Saturday, November 30, 2013

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter Five: The History of Cannabis

Read the book on this site, a chapter each week, or buy the Kindle version at


Greetings, communist scum. You got a lot of fucking nerve bringing your Satan shop to our town. I know it’s Fagland Central around here, but it’s still America, goddammit. I’d love to take a knife, gut you and scream with joy as your insides spill out in front of you. However, GOD teaches us not to seek vengeance, but to pray for sorry shits like you. We will not go quietly away. If in the future that requires violence just remember you brough it on. My rifle is loaded.

Have a great fucking day.

I get a letter from this same guy about once a month. The threats get more and more creative. If I were not a small-time pot dealer, I would show them to the police.

And what of the flaming hypocrisy? Please. Imagine that you have concocted a fairy tale in which the hero is stabbed, beaten and nailed to a torture device to die an agonizing death. You celebrate this death by wearing a tiny replica of the torture device around your neck (why not an electric chair? a guillotine?). Then you invent a pit of fire, take all those who refuse to believe your fairy tale, and toss them in to burn for all eternity. So let’s get over this idea of hypocrisy. Christians are sick fucks, and this letter is entirely consistent with their death cult.

My particular hell is a table at the Depot, where my desires are at war. The butternut squash soup indicates a wounded man seeking consolation. The long stares into the rainstorm outside reveal a man snuggling up to the abyss.

Something causes me to burst across the patio. I catch him at the corner, grab the shoulder of his coat and push him against a brick wall.


He’s unable to speak. His eyes are huge. I’m sort of enjoying this.

“I’m… sorry. I thought she should know.”

“That is such a bunch of shit. You’ve got a hard-on for her.”

“Please let go of me.”

It’s a polite enough request. I release my grip. I even smooth out his coat. But I continue my narrative.

“Consider yourself cut off. And don’t even think of ratting me out, or I will go straight to your parents.”

“Yes. Okay. May I… go?”

I leave. I am proud of myself for not giving in to my useless compassion. I return to my table and stare at my soup, the adrenaline percolating in my arms. Here’s the sad part: I wasn’t threatening to tell Javid’s parents about his marijuana use. I was threatening to tell them about his rejection of Hindu.

So my first romantic venture is just the fiasco I expected, and somewhere my ex-wife is laughing. I lied about her, too. I did not go to the elders about my doubts. Callie turned me in.

The rain deepens. There’s nothing to do but laugh.


Javid’s being weird. Like he’s afraid to speak to me. I can’t figure the mixed signals. He enables me to go out with Paul, then he hands me a land mine on the way out.

If he knew what I did off-hours, he would run screaming. I have accepted Mack’s offer. How could I not? Cutting my client list to one means a lot less worry about hygiene – or getting caught. The apartment is a gorgeous little place just under the hilltoppers. Fireplace, balcony view. Enormous bed, sunken bath. I feel like a movie star. And no wife means no need for firearms.

“I hope the note didn’t cause any problems.” Javid stands at a safe distance, next to the Icee machine.

“No. Thanks. It was good to… have the information.”

He dashes back to the box office. I look across the street and feel a pang of old-fashioned religious guilt.


I don’t care. You should have known.


I am an evangelist for logic, and logic tells me that there is nothing I can do. If I stop selling, I will have to close the shop. Therefore, if she really does have a problem with this, perhaps it was best that we parted ways.

But logic does not usually meet up with an across-the-street Venus. I catch glimpses of her several times a day. She looks more forlorn than ever, which only intensifies her beauty. My nerve endings tick with her movements.

Oh shit. I am thinking and drumming at the same time. Having become accustomed to the hijinks of dachsunds, my band prides itself on finishing a song no matter what, but now I have drifted right past my drum break and we’re fucked. I flip my sticks into the air; they strike several objects on the way down. The band stops, piece by piece.

“Jesus. I’m sorry. Can we take a break?”

My bandmates have all had evenings like this, so it’s really no biggie. This is part of what I love about Exit Wonderland: our biggest argument, compared to most bands, would barely qualify as a terse discussion. I venture behind the storage shed to continue the ruination of my favorite bush. Anne is running keyboard riffs from our Doors cover. I emerge to find a half-moon dangling from the sycamore tree.

“It’s the chick, isn’t it?”

Smeeed passes me a joint.

“Thanks. Yep – the chick. Also, this.”

“Oh-hoh! So she will partake of the smoke, but she will not abide anybody selling it. Well that is pretty fucked.”

I laugh. “You make an excellent point, Senator. This is just feeling a little rough, you know, for my first time back.”

“Got yourself a looker, though. An impressive debut.”

“Okay. Ready to rock?”

“At all times.”

“Am I getting the tempo right?”

“On POV?”


“Maybe a little faster.”

“A band that wants me to play faster. That is so cool.”


Javid’s being weird again. He keeps peeking around like he’s casing the joint. It’s time to get assertive.

