Pulp Fiction

Will Carpenter's office-romance story was his most honest, his editor says.
Daniel Kramer

It started much like any other office romance: Boy notices girl across a sea of cubicles. Boy flirts with girl on smoking breaks and at the Christmas party. Boy thinks girl is into him, so he asks her out.

In this case, though, the girl in question wasn't interested, and said so. The boy, Will Carpenter, stopped talking to her. The office grew thick with tension.

But Carpenter wasn't content to sulk behind his computer monitor, licking his wounds. An aspiring writer with a dark streak longer than the Exxon Valdez oil slick, Carpenter channeled his hurt into a short story. A fictitious story, he insists, but admittedly one inspired by his co-worker's rejection.

Like any other would-be writer, Carpenter decided to try to get the story published. And that's when his trouble began.

The fictitious version of Carpenter's story, which he titled "looking through the cables at nothing," is longer on mood than plot: A boy meets a girl at the office. He flirts with her, she disses him, and he retreats to the shadowy corners of the Internet. Eventually, he tries again. But as they're talking, the girl recalls that he used to date another woman at work -- one who disappeared.

"We formed a search party and found … well … parts of her body," the girl in the story explains. "They never found her head."

The fictional boy insists he never dated the murder victim, but the girl is convinced and ends the conversation. Carpenter writes, "She was walking away from me for the last time without even saying goodbye. I smiled an angry smile. She was next." The story ends with a news report: A young woman's torso has been found on an abandoned street.

The story was one of four or five short pieces Carpenter sent to the Web zine in March. The site specializes in short, dark fiction; its marquee contributor is Carpenter's idol Chuck Palahniuk, who wrote the funny, disturbing "Fight Club." Carpenter, who started writing about a year and a half ago, had been trying to get published there since November.

And though Carpenter thought the torso story was his weakest, it was the one the editor liked best. "It was the most honest of them all," says Tony DuShane. "I connected to it, and I knew our readers would, too." He slated it for publication in April.

By that time, Carpenter had been an engineering aide for the GHG Corporation for a year and a half -- "a glorified paper pusher," he says. The company is a subcontractor to a NASA subcontractor, and Carpenter liked his co-workers and liked being at the Johnson Space Center. One of his supervisors wrote science fiction, he says, and they talked about his dreams of literary glory.

So on April 2, when his story was posted, Carpenter immediately e-mailed the link to some co-workers. "My least favorite story got published in a magazine I've been trying to get published in forever," he wrote.

One of the co-workers was his former crush. As he tells it, he'd first made his move at the office Christmas party. (The woman, whom the Press is not naming, declined comment.) They flirted, she laughed, and they made plans to go to the Holocaust Museum together -- or so he thought. The next Monday when he e-mailed her, she disavowed the plan and, indeed, any subsequent plans.

He was devastated. "It was a big deal," he says. "I'd put myself out there. I'm not used to rejection." A 29-year-old divorcé, Carpenter still looks like a college kid. It's partly the messy ginger-colored hair on his head and chin; in true collegiate style, it's not quite a goatee, but not a beard either. He also has a young man's habit of constantly explaining that he's joking; his wit is dry, and he's tormented by people who think he's serious.

For all his worry, he is open, perhaps more than he should be. He explains that he got married when he was barely 20 to the first woman he ever dated. Since they divorced two years ago, he's dated just one person. He is awkward around women, which he knows. The awareness only seems to make him more self-conscious, and even more awkward. "People intimidate the shit out of me," he confesses.

But if Carpenter's romantic pursuit was bumbling, his decision to send his literary debut to the object of his affection was pure stupidity. They'd only just started talking again, and he admits that he based the story's opening conversation almost entirely on their talk after the Christmas party. And though he insists everything from that point in the story is strictly fictitious, the news report at the end describes the slain woman as a single mother who worked at "HGY Technologies" -- hardly a skillful disguise for a single mother who works at a technology firm called GHG.  

