Cakepan Manuscript – Chapter Four: Getaway Plan

This is a creative writing experiment, shamelessly stolen from the Chopin Manuscript: a serialized story where each author writes a different chapter. The members of this blog are each writing their own chapter, and we’re calling ours the “Cakepan Manuscript”.

You can start reading at Chapter One, which began with the premise: “An unemployed teacher, in a wine store, runs into a former student.” Each week we will post a new chapter until we reach the thrilling conclusion!

We hope you enjoy!

Chapter Four: Getaway Plan

Marilyn Monroe

Image by quicheisinsane via Flickr

Outside the corner bodega, Zack’s girlfriend, Ashlee, sat behind the wheel of a rusted blue Buick. “It’s taking too long,” she thought as she puffed on her cigarette. The car idled roughly, belching exhaust out of the tailpipe and obscuring her view of the traffic coming up the street. Ashlee wanted to shut the engine off, but with the ignition wires hanging from the side of the steering column, she wouldn’t have known how even if she’d tried.

She knew the second Zack came running out, she’d have to drive fast in order to dump this car before the cops started looking for them. Zack had been careful to steal a common-looking vehicle for the job, and he’d taken the extra precaution of knocking the chrome “LaSabre” emblems off the trunk and side panels, as well as attaching a new license plate he’d stolen from a car in the mall parking lot. Now if he would just hurry the hell up so they could get out of here.

Ashlee watched the front of store from the rearview mirror. She was parked just past the shop in a curb space next to the alleyway. From here, they could race down the street to the freeway entrance and be across town before the cops had even radioed in a vehicle description. She took one more drag off the cigarette before snuffing it against the dashboard and tossing the butt out the window.

As she kept an eye on the front door, Ashlee checked her disguise in the mirror. She had on a big pair of sunglasses and a Marilyn Monroe wig she’d worn to a Halloween party a few months before. Ashlee had originally thrown this bash as a going-away party for Zach, but like most of her boyfriend’s schemes, things hadn’t quite worked out as planned. First, Zack had been expelled from high school. Then when his Marine Corps recruiter found out that Zack had tried to forge his high school transcripts, Zack’s trip to boot camp was cancelled. Deep down, Ashlee was happy Zack wouldn’t be going off to fight in some Third World shithole. But after his final meeting with the recruiter, she’d noticed a look in Zack’s eyes—a look that unsettled Ashlee every time she remembered it. He’d had that same look after talking to Victor Tomasso, and she feared that somewhere beneath her blonde wig and her thick sunglasses simmered an equally unpredictable flame.

Suddenly, Ashlee’s thoughts were interrupted by the sight of some shoppers running out of the store and scattering in all directions. The front door slammed behind them, and she noticed Zack’s leather-jacketed arm reach up and turn the lock. “What the…?” thought Ashee. Then, from the corner of her eye, she saw a short Asian fellow poke his head around the front of the building before turning back and disappearing down the alleyway.

“Oh, crap…That’s Nyguen!” exclaimed Ashlee under her breath. Binh Nyguen, or “Benny” as he was known around the neighborhood, was the guy Tomasso wanted Zack to shake down. “Tell that sneaky little bastard to pay up,” Tomasso had ordered. “If he don’t, I’m gonna kick his dog-eatin’ ass all the way back to Saigon.”

Ashee could feel her heart pounding hard in her chest. She drummed her fingers against the steering wheel, craving another cigarette. She kept watching the mirrors, hoping that Zack would come running to the car so they could drive away. Then she saw one of the ladies Zack had chased out of the store dialing her cell phone. “Shit!” thought Ashlee. “Here come the cops.”

Just then, she felt a buzz against her left breast. She reached under her bra-strap and pulled out her cell phone. There was a text: “WATSUP SEXY?” It was Tiffany again. Ashlee was often late to school, but at 11:30 on a Thursday morning, it was natural that Tiffany would be wondering where she was. In fact, this was the fifth text Tiffany had sent in the past fifteen minutes; she could be very persistent that way.

“Not now, Tif,” thought Ashlee as she tucked the phone back into her bra. She noticed her hands were starting to tremble. She really wanted another cigarette, but she didn’t dare. Too much was happening. Instead, she checked her cell phone, which had started buzzing again. “R U OK ASH?” it read.

“I would be if you’d leave me the hell alone!” Ashlee mumbled.

Again, she stuffed the phone under her bra-strap and gripped the steering tightly, trying to stay calm. As she sat there waiting, the Buick’s worn-out engine began shaking and sputtering—so much so that Ashlee had to keep her foot pressed down on the gas just to keep the car running. Her mind kept repeating, “Goddamn it, Zack…Hurry up!”

Ashlee’s eyes darted back and forth between the rearview mirrors, searching for signs of trouble. Again her phone buzzed, startling her. “Damn it, Tif!” she barked, irritated by the distraction. She grabbed the phone from her bra and started to turn it off. Then in the rearview mirror, she saw something that made her stomach sink. Running up the street toward the store’s entrance was Benny Nyguen, followed closely behind by six young Vietnamese men carrying baseball bats, chains, and pieces of pipe. In Benny’s hand was a sawed-off double-barrel shotgun.

