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Gloves Off: Round X
Keep those Crocs present!
The Sous Chef, Chapter Four
I am hung-OH-ver and want nothing more than to crawl back in bed and marathon-sleep till Tuesday, but I have to visit my aunt in this god-forsaken place. I gave her my word. On the boxy TV mounted in the corner of the waiting room, a generic blonde morning news anchor coos at a shaggy-haired brown puppy with haunted human eyes.
“Wouldn’t you just love to take this little guy home?”
Not if I ever wanted to sleep again.
My comments: Okay, solid where-and-when opening, but be careful to not telegraph the entire situation up front. Tom would call this a “thesis statement” and it summarizes things you’ll already show more clearly. Consider starting with a single image and building from there. For example:
“On television a shaggy-haired brown puppy stares out with with haunted human eyes. A television mounted near the ceiling in a corner of the waiting room. A boxy television, where a blonde newscaster enters the shot and says, ‘Wouldn’t you just love to take this little guy home?’”
That’s still rough, but the idea is to build gradually with images that don’t swamp your reader. The puppy’s haunted eyes. The ominous “waiting room.” The question—which should go unanswered. If your narrator says/thinks, “Not if I ever want to sleep again,” then she/he has the last word, and the tension is lost. Here, we’re trying to get a collection of small, dread-filled images to stick. The reader will be hooked by wanting to know what they add up to, and where they go.
A janitor with a wrinkled, grease-saturated off-white McDonald’s bag passes me. I grimace as the antiseptic hospital smell combines with the odor of his fake breakfast food. I see Nurse Brenda at her station and the sound of her acrylic nails jackhammering away on the ol’ QWERTY nearly brings me to my knees. The metal shards of sound penetrate my alcohol-rotted skull but the only thing I can do to keep the pain at bay is to lay my sweat-drenched forehead on this ice-cold hospital countertop, or else the janitor will have to mop up my brain splooge and his plastic cheese-egg-stuff-nitrate-laced-ham breakfast sandwich will get cold.
“Morning, Brenda,” I sing-song like a morning person with normal levels of serotonin. She looks up from the screen and her usual happy-go-fucking-lucky face melts with worry when her eyes land on me.
“Are you ok?” she asks, more concerned than I want her to be.
I try to lift my head but physically can’t, but I don’t acknowledge this and instead do that thing where you kick at an invisible rock on the floor when you feel anxious.
“Got a little ahead of myself last night,” I say, eyes on the floor, practiced humility at its best. “Think you can help me out?”
My comments: It’s great that you’re going here. We haven’t looked at much comedy, and I’m guessing that you’re writing humor similar to Bridget Jones’s Diary. I’m still going to ask you to unpack some details. Yes, comedy relies on constantly negating drama, but you need to build some drama/tension in order to build toward bigger laughs.
And be careful not to filter the world through the narrator with “I see Nurse Brenda…” Introduce her sunglasses and Crocs early so we’ll know about them long before she uses them in any significant way.
Consider with “… or else the janitor will have to mop up my brain splooge and his plastic cheese-egg-stuff-nitrate-laced-ham breakfast sandwich will get cold.”
Instead, just make his/her head explode. Explode:
“Regardless, my head explodes, just a bubble of well-drink gin, no-name gin, popping smack on that shiny counter and half my face flops flat against the stainless steel as my sunglasses shatter, and my hair settles like a deflating balloon, and my dissolved memories of Mum and Da gush to the edge and trickle down to the floor where the janitor mops up my brain splooge while his plastic cheese-egg-stuff-nitrate-laced-ham breakfast sandwich gets cold… but not really.”
This would allow you to create a mini-scene in the reader’s mind, then negate it. A device like “… not really” would get you out of even the most outlandish fantasy scenarios. But in the moment you’re telling them, they’ll seem real to the reader.
With “… she asks, more concerned than I want her to be,” unpack this. Here’s a moment to relate something about Brenda or the job. “‘Are you okay?’ she asks. Only her voice is too much the voice she uses with a husband whose wife had died during childbirth.”
My point is—submerge the “I” as much as possible. The personality in this seems very big, and that’s good, but turn the camera on other elements more.
I can hear the desperation in my voice and there’s a brief but potent moment of embarrassment that just takes a squat on my shoulders. There is no generational wealth in my cursed bloodline but my father was kind enough to pass along some addiction genes, eczema, a decade or so of trauma by way of unrelenting emotional neglect, and a generous helping of physical abuse—mostly when he was frustrated about not being able to get his personal needs met.
“I dunno, Asia.”
