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sincerity

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At the End of the Line

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This story first ran in the Midsummer 2007 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

You’re on the wrong train.

When you asked the conductor a minute ago how much farther it would be, he informed you that this train would not get you to the city no matter how long you rode, but that you might as well take it to the end of the line anyway, since you had just passed the last inbound train for an hour and a half. So there’s nothing to do but to fold your hands and accept your fate, locked to the tracks as it is, and see where it takes you.

Nevertheless, it does alarm you that you should have been snatched out of your plans like that, swiftly and without deliberation, as though a careful trap had been laid for you, exactly in the shape of your intended course: the open doors of the train waiting for you when you arrived at the station with nothing to mark what they had in store, offering only a ingenuous display of readiness: “Here we are, sir, at your service,” closing behind you diffidently, without guile.

With one small move, all the possibilities of the evening have collapsed into a single, definite fact: you are going to Fox Grove (which to you is nowhere) to wait in a train station (which is nothing to anyone but the end of the line).

And thank goodness for it. Along with all the unforeseeable courses the evening might have taken, all your anxieties and uncertainties have been dispelled. You’ll have to call Everett and tell him not to wait for you, but you won’t have to worry about how to greet him to his face, what to say to him, or how early you could reasonably excuse yourself. At least now you know what you’re in for.

But isn’t it a little inhuman to be so pleased at the collapse of the prospect of greeting and passing time with a dear friend? It’s not that you don’t like him; on the contrary, you have a great admiration and affection for him. But he does have a peculiar way of paying you such attention that you wonder whether there’s anything in your presence worth noticing, and doubt the honesty of everything you say or do; are you presenting the real you? and can Everett tell?

The train’s steady racket covers every other sound with layer upon layer of distance. The conductor’s announcement of the next stop is dark and muffled, and as the man sitting below your roost on the second level of the train car folds his newspaper, the rustle comes to you like reflected light sluggishly seeping from the bottom of lake. The train slows, and you watch the man staggering mutely out of the moving car as he puts on his coat and hat. As the car door opens, a thought slides open in your mind: you might step off here yourself, and explore while you wait for the next train, perhaps even walk home. It must be far now, but why should that stop you? The evening is lost in any case; why not pass it adventurously?

An excitement rushes from your feet, over your knees, through your thighs, up your back, out through your head, and leaves you. You stay on the train. The stops and starts are so softly punctuated with no one getting in or out of your car, that you hardly notice them. The unbroken movements of ostinato progression between stops at first set you on edge. Your troubled mind wants to continue arguing with itself, but has to work hard to keep above that pulsing, droning noise. At last, having been distracted by annoyance for several minutes, it forgets what it was arguing about and settles down somewhere beneath a thoughtless mental stratum. The rest of the ride is a long and somnolent passage in which nothing happens, like a conceptual poem composed entirely of the results of parsing a manual of agricultural statistics. (“Noun participle preposition article noun: numeral / Noun participle preposition article adjective noun: numeral,” etc.)

The train stops, this time completely. This must be Fox Grove. You look outside and see a small station, but you can’t make out the sign identifying it, so to be on the safe side, you wait for the conductor to reappear in your car and confirm that this is the end of the line before getting off.

On the far end of the station parking lot, empty but for a dead-looking Ford Taurus with no windshield, stands a payphone. As you cross, you try not to notice how dark it is, or how no one could see the pay phone from inside the station (even if there is anyone in there). But you cross the lot without incident, dial Everett’s cell number, and drop all the coins you have in your pocket into the slot.

A friendly disjointed voice asks you politely to “please…deposit…ten…cents.” You double check your pockets, your wallet, and your pockets again, but all you have are a couple of pennies and twenty-eight dollars in bills. Well, shoot. Now you won’t even be able to talk to Everett.

You stand by the phone for a minute trying to discern the tone of that last thought. Meanwhile, you’re getting cold and a little nervous about the quiet, dense shadows populating the thicket of maples contiguous with this side of the lot. You turn your eyes back to the shelter of the station. Maybe someone inside has change for a dollar.