“Look, Javid, can we get over the thing already?”

“The thing?”

“The note thing. The boyfriend thing. Stop feeling guilty, and stop being weird. I would have found out about it eventually.”

He looks like he’s about to argue the point, but then he smiles.


“Just relax.”

“Okay, um…”

He directs a gaze over my shoulder. Fosh is standing at the end of the lobby, looking expectantly at a customer who’s being ignored.

“Oh! Hi. I’m sorry. What would you like?”

The rain is back. God. Rain, rain, rain. The locals tell me it’s a pressure system; they call it El Niño. But it wouldn’t be the first crock of shit I’ve been sold.

In the morning, living on a hillside is terrific. Easter light in the bedroom window; a brisk downhill walk to work. Nighttime, not so hot. After hours on my feet, the trudge uphill makes my backpack feel ten pounds heavier.

I blame part of this on my first “date” with Mack. He recently got the okay to go on the Viagra program. I had to work a solid half-hour to get him off, and then he kept going. He kept yelling “It’s a miracle!” and whipping himself out to admire his adolescent rigidity. Problem is, the rest of his body couldn’t keep up, so his concubine had to do all the work. Still, it was nice to see the old guy so happy.

Most of all, I miss his voice, the even pace of his sentences. His laugh.

When I toss my pack onto the table, it lands with an unexpected thwack. I unzip the top and remove the contents: an extra sweater, my purse, a pair of jeans. A book. The cover features a detailed illustration against a black background. Vivid colors, like a bird by Audubon. A cannabis leaf. Tucked inside is a sheet of yellow notebook paper, folded in half. I open it up and find letters written in black marker. Harold Anslinger.


You’re going to hell, you know.


I’m being a bad boy, but it’s a bright Tuesday and I have no appointments. The free thinkers of Mill Valley will have to fend for themselves. I take the long trail to the snow-globe vista. The air is incredibly clear – I can see Oakland like it’s right next door. The buzz doesn’t last; these days, nothing does. I take a mental snapshot and head downhill. I realize that I am enormously hungry, so I stop by the Mill Valley Market for a bagful of dates.

I feel the need to force myself into some kind of productivity, so I decide to take stock of the science aisle. Sagan, Dawkins and Gould are doing okay, but Douglas Adams is running pretty low. Adams is a conundrum, anyway. I could just as easily put him in the humor section with George Carlin and Julia Sweeney, or use him to start a sci-fi section. None of this matters – wherever I put him, he sells.

Jasmina’s here.


She’s wearing a black turtleneck, which tightens the frame on those dark eyes. I pretend to study my inventory list. “What are you doing here?”

“Saying hi.”

The only thing I truly have faith in is my ability to repel women, so this reappearance puzzles me. It also kind of pisses me off. I stand up and place a hand on the bookshelf.

“I actually would like to know the reason you’re here.”

She looks nervous. Good. She reaches into her bag and pulls out Martin Booth’s The History of Cannabis.

“I want to talk about Harold Anslinger.”


I’m a little surprised at Paul’s reaction, but the book seems to calm him down.

“So. You understand.”

“I hadn’t realized the level of treachery, and…”


This makes me laugh, which makes Paul laugh.

“Bullshit is the central target of my life. The most harmless drug in the world is reviled because Mexicans brought it here, negro musicians made it popular, and Harold fucking Anslinger decided he could grab a whole lot of power and money by demonizing it.”

I touch Paul on the arm to stop him. “Honey. I read the book. I know. That’s why I’m here. I… wanted to apologize for being so judgemental.”

Paul takes his arm away and walks into the next aisle. “I appreciate your apology. Does this mean you’d like to be a client?”

“No, I…”

“Then maybe you should leave my store. That book doesn’t change the fact that cannabis is illegal. I have to be careful. I’ve already cut off your pal Javid.”

He retreats further, to his stool behind the counter.

“Vijay gave me the book.” This seems to catch his attention. “But it’s not about that. It’s about… Paul, I like you.”

He takes off his spectacles and pinches his nose. “You like me. What is this, third grade? This is a real fight I’m putting up here, and I can’t be sidetracked by some dilettante piece of ass who changes her beliefs every time someone hands her a fucking pamphlet. Now get out. Please. Leave.”

“But I…”

“Now! Please.”

I suppose that’s the power of someone who’s so calm and even all the time. When they shout at you, you feel it. Despite all intentions, I find myself on the sidewalk, headed toward the Depot. A minute later I am staring into a window display of glass figurines – faeries, birds, unicorns, butterflies – and thinking of Tennessee Williams.


I’m a little proud of myself. In the face of great temptation, I held my ground. I sit on a crate in the philosophy section, staring at the collected works of Bertrand Russell. Someone walks in, but I hold off on a greeting. (When one is contemplating atheism, one is easily spooked.)


