Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Scorched

Today's story is one of escape. It's an excerpt from a memoir our featured writer, Amye Barrese Archer, who apparently had a lot to escape from. Scorched: A Memoir About Going Down in Flames tells the story of her first marriage to, as Amye describes him, "an agoraphobic panic sufferer who eventually became an alcoholic," who almost destroyed them both. (Sounds fun, right?)

Amye Barrese Archer is a graduate student working towards her MFA in Creative Writing. She has written poetry, short stories, and "many truths on bathroom walls."  Her work has appeared in PANK, Twins, The Ampersand Review, The Battered Suitcase, and Oak Bend Review. Her chapbook, "No One Ever Looks Up" was published by Pudding House Press in 2007. Amye has three-year-old twin daughters, and shares her life with her (new and vastly improved!) husband, Tim. To read more by and about Amye, check out her blog.

Scorched: A Memoir About Going Down in Flames
By Amye Barrese Archer 

What the fuck is that smell?  

I flick my eyes open and stare at the low white ceiling.  Something smells bad. Something smells bad enough to have jolted me from a dead sleep in the middle of the night.  I look to my left, no one is there.  I am alone.  It's a horrible stench, like the time I put tinfoil in the microwave, or the time I singed my hair with the curling iron.  Oh my God, something is burning.   The house is on fire.  I slide from the warm bed and begin the frantic search for my pants.  I can't sleep with pants on, they are too confining, a preference that is coming back to haunt me.                  

"Bob!"  I am yelling from the bedroom.  I find my pants rolled in a ball under the bed.  I can barely breathe the smell is so bad.  "BOB!"  I'm screaming now.  We live in a basement apartment with only one exit.  Poor planning on my part, my father trained me better than that.  My bedroom door is right next to the front door.   I stand in the doorway of my bedroom with two options:  if I turn left, I'm outside safe and unharmed. If I turn right, I enter the kitchen, dining room, and living room, all in one huge living space.  But there's no exit down there, it’s a dead end.  My whole body wants to go left and run to safety – fuck everyone else.  It’s a flight or fight moment, and I always knew I would pick flight.  I turn left and start to climb the stairs when my conscience gets the better of me.  You have to save him, he is your fiancée after all.

As I make my way down the hallway, the smell grows stronger. I'm yelling for him but he doesn't answer.  I feel like I should be breathing heavily so I am, but there’s no reason to.  There is no smoke, just an eerie fog, and I can't find a fire.  I reach the end of the hallway and stop, knowing the problem, the source, lies somewhere in that vast open space before me.  Should I stop, drop, and roll?  When exactly am I supposed to start doing that?  I remember a fireman in fourth grade, maybe fifth, drilling it into our heads: stop, drop, and roll.  But when?  Now?  After I’m on fire?   As a precaution, I drop to the floor and roll like a bumpy log into the main room of the apartment.  The floor is cool to the touch and my thin black hair becomes overtaken by static electricity.

The whole place is dark.   In this subterranean apartment we are not privy to any kind of natural light.  Everything is artificial.  I climb to my knees and feel for the light switch on the wall.   Within seconds everything is illuminated like a furniture showroom.  I scan the room but I cannot find the suspected plume of smoke, the bright orange and yellow flames, or the charred source of this horrible smell.  I see Bob, my twenty-seven year old fiancée, lying lifeless on the floor.   His blond hair fans out on the deep blue carpet.  I run over to him and shake him violently like he's already a corpse or a very heavy ragdoll.

"Bob!"  I yell right in his face.

His eyes open and he looks at me wildly, like I'm the last person he expects to see.

"Bob!  What's that smell?!"  I ask.

"What?"  he's groggy.

"What the fuck is that smell?!"  I demand.

"Oh.  The couch."

"What about the couch?"  I turn my head and look behind me. There is my brand new couch with a hole the size of a meteor burned right through it.  It looks like a missile went straight through the middle, or that someone who was on fire decided to sit down and watch Judge Judy. 

"What the fuck happened?!"  I scream.  I am never cool under pressure.  I have a history of becoming hysterical at the slightest bit of danger.  This is one of those times.

"What?"  Bob asks like this is no biggie.

"What did you do?!"  I'm crying now. 

"I fell asleep with a cigarette."

"Jesus fucking Christ, Bob!  You could have killed all of us!"  The cats are nowhere to be found.  They're probably hiding from the smell, although it has permeated every inch of the house.

