Nicholas Deitch, or Nick, as his friends know him, is a partner at Mainstreet Architects in Ventura, California, teaches an architectural graphics class at Ventura College, and is married with children and grandchildren. Yet he still finds time to work on his novel, as well as write short stories. He has attended the Santa Barbara Writers Conference for five years and is known in various workshops for his gracious compliments and helpful constructive criticism. Luna Review is proud to feature four of Deitch’s flash or micro fictions, as well as a short excerpt from his novel.
“You in charge here?” That whacko lady in Stephen’s Park wags a boney finger.
Hell no. I walk here on break, and mind my own business.
“They wouldn’t let this happen in the Magic Kingdom!” she shouts, pointing at the dead roses the city can no longer care for.
A cart full of crap at her side, she’s been tending one gnarled bush, tilling and watering the thing for days, muttering crazy shit at everyone.
Cops are coming. I keep walking. They take her away.
Later, walking back, I see it: a single budding rose on that miserable little bush.
Mother and little ones at the table by the tree, and chicken nuggets and ranch sauce, all smiles and dangling legs.
God, I’m so hungry. I miss my mom. I miss our kitchen talks. Before the meth. Before daddy ran off with that skank.
“Time to go.” She wipes their mouths and gathers them up, and tosses their trash as she leaves. I don’t care who’s watching. I reach in and grab the bag. Some nuggets and sauce.
Food never tasted so good. No, that’s a lie.
Mom made the best spaghetti. Before the meth. Before daddy ran off with that skank.
Damned El Nino. Cops and city shirts come down, with vouchers and bullshit, telling everybody to get out. River’s gonna flood–wash us away.
“It’s a lie.” Bobby pulls me back. We hide in the thicket, wet and shivering.
They search our camps. Tilda is screaming. She don’t wanna go.
They take her and leave.
Bobby snarls. “Just wanna get rid of us. We’re trouble. Make ‘em feel bad.”
Wet, hungry and pissed, we try to make a fire in the rain.
I hear a rumble, look up. A hellish torrent rising.
“Christ almighty.” I reach for Bobby’s trembling hand.
Not far from our apartment Tilly and I walk along the pasture. Beyond the fence, cows linger, content to chew the grass. I can’t help myself. I go to the fence and let loose a deep resonant bellying “Moo!”
Several cows stop and turn.
Tilly is not pleased. “Chet, leave the cows alone.”
I ignore her. “Moo!”
To my surprise the cows come trouncing toward us.
“Chet, you idiot!”
I turn, laughing, to grab her hand and run.
In the morning, an odd rustling outside. I draw the curtain.
“Chet, you idiot!”
Cows in the parking lot, eyes wide, waiting.
Luna Review: When you wrote the four short pieces, did you start small and build up, or write longer pieces, then chisel them down? Please explain.
Nicholas Deitch: The goal was to write a story of one hundred and one words or less. Each piece began closer to three or four hundred words, which I did not realize until I counted them. I wrote a draft, and thought, ‘Wow, this is easy.’ Then I counted the words, and thought, ‘Oh, crap. This is gonna be difficult.’ But what I discovered was quite astonishing – that so many of the words I had longingly written were not necessary.
I recommend this process to anyone. Write a short piece, or take something you have already written, and edit it down to half. What emerges is what I think of as an elixir, a distillation of the essential oil of the story. I find the process to be enlightening, and my writing has benefited tremendously.
LR: As a working architect, teacher, and a busy family man, do you have special writing times? (Early mornings, late night, weekends, or by the light of the full moon?)
Deitch: Special writing times. Yes, like when it’s quiet, I’m not falling asleep, I’ve somehow managed to sneak home from work early. Basically, I write when I can–mostly on weekends and late at night. I’ve come to cherish insomnia. But my wife has been incredibly supportive. I’ve always been a writer, but fiction began as a new adventure about eight years ago, and Diana has been my main encourager. She helps assure that I get some good writing time in most every weekend.
LR: What is your process? Do you just leap into writing, or do you read other books before? Do you utilize outlines or scribbled notes?
Deitch: Most of my writing germinates in my head for days or months–images, events, emotions that I want to explore–and then they explode onto the paper in ways that often take me by surprise. These flash fiction pieces are like quick sketches or vignettes of a moment–how deep can a moment go? To make them work requires some focused effort, but they can also lead to larger story ideas. This happened with Exodus, which became the basis for a 3,900 word short story I’m just finishing. Stephen’s Park was actually inspired by a scene in my novel, so I guess it can work both ways. But a novel is a different animal. The next novel I write will be guided by at least a rough outline, with some clearly established goals of story. Whether I stick to them or not.
