I’m easily bored. Or dangerously unmoored. Depends who you ask, and what the dosage is. I’ve spent my life in the grip of random obsessions and manias, from collecting punk 45s to sculpture repair to infrared photography. Somewhere along the line, between hot yoga and alto saxophone, I landed on short stories. Possibly because, unlike numerous 16-mm film projects or basement productions of Brecht, I didn’t have to rent a ’77 Ford Econoline and transport unpaid crewmembers to guerrilla locations. It was definitely a revelation that in terms of literature, I needed only myself. Plus a laptop, and the desire to screw language. Or screw with language. After all, there were no rules. Except never use adverbs. I’d read that in an important magazine. You could publish all the professor-falls-for-sprightly-au-pair comedies of manners you wanted, but you absolutely could not use phrases like “she held him knowingly” or “his tenure was revoked swiftly.”
Around that time, I took a writing class at a San Francisco extension campus now razed in favor of nine hundred city-view condos, “city view” meaning you can see the traffic on Market Street from a slightly better vantage than if you were lying on a blanket on Market Street. The teacher was a slurry, Falstaffian character who had written a few widely ignored sex comedies in the eighties, one of which I found years later at a library sale with a blurb from Barbara Eden on the cover. This man, in his own way, was a genius. At least to the degree of purity with which he hated writing, writers, books, journals, publishing, fiction, and, in particular, students. One of the first things he said was, “Let’s face it, one of you is going to churn out the worst piece of shit of the entire semester.” The class looked around accusatorily. Smoke breaks were full of snide predictions. But that night, lying in bed, I realized he was absolutely right. So what if it was me? Someone had to pen the turd. The beauty of writing was that the turd wouldn’t have to be bronzed. A story was malleable, could easily be rewritten and reimagined. Left to my own devices and gallons of artisanal espresso, I could run through more drafts than a Crimean infantry unit. The worst story in one class might easily be the best in the next.
This notion heartened me more than I can tell you, and I sincerely thank that professor for his comment. It was such a relief to know that I didn’t have to weave diamonds and cilantro into every sentence. That I could evolve at my own pace. That a story about nothing was actually about everything, as long as you didn’t make your magisterial intentions obvious.
From that moment on, I began to compose readable stories.
Which, I suppose, brings us to Welcome Thieves, a collection that often plows through my wayward and ill-behaved twenties.
I once played in a crappy but very loud band!
I once worked for a construction company that poorly reframed Danielle Steele’s palatial home!
I once fired machine guns in the desert, naked and giddily drunk!
Even if the person who did those things might as well be Evelyn Waugh or Jim Thompson for all he has to do with who I am now.
Responsible-dad me. Napkin-on-lap me. Reader-of-sonnets me.
But in the larger/macro sense of thinking it’s okay to use macro in a sentence, Welcome Thieves makes the case that there is an unrepentant larcenist lurking in the heart of us all, like Colonel Kurtz hunkered over his heroin stash deep in the jungle, or Bernie Madoff fleecing the owners of the Mets. I have purloined my own experiences and woven them into stories. My protagonists filch the best lines from their supporting casts. Hackers pirate the words, students shoplift the book, creepy men linger in alleys, copies of Welcome Thieves hanging for sale from the linings of their trench coats.
But even the Beatles ultimately shed their robes and left their ramas behind when they realized possessions were meaningless.
Welcome Thieves isn’t about what we take, it’s how we rationalize pirating the booty. And often it isn’t the theft of an item; it’s of an emotion. During a chance encounter. A dark presence and the loss of safety. A barbed word and the looting of certitude. A hasty, whispered promise between two vulnerable people, neither of whom actually mean it.
A good story affirms the best in us, or strips away the veneer of altruism in even the most selfless action.
Welcome Thieves has a dearth of Samaritans.
Hey, we’ve all laid there on the futon at least once, having just said our worst, most cutting thing.
Then the light goes off, and we wonder what’s next.
Mourning or morning.
A kiss or a lie.
There will be a shower and some cereal.
The truck will either start or it won’t.
A story can put the final seal on an experience or crack it open like a guava for the monkeys to cram their fingers into, for curios to sniff the binding, for looky-loos to feel the lapels, for a considered reader to test the inseam of the person we once were.
It isn’t stealing if you leave a healthy tip by the register.
Or on the dresser by the door.
“We all know that short stories are dead, as both art form and genre. Even so, there are a few magical sentences in Welcome Thieves that made me wish I’d dumped Hagman, corked the bottle, and left my pink silk behind decades ago. Hey, if you absolutely must read something this year, I suppose you could do worse.”
—Barbara Eden, star of I Dream of Jeannie