"Oh come on," he says. "Stop being a fucking drama queen."

"A drama queen?" 

"You heard me."

"You were drunk, weren't you?"  I look around for the wine bottle, the gallon jug of PA Lake Country Red I know I will find.   I also know it will be almost empty.

"No,"  he says with an unconvincing chuckle.

"How much did you drink?"  I’m growing angrier as I speak, a heat is building in my toes and working its way upward.  The panic has given away to rage.

"Not much,"  He says shrugging his shoulders.

"How much?"  I ask again through clenched teeth.  I want to punch him in the face and knock his crooked teeth right down the back of his throat.  I want to grab his perfectly rounded head and smash it like a ripe pumpkin off the slate fireplace behind him, but I can't.  I know how irrational he gets when he's drunk and I know he will call the cops if I touch him.  But it’s so tempting.  The smirk, the smell of wine on his breath, and then there’s my couch.  My burned up fucking couch.

"I don't know. Look, it’s fine.   Go back to sleep,"  Bob says and sits on the couch, the other one, the only one now, and lights a smoke.  I walk over to the burned couch.  The air around it is still warm and thick with that smell.

"It's not fine!  This couch cost me a lot of money!  Are you a fucking moron?!"  I start to cry. I'm upset over the destruction of my couch, but there’s an element of defeat in there, too.  I know this is huge.   There is a sense of finality in the air surrounding us.  I sit on the floor, put my head in my hands, and start to weep.

"Oh, here we go!"  Bob yells to an invisible audience.    "Listen, Amye, it's not a big deal.  I'm fine, by the way. Not that you give a shit." 

“This is so much bigger than that, Bob.”

“What?”

“It’s about respect.  I spent my whole savings account on the furniture for this apartment, and you just destroyed it, like it didn’t even matter to you.”

This apartment is cold and damp and way too big for us.  It is the basement, a dungeon, inhabited by myself, Bob, and three cats: Mr. Lionel Richie, Lucy Lennon, and Neo, who would later become Patrick Swayze.  It was my idea to move here.  We were living in a small efficiency apartment across town.  Everything was going so well.  It was our first apartment together, so there was something romantic about it.   It was tiny and we were living on top of one another, but it was quaint and easy to clean.  But here, in this underground cavern, the energy is sour.  This house belongs to an aunt and uncle of mine who went through such a nasty divorce that restraining orders and gunshots were used as methods of mediation instead of lawyers.  Now it's our turn to wallow in the bad mojo.   I didn’t have a good feeling about this apartment from the start, but we had to move here.  I had inherited some cats, and our old place wouldn't allow them to live there. 

The first thing I did when I moved in, to make up for the wide gaping space, was buy my living room set.  Somehow a ragged old futon I had been dragging around with me since college wasn't going to cut it anymore.  I was working at a local television station making about nine dollars an hour, so this living room set, this one with the two couches and three tables, cost me almost all of my savings, nine-hundred dollars.  These couches were the nicest things in the apartment.    And now they’re ruined.

"What happened?  How did this happen?" I ask as I sit down on the ledge of the fireplace.  I am trying to calm my voice, calm my nerves, but my hands are still trembling.    I know Bob doesn't remember what happened, but I ask anyway.  Not because I'm a moron who can't understand the cause and effect of falling asleep with a cigarette, but because I want to fight.  It's three-fifteen in the morning, according to the green clock on the microwave, and I want to fight so bad I'm actually salivating.  I want him to end this nightmare our lives have turned into.

"I told you,"  he slurs.  He's still out of it.  He's sitting on the couch with his bare feet on the floor and a Newport hanging from between his chapped lips.   He's wearing his flannel pajama bottoms and a shirt with a picture of the original Nintendo controller on it.  Under the controller are white letters that say "Old Skool".  His blond hair hangs down to his shoulders and he hasn't shaved in about two weeks.  Six years ago I would have said this was hot; now, it’s just sad.

"I know how it happened, asshole. I'm asking you how could you let it happen. How could you, an adult, allow yourself to fall asleep with a cigarette and almost burn the house down killing me and everyone else in the upstairs apartments?"  The sarcasm is pouring from my mouth like vomit.

"Get off my back, okay?"  He stands up, pushes his cigarette into the ceramic bowl we use as an ashtray, and starts walking down the hall towards the bedroom.  I follow him.    Only he's not going to the bedroom, he's going into the long hallway, but instead of taking a left into the bedroom, he's going right into his computer room, because it's only three a.m., and his night is just getting started.  I follow him into the small computer room, the one that has been declared his.  The wine bottle is on the desk.  More than half empty as I predicted.