LR: You have worked on a sprawling novel about a city for several years. Have you learned anything specific while writing and editing it? Has it taught you to be a better writer?
Deitch: So, I’m a novice, or at least I was eight years ago, when someone suggested I turn a piece of non-fiction into a novel. That idea had never occurred to me. I dove in and wrote a six hundred and thirty page manuscript in six months, a novel about a dying city and the struggles to save it. The story had become an obsession. I thought, ‘Wow, what’s the big deal? That was easy.’ Then I reread it. I’ve been rewriting ever since– truly, a transformative journey. At first all I wanted was to finish the damned thing. But the deeper I went the more concerned I was to make it better, and uniquely mine. I’m still working at it, but completion is in sight.
The journey of learning to write brought me to the SBWC, where I’ve made some wonderful friends and learned how to listen. It brought me to two writers groups, where I’ve learned about the value of honest critique with people who share my quest for excellence.
LR: Who are some of your literary influences, and what is it that you admire about their writing?
Deitch: I’m not as well-read as many of my friends, but I’m catching up. I’m a fan of Hemingway and Steinbeck, of course, and Cather–the honesty and humanity of their stories. Cormac McCarthy is significant for me, Suttree being a supreme example of the distillation of language, and more recently, The Road. Lily King’s Euphoria is a beautiful story of social contrasts and human failings. My momentary favorite is Anthony Doerr, and his two books, All the Light We Cannot See, and About Grace. His craft of language and imagery is masterful.
And the writers with whom I am privileged to share the circle of trust, who each month sit together in mutual vulnerability to open pages of raw honesty and share with each other that quest of excellence in the pursuit of story–to these writers I am deeply grateful.
Excerpt from Death and Life in the City of Dreams by Nicholas Deitch:
Motorman held his knife up, the blade glinting in the sun. “Every breath, every thought, every turn, eh.” He pressed his palm against the granite base of the memorial. “This stone—this prayer, someone’s dream. A moment—or maybe an eternity.” He turned the knife in his hand. The light off the blade cut across his face. He looked at Townsend. “Got to dream while we can, brother, because in the end, all we are is vapor.”
Townsend stared at Motorman, at the rippled scar on the side of his head that twitched and writhed with his every word. For some reason he thought of Annie, her withering body, her vital spirit.
All we are is vapor.
A gust came up, the leaves tossed and spun around them–the trees and stone and this huddled gathering of souls—a glimpse of some truth hidden just beyond the veil of his understanding, a rightness beneath all that seemed wrong.
Motorman gave him a knowing nod, and returned to his task, running his blade through the seam in the stone.
Danny scratched his beard. “You say the weirdest shit, Motor.” He picked up his guitar and started plucking notes. A loose rendition of Moon River, slightly out of tune.
Townsend realized he was sitting next to the plaque he’d been trying to decipher before he’d taken his fall. He reached out to feel the patinaed words:
…By our hands we have tilled the land, and shaped a township into a city,
Alive and full of promise, with opportunity for all…
“Beautiful prayer, don’t you think, mister?” Maggie sat crossed legged with Elvis in her lap. “When I read those words, it makes me wanna cry. It’s so hopeful.” She stroked Elvis’ mane and smiled, revealing a few missing teeth. “I’m a child of Evermore, you know.”
“You can call me Townsend, Maggie. Yes, they’re beautiful words.” She did seem child-like, though he guessed she was in her mid-forties. Very pretty once, but she now seemed like a lovely doll left outside too long.
Maggie reached for her purse, a big scuffed-up vinyl thing bulging with stuff. She pulled a bottle from her bag, popped the cap and took a swig.
“Is that Pineapple Fizz?” Townsend sat up. “I haven’t seen a bottle of Pineapple Fizz since I was a kid.”
Maggie flashed her gap-toothed smile. “Yep. It’s my favorite. Want some?” She held the bottle up.
The memory of that sweet tangy nectar came back to him. “Uh, no. I’m good. I didn’t know they still sold that stuff.”
She nodded. “Leo’s Market, on the West Side.” She took another swig and set the bottle down. She pulled out a tattered copy of People and began thumbing the pages. She paused on a spread of Hollywood beauties. “I wanted to be a movie star when I was younger,” she said to no one, caressing the pictures with calloused fingers. “I could of been famous. I was one of the most popular girls in school, you know.”
