Katrina Monroe's The Rack

Today's Victim:
David James Keaton

 

 

 

 

 

            In honor of today’s guest, I’ve dressed Delilah in a blood-red collar with a skull charm to match The Rack. She’s curled, contented, on the floor of my Cabinet of Curiosities, beneath a matted feather boa. I like her best when she’s sleeping; my hands are covered in scratches from our pathetic training sessions.

 

            I stroke Delilah’s black fur as my guest, author David James Keaton, grumbles from The Rack. Probably doesn’t appreciate the braids I’ve twisted into his beard, but what sane human being could resist?

 

            I leave Delilah to her nap and approach The Rack. There’s no delicate way to put this: the man is a goddamned giant and my rack is woefully short. I’m forced to tie his ankles to stationary poles and hope the pull of his wrists is enough to get the answers I need.

 

            What’s the next holiday? Note to self: ask—no—demand a rack extension.

 

            I flick one of the braids, anxious to get started with the zombie writer. “Your love of zombies is obvious. Your zombie movie love, less so. What's one zombie movie you can't stand?”

 

            “I do love the damn things, I admit, especially now that they're kinda played-out and unfashionable to be interesting to me again. Thanks, Walking Dead! Did I come across as critical of zombie movies in the book, because I love those, too, I swear. Also, I'm not sure how I could love zombies but not zombie movies. As obnoxious as I can get saying I was into zombie before they were cool (then uncool again), I'd have to be pretty far gone to say, ‘You know, I've always loved actual zombies, but not their fictional counterparts,’” David says.

 

            I flick another braid. The bell on the end jingles.

 

            “But in fiction, yeah, maybe my characters were critical of zombie movies, but who are you gonna believe? Me or imaginary people who try to eat their own heads? It's true I scrutinize what I enjoy much more than things I despise though. Which frustrates a lot of friends who think I'm always being "negative." I just can't help chopping up movies, and goddamn particularly if it's a zombie movie, you have to autopsy it, right? As far as a zombie movie I can't stand - even though I bought it to complete my zombie-movie collection, that would have to be Reality Bites. Joking! No, probably Zombieland. It panders with attempted catch-phrases, aggressive product placement, and smug celebrity cameos. But some of that stuff is admittedly funny. The best part is the list of rules poor-man's Zuckerberg keeps coming back to, and they are returned to in interesting ways that serve the plot. I also liked the slo-mo intro credits. So I don't hate it, I just feel the need to lash out because so many people seem to love it so much. They love it a little too much. So I am here to help them properly adjust their love.

 

            “Speaking of adjusting, can we adjust these straps? Make them tighter, I mean. I have a bad back, and whatever you're doing is helping.”

 

            “Of course,” I mutter and throw the wheel. Each clack of the catch widens my smile.

 

            Though David’s legs are stuck, his arms and back stretch nicely. He winces.

 

            This will work out just fine.

 

            “I've always said that being a writer is a constant balancing act between blatant narcissism and crippling self-doubt. You've got quite a few award nominations and a few wins under your belt. Ever feel less like an imposter?” I ask.

 

            “I only feel like an imposter when I'm wearing a cat sweater on my head.”

 

            As though summoned, Delilah scratches at the cabinet door. She wants to play, too.

 

            I open the door and she bounds through the library like her tail is on fire. She pauses, briefly, at David’s feet, sniffs, and then runs again.

 

            As long as I have it open… I withdraw the cat-o-nine-tails. I recently sewed a small spike to the end of one of the straps. I’m sure David will appreciate the extra effort.

 

            I drape it over my shoulders. “I watched this movie recently--The Gambler with Mark Wahlberg--about a literature professor with a gambling problem. (It's terrible. Don't watch it). But during one scene in the movie he lashes out at the class, saying 95 percent of them aren't any good at writing fiction and should just quit now. Ever had one of those moments as a teacher, or known someone who has?”

 

            To help him answer—aren’t I kind?—I switch on the television (recently installed) and start the movie.

