Wednesday, 3 January 2018

Resolution by Firing Squad - Umberto Tosi

Here we go again, girding for a new year. I don't know about this world, but I'm determined to do better in the next twelve months and get more stuff done, dammit! Guiltily, I shuffle through my stories-in-progress folders, as I am wont to do when becalmed on a prime project - a memoirist novel, The Einstein Express. 

At my age, moreover, I'm not keen on being one of those writers who takes ten years to turn out a hoped-for masterpiece with little in-between. Sorting through my writer's things-to-do always reminds me of Borges' 1943 short story, The Secret Miracle, a masterfully macabre metaphor for authors if there ever was one. Jaromir Hladik, a writer of scholarly works and two unfinished plays, faces a Nazi firing squad in 1939 Prague for "Jewish tendencies" and for having signed a petition protesting Anschluss. Terrified in a cell awaiting his fate, he escapes into time-stretching delusion. "While this night lasts," he fantasizes, "I am invulnerable and immortal." The demigod (he imagines himself to be) grants him a year to complete his greatest play. "He has no document but his memory" but he does so. "He concluded his drama. He had only the problem of a single phrase. He found it. ... He opened his mouth in a maddened cry, moved his face, dropped under the quadruple blast."

Okay. Maybe that's overreacting? Returning to my resolutions, I search my file. Storylines in various phases of cookery bubble on the back burners of my brain. I sample this one and that. More pepper? More salt? More spice? Simmer? Sear? Turn off and let cool? Here are a few tastes.

Don the Beachcomber's,
Hollywood, c. 1947
Burner No. 1: Hollywood Opera - A divorcee soprano-turned-chanteuse is torn between old and new lovers and lives in noirish 1940s Tinseltown:
"She screams. Then bang, bang, she's dead." Alma shook her head as if at her recalcitrant ten-year-old son forgetting to take out the garbage again. "You don't even see me, just a shadow - of some stand-in." Her hennaed page-boy curls swung merrily in their fine lace snood. "The bastards cut me almost completely from the nightclub scene. My whole number, gone! Sonuvabitches made a monkey out of me. I told everyone I was in the picture."

"You are in the picture, Alma," said Primo, listening over a Cuba Libra and a snubbed out Camel in the ashtray. How do you think I feel? I wrote the music for no credit and a roll of nickels." He counted himself lucky to get any work at all since being blacklisted. It embarrassed him, inappropriately. He wished he'd set aside something when times were better. What could he tell his six-year-old daughter at Christmas - even though he didn't believe in it any more than she believed in Santa? 
"Barely, now." Alma sipped her frothy green cognac-and-creme-de-menthe stinger. She wasn't having any of Don The Beachcomber's lurid rum concoctions. Don's was right around the corner from where she'd seen the picture for the second time. at the pharaonic Egyptian Theatre on Hollywood Boulevard. It had started raining again. She could hear it faintly inside the dimly lit lounge - a January wet-season downpour of the kind that turns the dry Los Angeles hills into rivers of mud. Hate's California, it's cold and it's damp ... That's why the Lady is a Tramp... She relished the Cole Porter tune, a show-stopper in her five-nights-a-week act at the Florentine Gardens on Sunset. What would Madame Casale back at the Boston Conservatory have said?
"Cheer up," said Primo. "I have good news. The opera is a go..."
She had wanted this, so badly. "I can't do it, Primo. I'm washed up."
Burner No. 2: Zugzwang: A troubled sleuth copes with involuntary metaverse jumping, but finds it helps him find missing people:
Alex surfaced from sleep gasping like a diver too long under. The shadow chasing him down a basement corridor was gone – a dream. .. Now he seemed to be in a hotel room, drapes drawn. A sleepy female voice said, “just a few more minutes,” from the other side of the bed. The fog lifted. The woman next to him turned out to be Veronica. His wife – ten years dead.
Alaska Gold Rush era riverboat
plies the Yukon/Tanana Rivers
Burner No. 3The Legend of Jenny OA California woman's midlife crisis involves her in a 100-year old murder mystery and the search for a vanished gold on a sunken Yukon riverboat:
The voice pestered Sally again. “What’s the rush?” Sally cursed silently, then made a sign of the cross. This time she didn't search the attic for anyone. She saw only her dowdy reflection in a tarnished wardrobe mirror amid the clutter of bygone furniture, accusing her of failure to fulfil aspirations, maintain fitness and fix her hair. The voice was a sexy contralto with a tinge of whiskey – nothing like Sally’s motherly cup of tea with two-lumps. No matter. They said that
Fairbanks midnight sun and the thunderstorm pelting the cedar-shingled roof above her. But it didn't matter. Sally had a job to do. Thank God, no leaks to complicate her selling great-grandma's creaky Victorian and getting back home to California.
Sally took a tin box of old news clippings down the spiral staircase from the attic. She proceeded to the gingerbread desk where she had been gathering mementoes of the woman for whom this house had been built more than a century ago. 
The yellowed newspaper headlines were lurid. 