Ashlee’s phone buzzed once more, and as she looked down at the screen, she noticed that it was not a text from Tiffany this time. It was an incoming call from Victor Tomasso.

(continued in chapter five)

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To Finish or Not to Finish?


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At what point is it okay not to finish reading a book? Ten pages in? Fifty? This is a quandary I have been facing this week as I’ve worked my way through the opening chapters of a novel that, by all accounts, I should like. It has been well-received by critics. The topic is one that I generally find interesting. The characters are believable. And the writing style, while not as artful as others I’ve encountered, is sufficiently engaging to keep my interest. Yet there have been a several moments as the story has unfolded (specifically, uncanny “coincidences” in the plotline) that have given me the urge to chuck the book into the trashcan and move on to the something else.

You see, I’m one of those readers who tends to see a book through to the end no matter what. Maybe it’s my Midwestern upbringing or my Protestant work ethic, but somewhere deep in my psyche is the conviction that, once a chosen task is begun, I have a moral obligation to complete it. Over the years, I’ve wasted an enormous amount of time reading all sorts of books that, in retrospect, were not particularly good and really weren’t worth the effort. But I finished them, dang it!

Recently, however, something has changed. Maybe it’s because I’m getting older and I realize that life is short, or perhaps it’s the result of reading hundreds of really bad student essays during my decade and a half teaching high school English. For whatever the reason, I no longer want to read books I don’t like.

Yet does this reflect a growing shallowness on my part? Have I fallen victim to the same social and cultural forces that have conditioned my students to retreat from anything that is not immediately engaging or may require some sort of sustained effort on their part to fully reap its rewards? I can think of plenty of books (particularly some of the “classics” that were assigned by my teachers in high school and college) which were not particularly riveting at first, but they turned out to be some of the most memorable books I’ve experienced. At the same time, how many books have I blazed through that I found delightfully entertaining while I was reading them but have long since forgotten?

As C.S. Lewis notes, good readers can learn something valuable from even the worst books. The question is, at what point is it fair to say that a book is simply not worth the trouble? Personally, I’ve going to give my current novel another twenty pages or so. Okay, maybe thirty. We’ll see how it goes.

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Modern Female Archetypes: The Succubus

Yoko Ono

Cover of Yoko Ono


We’ve seen it plenty of times. A group of guys who’ve been friends for years suddenly find their world disrupted by the arrival of a new female. She typically enters the scene on the arm of one of the fellows, and the others tolerate her because of their loyalty to their buddy. But before long, things begin to change. The guys start to see less of their friend, or if he does come around, the girl is always with him. In subtle (or sometimes not so subtle) ways, she manages drive a wedge between her man and his old comrades until finally, she comes to dominate every aspect of his life. Their pal’s fun-loving personality gradually drains away, and he becomes a mere shadow of his former self. Things soon fall apart: the band breaks up, friendships are jeopardized—all because of a manipulative, soul-sucking female.

Yoko Ono’s infiltration of the Beatles is the most obvious modern example of this phenomenon. (In fact, the Urban Dictionary defines the “Yoko Effect” as: “The aftermath of an individual in a group of friends dating a nut-case girlfriend or boyfriend. The significant other will intentionally or unintentionally control the group member’s entire life and eventually stomp out anyone he or she sees as ‘unfit’ based on arbitrary criteria.”)

In the realm of storytelling, the roots of this archetype run deep. For instance, the goddess Circe turns Odysseus’ warriors into swine in order to keep her man by her side. It’s not until Odysseus recognizes Circe’s ploys that they are finally able to break free and resume their journey. Likewise, medieval folk legends surrounding the character of Lilith reflect the notion that certain females (succubi) will use their sexuality to corrupt men and drain them of life. The temptress in John Keats’ “La Belle Dame Sans Merci” fits this model, as does King Arthur’s faithless wife, Genevieve, whose actions are instrumental in destroying Camelot.

In modern cinema, examples of the succubus archetype abound. Who can forget David St. Hubbins’ girlfriend, Jeanine Pettibone, in the “rockumentary” This Is Spinal Tap? Or what about Judith (Amanda Peet’s character) from the movie Saving Silverman? Of course, there is also the girlfriend of Jack Black’s roommate, Patty DiMarco (played by Sarah Silverman), in The School of Rock. Vinnie Chase (the movie star heartthrob on HBO’s Entourage) has a run-in with a vegan yoga fanatic (Fiona) whose behavior is eerily reminiscent of Yoko’s. And let’s not forget Stu’s passive-aggressive wife, Melissa, from recent hit film, The Hangover.

The methods of these soul-suckers range from manipulative puppet-masters at one end of the shrewish spectrum to selfish, emasculating harpies at the other. Yet all of these gals have one goal in mind: to separate their men from the group. For awhile, the women are successful. However in the end, it’s the men’s buddies who rescue them from these girls’ conniving feminine clutches. If only Paul, George, and Ringo could have been so lucky. But then again, maybe we can all learn a thing or two from their example as well.