The woman confronted Carpenter that day, he says. She'd read the story, and she told him she was scared. Then she told him she'd forwarded it to her mother, a manager at the company GHG contracts under.

Carpenter was upset. "I said, 'Jesus Christ, do you know what you did?' " he recalls. "I couldn't believe she'd think something like this, that it was about her and I was going to leave her torso in a field!"

All weekend, he worried. He kept telling himself it was just a story. Surely his supervisors would see that. He called a few friends. They assured him: It's just fiction, calm down.

On Monday, he returned from a smoke break to find his manager in his cube. The manager explained they were firing him, then watched as he packed up his cubicle, shaking.

Carpenter managed to ask why as he was escorted out of the office. The supervisor told him "harassment," he says. (A GHG spokeswoman did not return calls for comment.)

Carpenter tried to find a lawyer, but no one was interested. "Texas is an employment-at-will state," says Richard R. Carlson, a professor at South Texas College of Law. "That means we start with a general rule: Your employer can fire you whenever he wants, for whatever reason he wants." The exceptions -- racial discrimination, for example -- don't apply to a shy kid trying to make it as a fiction writer. And when he applied for unemployment benefits, the Texas Workforce Commission turned him down: He'd been fired for "inappropriate conduct" and wasn't eligible.

Carpenter seems more upset at his co-workers than at his company, or even the woman. He can't believe the people he thought were his friends aren't broadcasting his innocence -- or even taking his calls. (The Press contacted several co-workers, but none would talk.) "A lot of different writers [would] be locked up if they did what they wrote about," he says. "This is not me."

That no one believes him smarts as badly as the first rejection. One of the few people who will vouch for him these days is his ex-wife. Marci VanDerKarr has no sympathy for anyone who'd find her ex frightening. "It's fiction," she says, derisively. "He's very softhearted and has never been physically violent. Never."

Carpenter admits he was stupid to send the link. He knew people were frightened by his fiction because he'd seen it happen before. "People would read my stuff and they'd cry, they'd get all upset," he says. "They'd say, 'Jesus, what's wrong with you?' I would ask, 'But do you like the story?' This is not me. It's fantasy."

He had started adding disclaimers to his stories. When he submitted "looking through the cables at nothing," he included one near the end: "I guess the point of all this is …. Nothing. It's just some stupid story. I have always wanted to write something with no meaning at the end. Something. Black on top of white. None of it is real, not that I know of anyway. I was just killing time and this is what I came up with. Thanks for reading."

It was the only thing DuShane cut. "It discounted the whole story," the editor says. "Everything people write, they shouldn't have to say, 'This is fake.' As a reader, I want the realism of it."

Carpenter has been looking for another job. He's had a few interviews, but no offers. The fuel pump on his Volkswagen Golf shattered soon after he got fired, which cleaned out his savings, and he's already skipped one car payment and screwed his roommate on the rent.

He's been using some of his free time to write, but he knows there's no money in it. Even cherrybleeds, which gets some 40 submissions a month, doesn't pay.

He keeps writing anyway. His latest story, "Cloud(ed)," is about a guy whose girl can't understand he's writing fiction. "I like to make shit up," the story begins. "And then I like to make it feel real. But I don't want it to be real."

As usual, it's a dark tale: The girl is playing games and feeding the narrator some sort of drugs. "You're viewed as a threat," he writes. "You cannot see that. You're seen as the physical equivalent of harm. You cannot believe that. Your life is being ruined, this time, through someone else. And for what? You cannot answer that."

In the end, Carpenter's narrator explains that the relationship in the story is just his imagination. Nothing more. And suddenly it's clear: Carpenter is thinking about the woman at work, mulling over her reaction to his earlier story, still wondering what might have been.  

"None of this really happened, but it would have, had it gone further," he writes. "You know how you see someone, a possible or future lover, all the time because you may work with them or buy coffee from them, and then you grow attracted …. And you're flying through your homemade clouds when, suddenly, you're taken down by a heat-seeking missile and you know then, and only then, that they weren't the one?"

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