Jesus. I rise to my feet and there she is, holding the book to her chest like a shield. We spend fifteen seconds looking at each other. She takes a breath.



“I won’t leave.”

I am faced with the greatest threat to human reason ever created: a beautiful woman who’s about to start crying. I feel my shoulders melting.


I have stopped breathing. Finally, he rolls an arm and says, “Follow me.” He takes me to the back of a storage room, grabs a fully-loaded set of shelves and pushes it aside with surprising ease (the boxes are empty).

Behind the shelves is a door. Paul undoes a combination lock and leads me down a narrow set of stairs into a brightly lit room. When he reaches the bottom, he heads to the left of a room-wide curtain and pulls it across. Five long tables host a half-dozen buckets each. Each bucket holds a plant, three feet tall, spring green, with spiked leaves. A network of black tubes runs from plant to plant. A framework of PVC pipes holds a dozen sunlamps.

Paul stands before them like a teacher addressing a class. I stumble on the final step and catch myself on the back of his shoulders.

“Welcome to The Spa. As you know, the other thing the bullshitters hate is that we can grow our own – which keeps their filthy hands off our pocketbooks. The next question being, ‘Are you in or are you out?’

“It’s beautiful.”

He reaches up to take my hand. “That wasn’t the question.”

“Oh! In. Yes. In.”


Photo by MJV

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

The Popcorn Girl, Chapter Four: Ratted Out

Read the novel on this site, a chapter a week, or buy the Kindle book at


Lexi is such a ditz it drives me nuts. She’s always punching the wrong keys on the register, and then I have to come over and void the transaction. She could learn this stuff herself – she’s been here for a year – but she’s lazy. Blondes. They spend their whole lives having stuff handed to them.

It’s Friday, opening night on two of our screens, one of them that Norwegian mystery writer who begins all of his titles with The Girl Who. I’m hovering over one of my everyday delights –a spanking clean popper, ready for the day’s first batch – when I hear the familiar two-syllable whine.

“Ja-azz! Can you help me?”

You’re beyond help you freakin’ moron.

“Sure.” I walk over, dissect the latest faux pas, and hit the usual buttons. Nothing. I try again. Shit. I smile at our customers, a young Asian couple.

“I’m sorry. I’ll be right back.”

I leave them in Lexi’s inept care and race-walk to the office, where Fosh is posting something on his Facebook page.

“Hi, boss. Did you change the security code?”

He scans the ceiling, searching his memory. “Ye-ess. Just a moment.” He burrows into his desk. His cell phone goes off.


“Fuck, Lexi! Just a…”

Lexi stands in the frame of the hall. Trailing behind her are tentacles of black smoke.

“Shit!” I run to the fire extinguisher, but I can’t work the latch.

“I’ve got it.” Fosh frees it up and runs to the lobby, where the popper is sending out smoke like the stack of a locomotive. He mumbles something in Farsi and hands me the extinguisher.

“Get everybody outside.”

“But won’t…”


His ferocity snaps me into focus. I wave a few customers into the street and prop open the doors. A river of smoke climbs the marquee. I stand to the side, holding the extinguisher in case anybody needs it. Lexi comes up to offer a few helpful insights.

“Shit, that was scary! What the hell was that?”

I feel the surge of heat but I can’t stop it. “That was the oil overheating. Which wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t have to help you every five fucking seconds because you won’t learn your fucking job!”

Lexi undergoes her own kind of surge. Her eyes crinkle, she starts to cry, and then she runs off down the street.

“Wow,” says Javid. “You’re kind of a bitch! I like that.”

I check the smoke, which seems to be lessening. “I guess I held back too long.”

“You know, less intelligent people make their way through life by developing delusions about themselves, and they fill those delusions with helium. You have to be careful about popping them, or you’ll end up with a high-pitched voice.”

“That is the weakest analogy I’ve ever heard.”

“See? There you go, popping delusions.”

“So what’s the word?”

“Boss man cut the circuit to the popper. This kind of thing has happened before – no flames, lots of smoke. We’re supposed to tell the customers that the first showings are cancelled. Oh! Here’s a few now.”

He heads for the ticket window, where a dad and two girls are studying the scene. I cradle my fire extinguisher and take a moment to feel sorry for myself.

I arrived at Tony’s boat to find that he intended to share me with three of his friends. One of them was celebrating a long-awaited divorce. I refused, but then he doubled my price. As we neared Angel Island, I actually began to enjoy it. Something about being the focus of all that energy. Now I am deeply afraid of myself.


I’m about to start our surf-punk song when I see a smile and freeze. Smeed leans over and gives me a stage aside.


“Yeah. I got it.” I kick up the beat (three tom, one snare) and we’re off. As my hands sink into auto-mode, I allow myself a sideways glance. Now she’s laughing.

“Geez. You surprised me.”

“So I noticed. Your band is wonderful.”

“We’re pretty tight without the dachsunds.”

