by Corey Whitsett
For the last three months I locked myself in my little studio apartment because I was determined to get over my writer's block. The deadline for my second novel was fast approaching and I didn't even have a rough draft. I ignored the daily calls from my agent, who seemed to be more nervous than I was. My first novel was a bestseller, and I feared that I would not live up to the high expectations of the publishing company with my sophomore project. I regretted signing such an extensive publishing contract because it had taken me twenty-seven years to write my first novel and my second one had to be completed within a year. Eleven months ago the offer sounded wonderful, and I was sure that I would have the novel completed well before the due date. But here I am, just one month before the first draft is to be submitted and I have nothing yet.
I let out a long, deep sigh as I looked around my empty studio that I rented after I received my first royalty check. All I have in here is a mattress on the floor, a wooden table and chair, and a typewriter whose ribbon had run out of ink. I tried to get another ribbon but the typewriter was so old that no one kept any in stock. Now I just write on my legal pads with number two pencils that I have to sharpen with a dull pocketknife. In the corner sits a shadeless lamp and under it, my old Nikon camera with it's broken lens, useless, too old to be repaired. The only decorations in this place are old album covers of my idols and inspirations, hoping that somehow their presence in here would inspire me. There was the Motown wall that displayed my proud collection of Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye album covers. The other wall is full of black and white photographs of people that I do not know. My landlord Ms. Jones told me that the person who previously rented this studio must have been a photographer or something. She said that one day he just disappeared off of the face of the earth and she feared that something bad had happened to him. Out of respect for him, I left the pictures hanging there on the wall, and they've kept me company. I liked having them around and since I had no family or friends, I've adopted these nameless people as my own. They are all different, but they are all strangely beautiful in their own way. Some are young, some old, some looked happy, others sad, but they are all beautiful nonetheless. Sometimes I would find myself just staring at those pictures and wondering where these people were, what were they doing and what stories that they had to tell. I leaned back in my chair and clasped my fingers behind my head and stared at the pictures of the people that were becoming familiar faces.
Although no one knew it, my first book was more of an autobiography than a novel. My life had been so hectic and twisted that it made for a great story. But soon after I finished the book, I knew that I wasn't born to be a writer. Since then, every time that I tried to sit down to try to write anything it seemed as if I had no real imagination. So I tried writing about things that I knew about by digging deep inside, but everything that was in me was in my first book. So here I am sitting here with a sharpely pointed pencil, a blank piece of paper and a blank imagination with only one month to have a finished novel. I wished I hadn't accepted the advance check but at the time I needed the money. I had planned on using the bonus to secure a better apartment and move my girl out of the projects but I had to settle for this studio after I spent half of my advance catching up on my bills. I am going to need a real job if I don't have a book by the deadline because I will probably get sued. I closed my eyes hoping that at least I could daydream about something.
It's been three months since I've seen the light of day, but I refuse to leave this apartment until I have something written. I tapped my pencil on the table and looked at the clock on the wall that hasn't worked since I got here. It was stuck at 3:21 and what's funny about that it is the fact that it stopped on the day that I got here. I thought it was kind of strange, but stranger things have happened in my life so I paid it no nevermind. My life was stagnant anyway, so it didn't really matter what time it was. I was flipping my pencil up in the air and catching as I waited some kind of inspiration. The last time I threw it up metal part under the eraser caught a ray light from the window and there was a flash of light that caused me to blink. It was then, right when I closed my eyes, that I had a revelation. I could hardly contain myself because I had finally found my story. I would write a murder mystery and it would be a masterpiece. I could set it here in Chicago on the south side of the city where I grew up. I straightened my paper and wrote the tittle that just seemed to fall into my mind. I wrote "The Wall of Death" on the top of the paper and then I had another idea. I stood up and walked over the wall where the pictures of the unknown people were and just looked at them. These people would be the characters in my story, and I imagined that was why they were here when I got here. I made up names for all of them on little sheets of paper and taped the makeshift nameplates to their pictures. Now I just needed a murderer.
