Margaret Broucek's debut novel, The Futility Experts, is a wickedly funny examination of how not to age gracefully. Feeling trapped in a stagnant marriage, working a dead-end job, and desperately coveting the last good parking spot, Tim Turner decides to do what any middle-aged man not in his right mind would do; reinvent himself online as a 21-year-old marine . At the same time, Davis Beardsley, a professor of zoology obsessed with imaginary creatures, watches his chances for tenure circle the drain when a new department head takes a dim view of his teaching methods. Delivered with deadpan wit and keen insight, not to mention a decrepit Sasquatch, a Romanian adoptee hell-bent on destruction, and a trio of incontinent lapdogs, The Futility Experts will appeal to fans of Jami Attenberg, Gary Schteyngart, and anyone who likes their comedy with a little chaos.
|Publisher:||Schaffner Press, Inc.|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.10(h) x 0.90(d)|
About the Author
Margaret Broucek is a filmmaker and playwright whose works have appeared Off-Broadway and in festivals in the U.S. and Europe. She has had short stories published in the anthologies Sudden Fiction, Continued, Best of TriQuarterly, and also in Alaska Quarterly Review. She holds an MFA in Writing from Sarah Lawrence College.
Read an Excerpt
Perhaps only people who are very clear on the facts of who they are — their gross weight, the coolness of their marriage, their insignificance at work — can take such flights of imagination as Tim Turner did, daily, in the cab of his pickup, trips fueled by the heroic marches of Sousa, of Fillmore, of the great Karl King. On this particular day it was King's "The Melody Shop" that animated Tim's commute through Boston, sent him rocketing over the blushing leaves on the wet parkway. As the euphoniums worked through their crazed, breathless lines, Tim became a Marine hurrying home at Thanksgiving, a sniper who'd seen too much carnage, thinking now only of his buxom, young, sex-starved lover opening the door for him and pulling him inside as the cymbals clapped the band into a frenzy. He rocked in the cab, bellowing bass notes, urging the truck to leave the ground.
When he pulled into the driveway across from his house in Malden, Tim waited while the cassette spun onto the next march. He reached for the miraculous book on the seat beside him — a guide, he'd come to think of it, to what really matters in the world. Into the Lion's Mouth: The Ferocious Battle at Ganjgal. Tim sat for a time just looking at the cover, at the photo of the exhausted Marine in green camo in a strange, treeless landscape, his hand on the rifle grip, daring the photographer to take one second longer. He was unambiguous, this brute. There weren't a million lousy choices for the guy. It was shoot or be killed. Tim claimed the book against his chest and closed his eyes for the rest of "The Hometown Boy" before accepting the ensuing silence at the end of the tape and shambling toward the house.
Tim's house was a narrow brown clapboard two-story that stood one and a half feet apart from its twin, which had been foreclosed upon and was now abandoned. Both homes were boxed in by brick warehouses. His house had no driveway. (His father-in-law informed everyone of this fact.) But the twin house did have a driveway — a coveted, two- car-length strip across the street, behind a bar, beside the dumpsters, where Tim had just parked. On his way to the door, he heard his wife's plodding piano chords and the thin, reedy tones of young "mea culpa" Bridget O'Connor, who ended every song with "That was so horrible."
This was the first season in the past ten that Tim's wife, Mona, hadn't been picked up for the opera's chorus, so she'd had to spread the word about lessons. Of course, as both he and she knew, the only part of giving lessons that a musician enjoys is the part where she is modeling how to sing or play a piece, not the much larger part of hearing the unimaginable coming back at you.
Tim stuffed the paperback into his sweatshirt pocket as he entered the house. There was no formal entry, you barged right into the living room, where Bridget — eyes bulging, straight-armed in musical terror — flanked Mona at the piano, with Tim's six-foot-long son, Miles, sprawled on the floor nearby, headphones clamped to ears, those ropy arms holding the video controller high above his concave chest like an old man with a menu.