You step into the fluorescent-lit room and immediately wish you were still outside. There are two people in here, neither of whom you want to ask for change: on a bench along the opposite wall is a long-haired, scruffy man with a thick brown mustache and an old flannel jacket, who seems to be asleep; on a chair immediately to your left, unmoved by your arrival, sits a tanned and skinny man, who is busy demonstrating that it is possible to hold a can of Pabst Blue Ribbon even if you are missing three and a half fingers on each hand. At his feet are two plastic six-pack necks, one empty, the other still holding two more beers.

It wouldn’t be prudent to affront these individuals by walking out again upon seeing them, so you rush over to the corner farthest from both of them, across from the sleeping man, and sit down.

You miss being on the train. You try to recover your monotony-induced state of nirvana by sinking under the buzz of the fluorescent lights and counting the bricks in the opposite wall. But every time you approach the proper tedium, you remember that you are surrounded by decrepit freaks, and have to start over. In the midst of your fourth attempt, a fly lands on the sleeper’s nose. He twitches and swats the air in front of his face, provoking the drinker to laugh a throat-raking laugh, which in turn more thoroughly awakens the sleeper, who raises his head and blinks twice, frowning back at the disturber of his slumber, then turns to you, who suddenly realize that you have been staring, caught in the spectacle. You turn your gaze quickly back to the wall, but it is evidently too late; once the long-haired man has raised himself up and stretched out, he ambles in your direction, takes a stand a foot in front of you and calls out, yawningly, “Airridge any?” This is an extremely witty thing for him to say, judging by his fellow’s explosive reaction, more frighteningly wheezy than his first burst of laughter.

After struggling briefly to come up with the proper form of address for an inarticulate vagrant, you settle for, “What did you say?”

“Yarefidgennious?” He repeats obligingly.

“Am I… fidgennious?”

“Yarefitchennies!”

Now you are really at a loss for manners. Having already heard his query three times without coming any closer to apprehending its content, you begin to doubt whether yet another repetition would be acceptable; rather than annoying and insulting the man by making him ask it yet again, you consider how you might best pretend to have understood. You are just getting to like the idea of “It depends on the situation,” when the finger-poor drinker, his laughter having subsided, creakily elucidates, “Dale just said, ‘Ya…ever…pitch…pennies?’”

“Pitch pennies,” You repeat blankly.

“Hitch bennies!” Dale declares enthusiastically, and somewhat more distinctly, as though having finally succeeded in teaching you to enunciate it properly.

Relieved to learn that you can now answer the question, you reply, “What does that mean?”

Too late, you realize the folly of answering with another question. Now this uncomfortable conversation is destined to continue until you come to comprehend the meaning of “pitching pennies,” whereas you might have ended it decisively with a simple, “No and I don’t care to, thanks.”

Dale gets up and crosses to the middle of the room, fumbling in his pockets. You can guess from his gait and his breath (which you smell even at this distance) what happened to the other nine beers.

“C’mere,” he directs you.

You don’t actually want to get any closer to Dale, but you don’t see what else you can do now that you have so recklessly expressed an interest in pitching pennies, so you get up and meet him in the middle of the room. Having got you there, however, he seems now to forget your presence, he is so preoccupied with searching his pockets. He has only four of them, three on his pants, and a breast pocket on his jacket, and all appear to be empty, so it shouldn’t take long, but he has already been at it for a full minute.

You’re thinking about sitting down again until he sorts it out when he calls to his comrade, “Hey, Vern, ya otny bennies?”

You remember that you have a couple yourself, but you don’t want to draw any attention to your wallet, so you let Vern consult his accounts. He puts down his penultimate beer, leans to one side, reaches into his back pocket, and miraculously produces a small handful of coins, which he then sifts through with his left half-thumb.

“No, Dale, I got nickels,” he rasps.

“Thall do,” Dale accedes. He takes two nickels from Vern and hands one of them to you. “O, kay,” he begins with a tutelary air, “Now just tothsa benny gensa wall.” He scoops his arm towards the wall to demonstrate a “tothsa.” “Ntry to lannit axlo…as close to the wall…” He breaks off here, as though unsure how to finish, and settles for showing you the “tothsa” again. Finally, he stops and looks at you expectantly.

Anxious to get this over with, you give the nickel a healthy underhand throw towards the wall. It hits low, bounces off and rolls a few feet, then tumbles to a stop.

“Good!” Dale praises you. “Sgotterit the wall, see?” He pitches his nickel in turn. It arcs high and hits a little lower than yours and rolls back softly, stopping a good foot closer than yours.

