them to the jury. “Vidalia Love Triangle Ends in Murder,” read one of them. It had a picture of Mallory and me on our wedding day with a separate picture of Nate. “Concordia Sheriff Describes Scene as the Most Disturbing He’s Seen in Years,” read another. That one had a picture of our house taped off by the cops. “Small Town La. Man Charged with Rape, Murder,” read the last one, and it had my mug shot under it. Art objected but it was too late because they already seen it.
The jury came back after about an hour. Art kept handing Kleenex to my momma while the judge read the verdict. I was afraid Momma was going to choke to death because she wasn’t breathing right. Mallory and Nate’s families was clapping and hugging each other.
I turned around and said sorry to my momma. She grabbed me by my suit jacket and pressed her face into my chest. A dark, imperfect circle expanded outward from where her tears wet my shirt.
“I’m real sorry, Momma,” I whispered.
“We’ll get you another appeal, Vince. They can’t do anything as long as we keep appealing,” said Art.
My momma looked up at me. Make-up ran down her cheeks. I placed a hand on either side of her face, holding her small head in my hands. I used my thumbs to wipe the black streaks off her face. I thought about how much she probably paid for my suit, and I hoped the stain would come out. Because I don’t want her buying another one just to bury me.
Copyright Donnell Jeansonne. All rights reserved. Reproduction or duplication whole or in part not permitted without permission and credit to the author.
Little Joey found a bag in his back yard. Its contents were a book of matches, some rags, lighter fluid, and a Mickey Mouse hat. The air smelled like barbecue and burning plastic. Joey looked to his left. A plume of black smoke rose from behind the fence that separated his yard from his neighbors’. Particles of an unknown substance whirled in the haze, tumbling and performing somersaults as the fire below drove them upwards.
Joey didn’t trust Mr. Woodsburrow. He thought it was strange Mr. Woodsburrow hardly left the house, and no one in the neighborhood could remember how long since they’d seen Mrs. Woodsburrow. She’d stopped showing up at bingo over a month before, and she wasn’t at mass to help with the collections on Sundays, either. Mr. Woodsburrow told the pastor he’d had to sell her red 1977 Buick Century. Couldn’t afford the gas, he said. Joey was suspicious.
His mom said Mr. Woodsburrow wasn’t weird. She said he was still grieving over his missing grandkids. She said he was affected by their disappearance. She said the same about Mrs. Woodsburrow, and that’s why no one saw her anymore. “She’s in mourning,” Joey’s mom said. Joey still thought Mr. Woodsburrow was weird.
Joey was startled by a loud snapping sound; it sounded like the Black Cats he lit on New Year’s Eve. One time he threw them over Mr. Woodsburrow’s fence, and Mr. Woodsburrow came into the backyard. He stormed through the gate and grabbed Joey by the throat. He screamed and shook Joey until his mom and dad came out. Mr. Woodsburrow stopped shaking Joey then and put him down. Joey slumped against the fence, trying to catch his breath. He coughed and swallowed his spit to wet his throat. Joey’s parents talked to Mr. Woodsburrow; he lied and told them Joey threw the firecrackers at him. Joey protested and told them he’d just thrown the Black Cats over the fence, but he still got grounded for a week. Joey thought it was bullshit nobody even told Mr. Woodsburrow not to grab or shake him.
The snapping sounds made Joey curious, and he felt compelled to peek over the fence. He was afraid, because Mr. Woodsburrow was probably outside. He was always outside. If he saw Joey, there was no telling what he’d do. He’d probably come grab him again, and Joey’s parents weren’t home from work. Joey looked back at the bag he’d found laying in the grass. He looked to the fence and the plume of smoke and the particles doing acrobats in it.
Joey decided to look. He decided if he were quiet enough and didn’t stand over the fence by much, Mr. Woodsburrow might not notice. He went and took the white pool ladder from the garage. He didn’t notice his bike leaning against the ladder, and it fell onto its side with the sound of metal against concrete. Joey held his breath and hoped it wasn’t loud enough for Mr. Woodsburrow to hear. He replaced the bike and walked out of the garage with the ladder. The ladder wasn’t heavy, but it was long and bulky, and Joey had difficulty carrying it. The bottom of its legs almost touched the top of Joey’s sneakers, and he was preoccupied watching his feet as he walked. He ran headlong into something hard yet pliable. It wasn’t the fence, or the house.
Having released the ladder, Joey stumbled backward and landed on his behind. He looked up to see the hard yet pliable thing, but what he saw were Mr. Woodsburrow’s large, thick hands right before they grabbed him by the throat. Joey kicked Mr. Woodsburrow’s legs and knees, but he didn’t release the boy. He held Joey by the neck; his hands were covered in soot; his shirt smelled like barbecue and burning plastic. Mr. Woodsburrow shook Joey. He held him by the throat, and he shook him like a chicken thigh inside a bag of Shake ‘N Bake. Because no one ever told him not to shake Joey.