The look of concern on her scrunched face poses a direct threat to my needs. Time to reroute this convo.
“Come on, I don’t want her to see me like this,” I plead then gesture toward the state of me. I look pretty sloppy, but not because of drugs or alcohol. Mostly from the massive sleep debt I’ve accrued thanks to the shitty, amazing career of mine. Oh, and the unprocessed pre-grief that I’m actively ignoring so I can get through my day without truly considering that the person who I love most, who loves me most, is here for a limited time only, like a selection from the goddamn Disney vault.
Brenda looks at me for a beat, then deflates.
“Fine. But this is the last time. Ok?”
My comments: First, be careful of filtering during bits like, “I can hear the desperation in my voice.” Consider, “The voice that leaks out of me stinks of desperation.” Bury and submerge the “I” and no filtering.
Also, try to avoid summarizing unless you’re going on a comic tirade. Rethink the longish sentence that takes us out of the scene to summarize about the father. If this were a montage scene wherein the narrator was unpacking history and health, a longer version of this would work. Otherwise, stay in scene.
Also, be very careful about judging. There’s a lot of pejorative language here—non-food, selfish dad, Brenda’s scrunched face—which can alienate your readers. A character that seems to dislike everything and everyone is going to be a character who’s tough to like.
I adore the tone, comic and abrasive, but please stay in scene and don’t try to include every aspect of love and family and history in every moment. Keep us in scene so this chapter can accomplish what it’s here for. If the narrator has a terrible father or boss, that should be dramatized in a scene so the reader can decide the father or boss is awful. Okay?
I nod, maybe a bit too enthusiastically, to signal that I believe her. Replenish my fluids, so that I may go forth and wage war against the atavistic man and his dumb ape disciples in the kitchen.
“What would I do without you, B?”
I follow her down the hall, past the wails of an unseen man, into a curtained-off cubicle. She motions for me to sit on the hospital bed, then digs around for something in the pocket of her turquoise SpongeBob scrubs. Brenda is pretty, like a TV nurse. Even her childish scrubs can’t conceal her hourglass figure. She has a great smile, always looks moisturized, and her bob is consistently impeccable. I wonder if it’s a wig.
Damn, it probably is.No one has that many good hair days.
If I looked like her, I’d be on an international food tour sponsored by a wealthy, tax-evading white man with a fetish and a secret offshore bank account, not working 12-hour shifts in a third-rate county hospital.
I extend my
righthand out and she swabs it with an alcohol wipe. After a quick double-tap for a vein, she swiftly inserts the needle. She’s a pro at this, though she typically does it for sick people, not the asshole nieces of sick patients who crawl in hungover. She rigs the IV and the drip begins. I wish the saline in the bag was dopamine.
My comments: Attribution, please. When you make me think: Oh, the character’s name must be Asia… you’ve bumped me out of the story. You gave Brenda fingernails so she can use them. What’s the narrator doing with her hands and feet? Use the Crocs. The sunglasses. What’s become of the dog? The smell of breakfast food? Is that really a wig?
In Minimalism, once an object is introduced it must be morphed and kept present throughout the scene and story. That’s why you don’t have to add summaries about dad and the boss, you’ll be too busy keeping the current elements present.
Also, rethink “right hand” because it’s an abstract so it forces your reader to think. We’re here to hypnotize with motion.
“She was bragging about you to Dr. Wilson. Says you’re gonna open your own place.”
She slides a piece of tape over the needle, securing it to my skin. And I’m beaming at the thought of my aunt saying, and fully believing, this. A memory highjacks my moment of pride, and my mind flashes back to the scene of yesterday’s fuck up and the disgusted look on Chef Michel’s face. From beyond the green curtains, a man’s moans bellow down the hall like a modern-day siren trying to lure the nurse to his room for a re-up of morphine to dull his pain. I take my sunglasses off and the unforgiving hospital lights sear my retinas, but eye contact is necessary for my next request.
“So, today’s a big day at work,” I say.
My comments: Attribution, please. And careful of the judging, create the circumstances that make the reader think the man wants more morphine. If that’s really important. Otherwise, just make him yell and don’t try to evaluate it. When you tag clever evaluations onto the end of observations you wreck any tension. And yes, wrecking tension is funny—but only once you’ve allowed tension to build. If the man is just allowed to yell then he’s a stressor, and tension builds. If the McDonald’s bag is just allowed to stink. If the loud television prattles on without being judged, it keeps heaping tension into the scene. We want tension.
Whenever the narrator evaluates and has the final summation on a detail it shows she’s in control. We lose tension. We lose sympathy for her.