When she saw Tim, Mona's hands went limp over the keys. "Were they in our space?" Bridget's note bent quickly downward and ended in a throat clearing.
"I'm in our space," Tim said.
"They were in it this morning after you left, and they stayed all day. Poor Bridget had to park a mile away." She explained the mess to Bridget one more time. "Those bar owners — two brothers, big, big goons — they park in our driveway whenever they feel like it."
"It's not our driveway, Mona, for the fifty thousandth time." Tim headed for the kitchen.
Mona called after him, "You need to tell them that we are the ones who have the permission! I'm telling you, it was all day!"
Tim pulled a beer from the fridge.
"And they moved the concrete curbs from one side," Mona shouted. "You know why? Because —"
"Let's talk about it after your lesson." He thought of her as a Chihuahua to his big, tired blob of a hound. So many things appeared to her as potential end-of-the-world causes.
Mona was now filling Bridget in fully. "That bar has changed our lives. The music. We can't sleep! And they pass drugs in the street. It's all out in the open. Now they've taken the driveway we've used for years. It's like we don't exist. We'd move, oh, we'd love to move, but we're underwater here. We're drowning."
Bridget hesitated. "Should I start back at the top?"
When Mona began playing again, Bridget could hardly make herself heard over the pounding chords. Tim thought maybe Miles was calling out to him at one point, but he was afraid to make contact. For much of the day, the boy had texted about how Tim forgot to leave money for a paintball party and couldn't he just come back home with it. Tim spun his worn wallet on the countertop as Bridget's notes slid around searching for pitch. The parking, the bar noise, the loans — somehow these indignities seemed all the more so because Tim had been selected, selected and trained, by the maestro, Herman Gerstein, longest-serving principal tuba for the Boston Symphony Orchestra. Tim had been specially prepared for an elite world of musicians who devoted themselves to the sublime, spent all of their days in a state of bliss. Yet that world had been denied him.
Tim took his beer into the bathroom to wait out the rest of Bridget's lesson. He pulled his sweatshirt off and sat on the john, where he could see his fat face in the mirror above the sink, his staticky hair a crown of rusty wires. Then he soured over his great dragon's egg of a stomach. Wretched, that's what his boss, The Publisher, had written on the pages she'd left on his desk the night before, a description fitting more than just his writing. Finally he heard the front door close, then the sounds of Mona snapping up the music and forcing songbooks into the overstuffed piano bench. When he could hear no more of her flittings, he re-slung his pants and stuck his head out the door. No Mona. He heard pots and pans coming out of the cupboard, so he crept to the couch and dumped himself under the enormous, gilt-framed photo of Miles at age two in a double-breasted suit. He nudged the fifteen-year- old Miles with his foot.
"What?" Miles said.
"Did you go to paintball?" he asked.
Miles's thumb tapped so rapidly on the controller it was more like a shiver.
Tim nudged him harder, and the boy ripped off his headphones and said, "You owe Mary Duggin forty-five bucks, and if you don't pay her, I will die."
After pulling his laptop off the side table, Tim clicked on the link for his online piano-tuning class. "I don't suppose the Duggins own a piano." He selected the video for lesson eight in this ten-week, ten-lesson class. He'd finished with the basic tuning concepts (unison tuning, octave tuning, equal temperament, regulating the upright action and the grand action), and now he was learning about minor and major repairs to the fifteen hundred moving pieces of wood or felt — from tightening bench bolts and adjusting the pedals to fixing broken hammers and strings. The course and tools had taken their last seven hundred and fifty bucks, but he was told he could make a hundred and fifty a tuning and do up to three a day if he hustled. Not that he ever hustled.
"How was it, though?" he asked his son, who was now just lying limp.
"You don't get enough second chances," the kid finally confided.
Tim's stomach felt a little sour, so he readjusted his bulk for a lie- down.
Miles continued, "You know, if you pick a bad position, say, you're done for. That's it. In, like, two seconds."
Mona pushed open the swinging kitchen door. "Vinnie's coming for dinner."