I stood there with my arms crossed and thought about how I could start the story. Two or three ideas went through my head but nothing seemed to be an attention grabber. I sat down and put my pen on the paper and just started writing. Two hours later I had worn three pencils all the way down to their erasers. I have never written anything like this before and I was surprised at how the story just seemed to flow. I had created a murderer and his name was Joe. He would be the subject of my novel and I was going to make him a star. He began to live and breathe inside my mind, and I was amazed at how quickly I got into his character. In two hours Joe was born, became my best friend, and trusted me enough to let me follow him around and write his story.
I started on a fresh pencil and continued writing about Joe's childhood and teenage years, laying a foundation for the story. Joe was a strange character, and I wondered how I knew him so well and so quickly. It was strange, but it seemed as if I was inside of his head, watching the world through his eyes and recording what I saw. After the third chapter I went to the wall and picked out Joe's first victim. It was a picture of a woman that looked like someone I used to know. I had named her Pam an k her picture down and sat it beside my legal pad and studied it.
I traced her pretty face with my finger and tried to think of what kind of character she would be. I thought that she would be perfect as Joe's girlfriend and that was how I would write her into the story. They would have been together for a few years, off and on, mostly off. They both had problems and probably needed to get away from each other, but they stayed together because of their children. I thought about that for a second and erased it. They wouldn't have any kids, but they would be held to by memories of when times were good. She would be Joe's first victim and I got inside of him to see how he was going to do it. I closed my eyes and I followed Joe as he walked up to the Robert Taylor Projects. When we got to the gate, Joe reached into his pocket and pulled out his key, unlocking the gate and I followed him into the courtyard. I told Joe to chill out for a minute as I jotted down some notes on the surroundings.
It was a Saturday morning, cool and partly cloudy, 73 degrees, not too hot. A was a good day for walking beside something beautiful, like the 31st street beach at sunset. I could hear the children screaming at each other and running through the courtyard headed towards the playground of concrete and broken down equipment. The air carried aroma of St. John's Baptist Church's ritualistic Saturday afternoon Bar-B-Q and fish fry mixed with the funk of Joe's uniform that was soaked in motor oil and his sweat. Joe was a mechanic and was supposed to be at work today but a failed delivery of a transmission gave him the afternoon off. It was a gorgeous day and Joe decided that he was going to spend some quality time with his woman. Maybe they go somewhere where they could talk and hopefully work out some of their problems. I finished writing my notes about the surroundings and the people that were passing by. I told Joe that I was ready to go and we walked across the courtyard to his building.
He sighed and leaned against the wall as we waited for the elevator to come down. Joe's face was that of a man that has been beaten and worn down by life and I felt so sorry for him. He has been working all his life with nothing really to show for it. He told me once before that he have had problems with drugs in the past and was trying to get his life back together. I tried to write down every emotion that was written on his face, but I could not seem to find the words. There was no way to really d his burdens unless I was willing to bear them on my own shoulders. That was a cross that I preferred not bear. I was afraid that I would not be able to handle whatever would cause a man to take another's life. Whatever caused that pain was deep in Joe and I couldn't reach it because I didn't want to feel it. So I guessed at it. Maybe someone he loved abused him as a child? Or maybe something happened to him while he was strung out on drugs? I studied his face for an answer, but the elevator came before I figured him out.
We rode up the tenth floor in silence as Joe leaned against the wall. He was a quiet character, not saying too much. He spoke through his actions and facial expressions and I marveled at how I had created such a real character. Joe was an ordinary guy, he worked hard, but he also was a dreamer. His dreams saw him as a big time writer, but those dreams, just like everything in his life, was cut short because of the drugs. I sympathized with him because I had also been a cocaine addict and almost lost everything I had. The more and more I got to know Joe, the more I connected with him. We were brothers, cut from the same cloth. I know that Joe is only a figment of my imagination, but even so, I wanted to reach out to him. If only to hug him to let him know that someone in this world cared for him. Even though I despised the fact that Joe was on his way to commit a heinous crime, I felt sorry for him. I almost wanted to stop him as I lifted my pencil from the paper to turn the page. I sat there in my studio and debated whether or not to save Joe, but I convinced myself that he was only a character and I needed this story. I was going to apologize for creating such a horrible destiny for him, but as I put the pencil back on the paper, the elevator doors opened.