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Storytelling and Literary Fiction

Freytag's Pyramid, which illustrates dramatic ...
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I once heard someone jokingly define literary fiction as: “A type of book where nothing really happens, but you still feel sad at the end anyway.” While this may be something of an exaggeration (albeit a slight one), much of what today’s literati label as “moving” or “evocative” is often devoid of what most readers inwardly hope for when they crack open the pages of a critically-acclaimed novel—a good story. This is not to say that for a book to be engaging it must be exclusively plot-driven. It’s just that many of today’s novelists, in an effort to be taken seriously as writers, focus primarily on developing “style” rather than crafting engaging characters or storylines.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who has noticed this trend in modern fiction. In the introduction to his recent memoir entitled My Reading Life, the novelist Pat Conroy notes:

“The most powerful words in English are ‘Tell me a story,’ words that are intimately related to the complexity of history, the origins of language, the continuity of the species, the taproot of our humanity, our singularity, and art itself. I was born into the century in which novels lost their stories, poems their rhymes, paintings their form, and music its beauty, but that does not mean I had to like that trend or go along with it. I fight against these movements with every book I write.”

While there’s truth in Leo Tolstoy’s assertion that each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way (and certainly, Conroy makes ample use of dysfunctional families in his own writing—i.e., Prince of Tides, Lords of Discipline), not every unhappy family is a worthy subject for a novel. Unfortunately, many of today’s writers miss this point, and instead of crafting stories that truly have something insightful to say, they focus too much on trying to sound “original.” But as we all know, originality is no guarantee for success. (Take Finnegan’s Wake or the film Ishtar, for example). Without engaging characters and a solid story to cling to, even the best-wrought phrases are in danger of falling away into the abyss of literary oblivion. And as Conroy states, “The writers who scoff at the idea of primacy of stories either are idiots or cannot write them.”

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A Night at the Opera

Up until now I’ve avoided opera—not out of malice or a disdain for the music (my dad had a large collection of classical LPs he used to play when I was a kid which included a number of opera scores, and I remember enjoying them), but simply because I didn’t feel qualified to give an intelligent appraisal of the art. So when I was invited to join some friends for an operatic performance of Carmen, I thought it my duty to experience this centuries-old art form for myself.

You see, pretty much everything I know about opera I learned from Gilligan’s Island and certain Warner Brothers cartoons. (Who can forget Elmer Fudd dressed as a Valkyrie singing “Kill da Wabbit!” or Bugs Bunny performing a Barber of Seville-style haircut?) I enjoy most types of music, and as a musician, I’ve played in a variety of settings over the years, from orchestras and jazz ensembles to rock bands and Irish pub groups. But in my three decades of playing music, I had yet to see a classical opera. I must say my experience watching Carmen was certainly illuminating.

I’m a firm believer that, in the world of the arts (as in most areas of life), nothing equals the experience of being in the presence of people who are masters of their crafts. Whether it’s Yo Yo Ma coaxing notes from his cello, Paddy Maloney churning out jigs and reels on his uilleann pipes with The Chieftains, or Randy Johnson throwing a perfectly placed fastball or slider (yes, I do consider top-level athletes to be just as much artists as dancers or singers), I’ve always been enamored by people who are really good at what they do.

Without a doubt, the cast members of Carmen were indeed superb, and my hat goes off to people who dedicate their lives to such a demanding art. In addition to the singing and the dancing, these performers must be able to play their parts convincingly in a show that runs nearly three hours in length. To all of these talented individuals, I say, “Bravo!”

This is not to say that I am now an ardent devotee of the operatic arts. As in many of life’s endeavors, some tastes are acquired (like coffee or beer). For an opera novice like myself, there are several hurdles to be overcome, such as the communication gap.

For those of us plebeians in the audience whose college major was something other than Romance Languages, the company provided subtitled lyrics which were projected onto a narrow screen above the stage. While this was certainly helpful (for non-French speakers, it was essential—although even for a native Frenchman, it would have been difficult to decipher the singers’ lines through all the operatic warbling), it also created a sort of paradox; I realized as the words were flashed before me that it seemed to take an eternity for the singers to say whatever it was they were trying to communicate. There was one character in particular who spent ten minutes trying to relay four lines of dialogue to her boyfriend. (And every time she took the stage, she said the same thing: “Here’s a message from your mother.”) About two hours into the show, I started glancing down at my wristwatch, and there were a couple of moments when I would’ve sworn I saw the date change.

Of course, much of my problem with the time factor could be attributed to my own limited attention span. We moderns are used to two-hour movies and thirty-minute sitcoms. Elizabethans, by contrast, thought a preacher was just getting warmed up when his sermon reached the three-hour mark. Oh, how times have changed.

According to the historical information printed in the Carmen playbill, the 16th century composers who helped introduced the world to opera believed that the “current state of dramatic and musical expression was inadequate to convey the complexity of human emotion.” I don’t know about that. Sophocles used music and poetry to tell stories pretty effectively. And of course, there’s always Shakespeare. I think his narratives came out alright—even without the song-and-dance numbers and the ten minute arias. But hey, what do I know? I’m just an amateur who likes cartoons that feature speech-impaired hunters chasing rabbits around with spears.

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