“I’ve had such a hellish week, I totally forgot about tonight. But I saw a flyer at the Depot.”

“So you set the fire.”

“Oh God! You saw it?”

“I work across the street.”

Jasmina scans the room – the Baby Seal Club setting up, our squad of followers dominating a large table up front. “This place have an outdoor area?”

I take her hand and lead her to a small patio out back. Across the alley, the well-heeled of Mill Valley are eating Italian food.

She smacks her lips. “So how do you write these songs? Where do they come from?”

“Well, first we hook a couple of mics to a computer and keep it running. This one time, I laid down this caveman beat and Smeed came up with a chord structure – let’s see, full measures of E, G and A, followed by a little cut on D and C. I doubled up the beat and Pamela started vibing some vocal lines. Later on, when we…”

I would go on, but I’ve got Jasmina’s tongue in my mouth. This one lasts for a full minute.

“You know… if I’m talking too much, you can always just… tell me to shut up.”

“I think I prefer my way.”

“I’m not really complaining. But tell me, these little guerilla attacks – what’s that about?”

“You don’t know?”

“I am a visitor from the planet Jehovah. Your ways are strange to me.”

She looks down and rubs a spot on her pinkie. “I’m not exactly sure myself. I do it because I can’t help not doing it. I find you kissable. As for the ferocity – well, it’s been a long time. Not that I’m… What I mean is… could we just enjoy this part before we get onto… the other parts?”

I have to laugh. “Oh! Believe me. See previous comment, ‘planet Jehovah.’ But let me… Hold still a second.”

She freezes, as if she expects me to wipe away an eyelash. Instead I duck down and kiss her very softly, for a very brief time. She keeps her eyes closed, as if she’s expecting more, then opens them and smiles.

“You see,” I say, “those kind of kisses are okay, too.”

“And everything in between?”

“And everything in between.”

Smeed pokes his head through the doorway and grins. “Paul! Safety meeting, Mark’s van. Are we a plus-one this evening?”

Jasmina tilts her head. “Safety meeting?”

I take her hand. “Trust me.”

“I think I will.”

“Excellent,” says Smeed. “I’ll get you a seat next to the wheel well.”

The wheel well is, in fact, poking into my ribs, but I’m also serving as Jasmina’s pillow. I rest a hand along her waist and take in the tremors of her laughter as we pass a joint. I don’t think I’ve had a better moment in my life.


I am back in the red armchair, which I think has become my safe zone. I have become a regular visitor during my breaks, and have grown accustomed to the gazes of my uncles, Voltaire and Jefferson.

I used to think that the shop had no customers, but I have discovered the illusion. Everybody parks in the back. Perhaps The Free Thinker is like a porn shop – perfectly legal, but you don’t necessarily want to be seen entering. I doze a little to the music of the register, happy that my honey is doing well. I see him walking up through Enlightenment, carrying a small book. He kisses me and sets it on my lap.

“What’s this?”

“Now that we’ve deconstructed St. Paul, it’s time we blow up Christmas.”

I put on my best sad-face. “Oh! Poor Christmas.”

“I discovered this author when he was giving a talk on the Da Vinci Code. He’s a religious studies professor – the writing is delightfully free of hyperbole. The basic premise is this: the early Christians had this fully worked-up messiah, but they lacked a snappy birth story. So they made it up from scratch, being careful to manipulate the details to match all the prophecies. The most obvious fabrication was the tax census, which was a rather torturous way of getting the holy family to Bethlehem.”

“I hope it doesn’t destroy Christmas completely. It’s awfully fun.”

Paul gives me a calm smile. It’s a recent addition, the only smile that doesn’t shift. I’d like to think that it’s got something to do with me.

“The Christians were brilliant marketers, and they stole things from every pagan tradition they encountered. By the end of this book, I think you’ll feel like Christmas belongs more to you than the so-called believers. Ah but shit, here I go telling you the whole story again.”

“You’re my personal audio-book.”

The chime to the back door goes off.

“Oops,” he says. “I better be attentive.”

I stand and give him a kiss. “And I better get back to the popcorn. See you tomorrow?”

“Can’t wait.”

And I’m off, into a blinding sun. Tomorrow is Valentine’s Day, I have a Valentine, and yet I’m sandwiched by dilemmas. It’s Mack, the guy whose divorce we were celebrating. I guess he liked my work. Like a good diplomat, he has received the okay from Tony to make me an offer: my own apartment and a hefty retainer in exchange for exclusive relations and two visits a week. I could easily give up the moviehouse. Not that I would. I learned that in Minneapolis: hang on to the day job.


We are tremendously busy. It seems like every couple in Mill Valley is catching a movie before the traditional dinner. Thankfully, I’m on a four-hour shift, and then I get my own dinner. Paul’s not talking, but he did ask me if I liked Indian food.