Joe walked out and I followed him down the hall to apartment number 10C. He unlocked his door and I followed him inside. I told him to chill a minute as I looked around the apartment and took some notes. There was nothing in here that made this place look or feel like a home. None of the furniture matched and there were no pictures on the walls, no plants, or anything that personalized this place. The only form of entertainment in here seemed to be the phonograph player in the corner that was surrounded by rows and rows of albums. The records were all old Motown and Stax albums with most of them out of their jackets and lying around on the floor, scratched and gathering dust. Although there was incense burning in an astray, I could still smell traces of weed lingering in the air. As I walked into the kitchen noticing that the sink was full of dishes, Joe offered me a drink. I didn't even look up from my pad when I nodded no. Joe got a beer out of the fridge, opened it and took a long squib, then walked back towards me. Suddenly he stopped in the middle of the hall and just froze. I stood there with my pencil on my pad waiting for him to do something, but he just stood there, staring down the hall. I went and stood behind him and looked over his shoulder.
There was a trail of clothes one the floor that led down an obvious path to the bedroom. Even thought the air was tinted with incense and marijuana I could still smell the sex. I could faintly hear the moans of pleasure underneath the soundtrack of the Isley Brothers and clapping skin. Joe stood there and stared through the cracked door and watched his woman writhing in pleasure underneath another man. He clenched his fist so tight that the beer bottle burst in his hands, cutting deep into his flesh. It seemed as Joe dropped to his knees in slow motion, but I just stood there and couldn't believe my eyes. I couldn't believe Pam was doing this to him. Utter contempt for her took over my body and I writing so fast that my pencil broke in my hand like the bottle of beer Joe was holding. As I was frantically sharpened another pencil with my knife, I realized why I created Joe, because people like that skank bitch Pam deserved to die. I just never killed anyone and I didn't know how Joe was going to do it. First I had Joe use the broken bottle. His hand was bleeding badly but he turned what was left of the bottle so that the sharp point faced outward. He stormed into the room, dove in the bed and plunged the broken bottle deep into the man's back. I just stood there in the hall writing furiously as Joe wildly slashed at them. After a few minutes Joe, the walls and the bed were dripping with blood and it was making me a little queasy. I took my pencil off the paper and shook my head to get the scene out of my head. Joe, drenched in blood, turned around and looked at me and waited for me to tell him what do next. This was not the way I thought that his first murder should be. I erased the story back to the part where Joe stood in the hall.
Instead of using the bottle in his hand I had Joe go into the kitchen and turn on the stove. Joe grabbed a can of grease and poured it in a skillet. He lit the stove and a cigarette with the same match and tossed it over his shoulder. As the grease heated the kitchen began to fill with the aroma of fried chicken, pork chops and everything else that had been cooked in the used grease. A minute or two later the black grease started to crackle and pop, Joe opened the cabinet and reached into a bag of flour and dropped a pinch in the skillet. The flour danced around meaning that the grease was hot enough to fry. Joe looked at me and winked and I nodded my approval. I was scribbling on my pad like crazy trying to keep up with him. He took a potholder and grabbed the skillet and ran down the hall dripping grease with each step. I couldn't watch and I turned my head as I heard the sizzle and their subsequent screams as the hot grease welted and blistered their sweaty skin. I watched as Joe stood there unfazed by the smell of smoking, burning flesh and I thought that hot grease bath was painful, but they wouldn't die. So I erased the story all the way back to when Joe was standing in the hall.
This time I had Joe run into the kitchen and grab a gun from out of a drawer. He ran down the hall, kicked the door open, and pointed the gun at them. The woman turned over and I saw her face that and she wasn't so pretty anymore. I stopped writing and picked up her picture and looked at it. I know that Joe loves her and hates the fact that he has to kill her, but Pam had to go. I am the one that wants her dead now. I wrote victim number one her picture and sat it aside. She screamed and begged, but didn't hear are anything. Joe was shaking as he pointed the gun at her and then told the man to get up. The guy got out of the bed and Joe, without blinking coldly shot him right between his eyes. The man flew backward into the wall and slid down it slowly. His face turned towards me and despite the new orifice in the middle of his head, he looked really familiar. I stopped writing for a second and got up and walked over the wall of unknown people and sure enough, there he was. I had named him Frank. I wrote Frank in as Joe's brother, the one that Joe used to talk to about his problems with Pam. I sat back down and wrote victim number two on his picture and sat it beside the picture of Pam.