“See at?” He says earnestly, pointing to his successful pitch. “Ats howiz done!”

He stumbles over to the nickels, picks them up and brings them back for another round.

This time, you toss a little more lightly, trying to imitate the high arc of Dale. It turns out well enough. Your nickel rolls pretty far but its course doubles back and rolls a foot toward the wall before the nickel is ready to settle down. It could have been better, but you think you’re getting the hang of this. It’s a matter of throwing only slightly too far, as though aiming to place your coin firmly just on the other side of the wall.

Dale’s nickel is not so happily thrown. It bounces hard and rolls well past yours.

“Eh,” he sighs, “Ya won thissum.”

You’ve been waiting a long time for an occasion to say to someone, “So the circle is complete,” and now that it has arrived, you can’t help yourself, and deliver the line with spirited irony.

“Huh?” Dale answers.

“Star Wars,” you explain. “I’m Darth Vader, the student, you’re Obi-Wan, the master, the nickels are light sabers…” He doesn’t seem to be grasping the beauty of the analogy. “Never mind,” you say, “You want to play again?”

He does, and indicates his enthusiasm by collecting the nickels and pressing one back into your waiting palm. “Furr back this time,” he insists, and you step with him a few floor tiles further from the wall. This move puts Vern back into your line of sight. He is grinning like a circus clown, his yellow teeth wide apart.

Better focus on the game. Taking careful aim, you pitch and place the nickel within a foot of the wall. Dale stares at it with admiring concentration, takes a deep breath, he pitches sloppily; his penny hits the ground, rolls past yours, and stops without even touching the wall. Vern slaps his leg and guffaws until his throat can’t bear it and he breaks down coughing.

“All show you!” Dale cries as Vern recovers himself and starts in on his last beer, his eyes gleaming. Turning back to you, Dale says, “Awrighten, ducky lucky, less pussom money onnissum.”

So he’s been sand-bagging you! You weigh the pros and cons of gambling with a hostile drunken hustler without a benny to his name and decide to decline. “Maybe later,” you answer. “Let’s just play for fun.”

You play another round. This time, Dale’s penny hits the wall flat and lands without rolling, an inch or two from the wall, beating your pitch by at least a foot. He stands, beaming stupidly, puts his hands in his pockets, and closes his eyes.

He doesn’t seem to want to play again, but he’s not sitting down, so you don’t feel like you can, either. You try to make some conversation: “So are both of you guys in here waiting for the train, too?”

Dale’s eyes pop open and for a second his face twists like an angry wind, then relaxes into a cynical frown, and he laughs derisively. “Waifatinr train?” He says. “Thass good, Waifortina train. Iss good uh Vern?” Vern laughs, too, a little, taking it easy after his recent collapse. “Waitin’…for…the…train,” Dale says again, more carefully. His face softens. Suddenly, he looks human; the creases in his brow, the dirty stubble on his neck, the torn flannel jacket, all go to make a testament to the dignity of suffering. His eyes well up and a tear spills out of the corner of his left eye.

You want to comfort him, but you’ve never comforted anyone before. You’ve seen it done a few times. You’ve seen people give comfort by hugging, by holding hands, by wiping away tears, but these approaches are obviously prevented by the protocols governing contact with strangers. You could just say something, but you sense that your comfortable bourgeois existence leaves you ill equipped to speak to real trouble. You look to Vern, but his gaze is down on the floor, and he shakes his head slowly.

So it’s up to you. After a few moments’ deliberation, you decide that the middle way is to pat Dale on the back a couple of times and tell him, “Hey, now,” or some equally meaningless primal syllables. But before you can reach out to do so, the door opens behind you. You turn and see a boy, not older than fourteen, his face and fingers red with the cold. He is wearing a blue bicycle helmet, which he now unclasps and deposits in the yellow nylon messenger bag hanging at his side. He looks from you to Vern to Dale, nervously, then takes a couple of steps further in. Suddenly, Vern gets up and stands behind the boy, as though blocking his exit. Dale looks up at the boy, his face callous again and his gaze muddy.

You’re having trouble keeping up with the mood swings in this room. A minute ago, it was almost jolly, then suddenly it was awkwardly tender, and—now what? These two bums you’ve gotten so cozy with are going to mug this poor kid? The only thread holding this whole encounter together is that you’ve been unprepared for every step of the way.

