Norm and author comedian/writer Bryan Miller about comedy and horror, editing and frog country, Lovecraft and fish horror. Also, Bryan’s H.P. Lovecraft-inspired story, “Necessary Cuts.”
The manuscripts I read are haunted. Commas vanish forever into the void. Subjects and verbs struggle in bloody disagreement. Infinitives are cleaved with a dull axe. Sentence fragments ablated at one ragged end lay strewn between the margins.
I take an exorcist’s solemn pride in banishing these warped creatures from the village, sending slapdash monstrosities back to the murky dark from whence they came. The pages come in and the pages go out; my reward is the warm tingle of equilibrium, having restored order to some tiny corner of the world…
Episode Trailer can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WC-qJxNuA6s
by Bryan Miller
The manuscripts I read are haunted. Commas vanish forever into the void. Subjects and verbs struggle in bloody disagreement. Infinitives are cleaved with a dull axe. Sentence fragments, ablated at one ragged end, lay strewn between the margins.
I take an exorcist’s solemn pride in banishing these warped creatures from the village, sending slapdash monstrosities back to the murky dark from whence they came. The pages come in and the pages go out; my reward is the warm tingle of equilibrium, having restored order to some tiny corner of the world.
Well, that and a paycheck.
“You’re a professional stickler,” Karen told me once, maybe a little less charitably than I’d like. “I’m in love with a snoot-for-hire.”
I don’t really expect her to understand, though sometimes I wish she did. Isn’t that the untold story of every romance? Karen has a degree in Sports and Recreation. She organizes children’s summer day camps and intramural youth sports leagues for the parks department. Her pixie-cut hair is always a little askew, T-shirts neck-stretched, baggy jeans frayed at the cuffs like the ramshackle uniform of team carefree.
Karen’s laying across my lap when I first see the Brumlow manuscript. The knots of her calves drape over my legs and her bony ass presses against my thigh. My laptop balances on her knees. She’s got her lithe arms stretched behind her head. I’m absently running my fingers through the short bramble of hair beneath the sleeve of her T-shirt. I love these feminine tufts, and the delicate baby-cactus prickle of her downy legs. Not like the bramble of stubble I shave off my face every morning—one of the little edits I make to my own body according to the style guide I grew up with.
Right away I can tell the Brumlow manuscript is different. It’s 42 pages long, and at a glance it’s not obviously fiction, non-fiction, or poetry. The tabs stagger drunkenly across the page. The haphazard punctuation begs you to search it for elaborate patterns, like futures told in scattered chicken-bone voodoo.
And that first sentence:
~Papamud, that grew me out of The Muck just as his self grew out of The Muck so I could no the others when time came, the time is now.~
I click away from the file back to the email from my editor Raghav, which I hadn’t bothered to read. Usually all of these assignments were self-evident: tedious technical manuals, ad copy, bloviating self-published memoirs. This was something else–
This is a weird one. I asked the client for clarification & never heard back. But we’ve already received payment in full, so just do your best.
I reread the first few pages of the file hoping to get a sense of how to even start editing it. It appeared to be part rant, part confession, and part instructions for a ritual. Certain names and phrases repeat at odd intervals like atonal choruses. Run-on sentences spliced with Frankenstein commas devolve into vulgar invective. The sickly prose is liberally spiked with a word I won’t type here, one I only use occasionally in heavy traffic.
I try to keep the disparate threads of the manuscript from tangling in my mind: the stories of the missing boys, the babbled procedures, the invocations of Papamud. I keep doubling back in the file. Somehow the longer I read it the longer it gets, and makes even less sense.
Finally I start editing. I try to consolidate redundant phrases, smooth out sentences’ barbed edges. I form paragraphs out of vicious nonsense. I work with the confounded diligence of a lost tribesman trying to repair the shattered parts of a downed airplane. At the very least, I try to apply some familiar structure to the incoherence.
At some point I realize that Karen has slid away from me off the couch to do her nightly yoga on a ratty purple mat. I catch her stealing glances at me between Downward Dogs and Bridge Poses.
“You’re making weird faces,” she says. “And you’re mumbling.”
I tell her sorry, the file Raghav sent me is really strange. I just want to plow through it so I can send it off tonight and forget it.