She checks the line to the IV bag and secures a piece of the medical-grade tape holding the needle in place atop my skin, which is ashy. How embarrassing. Jesus be a small thing of hand lotion.
“Yeah, and I’m in pretty bad shape.”
She looks at me and then nods in overwhelming agreement.
“Yes, you are.”
“So, can you hook it up?”
My comments: Attribution, please. Brenda lifts her hand and frowns at her manicure. I duck my head to catch her eyes. The edges of her hair look like hair, like roots, not a net. The silent countdown lingers in my head: The shaggy-haired puppy has only eight, seven, six more hours to live.
See what you did? In Minimalism, by introducing that puppy you’ve made us a promise. It now must be rescued or killed, but it must be resolved. Minimalism doesn’t allow you to introduce and forget elements. Such details, your “horses,” must be kept present and resolved to best effect. Asia now must adopt that dog, even if it means never again sleeping.
I slide a wad of money out of my pocket and offer it to her.
“A little extra. For your trouble.”
She eyes it, and I see her wish she was a better person as she takes the money from my hand and slides it into the pocket of her scrubs.
“I’ll be back.”
My comments: An action always works better than a line of dialog. Just have Brenda sigh and turn on her heel and step away.
She disappears outside of the curtain and I barely feel guilty for putting her in this position. She’s fucking the director of pharmacy a.k.a. the person in charge of securing the hospital’s medication. He’s incredibly homely and lonely, and she is hot, charming, and in need of money to fund her Etsy boutique, which she plans to grow so she can get out of this criminally underpaying job and make a name for herself as a crochet influencer. What strange times we live in.
My comments: Careful, you’re already judging and summarizing. You’ve build tension with the money and the abrupt exit of Brenda. Hold onto that tension. Don’t dissipate it by explaining: drugs, pharmacy, sex. Stay in the scene.
If you must suggest sex, have Brenda return with smudged lipstick. Later dramatize the liaisons with the pharmacist.
The man’s wails grow louder.
“Oh my God, he’s naked!” cries an older woman. Footsteps bound down the hall and a wave of gasps and exasperated curses push through the hair.
“Mr. Jones, please put your gown on and return to your room before I call security,” an over-it employee threatens.
My comments: Can you unpack “older woman” so it describes Asia’s experience? Why would she hear that voice and decide it’s an older woman?
“It’s hot in here. I’m on fire! I can’t take it no more!” shouts Mr. Jones.
I laugh to myself as Brenda returns and passes me an orange prescription bottle filled with tiny blue Adderalls. These little agents of joy and energy rattle as I give them a home in my pocket. They’re ten milligrams each, and it takes approximately eight to renew my lease on life. These are “legal” amphetamines, the fraternal sister of the illicit drug that softens teeth, craters skin, and ruins lives when abused. The government can peddle it but you better not.
Everything’s a fucking scam.
My comments: Good passage. Excellent. You’ve just shown us Asia’s Body of Knowledge.
I’ll take five of these right before I clock in and I’ll be the LeBron James of food prep. Three more after family dinner and I’ll practically levitate around the kitchen like Cris Angel as I expedite my fucking heart out at the pass. I’ll face a massive comedown tomorrow when the legal speed leaves my body, but there’s no other option. This service has to be perfect or there will be no redemption for last night.
My comments: Be careful. So much of this chapter has been about reiterating what’s happened in an earlier scene. As readers we’ve already lived through those moments, so there’s no need to revisit them.
Thirty minutes later, I am revitalized and no longer dehydrated from abusing alcohol for the bulk of last night. Nurse Brenda returns and starts to undo my rig. She’s stealing glances at me. Fuck. My drug dealer is about to give me a “Come to Jesus” talk, and I don’t know how things have spiraled so quickly. Who am I kidding? Yeah, I do.
“Your aunt loves you so much, Asia.”
My comments: You can do better than measuring time in minutes. How does Asia measure time? How did Bridget Jones measure her life? Bridget measured her life in bottles of wine consumed and pounds of body weight gained and lost.
Asia measures time in Adderall. In effect, “Four Adderall later, I am revitalized…” Please avoid abstract measurements such as minutes, temperature, inches, ounces.
I’m not supposed to respond here, so I nod the most awkward nod in nod history. She slides the needle out of my arm.
“She wants to beat this so she can have the first plate at your restaurant. Says she's gonna send it back for being unseasoned to keep you humble.”