Pam's screaming fell on deaf ears as every hint of emotion left Joe's face. There was no inkling of remorse for blowing Frank's brains out, and I couldn't write fast enough for Joe to kill Pam. Joe squeezed the trigger repeatedly, even several times after the last bullet tore through her chest. Her body convulsed and jerked out of control as Joe and I stood there and watched her die. She fought for what seemed like an eternity before she finally collapsed on the floor with her eyes wide, sad and wondering. I didn't sympathize with her last minute of suffering because it would not compare to the lifetime of suffering that was being prepared for Joe.
Joe dropped the gun, and turned and looked at me and had the strangest look on his face. His eyes seemed to stare into my soul and without a word he asked me why I had chose him to be the killer. Tears were streaming his face, mixing with the splattered blood on his cheeks. At that moment, I knew that there was nothing I could do to save him, and I also knew that he would kill again. Joe had his first taste of blood and now, there was no turning back.
"What's wrong Joe?" I even though I knew the answer.
"I am murderer." He said dryly as if he wiped blood from his face with his sleeve.
"I know, I made you that way." I said trying to keep from crying myself.
"That's fucked up." He said, as he looked down at Pam bloody lifeless body whose eyes would forever haunt his dreams. I couldn't bring myself to allow Joe to feel anything as I had him step over her body like it wasn't even there. "We better get out of here." He said as he walked past me. I stood there for a moment and jotted the details about the crime scene. Joe called out to me to come on so I left the bedroom. As we walked through the living room Joe grabbed his things from the apartment. He went into a drawer and grabbed a bottle of Jack Daniel's and stuffed it in his pocket. He handed me the gun and reached on the floor and grabbed a few of the album covers. He put them under his arm as we walked out into the hall and ran to the elevator.
I got up from the table and stretched my back. I looked down at the paper and I was surprised that I had to see that I had written a hundred more pages since the last time I looked. My hands were tired and aching and my pencils were worn so I decided to call it quits for the night and get some rest. I got out my Jack Daniel's, took a long squib and hunched up as the whiskey burned its way slowly down my chest. I looked out the window for a while and watched the people pass by. I finished the bottle and went and laid down on my mattress. I looked up at the ceiling and thought about poor old Joe for a while, then I fell asleep.
I started writing as soon as I woke up the next morning. In fact, I spent the next three weeks writing like crazy. I opened myself up and let Joe posses me like he was writing his own story. I watched like a spectator as Joe's heart grew blacker as he developed an unsettling passion for his crimes. He was killing with such an unnatural ease that I feared that he would never stop. Sometimes I felt bad for Joe, but I am the one that made him a cold-blooded killer, so maybe I should feel bad for myself. I watched him going through the victims on the wall one by one with no inkling of remorse or repentance. It was sickening the way he planned his murders like someone would plan a work of art. In his mind, Joe was an artist. The canvas, he believed, was this sick world that never had cared about him and never given a chance to make a good life. He used the blood on his hands as finger-paint as he painted his self-portrait of hate and betrayal, misery and pain.
As each chapter went by I lost I little part of Joe as he began to change to someone else. Long gone was the ordinary human being that I created. Joe was becoming a ruthless killing machine who thirsted for blood like a wild animal. It wasn't until Joe had killed and raped the last victim on the wall that I realized that the story was almost over. There was no one else to kill and now it was time for Joe to be punished for his crimes. Joe had to become the victim now and I wondered how he was going caught. I sat there and pondered the where and when, the how, and who would catch him. Would Joe slip up and leave a clue somewhere and be tracked down by a clever detective? Or will he poorly plan an attack and get caught red-handed? I sat there puzzled with my face resting in my hands and let out a long, deep breath through my slightly parted lips. I hated to see Joe go, but a book is not a book without an ending.