Fosh wanders into the lobby, patting his face with a handkerchief. It’s not warm in here.

“Jasmina, could I ask you to stay till closing? I’m afraid Lexi has called in sick.”

Why that little cunt. Lexi’s got a whole pack of drooling dog-boys. I’ll bet she’s got a couple of dates tonight. Fucking whore.

“Yes. Okay.”

Fosh smiles. “Thank you, thank you. I owe you once more.”

I would do almost anything to make that man smile. Him and his horrible wife. I scoop up a large popcorn for yet another couple as I construct a disappointing text message for Paul.

But the rush continues. I don’t even have time to get to my cell phone. I’m surprised by a familiar face.


He gives a sheepish smile. “Hi.”

“You’re not, um… out tonight?”

“Please! Do not rub it in. I am here to console myself on this most horrible of holidays.”

“Not doing much better myself.”

“How so?”

“Lazy Blondebitch called in sick.”

“Oh! That is criminal.”

Somebody steps into line behind him. I give him an eye signal.

“Oh, umm… large popcorn and a root beer.”

A half-hour later, I still haven’t sent a text. I look at the Closed sign across the street and I feel terrible. Somebody taps me on the shoulder. It’s Javid, wearing his uniform.

“You had better get going. You don’t want to be late.”

It’s almost too much to take. I grab Javid and kiss him on the cheek. “Thank you! Thank you!”

“Call me Cupid. But do me a favor – read this.”

I take his note and tuck it into my pocket. When I turn to wave, he’s already helping a customer.


We are just outside of town, heading into the wilds. Paul takes a sudden turn into a dirt lot packed with cars. But there doesn’t seem to be anything else here. He leads me across the lot to a small wooden sign that reads Lakshmi. Next to the sign is a graveled path illuminated by a strand of light-rope. Fifty feet along we come to a covered walkway. A trio of broad stone steps leads to a landing, a slab of varnished redwood burl lit by a large red candle. After that, another three steps, another burl, another candle. After fourteen of these combinations, we cross an arched bridge over a creek and arrive at a pair of enormous red doors. Paul pulls the left-hand door, revealing a five-foot bronze statue of Ganesh – the Hindu elephant god – and the interior of an Indian restaurant. The hostess leads us to a green granite table set off by rattan screens. The centerpiece is a squat red candle framed by three white orchids. Paul seems pleased by my expression.

“It’s a fairyland,” I say. “But why are they trying so hard to hide it?”

The calm smile. “Mill Valley marketing. The more you hide something, the more people want it. But I certainly didn’t fool you, did I?”

He refers to my outfit, a sari of butter yellow and tangerine. “Well, you did ask me if I liked Indian.”

“Damn! I should have taken my chances. Regardless, you look like a Bollywood starlet.”

“I’ll play whatever ethnicity you want.”

“Not with that skin.”

“You’d be amazed at what people will believe.”

Our waitress is a light-skinned beauty with the kind of long, straightline nose that Indian women totally get away with. Paul orders Naan flatbread, which we dip into a cucumber-basil-yogurt sauce. I depend on his expertise for the rest: saffron rice, nauraton korma vegetables, mulligatawny soup, tandoori chicken, rogan josh lamb, and a dessert called kajor kheer – creamy dates with almond pudding. The spices leave a warm feeling in my stomach. He insists that I order a mango lassi to wash it down, and he’s absolutely right. I take Paul’s hand across the table.

“This is absolutely perfect.”

“It’s made with yogurt.”

“Oh the drink, yes, but I meant the evening. You are a wonderful man.”

The flattery sends a flush of red into his face. “I’ve been meaning to bring someone here for a long time.”

I take the last spoonful of kajor kheer. “Mmm. You know, this evening has an additional Indian element. We had an emergency at work, but Javid covered for me.”

Paul’s smile shifts. He raises his glass. “Thank you, Javid.”

“Poor boy. He’s very lonely.”

This reminds me of the note, which I slipped into my evening bag. “Excuse me, honey. I need to freshen up.”

The path to the ladies’ room is almost as involved as the entryway. I slip into a stall and give the note a read.

I’m enjoying the evening too much to mess with it, but my resolve gives out at the door to Paul’s shop. He’s hesitating, no doubt entertaining an invitation, and I’m feeling like I need to put everything on pause. I kiss him, and I say, “Is there something you want to tell me?”

Paul smiles. “It’s a little early for that.”

I punch him in the chest, hard.

“What the…”

“You don’t have any fucking aunt.”

He raises a hand, a gesture of protest, then lets it drop. “I don’t.”

“Smoking is one thing, but dealing? That’s illegal and dangerous, and why the hell didn’t you tell me?”

“Because it’s illegal and dangerous.”

I’m not really interested in his answer. I am much too worked up.

“Thanks for dinner. I’m sorry.”

I turn and walk away. I hear my name. I keep going.

