Writers get sneaky, go undercover
I used to sneak out of my mother’s house, catch the 81 bus with the 4 a.m. workers and the homeless slouchers, transfer downtown on an empty corner near City Hall, and take the Number Four to my boyfriend’s stop in Silverlake. I trembled the whole way from dewy cold and fear, but I had to get out, had to do this secret thing in the dark, to meet him and connect.
One night I snuck out. I always wore mannish clothes, a bulky jacket and a hat pulled low, aiming to keep predators away. Where I lived there were gangs and loners with weapons, and I didn’t have the bus schedule. I just waited and hoped other riders would come along. I had a bunch of heavy clothes on. I was lucky and rode with bus boys, housekeepers. I got to Temple and Hill downtown, waited in the cool air, took the bus to Silverlake and stepped off.
My boyfriend had made a plan with me to wait for when his father took a shower and whisk me in and hide me in his bedroom. I was to wait in the tall grasses of their backyard for the moment I’d run for the door. I waited. Dawn came. My knees ached from my crouch. Weeds brushed my face. Nothing happened. The sun came up. I heard noise in the house. Nothing. His father got in his car (I ducked) and pulled out of the driveway. I pounded on the back door. My boyfriend answered, sleepy-eyed. He’d forgotten to wake up.
Undercover acts can be rough, but they can also be fantastic. There is a thrill in doing what is not seen, and there can be humor in it, too. Many movies involve spying or heists, their protagonists wearing the uniforms of legitimate staff in hospitals or casinos or restaurants, crawling through air conditioning vents. We are pulled in by the danger that comes with being unseen, and we enjoy it — it speaks to our childhood play.
Reader Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc responded to last week’s writing challenge: Write about something you’ve done undercover.
By Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc
I’ve been writing undercover for going on three years now. Close to 200 newspaper columns. I get paid to make shit up.
You’ve never heard of me; I live in a country you’ve never heard of. If I told you the name, you’d say it doesn’t exist.
I’m supposed to be Canadian. This was difficult in the beginning, since I’d only seen the country from a canoe. But oddly, I haven’t had to learn much about Canada, as no reader has shown even vague curiosity. Sorry about that, Canada.
I live and work in an unfinished house with a colicky six-month-old. There’s sawdust and sand on the floor. Baby vomit on all my shirts. I’ve stopped trying to keep clean. I shower every other day. My writing table is an old door set on top of two dented file cabinets. My wife found me a wobbly chair on the street. It might have been the ninth-grade woodshop project of the stoned neighbor kid. (Toke, cut, toke. Glue, toke, sand.) I’m prepared for when it gives way. I will burn it on the lawn.
The black-and-white photo next to my byline conveys something writerly: books shelved to the ceiling, an oak desk, a fountain pen and watermarked paper. A man who wears a cardigan and thinks big thoughts while smoking a pipe. But my books are kept in banana boxes. I can’t find my pen. In the corner, my dog sleeps on my sweater.
My identity was born from the need for writers. I edited a glossy magazine with the budget of a poor church newsletter. Every byline couldn’t be my own, so I brought in talent. William Faulkner and Walker Percy were available. Robert Penn Warren contributed. Some Yankee writers, too. There were dozens of pseudonyms, but only one struck gold.
“Write that shit for us, instead,” an editor said. And she sent me a case of whiskey. And so I wrote.
Readers have debated my existence and I have been present to see it. “He is to real,” one shouted at three others who claimed I was just made up. She slapped a newspaper on the table. “See. His picture’s right there.”
Write 400 words about a war, personal or global.
No part of Jacques-Alain Finkeltroc’s piece may be reprinted without written permission from the author.