Joe wanted more blood but there was no one left to kill. Everyone on the wall was gone each one meeting their demise at the unmerciful hands of Joe. Even though it was just a book I felt as if I had betrayed everyone that was on the wall. These people had replaced my original family and friends and I let Joe kill them. It was just me and Joe now, and when he is gone, I was going to be alone again. The victims totaled thirty-one and their pictures were sprawled across my desk and some had even fallen to the floor. I regretted the day that I had created Joe because he took everyone away from me. He caused me to kill innocent people and now it was my turn to avenge their deaths. For this to be story there must be an ending, and that meant that Joe had to die. I was sharpening a fresh pencil and was getting ready to start the last chapter when the phone rang. I finally answered one of my agent's calls because I finally had something to offer her. She was stressing out so bad that I promised her that I would send her a rough draft. So I gathered all that I had, put it in an envelope and addressed it to her. If I hurried, maybe I could make it to the post office in time for the last pick-up.
I had been inside for almost four months now, only coming out at night occasionally to restock the fridge. I was happy to see the sun shining bright, matching my equally bright smile. I felt emancipated as I released myself from my self- inflicted imprisonment where I served as Joe's literary slave. I took a deep breath and filled my lungs with fresh air and raised my arms to the sky. I conducted a little ceremony and exorcised Joe from my soul. He had served his purpose in my life and I was glad to be soon rid of him. I decided to give him a head start because when I get back home and dive into the last chapter, I was going to hunt him down and kill him. I was going to kill him for all those nameless people on the wall. I felt happy as a runaway slave as I darted across the field and through the park towards the post office. People on the street stared at me when I passed them but I didn't care at all. So what I had on dirty clothes and haven't shaved in a while, at least I had a smile on my face and my soul was at peace. I had written my masterpiece and I was floating on cloud nine.
I got to the post office and stood in a long line behind a well-dressed woman who kept looking back at me with a frown on her old wrinkled face. She was looking at me like I had just shot her mother or something. Despite my smiles she kept moving forward as to make sure I wouldn't even accidentally touch her. I almost wished that the story wasn't almost over because I would love for her to meet Joe on a bad day. I just ignored her and looked up on the wall where the FBI posted mugshots of the most wanted criminals were posted. I was just getting ready to say it would have been funny if Joe's picture was up there when I saw it. His sketched face on the poster seemed to stare right at mean, locking me into an unbreakable stare. A chill that started in my feet ran up my spine and shot out through all my nerves in my body and I felt like I was going into shock. I couldn't breath and I dropped my packet as I grabbed my chest searching for air. I panicked and fought my way back through the line, knocking people out of my way as I ran outside. I didn't know what the hell was going on, all I knew was that there was no way that could have been Joe's picture I saw. I kept telling myself that Joe wasn't real, he was just a character I created. I got outside and tried to catch my breath but the sirens that were blaring from down the street just increase my dismay. I felt the urge to run and hide but I really didn't know why or what I would be running from. I just stood there in front of the post office until I had calmed myself down and convinced myself that I was just tripping. I went back inside and grabbed my package and headed back home where I would be safe. I was too embarrassed to get back in line after I just made a fool out of myself in here. I left with my head down, refusing to look at the people in there and the mugshots as I walked back outside.
Despite the commotion of the police cars that were flying up and down the street, all I could think about was that picture in the post office. I was genuinely proud to have created a character so real that I thought I had actually seen him in real life. I was still praising myself as I noticed several police cars that were parked outside my studio. I stopped where I was and watched them walking in and out of my place, talking on their radios. I stood there for a moment until curiosity got the best of me and I walked across the street towards my place. I reached into my pocket to get my wallet to get my id to prove that I lived there. I took out my driver's license and my feet stopped when I saw Joe's face again. I dropped my package when I read the name underneath the picture. My name was Joe.
I thought about running until I felt the cold steel being pressed against the back of my head. The policeman and told me to freeze and get down on the ground. I just knelt there in the street and clasped my fingers behind my head. Soon policemen came from everywhere with their guns drawn, each one face searching my eyes for a reason to shoot. I looked down on the ground at my unfinished manuscript that would have been my masterpiece. Now, it would serve as my confession for my crimes. I closed my eyes and I saw Joe walking past the police and he knelt beside me. He had a devilish smirk on his face as he leaned over and whispered in my ear.
"Congratulations, you got your ending." He laughed as he got up and walked away. I just shook my head and smiled as I lay down on the ground as I was instructed.