Photo by MJV

Monday, November 25, 2013

The Uninvited Guest

By Michael J. Vaughn

I strive to invest even the smallest of characters with a fascinating trait or two, and sometimes they blow up on me. It’s as if they’re handing me a business card and saying, “Cameo? I don’t think so!”

The ultimate example was Dr. Lisa Pisarro, who showed up in my sex novel Double Blind. My protagonist, Hopkins Grinder, got a nasty cut over his eye during an argument with his wife (at the time, she was chopping vegetables). Dr. Pisarro’s original role was simply to give him some stitches and broach the uncomfortable topic of whether Hopkins wanted to talk to the police.

The catch came in Hopkins’ description of Pisarro’s expressive features. It must be hard, he thinks, going around with your feelings right there on your face.

Hopkins and Dr. Lisa become friends, helping each other through his disintegrating marriage and her brother’s suicide, then inevitably fall in love (inevitably because of that first description).

In my just-finished road novel, Nature Boy, I had uninvited guests coming out of my ears. A lovely young Indian woman had an Irish accent that demanded explanation (Chitra McKenzie, raised in Dublin). Another woman gave my hero a kiss on the street outside a New York art opening and slipped an oyster shell into his pocket, inscribed with her name and number. She became Chelsea Kormit, a frozen-vegetable heiress who renovated old houses for a hobby.

Another young lady was meant mostly to look disappointed when my protagonist revealed his date was dancing half-naked above them in a go-go cage. But something about her was so endearing that I equipped her with the most Jewish name I could come up with – Rachel Grossman – and watched as she became the tragic heart of my novel.

What do I mean to tell you with all these examples? That novels are like life. You may think you’re in control, but you’re not, and the uninvited guests who come to your party often turn out to be the most entertaining.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six novels and a competitions judge for Writer’s Digest. See his author page at Photo by MJV.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

Finding Your Voice by Not Trying so Hard to Find Your Voice

The first time I heard soprano Rochelle Bard, I was astounded by her tone, which was so vibrant it seemed to be spinning in the air. When I asked her how she did it, she said, “I stopped singing so hard.” Because when a voice is pushed too hard, the throat tightens, constricting the space through which the voice travels.

Too often, when a beginning writer sits before the page, he thinks, I must now sound like an AUTHOR, and adopts an artificially elevated tone. Just as with the constricted throat, this serves mostly to gum up the works, producing convoluted sentences weighed down with overinflated words – words that still bear the marks of the thesaurus from which they were fished.

This leaning toward unnatural language may be repaired rather easily, thanks to a trick I picked up from writing instructor Ted Gehrke. Find a recorder and speak a condensed version of your story into it. Then play it back, and write your words down on a page. This will probably not be a suitable first draft, but it will put you back in touch with a more natural, conversational style of language.

Speaking may also come in handy later, when you’re nearing something resembling a final draft. Speak your text out loud and listen to the flow, the music. If a sentence sounds awkward when you speak it, it will look awkward to the reader. As a drummer and singer, I sometimes take this process to a deep level. Just now, while composing a poem, I took the phrase “the allure of shapeless objects” and changed it to “the allure of shapeless forms.” Speak these out loud. Note the harsh syllables that comprise “shape-less ob-jects” (all those glottal stops and hissing esses). Hear how they’re balanced out by the smoother word “forms,” how pleasing it is to end the line on that m-z buzz.

Sparing the Five-Dollar Word

When it comes to vocabulary, use this as a rule of thumb: employ the simplest word that captures what you’re trying to say. If the meaning you’re trying to express demands a subtler distinction, then by all means use the fancier word – but make sure it’s a fancier word that you know. (Another reason for using a high-priced word would, again, be the music. In this very paragraph, I used “employ” to avoid repeating the word “use”, because if you use a word too often, the use of this word becomes anything but useful.)

Another lure for writers to use high-falutin’ language occurs when they are great fans of the genre, and they want to sound like the writers they most admire. But mimicry is a losing strategy, because the copy is never as good as the original. This approach also leads into the La Brea Tar Pits of Cliché. In judging short story contests, I can’t tell you how often a thriller begins with the protagonist returning to consciousness in a strange place, or a noir detective story begins with our hero drinking cheap whiskey in a dingy office when she walks in (“she had the kind of lips you could use to float down the Mississippi”). I can always count on these stories ending up in the reject pile, not automatically because of their clichéd openings but because writers who display such a lack of originality inevitably turn out to be weak writers in other ways, as well. (I once challenged myself to reform the rude-awakening cliché, beginning a story with my heroine waking up on a golf course, stark naked, a golf ball rolling to her feet, followed by her employer and a foursome of important clients – but alas, the rest of the story refused to take form.)

To a short-story judge, bleary-eyed after hours of reading artificial prose, there is nothing more bracing than to happen upon a story written in clear, unpretentious, everyday English. In the long run, the truly ambitious author’s search for a “voice” can only succeed if the voice he begins with is his own.