“It’s squicky and gross and there’s really not even a way to clean it up.”
“So just rearrange the commas and send it back.”
“Well it still needs to be done right. You can’t just pretend that rules don’t exist.”
Karen smiles so easily. “I can’t complain since you always do my taxes, but holy shit you’re a nerd.”
I come join her, a few hours after midnight when I send the Brumlow manuscript back to Raghav. I delete the downloaded file. I dump my trash file. I cut it right out of my life.
I don’t sleep well that night, or the next. I have a dream that’s actually a memory, perverted at the fringes. I’m back in pre-school, sitting crosslegged on the playroom carpet constructing a Lego castle with a wiry, dark-haired boy named Eddie Hall. I’m plucking mint-sized plastic bricks from a bucket to add to my side. All the bricks are blue or green, and I’m doing my best to stagger them in a checkerboard aquamarine pattern. I notice that Eddie is adding yellow and red bricks to his side.
He doesn’t even look up when I try to correct him. He just says yellow is his favorite color, after red. I try to explain to him that the castle won’t look right with the mismatched colors. I can’t articulate why, and the pressure of this confusion steams my face red. I’m about to start crying when Eddie says I’m being mean. I break one of his yellow bricks off the top, to show him. He stands and kicks the whole structure to pieces.
That all happened.
But in the dream Eddie’s faced isn’t flushed with a temper tantrum. It’s livid purple. His eyes are black. He kicks the crumbled castle like he’s stomping the last breaths out of some creature he found squirming on the side of the road. I throw myself protectively over the castle’s battered foundation. Sharp-cornered Legos tattoo stinging configurations in the soft skin of my arms and neck and chest as he raises one of his Keds sneakers over my head, poised to crash down on the side of my face.
Then I’m thrashing feebly next to Karen, who sleeps carefree as a corpse. I can still feel the tingle of those Legos biting into me. I breathe and wait but the feeling doesn’t subside. When I run my hands along the insides of my arms I can feel something ridged there, like a whole coral reef of calcium deposits beneath my skin.
The designs are not haphazard. My finger trace hard shapes that form distinct letters. I fuss over one like a newly blind person trying to read a braille sign until I’m positive I can discern character of the word S-U-F-F-E-R.
I bolt up and rush down the lightless hallway. As I’m moving I keep running my hands down my body, feeling more of those little spurs of language—beneath my belly button, on my hips. I feel them floating like stones between my balls, inside my scrotum. There’s a terrible second after I flip the switch in the bathroom that I swear I can see a few words disappearing back into my skin. I clutch at my stomach and feel the word S-T-A-B smoothing out beneath my left nipple. Or I think I do.
When I look closer in the mirror, I don’t see anything but my own panicked face, wide-eyed with hair matted to my sweaty forehead.
I’m still leaning over the bathroom sink, just breathing, when I feel a hot pinch low down in my gut. It doubles me over, and I feel a wet gush in my underwear. When I pull back the elastic waistband of my underwear, I see that I haven’t pissed myself. There in the fabric is a little squirt of blood. Like a period.
Except it’s not a period. There in the blue cotton, written in muddy red, is a perfect semi-colon. I can even make out the font. It’s Times New Roman.
The next morning I’m on the couch with a heating pad in my lap when I get an email from Raghav.
Re-sending you the Brumlow file. The client resubmitted it with a note saying to do it right this time. Super annoying, I know, but they offered to pay double for a second edit. Already sent in the payment. I know it’s a chore, but if they want to keep throwing money at us, let’s let them. No worries on your end if you can’t satisfy their vague-ass demands. You know you’re my ace!
I don’t even open the file. I type out a quick response to Raghav that I’d prefer he send this job to one of his other freelancers. He responds almost immediately, and makes me even queasier.
…The client asked specifically that you re-do it. They must think you’re onto something. And we’ve already got the cash—literally. A delivery guy came by with a big box of money. Mostly quarters, dimes, and some singles. The coins were all oxidized like somebody raided a wishing well. The whole box smelled like a lake. Guess they never heard of PayPal. Your rate on this one doubles too. Just do your best if you can and I’ll sling you an easy one next time.
