Me: Hi Mom.
Mom: Hi hon.
Me: Mom, I'm about to send the final version of Better off to Akashic and I wanted to check in with you first. Is there anything in the book you want to talk about?
Mom: That one scene. I hate that one scene.
Me: Which one?
Mom: The one where he urinates on the floor. Do you know the one I'm talking about?
Me: I do.
Mom: I hate that scene.
Me: I know, Mom.
Mom: It's disgusting. Johnny would never do anything like that.
Me: Of course he wouldn't.
Mom: Maybe you should take it out.
Me: I'd really hate to do that.
Me: I don't think the scene has anything to do with John. It's about the character. The character is trying to verify he's alive. He needs to hear a sound that's ... primal.
You know how careful John was about his writing. Every word had a purpose. I really think it should stay, Mom. I really do. It's about being alive. It's important.
Me: John would be furious to see it deleted.
Mom: I guess you're right, but I still don't like it.
Me: I understand that. Try to separate it from Johnny. If he were here, he'd tell you it's about the character. You know I hate to put words in his mouth, but I think I've got this one right.
Me: I'm doing the best I can.
Mom: I know you are.
Me: Should I send it along to Akashic then? Is there anything else we should talk about?
Mom: No. If you're happy with it, that's fine.
Me: I'm not sure "happy" is the right word.
Mom: I know. You know what I mean.
Me: I do. Okay then, I'll get this going.
Mom: Okay. Love you.
Me: Love you.
Excerpt from Better:
Suddenly I am aware that the house is positively silent. There is absolutely no aural evidence that any animate thing occupies this house. For all I hear right now, I could be alone. Even the sounds of my own body eludes me. The perennial hum of the world at large: not there. The cumulative buzz of myriad ticks and tocks that drifts into our ears twenty-four hours a day: missing. The orchestration of every noise ever made anywhere, perpetually and reliably amalgamated then distilled down to a back-of-your-head IV of mild distraction in a sucrose base: history.
I do stand. I am in need of a noise. I hit the table with my glass: bok. Not enough--I need a longer noise. I slap myself. Again. Listen: still nothing. I can't possibly be alone here; I know better. Afraid to listen to my watch, much less look at it, my eye instead falls on a remote for the televisions. I can't touch it; I am afraid that if I reach for it, I might lose my balance, fall and strike my head, die in this pervading silence. My eyes blur. My bladder burns. It seems a very long time since I last urinated--too long for a living man. Still standing by the bar, I unzip my fly: zzzip. I pull out my penis; it seems pitifully small, and I can hold it between my thumb and my forefinger. It takes time, then finally there is liquid. At first a mere dribble trickling along my finger and dripping off the knuckle, it grows in force and becomes a steady stream under pressure which separates from my finger and finds its own path. It hits the floor, fairly quietly at first but soon announcing itself with a rumble as it stakes out its puddle and continues falling upon itself, no longer absorbed by the shocked carpet. It's now loud: patapatapatapata. It feels good to hear it. It smells bad, for I have held it too long; nonetheless, it feels good to smell it.
And much to my relief, when the splashing ends, it is replaced by the regular sounds of the house, the city, the rest. I hear water running--plumbed water--in one of the bathrooms. An airplane passes overhead. Probably an antique from Santa Monica airport, for it has that precarious cough that haunts old black and white movie soundtracks. Once the bane of inevitably smaller-than-life airmen, it has no doubt become something to be achieved, duplicated, recaptured in its authenticity, like the dying, spitting, last-time-out-before-the-snow-flies sound of a well-tuned Harley. I hear other things. I hear a trillion things, all of them rich and cogent messengers; they sing to me of my continuing sanity.
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John O'Brien died in April 1994 from a self-inflicted gunshot wound at the Beverly Hills apartment building featured in these photographs.
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