"No, no, no!" Tim said. The Sox would be playing the Yankees. "I thought you were gonna see Cher on Monday."
"I don't get you. I really don't," she said. "Do you know how many people would die to have my cousin in the family? Twice he starred in Temptation's Fate. Don't pretend that isn't something. So he's coming early! He's visiting friends. Tell your son to clean up."
"Don your finest," Tim said after the kitchen door swung shut.
"Hah," Miles said, and then, after another minute, "seriously, am I supposed to do something?"
"Take a screen break. Walk around a little," Tim said. "Call a girl and remind her who you are." As he spoke, he typed Ganjgal into the search box and hit Return. Up came the photo of his forlorn Marine, the hero unable to save those he cared for most. He clicked on the picture and then on Visit Page, to reach the original source, then clicked and clicked anew all over the guy's image but could not bring him closer.
* * *
Beached on his bed, thumbing back through Into the Lion's Mouth: The Ferocious Battle at Ganjgal, Tim reviewed the passages he had underlined earlier with a coworker's purple pen: A Marine squad is broken down into three four-man fire teams because Marine psychologists long ago determined that while you might join up with the idea of fighting for your country, you will only truly fight for your family, so they give you one ...
Every Marine is a rifleman, but one man on each team plans and executes all of the fire team's missions and controls the most powerful weapon. The sniper trains separately, learns to read terrain, to find small movements at great distances.
Each missed shot offers another chance for a rival to erase him; thus the sniper's motto, Vestri nex est meus vita, "Your death is my life."
God, these guys were living.
"Hello, my dear people!" Cousin Vinnie's game-show-host voice coming from the living room. "Where's my special lady?"
Then the quick clomping of her clogs. "It's the star! The star has arrived!"
"Sorry so late. The star couldn't park. So happy to see you!" Audible kissing. "Lovely as always." His voice dropping on that last line, parodying a Latin lover.
"Look at you! So skinny!" The sound of a spank. "You couldn't park? Tim didn't pull up far enough?"
"Skinny, you say? I'm working on it! Eh? Eh?" Tim figured Vinnie was lifting his shirt for a reveal, and so slid up his own. A blubber hump.
Mona squeaked and fawned, "Oh, I love it!"
"Wait, smell it."
Smell what? Tim rolled off the bed and moved to the top of the stairs to see Mona with a glass candleholder clapped to her nose like an oxygen mask.
"Tim!" Vinnie beamed up at him.
If Vinnie was a good actor, which Tim felt he couldn't assess, his face wasn't doing him any favors — wide, pockmarked, and it had only one expression, bewildered. "Hey, can I ask you a favor?" The Star dangled a set of keys. "I borrowed a friend's car, but I can't find a place."
On Tim's way down the stairs, Mona told him, "I knew it. They parked you in." Then she pecked her finger toward Vinnie. "They're like Mafia thugs. I'm serious, Vin. Thugs!"
"You want me to talk to them?"
Tim shook his head as he accepted the keys. "Everything's under control."
* * *
Tim's knees were up his nose. The Miata coupe made every man a giant. When he started it, a Streisand-fueled speaker assault drove his head up against a metal rib of the convertible top. He punched off the CD, studied the shifter diagram, got the thing in gear, and then drove around, one hand feeling his scalp for a cut, eyes peeled for a space, until — a mile from home — he finally saw someone pulling out.
Once free of his shell, Tim plodded past apartment block after apartment block, thinking about how he was fat because he wasn't in danger. If only someone wanted to kill him; then he'd be at the peak of fitness. Almost home, he stepped up into the doorway of the neighboring bar, O'Leary's, but stopped at the plywood door. He'd had no desire to enter this bar in the months since they'd opened, and he loved all bars. Time expanded in a bar; stories were trotted out and admired. But he'd watched the rough crowd come and go here. This was no story bar. A small diamond window had been cut into the plywood, just above his eyeline, with the blades of a ceiling fan slicing through the frame. He moved to pull the handle just as one of the brothers was pushing out, the beefier one (and this was a tough call because they were both solid, but this one had no neck, like a trophy tuna in a baseball jacket).