I tell him fine. I don’t start back to work though. Instead I spend the whole day drinking tea and watching old episodes of Seinfeld until Karen comes home. She heats up a can of soup to bring me on the couch, gives me a back rub, refills my pot of tea. I select the night’s entertainment (more Seinfeld). I must still be surly, because just before bed she asks me what’s wrong. Like she’s hurt, not angry.
I squeeze her hand and tell her about the stupid manuscript that makes no sense, that some weirdo client wants me to redo.
“So just do it like they want and screw ’em. Take the money and run.”
I tell her I’m trying to do it right but I don’t know how.
“Forget about right. Right? It’s not the Manga Carta.”
Karen’s jaw grinds. “Edit them, not me.”
She stalks off to bed. I’ll apologize in the morning. I won’t be sleeping anytime soon though, so as the night limps toward tomorrow I open my laptop. The Brumlow file is exactly the same as the original. None of my changes have been made.
The sickly sensation in my abdomen dulls as I re-read the first few pages. The words are more familiar but somehow make even less sense. Two-dozen crimes against grammar leap off the screen. They’re only misdemeanors compared to the actual crimes described. All those details about rope and chains and the boys asking why…
It occurs to me that I should just turn this over to the police. There are no specific locations or times referenced. I’m not sure which police department I’d call. Maybe Raghav would know?
But it’s not a crime to write fiction or poetry or…whatever this is. And it would be tough to make a coherent confession out of anti-poetry like:
We shape the clay of beginning into the shape of end. With faithful hands of the clay clayclayclayclay
You fuckshitting bastards gargling the silt of Papamud
Screw it. I scroll to the top of the first page and start editing. I use AP style rigid as a knife’s edge to field dress the thing, yanking out coiled guts of bile-black prose, pruning nubs of excess punctuation, carving whole sections away. I leave only the bones.
I spend the rest of the weekend thrashing in a tangle of soured sheets. I’m like a GIF of a sick person, endlessly repeating the same sweaty paroxysms. I leave the bedroom only to shuffle to the bathroom, where I fold over with attacks of diarrhea that smell like a swamp. When I’m awake I struggle for sleep and when I sleep I dream about Eddie Hall kicking my apartment to rubble while Karen’s screaming face recesses into soupy earth that breathes like an asthmatic toad.
When I try to watch anodyne TV I can’t quite make out what they’re saying. I can’t read either, although sometimes I can see words in the pockmarks of the textured ceiling, or forming in the dust motes that dance through the windowsill’s sunbeam spotlight. I can almost make out what the dirt is trying to tell me.
Monday morning before she goes to work, Karen palms my fevered forehead. A dark little apostrophe of concern forms at her brow. She tells me if I’m not feeling better by the time she’s home we’re going to Urgent Care. I want to tell her: I think it’s something I read. I just don’t know how to say it and make sense. I have food poisoning of the brain. I was only trying to make the necessary cuts.
Karen sweeps my greasy hair away from my clammy forehead. She blinks down at me with concern. I also don’t tell her about the patterns I can see in the saffron-thread capillaries around the rims of her bloodshot eyes. The left one says STAB. The right says MUCK.
I lay twisted in bed until ten thirty when I hear a knock at the door. Closer to a pounding. I can smell the staleness of my pajamas when I get up to drag myself to the door.
Nobody’s outside. A thin manila envelope lays on the stoop where the welcome mat would go.
I know what it’s going to be even before I peel the top open.
At first I think a gush of crickets and spiders rain down onto the floor. I fling the package against the wall. More brittle bugs spring forth.
No, not bugs. Dead leaves. The envelope is packed with them, brown and palsied to the brittle ends. And there it is, nesting in the dead foliage. A slim sheaf of paper. The Brumlow manuscript.
The pages are dingy and warped, but they don’t look especially old, just waterlogged. The words on the manuscript perfectly mirror the text in the file, right down to each prolonged indentation and string of stuttered profanity. The handwriting is neither arcane script nor furtive scrawl. The penmanship of every single letter appears to be different, as though thousands of hands each contributed a single character.