Dale says to the boy, slowly, concentrating hard to hold himself steady, “Help me out tonight, jussa coupla bucks, uh?”

The kid looks at you, then back at Dale. His eyes are wide and skittery. He seems frightened. But he answers firmly, “No, I can’t give you money.”

Dale steps in closer, right up in the boy’s space, and looks down at him menacingly. “C’mon,” he insists. “Fie dollas.”

Oh, man, this is not good. If he lays a hand on that boy, you’ve got to do something.

“No,” the boy says, shaking a little now but just as definite.

Dale shoves him by his right shoulder. Vern pushes him forward again. Oh man. You’ve got to do something. Oh man.

“Ya do your homork, Charlie?” Dale demands.

What?

Yeah,” says the boy, “I’ve done it.” Vern grins coolly and leans back against the door. Dale pats the boy affectionately on the shoulder.

“Thatta boy,” he says, “Thatta boy. Sreally now, you gossommin for yer ol man, right?”

This is too much.

“No, Dad,” Charlie says plainly. “I’ve got nothing. But the hotel down the street has a room for you. I already paid. A bed for you too, Vern,” he adds, turning, “If you help with Dad.” Vern nods and moves to Dale’s side. Charlie looks to you apologetically, then leads Dale and Vern outside. Before he lets Vern pull him out, however, Dale turns to you, takes your hand in his, and says, shakily, his eyes unfocused and glassy, “Thanks.”

You watch them depart in procession, Charlie holding his little Huffy bicycle, his incontinent father leaning on Vern, until they turn a corner a few blocks away. You sit down again in the same corner as before, and try to sort out what just happened, but the events of the evening are like the scattered contents of a tightly-packed toolbox, that won’t all fit back in again. Most of all, you can’t make out what it is that Dale wanted to thank you for.

You check your watch. Still forty minutes till the train leaves. After that excitement, the thought of waiting half an hour alone just to get back on the damned train disgusts you. But you have no choice. You’ll have to bear it. You look up to the ceiling, steeling yourself with a deep breath, then look down again, heaving a sigh of resignation.

Before your breath is spent, however, your gaze falls on a silver gleam near the wall. The nickels! A warm sense of possibility rushes into your heart, and you spring up to gather the fallen currency.

Everett’s voice, when he picks up and hears you, is candid but not annoyed: “Where the hell are you?”

You explain the circumstances of your truancy, to Everett’s amusement, and promise to recount the details of your experience whenever you next meet (thinking as you say it that this might not be for days, or weeks).

“How about in an hour?” Everett suggests. “I could meet you when you get back to your station and give you a ride home.”

You surprise yourself by saying, “Sure, and you could just crash on my couch for the night if you want.”

Everett agrees, says “See you then,” and the expired evening changes shape. It’s late, it’s colder than ever, and the abandoned Taurus lingers on imposing its eyeless, faceless stamp on the world, pronouncing in rust and dereliction the vanity of all things. But overhead you can see a few stars dimly, and between them no pitiless blank but a field of dark hope, beneath which numberless tokens of light must lie buried, awaiting your searching, patient hands.

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Faith is Action

This poem originally ran in the Dec/Jan 2006/07 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

This poem originally ran in the Dec/Jan 2006/07 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

Joseph, awkward in celestial matters
But sure enough in action, scratches his beard
And wonders at the baby in the manger.

The child is ordinary, blotched and ugly.
She told him of the angel: he believed her,
Believes in visions: had one of his own:

The being bright and solid, come to tell him
Fear not; she is a virgin, and her son
Is Jesus. Joseph fidgets, feeling nothing,

The vision recalled as fact without conviction,
Cold as dreams in daylight. Mary’s ear
Is tilted, hearing angels. Joseph sighs,

Descends, feeling the stiffness in his knees;
Settles his bulk beside her, touching her shoulder
With his. The baby squalls, and Joseph smiles.


bio from the original issue (2007):

Joe Prever was born more than two decades ago, since which time he has done little more than dabble. His top three writers are Dostoevsky, Walker Percy, and C. S. Lewis. He currently teaches high school in Lancaster, MA, and plans to really get down to business pretty soon.

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Beyond the New Sincerity: What is a Post-Post-Ironic Sensibility?