"Oh, hey," Tim said, "I wanted to talk to you about the parking space." One was named Dan, and the other Dave, but Tim didn't trust that he could make the right call.
"I'm outta here right now, man," the guy said, waving him off. "It's been a shitty day."
"I think I may have led you astray as far as parking there." Tim followed him.
"No problem, I'm outta here. And listen," he said, turning back, "I hope we didn't bother you too much with the music last night." MeeYOUzick, he'd said. "Was a birthday party, dear-friend kinda thing, so it was a special night."
"Oh, okay," Tim said. "I can understand that if it was a special occasion." He had felt the punching bass in his chest until three a.m. Mona repeatedly worried aloud, "What is happening in our lives?" When the music finally ended, she'd turned to face him. "Whatever this house with no driveway was worth before, now it's half."
When he reentered the house, he found them all seated for dinner, Vinnie well into a series of anecdotes about interactions with big stars who had seductively bummed a cigarette from him outside a Broadway theater (Miss Winslet) or stopped him because they were both wearing the same big sunglasses (Alan Rickman, who also said to him, and for no clear reason, "You must be very talented."), and because Tim couldn't stand it anymore — this impossibly confident man — he asked Vinnie what had happened with the theater group he started, although Tim had heard it already from Mona.
Vinnie then picked up his fork and devoted himself to his plate. After a while he sniffed and finally said, "You know what? I don't know who they think I am." Then he looked at Miles, tapped Miles's plate with the fork. "I am a founding member, okay? Right from the beginning. So my first show there is King Lear, and I'm new, okay? So I'm cast as Knight One, and I know they can't give me a bigger part, because it looks like favoritism to the founders." His hands went up: so be it.
"You don't eat macaroni now?" Mona asked.
"Not so much with the carbs these days. So then they're doing Streetcar, Miles, and I am the prop person?" He jumped his chair back from the table and flung his arms out. "I should've played Stanley! You go up. You don't go down."
"Down is the wrong direction," Mona agreed.
He reached across to her. "And they acted so shocked when I refused to prop."
"You don't move backwards in life."
"They acted like it was a big insult to them! You know what I think? They're not used to artists who have courage."
Then came a long stiff silence before Tim wound him up again with "You know what makes me mad? What makes me really mad is that the Cheesecake Factory would not let you transfer to the New York restaurant when you wanted to move."
Vinnie nodded and appeared to be sucking on something. "I should have made them fire me and taken unemployment. That would have been smart, but I told them, 'Ninety percent of your customers ask for me when they walk in the door. I upsell a hundred and fifty grand worth of avocado eggrolls a year, and you are gonna give that up? In New York?' It's uncanny how stupid people are."
"They're ash-breasted tit-tyrants," Miles said.
"Excuse me?" Mona said.
"Ha! It's a real bird! It's not a cuss."
"Miles, buddy," Vinnie said, turning his chair, "how's school?"
"Fine." Miles's black hair swung into his cheese and stuck.
"Good! You're starting high school? Bottom of the pecking order? Don't forget, we've all been there. But it gets better," Vinnie said, snailing out a bottom lip. "When I was a kid" — he looked up to watch the past — "I was only friends with the girls. The boys were threatened by me. 'Course I didn't know that then! You don't really know the truth until much, much later."
"Miles isn't gay," Tim said.
Vinnie shrugged. "I'm not saying he is —"
"We don't care if he is!" Mona sat up and looked around the table as though someone had disappeared but she didn't know who.
"All I ask, Miles, is, don't ever use the word gay as a slang for something bad," Vinnie said.
"No." Miles gave little head shakes, his hair still attached to the food.
Vinnie eyed the newly reloaded plates of Tim and Miles.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "The Futility Experts"
Copyright © 2018 Margaret Broucek.
Excerpted by permission of Schaffner Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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