 

            His gaze flicks between my cat-o-nine-tails and the television. It’s hard to tell which one he fears more. “When you talked about possibly torturing me during this interview, I didn't realize you were serious. But I'm watching this movie right now because I'm a glutton for punishment. Holy balls. Marky Mark was a better teacher in The Happening! Although his oft-quoted Einstein quote on the blackboard about "five years left without bees" is a myth. Did anybody check his credentials for indoctrinating our youth with Einstein internet memes? To answer your question, I don't recall any writing teachers lashing out. They probably have no need, as writers will attack each other enough for everyone.

 

“But yeah this movie is making my nose bleed. Most depictions of creative-writing teachers in movies are horrendous and overly dramatic. Can you skip to the end of our session where you break my neck? Actually, not to get all Little Shop of Horrors on you here, but this massage session is worth every penny! I think people are probably born with too many vertebrae anyway.”

 

Scowling, I switch off the television and spin the wheel a full five rotations. David groans and his face reddens. His eyes are bloodshot and his face pales, making him resemble one of his beloved undead.

 

“What do your students think of your work? How often is it 'required reading?'” I ask.

 

A whimper escapes his lips before his answer. “I've always separated the two lives, teaching and writing. To help do this, I used my middle name for my writing name, and just "David Keaton" for my teaching (and because there's some much more famous "David Keatons" out there, including a guy famously exonerated from Death Row - no competing with that). Also, until this year, I only taught composition, so the fact that I wrote some books never came up in those classes. But now that I'm teaching Creative Writing at SCU, they're a little more apt to get curious and do some Googling. And if they find me and weird interviews like this on the internet, I don't deny it, but I still feel weird talking about my work, even to creative writers. Maybe I'll get over that but who knows. Plenty of other stuff for them to read anyway. And my own writing methods lean more towards experimental, so not so much the strategies that I like to teach. Like if I was a reasonably effective basketball coach, and a player said, "Hey, man, we heard you play basketball, let's see!" I'd say, "Cool, but I use three balls and a hammer." Doesn't mean I can't coach though. I don't know what the hell that meant either. See that? My metaphors fall apart when these worlds collide.”

 

“Or when you’re under torture. But blame anything you like, dear, if that makes you feel better.”

 

Another turn of the wheel and something pops. I wait for the scream, but nothing comes. “Does this hurt?” I ask.

 

“It doesn't so much hurt here...” He wriggles his fingers. “Or here.” Then touches his tongue to his lip. “But right here.” A twist of the ankles. “I don't think my feet are supposed to face that direction, but it does make me want to Moonwalk. I'm telling you, all this is very good for my spine. I ruptured a disc moving boxes of magazines back in the '90s when I worked at a bookstore, so normally I can't sit for too long without walking around and standing behind people all creepy, but whatever you're doing back there is great! I'm finally standing up straight. And these pants finally fit like they're supposed to. No more cuffs!”

 

For the first time, it occurs to me that David James Keaton is a lost cause—not because I’m weak, perish the thought, but because he’s, in fact, a zombie. Can’t hurt a zombie. Or can you?

 

I white-knuckle the handle of the cat-o-nine tails and swing it, hard, against his hip. He flinches—is that a strangled cry behind his white lips? “Don’t worry,” I say. “We’ll fix it.”

 

I continue, “My favorite story in your collection, Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead, is "Zee Bee & Bee." It crosses a wide range of emotions in a short span of time all while being funny as hell. What's your favorite in the collection?”

 

 “Thanks!”

 

Katrina giveth…

 

Another turn of the wheel followed by three staccato slaps across his thighs with the cat-o-nine-tails.

 

…And taketh away.

 

He grinds his teeth. “I spent a lot of time on that one, and it's the centerpiece of the book, being all "novella-length," And there's a lot of "true" stuff mixed in it. My favorite is probably that one or "Greenhorns." I'm a Deadliest Catch addict, and not just because I used to work on the show back at my previous job closed-captioning television shows. But before it succumbed to the usual fake-ass reality show afflictions, it was by far the best "reality-based" program on the air. When it allowed the cameras to take in the crab-fishing job itself and trusted the inherent suspense of that hard work to be interesting, and not set up manufactured drama, it was mesmerizing. And it's easy to watch every cage of squirming creatures pulled out of the water and splash over the sides of those boats and cross your fingers that next time it might be a human body in there. That's where "Greenhorns" came from.”

 

“Are there any stories you originally included that later got the axe?”

