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Have you read this week's epistle from Jules?

Episode 113

Norman Bates, the Early Years

It is not easy being a writer.

Chesney Nutmilk has not one but two rooms in the house that he shares with his mother in the town of Bisonette. One room contains his bed and bureaus and stereo, and is the nest to which he retires to sleep and dream and read and generally cogitate while not being in the living room with his mother. The recent recurring presence of Tarnish Jutmoll has increased Chesney's desire not to be amidst the center of Nutmilkian extracurricular activity.

The second of Chesney's rooms was probably the bedroom of the youngest member of the previous owners of the house, the tiniest room in the place, with space for a futon couch-bed and a desk on which rests Chesney's computer and little else, aside from the shelves of books that Chesney has acquired either through purchase (a handful), gifts (a goodly number) and purloining from either his mother or father (the lion's share). This is the room Chesney uses for homework or working on his cases and, of course, goofing around on the computer.

It is also the room in which he does his writing. Except nobody knows about that. Least of all his mother.

If it is not easy being a writer under the best of circumstances -- and it isn't, because even Stephen King, who would arguably be in those best of circumstances, wonders where his next plot is coming from and why his sales aren't as strong as they were ten years ago and how come refried beans have this effect on his digestive system that he can't remember ever noticing before and why must Tabitha always be sitting at the good computer when he wants to use it and this whole Maine thing has gone way too far and it's time to move somewhere with a first-run multiplex except the kids have to graduate school first and is it time yet to bring out the even more unedited version of The Stand with the 2000 pages that even Viking refused to print up -- then it is even harder being a writer under a less than optimal arrangement, like when your mother is the editor of one of the most famous magazines in the world, i.e., like Chesney's mother.

(Note to whoever is keeping score: we've done it! The above sentence is so long even we can't parse it.)

Chesney sits at the computer now. It is nine-thirty, and a tiny sliver of moon is rising over the neighbor's roof. He finds the folder he is looking for on his hard drive, buried among the Excel *.dll library. He can hear his mother fussing in the kitchen, probably stuffing the dishwasher. Amnea considers herself a past master of dishwasher stuffing, and will not allow Chesney to put so much as a spoon in the silverware bin.

Chesney can live with that. He opens the folder.

There are five other folders within it. Three of the folders contain short stories that Chesney has written or is working on, sorted by genre: mystery, science fiction and general. He should create a new folder for horror and pull out the stories that are now misfiled in either mystery or s.f., but that's a job for when he can't think of anything to write but nonetheless wants to work at writing, a chore tantamount to the sharpening of pencils fifty years ago, or the sharpening of quills three hundred years ago. The fourth folder contains the novel he is working on; it is all notes and outlines and character sketches at the moment, but Chesney plans to begin the actual writing at the end of senior year (Chesney is a person who plans things in advance). Finally, the fifth folder contains Chesney's journal, the log of his life that he has been keeping since fifth grade, since he first had access to a PC, long before his father purchased for him his present Macintosh G3.

Amnea Nutmilk knows nothing of her son's obsession with writing. Although she regularly reads his debate cases, which she considers to be excellent, she has no idea that he is longing to be a writer, and that the last thing in the world he wants is for her to discover this, for the very simple reason that of all the people he knows in the world, she is the one who can actually look at what he has written and tell him, yes, you have talent, or no, and don't give up your day job. Or in Chesney's case, don't plan on your day job having any writing in it.

It is not easy being a writer.

Chesney knows he wants to be a writer when he "grows up" -- God, how he hates that expression. His mother, on the other hand, has no idea what Chesney wants to do when he heads out on his own, and she assumes that he doesn't know either. Chesney's father is Manny Nutmilk, whose line of work is not at all connected to publishing -- Nutmilk Senior is a corporate lawyer -- and while he too has no idea about Chesney's literary dreams, at least he does not have the wherewithal to destroy them.

Chesney clicks on the folder with his journal, and opens the most recent pages. Tonight, after a debate meeting, he is more interested in recording his impressions of real life than in creating one of his unreal lives.

From the journals of Chesney Nutmilk:

The Bisonette Technical Debate Team has gelled, and the predicted fall-out has not occurred. The four of us remain stalwart, united under my mother, and I have got to wonder if we are not the weirdest team in America. Look at tonight, for example.

As usual, Wolf Padrewski was the first to arrive. Each week he shows up earlier and earlier. Tonight we were still eating when we heard him fussing with the front door, which he still hasn't figured out how to open. I grant you it is not easy -- you have to turn the knob and then pull the door, and God knows most doors just don't work that way. After five minutes I finally gave up and went down and let him in, and he mumbled something about the door being locked, which of course it wasn't, and he followed me back to the dinner table. Mom invited him to sit down and join us, which he did, but he kept his head down and his eyes on the table, and it was like breaking bread with a mummy, for all the conversation we got out of him. Mom was game, I'll give her that, and she tried everything she could think of. She is a professional conversationalist, after all, in her job at MNY, and she knows how to get blood out of verbal turnips, but Wolf ultimately proved too much even for her, and after a while she just ignored him and she and I went back to whatever we were talking about before he arrived. He nodded once in a while, but that was about the extent of it.