6809639345_2066dace4d_zIf you’ve seen The Lego Movie, you know that its tone is playful, self-deprecating, and whimsical. It has themes, but refuses to be ponderous about them. When the Master Builder Vitruvius states the moral message of the film in so many words (something along the lines of “You are special if you believe you are”), he follows up right away with a disclaimer: “I know it sounds like a cat poster, but it’s true.”

Of course, this disclaimer draws a laugh if you happen to be thinking exactly that before he says it. But the joke is also supposed to be cathartic. If you’re given permission to laugh at the silliness of the theme, maybe you can move past derision and also accept the message.

What is it about a platitude that makes us gag? Do we just think it’s wrong? Then all we need is to be reminded that truisms are true, and the nausea will subside. But that isn’t enough, is it? We also need to be able to laugh it off. Because a platitude is worse than false–it’s ridiculous. Innocent of all worldly wisdom, radiating naïveté, it is a sitting duck for mockery.  If you are ever on the internet (apparently, you are), you’ve probably digested enough mockery that when you hear something high and empty sounding, you can already hear its ironic echoes resounding through the feeds and streams. It’s as inevitable as the closing bars of a song, that smug moral pronouncements will soon be reduced to sneering travesties.

Call it bathetic cadence.

Now if you want to repeat a platitude in an atmosphere like this, what do you do? You inoculate it, by mocking it yourself. There’s no satisfaction for mockers in taking you down if you’ve done it yourself in advance. Where I come from, we call that an “apotropaism.”

 

This is exactly what Vitruvius does when he delivers the message of the movie. (Frozen makes a similar move by having its moral not intoned by a weathered sage but casually dropped by a confirmed idiot.) Children don’t need such apologies, but their parents do, because we’ve grown up in an age of irony. If we want to share an earnest moment with our children, it has to be post-ironic. It has to give us permission to laugh it to scorn even as we take it in.

What do these post-ironic apotropaisms (consider this your take-away phrase to sound impressive when you are describing this article to your friends) mean? Calling them “post-“ironic implies that we’ve made some progress. Irony must have been a step in the right direction or we’d be trying to get back to the “pre-” ironic. Getting past irony must be even better.

But where have we gotten? A platitude in brackets is still a platitude. If receiving it from a self-deprecating source keeps us from rejecting it, maybe we were rejecting it for the wrong reasons. We should reject platitudes not because they are ridiculous or even because they are false, but because the problems they solve are always inconsequential. Wanting to feel special, for instance, is a distraction from actually doing something that matters, whether it gives you a sense of fulfillment or not. If we simply override our disgust at platitudes, then we are losing the benefit of an ironic sensibility that protects us from such self-satisfied affirmations.

What we need is a post-post-ironic sensibility that is not just a return to irony but an improvement on the whole fruitless back-and-forth between irony and sincerity. Irony can and should be charitable and edifying instead of cynical and destructive. Sincerity does not have to be naive and trite. It can be literate and profound.

Let me put it to you this way…/FEED ME” by  flickr user quinnanya, used under CC BY-SA 2.0 // text added

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The Young Man with a Carnation

image by Swami Stream

image by Swami Stream

A short story for you to read this weekend: Isak Dinesen’s “The Young Man With The Carnation.”

Isak Dinesen’s hero Charlie Despard couldn’t be better named. A successful author dogged by the sure feeling that his second book will be trivial, he is sent reeling by a chance encounter with the eponymous young man, whose “gentle, humble, wild, laughing rapture” rivals the ecstasy of angels. Suddenly he is struck by the folly of his distinguished position: “It was no wonder that God had ceased to love him, for he had, of his own free will, exchanged the things of the Lord—the moon, the sea, friendship, fights—for the words that describe them. He might now sit in a room and write down these words, to be praised by the critics, while outside, in the corridor, ran the road of the young man with the carnation into that light which made his face shine.”

But Dinesen trades in ironies, ironies that somehow fold in on themselves into magnificent strokes of poetic insight. The beautiful irony here is that Dinesen’s words will make you rejoice as the moon and the sea and friends and fights seldom can, only in those blessed moments (which get fewer and fewer as you get older) when they suddenly let their secrets overflow with abandon. In words Dinesen’s Charlie Despard will lead you astray and bring you home again.

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The Grackle is a production of the 501(c)(3) nonprofit Imagine Dallas Literary Arts, Inc.