(Have you ever read Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style? He tells the same story in different ways. Each version of) Some Skinhead Shit (this short story explores different literary tropes: notation…) By: Jacob Singer (word game, and visual. See, each and every short story consists of making a million little decisions on what to show and what not to show. He opened literary laboratory to the world. )
“Are you really going to throw away your relationship with Elizabeth for one night with Stephanie?” David asked as they waited outside the three-story apartment building in Logan Square. (I made a decision to start this story with a bit of sexual tension. Will he or won’t he ruin a relationship in this story? Kind of cliché? Maybe, but at least there’s tension.)
“That’s not the point. I’m not going to try anything. You know I’m a pussy. I couldn’t cheat onElizabeth. It’s just those girls you work with are so damn cute. I just like being around them. They’re flirtatious and funny and when they lean forward I can see just enough of their boobs to get a chub on.”
David laughed and buzzed the call box again. It was December 21st, a Monday, and two girls he worked with were throwing a holiday party. Their only instructions were to bring a case of good beer and to wear a holiday sweater. Both Laurence and David had gone to a re-sale shop on Milwaukee Avenue that day to buy the most obnoxious, and therefore hilarious, sweaters possible. (I kind of wanted to see what I could do with this story, which is simply a first draft. A friend told me about this party he went to where some guys asked him, “Do you want to get into some skinhead shit?” My friend had no idea what they meant by that. But he thought it would make for a good story. So I wrote it for him. I condensed what he said into something more fictional. Yet, I wasn’t at all happy with it. It looked too much like something I would have done in a writing workshop. The story felt like a flag being waved. It seemed to say: boring, cliché, not worth your time. It felt like nothing.)
The door’s call box came to life with crackles and then the gate unlocked itself. David pulled it open and walked into the hallway littered with fliers and water-soaked Readers. They could hear the party bouncing off the hallway walls.
David and Laurence lived in the same apartment building in Lakeview. Both moved in on the same day and spent the morning crossing each other’s path in the hallway as they unload their moving trucks. It was a weird, little dance where one would give way to the other, who was coming up the stairs with an armload of boxes, only to switch roles a minute later. This dance seemed to create some sort of a bond between the strangers. Knowing no one else in the city, David asked Laurence if he wanted to get a bite to eat. Laurence’s long-term girlfriend had just started Law School and would be reading at the library, again. So the two men went to a local bar on Halsted. It was a gay bar. Neither had ever been to one. They didn’t even know about BoysTown. They just walked in, surrounded by other pairs of men eating bar food and drinking cold beer. Moments like that happened regularly with David. There was something about him that made things happen, something to talk about the next morning. Laurence needed excitement in his life and David seemed the perfect source. (Is this some strange experimental fiction? Not really, but yeah maybe. But honestly I’m bored with how I am writing. I felt that a large part of my writing program was learning how to write psychological realism, which means balancing scene and summary, writing snappy dialogue, etc, etc. The problem is that I find myself constantly writing the same way. Certain rules about clarity, voice, and style have been beaten into my head. I need to break free from these habits. As a student I loved reading David Foster Wallace, Haruki Murakami, and Italo Calvino. They were playing a different game with different rules. They seemed to be successfully exploring what could be done within a story. Those stories I loved because they felt new and fresh.)
As the two walked into the holiday party, they realized that they were the only ones wearing Christmas sweaters and immediately began taking them off, trying not to look like total dweebs. Stephanie spotted them and ran over to David, giving him a big hug. She’d dyed her hair again, little stripes of green along one side. “Look at this beer. That’s good stuff. Can I have one?” She took a bottle from the case. David opened her bottle, then got one for Laurence, and finally one for himself. Since starting work at his restaurant he’d become a beer connoisseur, constantly buying and journaling about Belgian Trippels, German Kolschs, and IPAs that were so bitter they were theoretically off the IBU scale.
“So where’s this beer from?” Laurence asked. He desperately tried to keep up with David and his tirades about beer.
“This shit’s basically impossible to get. They sent a hundred cases into the city. This Santa Stout has notes of teriyaki and soy. It’s fucking wild. I’m so glad I found this stuff. I’ve been dying to get some.”
Laurence always found that the parties on the west side consisted of an interesting mix of people. A bunch of bearded dudes with ink covering their arms lounged in beanbags, some guys talking about fixed-gear bikes in the hallway, and then in the other corner some skinhead punks were eating chips and salsa. Stephanie and her friends were the equivalent of working-class social debutants and seemed to know people at all the best bars and restaurants along Milwaukee Avenue. No matter where they went, they were greeted like minor celebrities and given free food and drinks. But it might have also had something to do with the fact that they were twenty-four, attractive, and party animals. Laurence always felt that there was some tension with Stephanie, the way she laughed at his jokes and leaned forward while wearing slinky tops. Was that flirting? Or did she just like it when guys obsessed over her. (So what is the relationship between substance and style? How many ways can I stretch a story? Queneau tells his tale 99 times. He treats it like silly putty. Just because someone can bend fiction in all sorts of strange ways doesn’t make him a good writer. Is style more important than substance? No. But style is important. It’s what makes the reader feel.)
For the first hour of the party David and Laurence hung out together talking about fantasy football. Nobody came up to them, and they didn’t approach anyone, not uncommon for a party in Logan Square.
“This is lame. Why did we come across town to stand here and talk to ourselves?” Laurence shouted out. “Let’s party!”
Most of the time Laurence could be an unassuming nice guy, but with a couple of beers he could get big and step into the realm of Dr. Bruce Banner and Hulk-out in ways that were uber-masculine. The moment seemed to be presenting itself as his ego transformed him into a raging humanoid. Impulsively he turned to the nearest group and introduced himself.
“Want a beer,” Laurence asked a young man with a shaved head and wild tribal piercing in his ears.
“Fuckyeahiwantabeer.” The skinhead ripped the metal cap off and took a big swig, most of which dribbled down his face and neck. “What the fuck kind of beer is this?”
Before Laurence could respond, David went all professional and began to explain that it was a rare seasonal stout brewed in Palantine by a father-son team of beer aficionados. Laurence felt a little let down, a bit deflated.
“This is some fucking good shit.” He took another swig, more dark beer spilled down his face. It was expensive beer, and Laurence started to feel very self-conscious about having offered him one. The skinhead chugged the rest.
“Give me another.”
“Actually I brought this for everyone…so…” David wasn’t going to give him another bottle if he was going to drink it like that. Then he reaches into one of the pockets on his Santa sweater and offered a PBR.
“I’m looking for a couple guys who are looking to get into some skinhead shit!”
Laurence and David look at each other unsure of what he meant by “skinhead shit.”
(End of Part I – Read Part II here)
Jacob Singer lives in Chicago and is the editor of Hysterical Realism, a webzine dedicated to exploring the genre of fiction typically associated with Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, Richard Powers, and Thomas Pynchon. His work has appeared at Handshake Media, Chicago Foodies, and Euskal Irrati Telebista (Basque Radio and television).