It is hard for me to figure why Wolf signed up for debate in the first place. He's got that lugubrious manner and that froggy voice, and he's obviously inclined to be an artist since whenever he opens his notebook he draws in it rather than taking any notes with words in them. But there is no question that he can draw. He's not just doodling abstract patterns or mimicking cartoon illustrations that he somehow learned to replicate the way some kids do. No, Wolf Padrewski has the makings of a real talent. He sketches the world around him: faces, furniture, the views out the window, whatever catches his eye. The results are realistic to some extent, but with a catchy stylization that captures more than just the likeness. I've talked to him about this and he does say he wants to go to art school in college. So why is he in debate? Because of his parents, apparently (no pun intended). They think that Wolfie needs to become more verbal, and what better way to achieve this than a debate team? Yes and no. A debate class, maybe, with ample opportunity to do exercises and a regular coach working with him on a daily basis. But an ad hoc team like ours with my mother in the driver's seat? At best he'll learn a little about the social contract and how to balance the liberal and the libertarian in his inner soul, but he'll need more than that to make it on the mouth circuit and become a capital O Orator, which is obviously what his parents are looking for. But Wolf is not that upset at seeking that libertarian/liberal balance, and he does like the idea of hanging out with a lot of girls from a lot of different schools over the weekend, so at least he's in it for the short term, which is more than you can say about our other teammates.

Binko -- or Jon Marcellus, if you want to get formal -- is just plain annoying. For one thing, he's a wiseass. He's always playing both ends against the middle. Thank God I don't have any classes with him, because people tell me that he drives the teachers crazy, and that they take it out on the rest of the group. It doesn't surprise me. The whole thing with the motorcycle, for instance. There's not one other motorcycle in the entire school, and even though BInko looks the part with the cigarettes and the heavy metal shirts and everything, the one time he debated he was dressed like an Armani ad, and deep down inside he wants to be a corporate lawyer. The most annoying thing is that he encourages my mother to smoke, after she's spent the last thirty years trying to cut down. During the meetings the two of them sit there like dropouts from some black-and-white 1930s movie. I'm almost waiting for my mother to mutter something like, "Cigarette me, Binko." I wouldn't put it past her.

Of course, in the wierd team sweepstakes, the winner hands-down has to be Gloria Fudless. For the first few weeks she's Night of the Living Dead, gothier than thou, everything about her is black from head to toe, and she's got this boyfriend named Bark who's the scourge of Bisonette. He's in my gym class, the occasional days he bothers to show up, and he spends most of the time kicking the littler kids or hitting them on the head or just being generally malicious. A true humanist. Anyhow, Gloria was going out with him, but then she got involved with this freshman from Nighten Day, who I don't know anything about although my mother happened to mention that she judged him at the NDL tournament and he wasn't half bad. Which brings up the fact that Gloria was a virtual star at the NDL; apparently she does have a lot of debate talent blended in with her thanatophilia (is that a word?). Anyhow, tonight instead of Young Elvira we got Young Lumberjack, or in Gloria's case, I guess, Young Lumberjill. Jeans, red tee shirt, flannel overshirt. I didn't even recognize her when she came up the stairs into the living room. My mother, whose ghast is seldom flabbered, was agog. "You look wonderful,"she greeted her. Gloria just gave her this sharp look like, don't even think about it, and that was the end of that little compliment.

The four of us are traveling to the Algren next week, our first overnighter together. This should be fun.

One interesting thing, though, is that mother is planning to revive the Bisonette Monadnock tournament. With Nighten Day going out of the forensics business, Tarnish Jutmoll seems to have a lot of time on his hands, and since he won't be running his own Snow Ball, he's helping Mom put together the Monadnock. Running a tournament is like all the labors of Hercules rolled into one, to hear Jutmoll talk about it, but that doesn't stop him from wanting to do it, or worse, wanting my mother to do it. If it screws up, it's on her head, not his.

Do I detect a note of venom regarding the legendary Mr. Jutmoll?

All right, I admit it. What do you expect, when you've lived your life one specific way for a very long time, with this mother and this father, and then within a few months you're living a totally different lift a different way altogether? My father is still in the City, but we're up here in the middle of nowhere, and instead of graduating from Manhattan Lodestone I'll be doing the Elgar Tango down the aisles of Bisonette Technical. It sounds like a trade school for reformatory students. My mother, who lives what can only be called a New York City existence, suddenly packs it all up and becomes an ad hoc debate coach, and the worse thing is, she's sleeping with this guy who is not my father. Tarnish Jutmoll, of all people.

I don't know what to say about Tarnish Jutmoll. He's a nice enough guy, I guess, but he's always struck me as this old geezer, and he must be ten years older than my mother at the very least, and considering that she could probably have had her pick of the New York literati you've got to wonder why she chose him. I've got to wonder, anyhow, since I'm the one who finds him stumbling around our house in the middle of the night when by rights he should be stumbling around in his own house.

