31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 17: “Nine Outtakes from the Life of Mark T.” by Sharon English

May 17, 2010 by · Leave a Comment 

From Zero Gravity

There is something expressionistic about the way Sharon English allows her narrative to unfold in “Nine Outtakes from the Life of Mark T.” Or rather, the narrative doesn’t so much unfold as it shades in, scene after scene, each “outtake” placing the surrounding pieces in different contexts, extending or obscuring meaning. The nine short scenes that make up the story are not arranged chronologically, nor do they entirely cohere stylistically. Instead, they aggregate to create an impressionistic portrait of a serial loser, a man chasing a dream he is likely never to achieve. In that sense, English’s story is a kind of tragedy.

Not that its central figure is likely to inspire much sympathy. An aspiring screenwriter and university drop-out, Mark T. takes his girlfriend’s three-year-old son with him on a drug deal, and summarily loses the child. When the cop on the scene asks why Mark waited three hours before calling 911, Mark vacillates and then offers the flimsiest of excuses: “Look, what good would it do to freak her out? I realize I wasn’t thinking very clearly. I just thought I’d be able to find her.” In fact, though we are told that images of Mark’s girlfriend, Eunice, often “obsess him,” he also acknowledges that once he has made the 911 call (“that surrendering of effort”) he feels as though “the connection’s gone slack.”

Perhaps because he knows how she will react to the news of her son’s disappearance: “At first, when she’d simply been hysterical, he’d sensed a role for himself and tried to be optimistic. Then when the police called and he said ‘Thank God,’ she hit him on the chest with her fist. Careless. You’re so fucking careless.” Eunice, an actress, had asked Mark to babysit at the last minute, which gives Mark pause:

Never has Eunice suggested that she’s looking for a potential father for her son, and he’s hardly a choice candidate. But then abruptly, today, she needs him to babysit. Last-minute audition, cousin busy – perhaps that’s all it is. Or maybe it’s just the beginning. First the illusion of low maintenance, and then …

To the commitment-phobic screenwriter, the idea that the veil of Eunice’s “low maintenance” character might drop is enough to cause him anxiety; he admits to himself that he loves her, but can’t decide whether he loves her enough. Certainly, Mark evinces a good deal of self-awareness when he suggests that “he’s hardly a choice candidate” as a father.

Mark has a history of petty crime: he defaulted on his student loans and fled the country, only to be lured back by his drug connection, who convinced him that he could operate here under an assumed name. Being a film freak, the names he chooses for a series of forged credit cards are all-too-obviously recognizable: “John T. Woo, Martin Brando, Serge Leone.” “Long ago,” we are told, Mark “realized that life, to be truly known, must be learned independently and rigorously , through testing and risk. Feel violence is wrong? Crime doesn’t pay? Try, then see.”

In addition to being a petty criminal, Mark is a self-involved slacker who is unreasonably convinced of his own “superior imagination.” In the end, the child’s disappearance is presented as little more than fodder for his screenplays; the imagined sequence of events during the period in which the boy was missing get noted in the same manner as the superficial character details Mark jots down about random strangers whose pictures he’s taken with his Polaroid camera. Mark is able to convince himself that the boy did not suffer any lasting damage as a result of his negligence: “Fade to black and roll credits. No animals were harmed during this production. As for persons, the doctor’s report stated there appeared to be only superficial harm.” As though the only harm from such a traumatic experience is the stuff that appears on the flesh as minor cuts or abrasions.

When Mark (who evinces many of the tendencies common to psychopaths) thinks back on the incident, the “composition keeps dissolving and reassembling,” very much like the structure of English’s story. Weird details jump out of the narrative, like the woman riding a horse near the Vancouver airport where Mark is headed to complete his narcotics transaction. Ultimately, he ends up in California, searching for “a time zone of his own making.” But he is haunted by a sensation he can’t explain, one that he surely wouldn’t recognize as shame or regret:

Occasionally, there’s a feeling – a wet, chilled, terribly uncomfortable feeling that surges up from the deep, and a sense of being peeled open to it, slowly filled up. Whenever the feeling comes Mark crosses his legs and hugs himself.