“Yeah, well I guess I coulda been famous too, come to think about it.” Danny stopped his strumming. “Took top honors in our troop’s chili cook-off.” He licked his lips. “Chunks of lamb simmered with red beans, onions, ancho chilies and a secret ingredient–roasted dates. Oh man, that was some tasty chili. Maybe I’ll open me a restaurant—Danny’s World-Famous Chili House.” He looked at Townsend, his eyes wide and earnest. “I just gotta get a few things together—you know? Get a few things worked out, that’s all.”
The beanpole sat up. “Sounds good, dude. So, how about you fix up some of that world-famous chili right now?”
Danny smirked. “I’m on it, bro. Be ready in no time.” He took a swig from his bottle and strummed his guitar.
A sadness crept over Townsend, sitting there—an intruder, eavesdropping on their shared despair, their flailing hopes. He watched Maggie, turning pages, lost in her world of impossible longing, and he saw her transformed—a beautiful wounded child.
They’re all children. The lost ones. The ones who couldn’t find their way home.
He looked around the circle, imagining each of them as children—unaware of the cards they’d been dealt, of the troubles that lay ahead. But here, now, in this forgotten place in the city’s atrophied heart, they were not lost. They had found each other—here, in this place of forgotten dreams.
A rush of uncertainty swept through him, the whole of his life tenuous and unreliable.
Breathe slow, breathe deep.
He pushed himself up. “I need to be moving on.” He brushed the dirt and bits of leaf from his clothing, testing his balance. Soreness lingered at the back of his head.
“No worries, man.” Danny stood and extended his hand. “Come back anytime, bro. I gotta feeling we’ll still be here.” An awkward look flashed across his face, and he leaned in. “Say, uh, Townsend, dude, you wouldn’t have any spare cash would you? Nobody here has much money.” Danny looked at his feet.
Townsend’s stomach turned. He’d been expecting a thorough shakedown since he’d opened his eyes to find the circle of dirty faces looking down on him. He looked over at Maggie thumbing through her magazine, hopeful, lost.
“Let me see what I’ve got.” He took his wallet out. He had two twenties and some smaller bills.
“Sorry, dude. I hate to even ask, but—”
“Don’t worry about it. I’m glad to help.” He gave Danny the twenties. “Why don’t you fix them up a batch of that world famous chili?”
Danny reached out and wrapped his arms around Townsend, his mop of hair in Townsend’s face, the scent of a wild animal. “Thanks, bro. I won’t forget this.”
“Uh, it’s alright.” Townsend eased himself from Danny’s embrace. “I’m pretty sure I won’t either.” He knelt down to tighten his shoelaces. “I think I’m gonna drop by this Leo’s Market, and have myself a Pineapple Fizz.”
Danny stepped back and looked him over. “Uh, Townsend, dude, you can’t go into the West Side looking like that.”
“Like what?” He looked down at himself. Lycra bike shorts and jersey, scuffed up biking shoes. “What’s the problem?”
“Dude, you go into the West Side dressed like Spandex Man and you’re just asking to get your ass kicked.”
“Oh, come on. It’s not so bad.” Perhaps two years since he’d been anywhere near the Westside.
“Well, maybe you ain’t been there in a while—or much at all. There’s folks is really struggling, bro. And you don’t exactly fit in, you know what I’m sayin’? You look more like a tourist.” A look flashed across Danny’s face. “Here, take this.” He slipped his jacket off and held it up. “Urban camo.” Danny grinned.
“I can’t take your jacket, Danny.” He shook his head. “I’ve never even been in the military.”
“Don’t make no diff, bro. I want you to have it to be safe.” He pressed the worn fatigue toward Townsend, and held it open. “You can give it back next time we see each other.”
“Come on, man. No big deal.”
Townsend relented, though he felt silly, like a little boy dressing up to play army.
Danny tugged at the sleeves and patted him on the back. “There ya go. Perfect fit. Ain’t nobody gonna mess with you today.”
Townsend left the square, walking between the stone pilasters toward Perry’s Café, leaves scurrying at his feet. He stopped and turned back toward the huddled group still conferring in the shade, that odd monument presiding silent in their midst. He looked up through the canopy of trees. He could see the top of the Zenith Building, sunlight caught in the windows of Thatcher’s penthouse. Two worlds in a strange coexistence.
His hand went to the back of his head, the knot from his fall still tender. Motorman’s words stirred somewhere beyond the lingering ache. Got to dream while we can, brother, because in the end, all we are is vapor.
Coming up in Luna Review on December 21st, 2016: The art and process of Grace Rachow.