I'm not bitter, don't get me wrong. I'm just not full of understanding. I don't want to begrudge my mother her sexuality -- and there's a thought that, if I ever get a therapist, he'll want to discuss at great length -- but must she exercise it with someone so... asexual? Why do people get attracted to one another? God only knows.

I need to be attracted to someone. Maybe that's my problem. It's not easy coming to a school in senior year. Maybe I'm just mature for my age, but none of these girls really do it for me. At least I know what I want, and all I have to do is find it, or at least find it in my sort of package. I mean Lisa Torte, of course, who strikes me as one of the really desirable people I have ever met. Of course, she's too old and everything, but she is attractive and smart and, well, cool.

There's a concept for you. Cool. Meaningless, but full of meaning. Indefinable, and yet the ultimate category.

That is cool.

She is cool.


The slang expression that will not die. My mother and I both understand the meaning of cool (not that I've discussed it with her vis-a-vis Lisa Torte), and I think even my last existing grandparent -- my father's mother -- understands it too. Nobody says swell, or neat-o, or groovy anymore, if they ever did, but cool? Cool lasts.

Oh well, next year, college, which I'll save for a separate journal entry, because that's a subject all on its own. I'm sure I'll find a girl there, someone like Lisa Torte, someone cool, someone my own age.

That would be cool.

If Teeth Were Inches, Orthodontists Would Diet

While the rest of the family sleeps, Invoice O'Connor sits up in bed reading John Stuart Mill's On Utilitarianism. He is surprised that it is not a bad book at all. He has been under the impression that utilitarianism is a horrible thing, full of lots of sacrificed infants, but Mill makes sense.

That's the trouble with philosophers, Invoice is learning. They usually do make sense. The problem is, they go too far. They try to wrap up all of human experience into a couple of lines of analysis, a sort of unified field theory for human ethics. Humanity is too complicated to fit into any philosophical system (a concept which, in fact, has provided some philosophers with their philosophical system).

Invoice likes philosophy, though. The little bit of reading he has done in the last few weeks has opened his eyes to all sorts of things he didn't know existed. It is as if a door has opened, and although what is on the other side is still dim, he can tell that it is vast, and that he wants to explore it.

And he has Lisa Torte to thank for this.

Invoice lays the book down beside him and stares into the distance.

Lisa Torte.

It's been a strange month or two, with the whole Seth business, and Tara going, well, ballistic over Seth's getting fired and quitting debate in protest, and then Lisa Torte taking over the team and introducing Invoice to LD, which was the last thing he thought he'd ever get interested in. Shifting from one form of forensics to another is like changing your religion, only harder. God is God no matter how you slice Him, but forensicians would put all your historical holy wars to shame if they were armed with a scimitar or two and pointed at the opposition.

Death to the Extempers!

Down with Dec!

Burn, Polician, Burn!

And now Invoice O'Connor is not only an LDer, but a pretty good one, having broken into elimination rounds his first time out at Lodestone. He's looking forward to repeating at Algren.

And it's all thanks to Lisa Torte. Except...

There's something strange going on there. When he went over to her place to work on the new physician-assisted-suicide topic, she had definitely had a few too many whatevers it was she was drinking, which really surprised him. Miss Torte -- or Lisa, as she insists -- doesn't strike him as much of a drinker.

It's funny. It was easy calling Seth, Seth. Why is it hard thinking of Lisa as Lisa?

There is definitely something strange going on there. It's like, she treats Invoice strangely, like there's something wrong with him, almost.

Is there something wrong with me? he wonders. I mean, aside from maybe losing a few pounds. That wouldn't be such a bad idea. I should go on a diet.

Except Invoice does like to eat, and he likes to eat junk. If he could switch from Doritos to carrot sticks, that would probably be all he'd need to come down to a thirty-two waist, which is the magic number he holds in his mind as the attainable unattainable.

A thirty-two waist.

Carrot sticks.

He shakes his head. The image of Tara Petskin suddenly appears in his mind.

Tara. He misses her. They were a team, a good team. He enjoys debating alone, but he enjoyed debating with Tara, too. She was also acting strange, the last few times he's talked to her.

He shakes his head again. Women. They all act strange. It's what they do in life.

He looks at his alarm clock. Eleven eighteen. He should call it a night and go to sleep. But he is a little hungry. He'll go downstairs, just for a minute, and grab a handful of chips. Just one handful.

He slides around out of the bed.


He pauses.

He bleats a tiny raspberry through pursed lips, slides back under the covers, puts John Stuart Mill on the side table and turns off the light.

For the sake of thirty-two, tonight he'll go to bed hungry.

Will Chesney get his first novel published?

Will Amnea find out there's a budding writer in the house before it's too late?

Will Invoice lose those unsightly extra pounds and make it to a thirty-two-inch waist?

Did all those people really go see The Mummy?

What aisle is the canned artichokes?

Ziggy Freud will not be perusing our next episode: "I'd add Ida's id if you let go my Eggo's ego, Lego-boy."

Go to the next episode due May 19, 1999.