30 comments:

  1. Powerful stuff, Amye! As emo as this piece is, I have to tell you, the insertion of lines like, "someone who was on fire decided to sit down and watch Judge Judy," works so well in contrast to the tension of the scene. And it's a heck of a funny line. I liked your bio, too. You rock, Amye Archer!

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  2. Oh my gosh. I just had a flashback to the first boyfriend I lived with. And guess what his name was? Yup, Bobby. I think Amye and I would get along very well. ;)

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  3. Amye,

    Great work.The tension is evident in your voice. Just enough vivid details to make us feel as if we are there. I can smell the smoldering couch and it makes me angry.
    A

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  4. I don't know...seemed pretty incomplete to me. Stupid, drunk boyfriend burns down the house with a cigarette, and girlfriend gets mad. What's REALLY happening with these characters? It seems like the only thing we're supposed to care about here is the threat of a fire, but I can't care about any type of threat if the characters being threatened aren't explored. I mean, honestly, what sort of pertinent information do we get about this couple save for he's always drunk and she's mad about it? Less shock value-writing needs to be pursued here in my opinion. And less cliche character portraits.

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  5. @ Anonymous

    I assume we're also supposed to care that the relationship is falling apart in front of our eyes. That's the threat, to me, is that the narrator is watching her dream life fall to ruin. And it's just an excerpt, so of course it'd seem incomplete.

    @ Amye

    I loved this. The voice, the description, the tension, everything about it. <3 I admire your restraint in NOT punching his teeth into his throat, because I probably would have, and I'm glad you upgraded to Tim.

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  6. @ Starrie

    Yes, I understand that it's only an excerpt, but in my opinion a good excerpt, like a good chapter, should be able to stand on its own. And this portion just doesn't...in my opinion. Also, what dream life? I don't know anything about this narrator's hopes and wants. I know she smells something bad, and that her boyfriend's an overgrown fratboy. But nothing else except for she's really, really mad.

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  7. Love it! Loved the sarcasm simile!

    So typical for a panic sufferer to medicate with booze (not that I'm on his side!).

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  8. @Anonymous - I definitely agree that a good chapter should be able to stand alone, but I think it might be asking too much to expect the same in an excerpt. To be a good excerpt, it should make you want to keep reading, but it would be highly impressive and unlikely that five pages of a full novel or memoir would be able to convey an entire story and character development.

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  9. Thanks everyone for the great feedback! This was a wonderful opportunity and I was honored that you all took the time to read my work and comment on it.
    -Amye

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  10. Neat story. Thia really happened? Oh my!

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  11. @ Sarah

    Though I understand and respect your comment, I very much disagree that an excerpt shouldn't at least try to convey as much about the work as it possibly can. I've been to a lot of readings, and read A TON of excerpts, and the ones that work well for me are written by those who maximize the potential of every single sentence. I'm not saying that this excerpt doesn't have potential, but the information I received from it was less than helpful. For example, all I know about the main character from this passage is that she has a way of describing objects, including her house and furniture, with borderline-interesting precision. However, I could have done with far less of that (and more about her--what she does, why she loves her boyfriend, something besides the fact that she wants to fight with him). Now I know we can't get everything from a five page passage, but one part of a book should connect with EVERY part of the book in some way or another. I'd rather hear more about HOW her old apartment was small and romantic as opposed to writing it off literarly. I'd like to hear about why the furniture is so important to her, as opposed to: it just as. I don't need to have the information force fed but I need hints, stuff to keep me reading. Also, and this is a personal pet peeve of mine: characters like the boyfriend, no matter how short the excerpt, cannot be demonized simply for the sake of demonization. I love writing about horrible, wicked, stupid, and lazy characters, but it needs to be presented to me with more candor than basically stating it verbatim. I don't know anything about this guy save for the fact that he's a jerk, and in my opinion that's a very poorly drawn character. Therefore, all I'm saying, especially when one is writing about relationships between human beings (which is what most good literature is about) it's better to make them ACTUAL human beings, as opposed to warring cutouts that are controlled by their environment.

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  12. I think anonymous should should stop posting comments anonymously, or get his or her own writing blog. Blogs shouldn't be used as bully pulpits.

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  13. This isn't me being a bully. I shared my opinion, it was responded to, and I responded back. Writers should be able to talk about each other's work. That's how we hone our craft. Sorry dude.