He shakes his head. Well, as much as one can shake their head with their shoulders in their ears. “No, just the opposite. The collection felt a little short to me, compared to my last short-story collection, Fish Bites Cop, and at the last minute I wrote a new story to beef it up a little. "...And I'll Scratch Yours," the story about zombie-arm back-scratchers in the near future was an 11th-hour addition, and in spite of writing it much faster than some of the others, it's probably my next favorite story in the book.”

 

Delilah hisses from the corner. David flinches.

 

I grin. “What’s the worst thing you’ve ever written?”

 

Sweat beads on his forehead. His arms begin to tremble as I nudge the wheel a half turn.

 

“The worst thing I've written is probably the story I wrote in undergrad that caused some fellow workshoppers to boycott the class that day. It was about a toilet that told the future, and the first line was some guy saying, "But whenever I look into a toilet, all I see is the past!" It got even worse after that. But the worst thing I've ever written that got published was written around that same time (late '90s again? Limp Bizkit era?) and it was called "What's Worst?" actually! So that makes it easy to remember. In spite of its disregard for respectable storytelling, this story is included in Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead because the publisher has worse taste than me. And it has been singled out in otherwise good reviews as hated, and I got some angry emails about it, too. Which makes this writing thing all worthwhile,” he says.

 

“I noticed a few stories in Stealing Propeller Hats from the Dead were linked by subtle details. Crabs, man. Was that on purpose?”

 

His eyes brighten and the hint of a smirk plays at the corner of his mouth. “It was! I'm not normally a fan of the lazy "novel as story collection" nonsense, but I kind of love "story collection as novel" nonsense. Whatever that means! So, besides the glut of zombie animals, which I find just irresistible and somewhat less well-worm territory, and especially with the newer stories, I had all these stories exist in the same world, just at different time periods. It's all pretty much post-apocalyptic, but there is a timeline within that framework. Some stories take place right as things are apocalypse-type things are winding down, and people are learning to deal with the situation, some are essentially the day after ("The Ball Pit"), and some are the day after that, like "Zee Bee & Bee." One is a prequel ("Three Ways Without Water"), and some are well into incorporating the situation into our daily lives, like "...And I'll Scratch Yours" does with the back-scratchers.”

 

I knew it.

 

As much as I would love to give the wheel a hard turn, it’d have little effect on David, being the behemoth that he is. Instead, I cross the room and gather a trembling Delilah in my arms. “David,” I say, “Do you like cats?”

 

He struggles to lift his head. “I love cats. I'm all about cats, even though I have a ton of stories about zombie-fied dogs, this actually makes sense because cats could never be zombies. Imagine a cat as a single-minded, dead-eyed, unfeeling eating machine. Now imagine it as a zombie. See what I'm saying?” He laughs nervously. “No difference.”

 

“Exactly.”

 

I plant a kiss on Delilah’s forehead and plop her on David’s belly. She hasn’t eaten in a while, poor thing. Just doesn’t like the organic stuff.

 

She sniffs along his belly, settling just above the belly-button, which she tentatively licks.

 

“Eat up, Delilah,” I say.

 

Her teeth find and tear at his flesh. A new coat of red paint for The Rack.

 

I moan with pleasure. Finally.

 

The scream.

 

 David James Keaton's work has appeared in over 50 publications, including Grift, Chicago Quarterly Review, Thuglit, PANK, and Noir at the Bar II. His contribution to Plots With Guns #10 was named a Notable Story of 2010 by storySouth's Million Writers Award, and he won a 2012 Spinetingler Award for the Best Short Story on the Web. His first collection, FISH BITES COP! Stories to Bash Authorities, was named the 2013 Short Story Collection of the Year by This Is Horror and was a finalist for the Killer Nashville Silver Falchion Award. He has also been nominated for the Pushcart Prize, and was the Editor-in-Chief and co-founder of Flywheel Magazine. These days, he's tinkering with several screenplays, including a prison movie, a thriller, and a western, also adapting them into novels. He realizes this method is probably backwards. His books are available wherever insanity is sold, and his first novel, THE LAST PROJECTOR (Broken River Books), just landed. He can be contacted at davidjameskeaton[at]gmail[dot]com. 

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