My comments: For attribution, revisit the wig. Like the puppy, like Mr. Jones, once you introduce a question or issue you must keep it present. Will the puppy be saved? Is it a wig? Did Mr. Jones get some clothes?
I laugh at this, but Brenda remains somber, committed to her role of concerned onlooker. She heads to the frightening orange hazard box on the wall and disposes of the needle. She returns to my side and places a pink Hello Kitty bandage on the back of my palm. I admire the novelty and then make the mistake of looking up at Brenda who is now giving me the look. Cue the afterschool special music.
“If you keep this up, there won’t be a restaurant. We both know what this shit does to people.”
Time to cook up some damage control. The recipe is straightforward: Diffuse, blame it on circumstance, create separation, appreciate, and comfort.
“Brenda, relax. This isn’t a problem. (Diffuse.) I’m just having a bad week. ” (Circumstance.)
My comments: All good. Even better, you’re demonstrating Asia’s Body of Knowledge, what she’s really good at: cooking and denial.
I pause for effect: “When’s the last time I asked you for these?” I present the bottle to her in the palm of my head. Clutching it is too addict adjacent. Body language is always in play, grandpa would say when he was three sheets to the wind. “Muhfuckas will show you exactly who they are. All you gotta do is watch how they move.”
My comments: I could not agree more. Which is why we need to see how Brenda stands and moves as she talks. We need to see her scrubs rumpled after the visit to the pharmacy. I loved “addict adjacent.”
She squints, genuinely giving this some deep, deep thought. Bless her heart.
“Probably a few months.”
“Exactly. People with problems can’t wait that long for a fix.” (Separation.)
She wants to believe me, so she does. “You’re right. Just felt like I should say something, you know?”
I come from a prolific line of lying alcoholics. It’s how my aunt came to raise me in the first place, but I don’t have a “problem” problem. I just tend to recklessly self-medicate when faced with adversity. We’re all addicted to something. I slide into my squeaky Crocs and get to my feet, towering over my petite pusher. Right as rain and ready to fucking go.
My comments: I adore the line “I come from a prolific line of lying alcoholics.” I love it so much that I want it to open its own chapter, and that’s where you can lapse into a summary or comic tirade about family history. All the dad stuff. All the baggage. Give it its own chapter of Big Voice.
“Thanks, Brenda. Really. Means a lot that you have our backs like this.” (Appreciation.)
My comments: “Thanks, Brenda. Really.” My eyes search her hairline for nylon fibers, webbing. “Means a lot that you have our backs like this.” (Appreciation.)
That’s how easy attribution can be done with a gesture.
“Just keep it together.”
I reach over and squeeze her hand. (Comfort.)
My comments: “I will.” My other hand reaches to touch a curl, to feel the strands between two fingers, but she pulls away. The puppy is another hour closer to death.
That’s how to keep the wig question present. And the puppy. And to use gesture as attribution. You’re very smart to have Asia use Brenda’s name so often in these last few lines. Can you use it more? “I will, Brenda.”
She excuses herself from the room. I wait for a moment, then peel back the curtains, and power walk down the interminable, death-fumed corridor, zipping past Mr. Jones’s room as he douses his naked brown body with water from a beige-grey plastic pitcher. The image tattoos itself into my long-term memory as I head toward my aunt’s room.
My comments: Have you seen the Jane Fonda movie Klute? Among the best moments is when Fonda is working as a prostitute and lying beneath a customer. He’s pumping away as she screams in ecstasy. Suddenly she breaks character by looking at her wristwatch behind the man’s head. The physical gesture undermines the cries of ecstasy and show them to be faked orgasms. It’s hilarious.
That’s why I’m obsessing about the wig. Because it gives Asia an action that depicts her real thoughts and negates the fake-sincere things she’s saying. It’s Jane Fonda looking at the wristwatch and making the audience laugh.
And I’m obsessed with the puppy because… unless the narrator loves something, saves something, we won’t love her. In Breakfast at Tiffany’s the character Holly Golightly has a cat she seems unattached to. In the film she finally expresses love and caring for the cat and she’s redeemed. In the book she dumps the cat in Spanish Harlem and she’s forever lost and irredeemable. If this book is a comedy, that puppy must be saved. If the book will end tragically the puppy—and Asia by metaphor—must be lost/killed.
Hey, I’m only the messenger here. YOU put the puppy in. You put in Mr. Jones—who must also be kept in the story and resolved to best effect.
Comedy is tough. It’s fun to be clever and glib up front, but eventually you have to break everyone’s hearts. I think you can do that. If you can be this funny and light, you can break hearts and still nail a profound ending.