Riverboat Gold Mystery Deepens

"See? We're both survivors," said contralto voice, which seemed to float above her this time. Sally no longer worried about whether this was a ghost or one of those perpetual-daylight, sleep deprivation hallucinations that afflict midsummer Alaska visitors from the lower 48 like herself. 
"I know," Sally answered now. If this were her great-grandmother's ghost, they might as well chat. "I've been reading your diaries," she added and waved one of the dusty journals she had found in the attic. 
Sally felt a kinship of abuse with the woman who wrote those diaries more than a century ago. Her being related to Jenny seemed unreal. Jenny seemed to have been everything that Sally had not been in her own 45 years, a formidable woman leading a dangerous, yet adventuresome life. Yet, Jenny had suffered domestic abuse and humiliation that Sally knew all too well.


I could go on, but I don't want this to start feeling like an endless series of teasers like we get while waiting for the feature film at the cinemaplex. Previews are meant to pique curiosity, not win applause. Borges' Hladik was hung up on credits and significance, but what else did he have? "Like all writers, he measured the achievements of others by what they had accomplished..." The poor bastard, however, found himself "asking of them that they measure him by what he envisaged or planned" - an unrealizable wish. We really don't know how a story will turn out until it's done.   Anyway, I better get back to work now, before Borges' firing squad arrives. The prospect, as Samuel Johnson might have put it, "concentrates the mind wonderfully."

Umberto Tosi is the author of My Dog's NameOphelia RisingMilagro on 34th Street and Our Own KindHis short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes ASAP, covering the Silicon Valley tech industry. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and ZoĆ« Tosi - and resides in Chicago partnered with artist Eleanor Spiess-Ferris. (


Chris Longmuir said...

What a dilemma! I want to read them all. But I've read another author's books titled Zugzwang so you might want to add to the title to distinguish it although Zugzwang is great. Good luck with your choices and I hope you live to 200 glorious years so you can write them all. And I hope I live as long as that as well so I can read them all.

Rosalie Warren said...

How wonderful to have so many ideas simmering away on your cooker-top. (2) and (3) both enticed me, though the others looked good, too. Get writing, please! And yes, I echo all of Chris's sentiments above.

Jan Needle said...

My mastery of the unfinished story started tragically young. I was bought a big, posh diary by me mother one christmas when i was fifteen. The first entry was on January 1, and read 'looking for a girlfriend.' The last entry (yes, honestly) was on the following December 31. It read 'still looking.'

Keep smiling, Umberto!

Umberto Tosi said...

Thanks for the heads-up, Chris! Thanks also to Rosalie and Jan for the kind words. That's really funny, Chris!

griseldaheppel said...

Burner No 3 is my favourite - I love this image of a mysterious 100 year-old ghost pestering the mildly depressed, middle-aged woman who does her best to ignore her. Lines like 'accusing her of failure to fulfil aspirations, maintain fitness and fix her hair' are pure gold. I am the opposite of you - my ideas come slowly and in single file; I'm full of admiration for the kind of creativity that produces lots of different ones, all jostling each other... but this can produce its own problems, of course! I do hope you manage to pursue at least one of these this year (The Legend of Jenny O, please). And no firing squad.

Great post, felt like looking through a shimmering kaleidoscope - thank you!

Fran B said...

I liked number one, possibly because I've just been binge-watching FEUD on i-player (abut the long-running one between Joan Crawford and Bette Davis). That era still has so much mileage and there is a whole new generation for whom it is almost a period drama - and we know how popular they are.

Alternatively, just stick a pin in the list and GET ON WITH IT! Procrastination is . . . and neither you nor I have oodles of that left!

Reb MacRath said...

You've got yourself a firecracker there.

Dipika Mukherjee said...

Fabulous works on the multiple burners...wishing you happy writing in 2018 Umberto!