I feel something else knotted at the bottom of the envelope, in a cocoon of crunching leaves. I shake the whole mess out onto the living room floor to discover a thick wad of money wrapped in a paper band. The bills are old, minted before the redesign in the ’90s. They’re threadbare and bleached to the color of floodwater. It’s a salad mix of ones, tens, fifties, and several two-dollar bills. Several hundred bucks altogether.
The paper band peels off to reveal a streak of ink on the inside. More handwriting, with those distinctively scrawled individual letters. Just a sentence fragment.
Fix it right David
I flip the envelope over.
No name or address. No stamps. No return address.
The floor turns marshy beneath my feet as I run for the bathroom. I make it just in time to hit my knees as I start retching. When I open my stinging eyes I see I’ve thrown up nothing but pulpy pink stomach lining. A few hundred slivers of me slick the water’s surface.
I take a closer look.
The bloody little bits form a constellation of punctuation. Gory periods, semicolons, hyphens, umlats, virgules, and guillemats swarm together. Now I can see letters in the ichor, too. They float haphazardly, linking to form words — THROAT, SPLAY, GASH — before breaking apart.
I sag against the base of the sink. I can barely move. My gut, my throat, my veins, they’re all full of dead words.
In the din of my chattering mind, I hear Karen’s voice: Just do it like they want.
I crawl from the bathroom to the living room. Smears of leaves and dust crust my knees and palms. The Brumlow manuscript lays there in the center of the chaos like baby thing exploded from its egg. I slide the pages over to my computer desk and pull myself up into the chair. My old laptop hums faithfully.
I transcribe the manuscript. I’m careful to maintain the inscrutable tabulature and scattershot punctuation. I blaspheme the names of Shunn and Strunk and White. I recreate the strange rhythms and jarring atonal shifts. Occasionally I add a comma, a dash, or clip a phrase. I can’t say why but I’m certain these alterations are correct. I even add a line here and there—I surprise myself with a stanza about the bloodyshitboys screaming in the soil brokebone-clinging to Heaven’s bedrock.
I leave the rituals unchanged, sacrosanct as the idiomatic instructions of an old family recipe.
I don’t know when I finished. I know I did, even if I don’t remember sending the file back to Raghav when I was done. I must have crawled back into bed. I must have.
I awaken to early sunshine. The light has the porcelain-white freshness of a sun that hasn’t yet burned itself orange. Next to me, the covers are cool. The pillow smells like chlorine and sunscreen. I can hear Karen clattering around the kitchen. When I stand up my joints rattle off a 21-bone salute. I must have slept half a day. I feel good, though. The ache is gone from my head, my belly. My eyes pull tight focus. I drowsily run by fingers across the squishy softness of my arms and stomach. No strange ridges or indentations. I’m tabula rasa.
My shirt and underwear reek. I shake them off into the hamper and stand under a lukewarm shower spray. Afterwards I dry myself off, drop the towel onto the floor, and pad barefoot into the kitchen without bothering to dress.
“Morning, sunsh—” Karen starts to say as she scrapes a clot of jam onto a layer of dark toast. Then she glances over her shoulder at me and says, “Oh, hello there.”
I cross the kitchen to join her. The combination of sunlight and air conditioning feels amazing against my skin. Karen presses against me. I kiss her neck. She reaches back to tickle her fingers down my ribcage.
“You certainly seem to be feeling better,” she says.
I grind against the warmth of her back. “Why don’t you tell me more about how I feel?”
In one move she spins around, kisses me, and pushes away with the hand not holding jelly-slicked toast.
“I gotta go. We’re doing aquatics today with the pre-teens. Hormone soup. But speaking of which, hold that thought.” She looks me up and down, slowly enough so I’ll notice. “Have a great day and we’ll to-be-continue this when I get home. I’ll pick up Indian—no, sushi!”
I slap her ass hard on the way to the door. I want to do it even harder.
Karen shoots me one last eyebrow-raised look on her way out the door. “I don’t know what’s gotten into you, but I’m not complaining.”
“I took your advice,” I tell her. “Don’t be so rigid, just let things happen.”
As she closes the door she tells me she loves me.
I smile. I feel relaxed. Why shouldn’t, I?
Life’s been good. Why fight it like the other shitprick rotbastard shitprickfuckmeat
Be part of the change we come from the change
We shape the clay of beginning into the shape of the endtheend
this is not the end…