Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
Write Club is a monthly, literary bloodsport in which contenders face off against each other with 7-minute essays on competing topics. Below was my combatant essay based on the prompt “NICE,” facing off against “NAUGHTY.” This essay was performed on December 22, 2009, at The Hideout in Chicago, and was victorious in its bout.
There is an author somewhere who needs an adjective. Perhaps it’s for a phrase; perhaps it’s an overarching theme of the current work. He needs an adjective that approximates good without actually being good because the author hates the word good, hates the way it bungees from his uvula back up into his mouth, crashes into his teeth like some clown-colored 1972 Gremlin. Good is not an option, good is lingua non grata. Other authors can use good. Other authors are hacks and whores.
The adjective he wants is not all flashy fireworks, is not fantastic, is not amazing, words generally reserved for stretchy scientists and spidery men. It is not astounding, or astonishing; is not the sparkling Visaligned grin of terrific. The author is stuck on the sentence for hours that seem like decades that snap back to mere minutes yet again, and then the roulette wheel of his vocabulary’s Rolodex stops suddenly on Nice.
Nice, the author thinks in blue against a background of white. Nice, the author speaks aloud. Yes. Of course. The author will employ Nice. And then the author wonders why it took him so long to think of it, as his fingertips descend towards the top and bottom rows of the keyboard.
The adjective in question, Nice, sits in the metaphorical equivalent of a paid-monthly Florida motel room, with basic cable and HBO and sporadically Showtime whenever there’s a space shuttle launch; with a pool in the courtyard, over-chlorinated and slick with hair product; with cast iron railings dented by the hundreds of frustrated kicks from the sorts of people who spend their lives wishing they’d gotten farther away. Nice has a plastic yellow landline that it rarely expects to ring. Once upon a time, yes, and every now and again there are surprises. For some reason a new article needs to be written about Tom Hanks or Ellen DeGeneres or Sandra Bullock. Occasionally the adjective would find featured-extra status in adolescent slang, a gig that ebbs and flows like the securities market; suddenly 14 year-olds in California would grant Nice the saturation of punctuation marks, the way they once did for radical and gnarly, the way they once did for beast.
But Nice doesn’t need the steady work anymore. Nice makes do with the residuals from its finest hours working with words like mister and guy and its breakthrough success with the ensemble of Have a day. It enjoys, wistfully, the exposure spikes that come every December (and lately November and sometimes for Chrissakes the end of October) as major market radio begins looping that ominously terrifying song about how Santa Claus ignores your Fourth Amendment rights before Coming to Town; that song that had inextricably linked Nice to Naughty, like Martin & Lewis, like Burns & Allen.
Nice was the straight-edged square to Naughty, always and forever, by nature and design. It knew and accepted its place as the amiable sleight-of-hand specialist who came out onstage while the main attraction sobered up and stretched out. The audience was long tolerant of Nice, but it always came to see Naughty, it came to see Lindsay Lohan’s Playboy spread Jell-O wrestling with the Michelle Bachmann parody porn. Nice was Easter and Arbor Day, Naughty was Halloween and Mardi Gras. Every adjective had its place.
The author’s offer comes down the wire and Nice accepts it politely, irons its shirt and carefully de-lints the sport coat before grabbing whatever bus is heading that direction. It arrives on time, listens attentively, hits its marks and signs the attendant tax forms in legible block letters. Everybody smiles at Nice and talks about what a pleasure it is to work with Nice and we hope we get to work again with Nice and when Nice walks off the lot everybody immediately forgets that the adjective was ever there. The crew regales each other with the stories of what happened the day before with tremendous and extreme and oh my God you would not believe what they did to the craft services table.
At this point one would guess that the adjective shuffles back to its room in metaphorical Florida and gently falls asleep in an afternoon sunbeam. And the story of the adjective seems sad, or heartwarming, and the ultimate takeaway for the audience is that all adjectives are their own adjectives, and the story of Nice just happens to be, well, nice.
Except maybe the adjective doesn’t just go home after all. Because another author remembers that in addition to its Reader’s Digest articles and 50th Wedding Anniversary cards Nice is often available for wet work. And this is different, and this is devastating, and this is the sort of thing that Nice can also do while everybody is preoccupied with underestimating it.
This other author spins a story of a young woman, perhaps, whose eyes work in mathematics and hands work in dreams. She is an architect, or a sculptor, or a painter, and she is in college, in the studio, at her lover’s house in Vermont. She awakes every morning the exact same way except for one, and on that other morning her inner metal detector pinged on something she had no way of knowing was ever there, this bounty of Spanish bullion that had sunk to the bottom of her imagination before ever setting sail. And this woman, the protagonist in the other author’s tale, she excavates this inspiration with determination and passion, spends years shaping and polishing, produces a vessel for the entirety of her pride, something that she is willing to call her life’s work. She has wept and agonized over this thing in her mind, she has taken it dancing and fed it from her breast and frantically searched for it with bloodhounds each time it ran away. This creation of hers, the other author continues, is at last finished, and with what remains of her courage she brings it before her mentor, or her mother, or her peers.
The adjective, in the meantime, has been crows-nested for an eternity now, has had the protagonist in its sights, has waited patiently for its moment. The joints in the adjective’s knees have gone creaky and calcified, the scope fogged and defogged a countless number of times. The protagonist shows her magnum opus to the audience and the adjective exhales and squeezes as the audience responds:
“Well. That’s very nice.”
She does not drop dead right then. It is not quick, what the adjective has done to her. It is torturous and insidious and course changing; it is a gale of wind growing from the chaos butterfly of a golf clap. Nice, and she will build caverns in her skull to facilitate the echo, Nice, Nice, Nice, Nice, Nice. She will add the adverbs herself, the only and the merely, and together the syntax will conspire to destroy her, at some point in the future, will plant forests of doubt when the burning wreckage is embers and ashes. Then, only then will the adjective return home, to wait for its next assignment, safe as ever in the cloak of others’ underestimation.
And there is a third author somewhere who gets a message to the adjective, not to hire it but to discuss the purchase of life rights, and after a small, metaphorical transaction that third author proceeds to stand in front of another audience in a room in Chicago and offers a grim dissection of the adjective, offers truths about the adjective that the adjective perhaps wishes had remained unsaid.
But the adjective would never let that author know its displeasure. Because that wouldn’t really be Nice.