Michael J. Vaughn is the author of six novels and a competitions judge for Writer’s Digest. Find his books at his Amazon.comauthor’s page. Photo by MJV.

Saturday, November 23, 2013

The Popcorn Girl: Chapter Three

Read the novel here, a chapter a week, or buy the Kindle book at


The sun is back. I’m so relieved, I gave myself a lunch break. I head for the Depot, where they have a butternut soup that inspires fistfights. The air outside is freezing, but I will not be kept from my UVs. I don my sunglasses, baseball cap and ski jacket and take a seat on the patio.

The Depot is Mill Valley’s epicenter; all surrounding ridges are equidistant from my table. It’s like standing on the 50-yard line of a football stadium. I take a taste of my quadruple espresso (what they call The Cardiac). The substances meld and blend and I think I may be ready. I reach into my pocket and pull out an envelope. It’s a letter from Callie. It’s been surfing my desk for a week, nibbling at my skin.

It’s not that this letter contains anything dangerous. I came to my present way of thinking all on my own; therefore, I am not reprogrammable. Beyond the perfect cursive address, the lines of scripture on the flap, lies nothing much more than an irritant. If you come back, she will say, all your crimes will be forgiven.

Inevitably, though, the irritant becomes an aerial photograph of a widening chasm. I spent a large slice of my life with this woman. We created beautiful moments: delicious dinners, stunning vistas, funny jokes, luscious sex. Now, all she cares about is my soul. Or, rather, an object that she thinks is my soul.

In Callie’s world, if you join the proper Girl Scout troop, and take all the necessary pledges, then Bingo! Your soul is saved. The atheist soul is a much more complex creation, composed of the daily actions you feel compelled to take, the ideas you feel driven to pursue. We are always thinking. Sometimes it’s a pain in the ass. The paint-by-number ease of religion is tempting.

After a while, though, you step back from the easel and realize that you’ve come up with this big and grasping picture – Picasso’s Guernica, Seurat’s La Grand Jatte. You can’t quite believe all the sparks that you have set into motion, the way they streak and wave and bounce off of each other like sardines in a school. You’ll never get to heaven, but you will never ever go to hell. When you open a letter and find an illustration from Dick and Jane, it’s pretty depressing.

I take another sip. The espresso guns my engines. I run the letter under my nose. I’m surprised to smell perfume. You slut! I set it back down. A gust of wind whips it from the table. It slides under the patio fence and winds up on the sidewalk. I give myself up to a greater force: meteorology. If the wind keeps taking it, then so be it.

A woman in a red coat trots over to pick it up. She smiles, revealing her identity, then comes to my table and takes off her sunglasses.

“Paul! Your epistles are blowing all over Ephesia.”

“Junk mail.”

Her gaze drifts to the blue skies. “You know any good hiking trails?”

“I know several.”

“Well let’s go then.”

I open the gate and let her pass. Once she’s ahead of me, I toss Callie into a garbage can.


Paul leads me out of town on a zig-zag of uphill streets. The last line of houses are what I call “hilltoppers” – not precisely mansions, but they do radiate money. One of them is a woodsman-style creation, its foundation buttressed by entire Douglas firs sliced in half. Just past the gated entrance we slip between two metal posts onto what looks like a fire road.

“It’s a little late for hiking,” says Paul. “But with fire roads, visibility’s not really an issue. Besides, I… Well now I’m just explaining too much. Have you gotten very far with the book?”

It takes me a moment to remember which book he means. “Yes! I swear, it feels like I’ve been carving holes in a piece of wood, and this book offers all these pegs that fit right in. Like all the transplanted Greek mysticism. And the misogyny!”

“That’s exactly the reaction I had. If Paul had gotten laid more often – or ever – we wouldn’t have all these creepy celibate priests and their pedophilia.”

A lizard zips across the sandstone. A thought lands on my radar. “You don’t suppose he was latent?”

Paul laughs and picks up a rock. “Oh believe me, hon, you’re not the first. I tend to be cautious on such matters – but yes, there are definite signs of closeted self-loathing. Also, they recently discovered a mistranslated passage in Corinthians that seems to refer to Judy Garland.”

“Oh! You are evil.”

“You’re not the first to say that, either. But isn’t it amazing how one guy can screw up sex for billions? Schmuck!”

From there, our hike gets quiet. It seems that Paul has as much on his mind as I have on mine. I suspect it was the letter; the writing looked feminine. For me it’s Tony. He’s trying to make up to me. He says he’ll be gentle. And he’s offering me twice as much. I can feel the danger, but I’m flattered that I’m considered so valuable a piece of ass.

“Are you doing better?”

Paul’s talking over his shoulder. He’s not even winded.

“Yes. Thanks. I’m much better. It was a family thing. Nothing huge, just… upsetting.”

