I don't believe in much of anything. I'm a cynic when it comes to all things God, devil, psychic, or spaceman. Or the ghosts down inside Portland's Shanghai Tunnels.
"They say to this day her spirit can be heard crying through these deep, dark corridors."
I think what they're hearing is the drag club upstairs.
Still, I couldn't help thinking about the Shanghai Tunnels when I was working on my piece for Portland Noir and was exploring just how Portland, the city of roses and dogs and bicycles, could fit the category of noir. I mean, what could be better — secret tunnels underneath the streets, leading, through trap doors, up into the smoky, seedy bars of Victorian-era Old Town, where men who got too drunk were dragged down and put in chains and then shanghaied away in the night.
That's some colorful lore right there, and I do love me some lore.
I think the reason I'm such a cynic, actually, comes down to my love of lore. How hard I tried to believe in all those unbelievables. Most of my childhood I spent trying to either spot a ghost, meet an alien, or learn to move things with my mind. Especially when it was windy. All the mystical, dramatic moments in movies happen with the hero's hair blowing around. Time to sit in the kitchen with the trees fluttering in the window and try like mad to locate my psychokinetic powers. Make my best Carrie White movie stare and concentrate on trying to make pennies move by themselves across the table.
Or marbles. Those were a better bet since they were round.
But all I did was somehow unwittingly teach myself to wiggle my ears.
Once you get to high school and discover concepts like self-righteous indignation, it becomes cool to not believe in anything. You're a rebel, a free-thinker, you have opinions. I let go of wanting to make all that stuff true, and I've been believing in nothing ever since.
That said, I have to admit I'm horribly superstitious.
I pick up every penny, avoid every crack in the sidewalk. I don't for a minute believe any of it — still, I can't stop myself. When I grab the knob of the burner on the stove, the one that doesn't always light, my brain says, If it comes on, you won't contract cancer today and die in agony in eight months.
My brain in that moment is dead serious. My grip tight on that knob, and I'm waiting and the gas smell is thick in my nose — I could kill myself trying so hard not to get cancer.
With Portland Noir, it was the way I walked to work. My story, "Shanghaied," is a journey that takes you from a certain bistro in Portland's Pearl District, past Powell's City of Books (where I work), and on from there. The morning after I sent my piece off for review, I stepped out the door of my apartment and my brain said, If you follow that same route to Powell's, Akashic will accept the story.
Alright then. Even though it was summer and I had the perfect course worked out to see the best neighborhood flowers. No, I had to walk the "Shanghaied" route, past the bistro, down the same streets. Every day. Until I got that yes.
One day in the rain and late for work I found myself three blocks past the turnoff to one of my "Shanghaied" streets. Nope, sorry. Turn around. You know the rules.
My superstitious rituals didn't have to reference the story. There aren't any apples in my piece, but once when I was eating lunch at work and came to the core of my apple, my brain, before I could stop it, said, If you eat all the seeds, Akashic will accept the story.
So great, now I had to crack open that slick, browning core and dig all the seeds out with my fingernails. They taste like almonds. I hear they contain a trace of cyanide — not enough to poison you, of course, but enough to put a little shock into your system, make you healthier. Something I read. Could be more lore. I don't know.
All I know is that after that day, every time I ate an apple, I was required to break it open and fish out the seeds. A fun task. Nice and slimy, and then by the time you get all those buggers in your mouth and down, your hands are sticky. Then you've managed to touch an eyelid and that's sticky too. Rush to the bathroom to wash your hands and face, but somehow, for the rest of the day, every time you blink, your eyelid sticks and you just can't handle that, and people start looking at you with great suspicion because there must be something deeply wrong with a person who doesn't blink.
It got to the point that I couldn't bear to take apples with my lunch anymore. I considered oranges, but the thought of those seeds was even worse. No way I was going to even think about peaches. No, all through summer and into fall, all I could eat was bananas.
I don't know what made me happier when I got word that "Shanghaied" had been chosen for Portland Noir — the fact that it was being published or the fact that I could stop eating those damn bananas.
Me being me, I started thinking about the economy, then. Me being me, I started figuring we were on the brink of the second Great Depression, and I decided all the publishing houses were going to start dropping off the face of the earth, and my story with them. Fine, then, fine — more walks past the bistro to work, more bananas.
When my contributors' copies arrived, I celebrated as every good writer should: champagne-soaked parties with prominent literati — alright, Facebook status updates. Still, I was glad to be done with all my neurotic obsession.
Until I started thinking about who was going to read my piece — not just the public but friends and family — and most importantly, my grandmother. Who might be kind of shocked at what I did to that old woman I wrote about. And who might not be too happy about my literary potty mouth.
I mean, I'd used the word fuck in the very first paragraph.
Which at the time seemed like a good idea — the word does have its merits — but now I wasn't so sure. I went back and counted and there were nine of them in the piece. I thought, oh fuck, Noni's going to read this.
Now, my grandmother's no prude. She can tell a dirty joke better than anyone I know. But she does it in a classy way. She does everything in a classy way. And here I am, her granddaughter, making her proud with my first publication for people over the age of eight, and I've used the word fuck nine times in thirteen pages. That's like three quarters of a fuck per page. Not to mention three shits, two bitches, one damn, two goddamns (which brings the damns up to three), one hell, one ass and one boobs.
OK, those last few aren't that bad, but I mean, did I need all those churlish words? Did I rely on them to show my character's panic when a mere gee willikers would have done just fine? Did I feel like they helped create the air of noir in my piece? All those classic film noir pictures — The Maltese Falcon, Double Indemnity, Out of the Past: not one fuck. Not even, frankly, one boobs.
Bogart never needed to say fuck to be a badass.
And as for me, up until now I'd done fine without it. I went back and looked through my published children's picture books to make certain and, sure enough: not one fuck.
I'm trying to calm down. I mean, if she's going to read it, she's going to read it. And maybe she won't read it. The woman's got vision problems — maybe my mother will read it to her and can slip some of the colorful words off the page. Maybe slip a couple willikers in. Mom, what do you say? A little on-the-spot editing, hmm? Yeah, that makes me feel a little better. And anyway, last night I read Justin Hocking's piece "Burnside Forever." Outside of the fact that the story is excellent, I counted. And just in fucks alone: 29. Besides, this morning, the burner on the stove lit on the first try. And for lunch I'm having two apples.