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  14. Then, why hide behind your anonymity? That seems cheap to me--to wax on about the flaws of others writings, yet no one knows who you are or if you really know what you are talking about. BTW, you don't know what 'bully pulpit' means it you think bully is part of the definition. Check a dictionary. Not a dude, brother.

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  15. OK, I think I have to play referee here. I think Anonymous might be a little overly critical of just a few pages, but people are entitled to their opinions. We should probably all agree to disagree. But mostly I think we should thank Amye for being professional and for providing us with what is clearly an important enough topic to be discussed with this level of passion.

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  16. Uh oh, who just got rude and insecure.

    Anyway, yes, I agree that we should thank Amye for submitting, and I wasn't being critical because I have an issue with the author, if anything, in my own unfortunate, MFA-trained way, I was trying to help. I've had stories of mine torn to pieces in workshop, only to make me stronger. But I should also recognize that being so tough isn't necessarily the best approach. Anyway, thank you for submitting Amye. And thank you for letting me critique you, however harshly. :-)

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  17. Talking about Gale, by the way...I agree with you Sarah.

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  18. Oh, and I had know idea that bully pulpit was actually a compound noun. Wow, and I taught ESL.

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  19. I once submitted a poem to a professor that was written about my parent's divorce about five weeks after it happened. He held the paper up in front of the whole class, tore it in half and said..."That was shit". I can handle a critique. Believe me, I'm a democrat.

    Gale is a marvelous writer and has helped me in more ways than I can ever repay her for. I respect her opinion and love her for defending my work.

    Anonymous, I agree that often in memoir, especially divorce memoir, there is a tendency to demonize the ex. However, I feel that if you read my whole book you will see I am brutal on myself as well. It's a book that's not really flattering to everyone. (Don't worry, I'll send you an autographed first edition:)

    Sarah, you are a gracious host.

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  20. Sarah, I am very proud of Amye because she is a fabulous writer and deserving of this kind of attention, and of you, Sarah, for providing this forum for writers' work.

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  21. I apologize for being so vociferous, Amye. I'm weird when it comes to excerpts. :-)

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  22. Actually, now I feel bad. I supposed what I should have said from the beginning is, if I were you, I might think about including a different excerpt, because this one doesn't do it for as much as another might. So sorry for previous comments.

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  23. This is what I miss about workshops! They always go "something positive, something negative, heated debate, love fest re-ensues."

    (I guess this is what happens what you get a bunch of current and/or former MFAs in an e-room!)

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  24. EXACTLY!!! Workshops: helping writers tear each other to pieces since 1922. :-)

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  25. It's always great to read a writer that is not afraid to put it out there no matter how bizarre and dark their experiences may be. I relate to this type of relationship and believe me you can't make this kind of stuff up...it's nice to read about someone who went through it and came out the other side. Can't wait to read the whole book.

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  26. Amye, your writing is fast paced, witty and poignant. Better still, it does exactly what a chapter is supposed to do: entice the reader to read more. You've certainly achieved that element on a grand scale by leaving the reader with many questions that will obviously be explored in the rest of your book. I'm certainly glad the chapter is engaging and doesn't give us all the answers in a nice neat little package. Thanks for the powerful writing as well as the willingness to share your story.

    In regard to constructive criticism, whether positive or negative, everyone should be open an honest without feeling inhibited or fearful of a "counter attack" of sorts. Then again, that only works if the person offering the criticism isn't afraid to provide a name.

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  27. Um....why is a name so important? Some people just want to remain anonymous. As far as I'm concerned, that doesn't matter at all.

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  28. Amye, you've got me hooked. I look forward to reading every tense, sacrastic, precise line of the memoir. This excerpt was cut just right to draw me into this relationship fiasco...your sense of humor made the tension razor sharp.

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  29. Amye, this is a powerful, raw piece of work that touched me. I really felt your frustration and anger.

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  30. This is fantastic! I agree with Bill - I'm hooked. I love your voice and love the tension you built in this scene. And, it also pulled at some old heart strings... As a 30-something who also worked (for pennies) in NEPA media when I had my first apartment, the way you described spending your life savings on the couch really resonated with me. You captured that hard-working mentality of our area, the sacrifice of building and sharing a life with someone, and how proud one can be of those first major purchases-- only to see the other not give his/her part. This excerpt DID work for me... Can't wait to read more, Amye! Look forward to your capstone reading next month.

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