“Don’t worry, we’re almost there.”
I’m relieved. We’re on the southern flank of Mount Tamalpais. If Paul wanted, he could take us uphill for another three days. A little later, as the sun fades behind us, we come to a clearing. Over the slopes of grass I can see Mill Valley, down to the tiny yellow loop of the moviehouse marquee. A hundred feet on, we enter a patch of live oak and bay laurel. I can see another clearing at the far end, but before we get there, Paul stops.

“Okay. Can you stay here a second?”

“Um, sure.”

He smiles. “Fantastic. I’ll be right back.”

He jogs ahead for thirty yards, stands there a second, and jogs back.

“It’s perfect. Now. I am attempting to maximize your experience. So, put your hand up to your eye, like a horse blinder, and promise me that you will not look to your right.”

“Okay. I promise.”

“Just keep your eyes on the trail.”


I cover the thirty yards looking at the trail and Paul’s feet. He stops and turns.

“Okay. Now. Take my hands and close your eyes. Don’t worry – it’s a smooth path.”

My trust alarms are going off (“I’ll be gentle”), but it’s also a little exciting, like heading downstairs on Christmas morning. I can feel the calluses on Paul’s hands, probably from drumming. The path feels like moist soil, a little grass. The air is getting cold.

“Okay. Keep them closed.”

He comes behind me, takes me by the shoulders and adjusts my bearings.

“Okay. Go ahead.”

What I’m seeing is so extraordinary that it takes me a while to sort it out. It’s the city of San Francisco, miles below us, a hilly blanket of white buildings speckled with lights, fog lining the valleys like mink stoles.

“My God. It’s like a city in a snow globe.”

Paul says nothing. He is just as enchanted as I am. As I look harder I begin to pick out features. Coit Tower. The green swath of the Presidio. The TransAmerica Pyramid. The shiny necklaces of the Bay Bridge. A wink of light from Alcatraz. We find a boulder and take our seats, drinking it in as the twilight darkens and the city lights up. Paul begins to talk.

“I grew up as a Jehovah’s Witness. I loved it. I was their best salesman. The door-slam, the curt no, the hurled insult – I took them as blessings. I was doing the Lord’s work.

“I married a Witness. Callie. Not that I had a choice. But I loved her anyway. I was lucky. Soon after our first anniversary, my mind began to wander, especially during readings of scripture. I attributed this to evil forces, as I was trained to do. Then I realized that the evil force was my own mind, a powerful organ that had been held in check for too long.

“I began to raise questions, all of them unspoken. Then I took the fatal step – I brought my doubts to the elders. They were horrified. They ordered me to stand trial for heresy. I was destined to lose. My marriage was annulled – I had clearly misrepresented myself. I was declared an apostate and ordered to leave.”

I look at Paul’s profile against the lights of the city. His nose is prominent, Mediterranean, with a small notch halfway down, as though he had broken it butting up against God.

“You’re a heretic? That is so cool!”

Paul thrusts his hands in the direction of San Francisco. “I’m a heretic, motherfuckers!”

After we stop laughing, I stand and stretch my legs. He has given me quite the workout.

“So one thing I’ve been meaning to ask you, Galileo…”

“Martin Luther.”

“Judas of Mill Valley. You can’t possibly be supporting yourself with that shop. What’s the deal?"

“Ah.” He slaps a hand against his thigh. “Well. You can just imagine into what dire straits I had thrust myself. But news travels quickly in a family tree, and soon I received a call from a personage I had always considered to be as mythical as a Griffin. My great aunt Minnie, rumored to be a communist spy, a Wiccan priestess, founder of the Gray Panthers, original bassist for the Sex Pistols. She was, in fact, executive editor of a publishing house in Boston. When she heard that a member of her lost tribe had escaped, she flew me to her house in Cambridge and had her lawyers draw up a trust. With the proviso that I use the money to continue my spiritual evolution. And thus was born The Free Thinker.”

“Well God bless Aunt Minnie. Whoops! Sorry.”

“Never apologize for a figure of speech.”


“We better go. Lord knows, we don’t want to get caught in a rainstorm.”

“Right on. Heretic.”

“You really like that.”

“You should tell that to all the chicks.”

“I will think about it.”


A grown man shouldn’t feel so goofy because a girl holds his hand. But I am years and years out of practice. Mill Valley is not helping matters, halos around the streetlamps, Cassiopeia haunting the ridge like a fairywing.

To Jasmina, the hand-holding may not mean as much. She strikes me as the type who’s affectionate with everyone. We arrive at the shop. I start to say something and find that she’s kissing me. That she’s rolling her tongue along the inside of my mouth. I’m so shocked I almost forget to enjoy it.

She breaks off and backs away, looking like a dog who’s been caught with tomorrow’s roast. “I’m sorry, I really, thanks, I’d better…”

She makes a vague gesture and leaves. I watch her go until she’s gone.

Photo by MJV