As long as I’m on the subject of telecommunications (not my fave), let me tell you about the first short story I ever published. It ran in the December 1986 edition of West Albany High School’s short-lived literary journal, Writing on the Wall, and remains the earliest surviving example of my first serious forays into the verbal trade. I still have the spiral-bound beast; it slumbers a-moulderin’ in the Frye Archives (a series of deteriorating boxes in my father’s attic), and someday I may have the brass handful to exhume it and publish the story here for kicks. Until then, forgive an old man a self-indulgent stroll.
The piece was cutely titled “Reach Out and Touch Someone” and was the natural culmination of an obsession with Stephen King and a Twilight Zone revival then chilling Aqua Net bones on CBS. By the time it was published, I had already dismissed the story as passe and ancient; why, I’d read it the previous spring to my eighth-grade English class! I only submitted it because my freshman writing teacher had asked me to contribute. Rather than whip up something new, I riffled through mothballs. It was easier. Meanwhile, I had “grown” leaps and bounds as a virgin scribe, slowly divesting my history of its roots in childish horror and inane supernatural twists.
I’d started in earnest at age 11 or thereabouts — whenever it was that I’d first finished Stephen King’s ‘Salem’s Lot. I decided that the writer’s life was for me. Initially, I took away the wrong lesson from King; my first attempt at a novel, in the sixth grade, was an innard-fest clinging to a threadbare plot.
At that point in my life I’d never seen a horror movie, so I sat over blank paper and concocted what I thought one might be. The eventual story — which crapped out after 40 handwritten pages (this gig was harder than it looked), to my disappointment — followed the murderous rampage of a somnambulist named Jones who went Michael Myers on an equally sleepy community. But Jones was no mere strangler or pillow-freak; once he hit his R.E.M. cycle, he was a surgically precise maniac with superhuman strength. He tore people’s guts out, ripped the brains from their heads. He killed so many residents — practically picked the town apart, decimating its police force to an abandoned building and unused patrol cars — that I had to create a last-minute character in the final three paragraphs to put Jones down for good.
When I poked the last period, I felt the writer’s high for the first time. Excited, I took my scraps of notebook paper to my mom and ordered her to read them immediately, with me standing over her shoulder. After she finished, she paid me the finest compliment any preteen boy’s likely to hear from his mother. “Cory,” she said, “this is gross.”
“Reach Out and Touch Someone,” by comparison, was tame and subtle. But I’d gone through a lot to reach even that level of maturation in 1986: three years of gradually diminished bloodshed (despite the pleasure of watching my mom vomit and wonder what the hell she’d birthed; never ask about “the one with the chainsaws”) and allusions to King. I wasn’t quite out of the woods yet, but recalling this swill some 23 years later I can see my own nascent “style” coalescing, with mordant humor and a hapless protagonist. I was no longer pilfering DNA from other people’s stories. Instead, I was creating characters that were either extensions of me or of people I knew. And despite its supernatural element, “Reach Out” was inspired by an innocuous event in my own young life rather than something I’d just read or seen on television.
It happened when my parents decided to replace the phone in our kitchen. I still remember the old unit: a brown rotary job with a green backlit glow and a cord that went only as far as my bedroom, which I was forced to keep immaculate, because it was the most popular space in the house. God only knows what people talked about in there. But at some point in mid-1986 my dad declared our shit-colored wall pill dead. So he pried it loose, stuffed it in a bubble-wrap envelope, and sent it back to AT&T (something “Reach Out’s” main — and only — character would do as well), then affixed a new model over its shadow.
The new phone had two things in its favor: push buttons for rapid-fire dialing (though you still had to sit through dit-dit-dit as numbers tumbled into place) and a ringer you could actually deactivate. I found that the latter feature came in handy for undisturbed afternoons. Of course, I was often too, er, busy to turn the ringer back on. Our house once went three days in isolated bliss until my dad picked up the phone one night to call somebody and found my grandmother already on the other end. “I’ve been trying to reach you all week!” she thundered. “Where the hell have you been?”
The new phone in my story, of course, had a third feature. It was haunted. Since a haunted telephone is more of a cheap gimmick than an authentic scare, it gave me the time to develop its human prey.
The character is a single man in his mid-20s. He lives alone in a small apartment and works, well, somewhere that doesn’t let him loose until well after 9 p.m. each evening (my 1986 bedtime on weekdays). When he gets home, he pops a Totino’s (my preferred 1986 delicacy) into the microwave, then settles into his couch, his warm, soggy dinner simmering through a paper plate into his hand, and watches Late Night with David Letterman (which I recorded religiously, since I couldn’t stay up to watch it) before finally hitting the sack whenever he damn well pleases, Mom.
I loved this guy. I truly did. He could do all the things I couldn’t. He enjoyed the freedom of adulthood in a space bereft of restrictions. But even he couldn’t escape the residue of my life. His own kitchen is a virtual carbon copy of the one in which he was created, down to the wallpaper patterns and the garish floor tile that ran from the back door to the hallway on one end and the living room on the other. He was even a Lakers fan. He looked like me, talked like me — he was me, or at least how I’d envisioned my future self. (Sadly, I was scary on the money.) Most importantly, had my parents never replaced the family phone, he would have never existed.
Which was just as well, since “Reach,” being of a supernatural bent, required me to kill him. But since I’d developed a softer narrative touch, I was merciful. His death was clean, with not a drop of blood or a single perforation. In fact, it was quite existential. As I said, his phone was haunted, so aside from hosting the usual array of callers, it also served as a portal to the dead. So throughout “Reach” he hears from a procession of relatives, friends, and acquaintances whose only means of contact are the coins over their eyes. Finally, in the hair-raising twist you likely saw coming in this literary equivalent of a Pacer dragging a muffler, he hears from…himself. Cue the bone-white booga-booga, fall dead on the pipe organ, soak your sleeping bag, and goodnight.
If memory serves, that was the last horror story I ever wrote. Soon I found other subjects to explore, like romance, poetry, and girls. Y’know, torture. But even now I’ll pick up the phone and brace for the voice on the other end: the younger me, desperate to know how a Totino’s pepperoni tastes in 2009.
Stick around, kids, and someday I’ll tell you about…the tapes.