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unreliable narrator

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An Aristophanic Impossibility

This story first ran in the Late Winter 2009 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This story ran in the Late Winter 2009 edition of Grub Street Grackle.

(In Which Rainscape Becomes a Crossing Guard and Other Diverting Incidents)

This is a work of fiction: names of persons and places, products and divinities bear no relation to real life persons and places, products and divinities with the same, similar, or in some cases quite different names.

I am insane. I no longer doubt it. Allow me to convince you. This morning I found myself desperately trying to put milk in cereal instead of cereal in milk. Always with the same result: the cereal in the milk, and not the other way round. I’d gone through three boxes of Grandy O’s and two gallons of milk before I gave up on breakfast. Last evening I read twenty pages of a novel… backwards. I only realized something was off when at the end of ten minutes I got to the beginning of a chapter. When I confide these things to my friends, they try to soothe me: “look, Rainscape, you’re just a little distracted… Get some rest… Try and exercise a little more… Go out and talk to people… You’ll get over it.”

Yes, I am distracted, I tell them.

I have tried resting, but my dreams are of wayward sentences that either run on in different directions past the point where any period will contain them, or are matter-of-factly stated ambiguities following one upon another until the words, continually so self-assured, become to me so frightfully senseless that I wake up between panting and laughing, not knowing whether I should be terrified or amused, and walk to the sink to throw cold water on my forehead and stare at the frightened and confused expression reflected there in the electric light from just outside my window.

Exercise, yes. There’s nothing like physical activity and fresh air to restore the daylight sanity to a maniac, I agree. I go on walks: sun, rain, moon, or windy skies. Sometimes, when I feel myself becoming happy, I skip. Sometimes, when I feel drab and gray, I hum, and try to shake it. One day, not too long ago (I think), I stopped at a busy intersection and watched the streams of traffic each stopping and starting, diverging and converging each in their turns For so long. . . and at last I grasped their dynamics so completely that to my bewildered mind I could only be the traffic director himself—myself… . So I took charge of the intersection and managed it, for a while quite as well as any stop lights in the world. But then I got a little too cocky. It started out pretty innocuously. I was having a splendid time sneaking left-turners into the occasional gaps in the two-way oncoming traffic so that when their turn came the opposite stacks of left turners would be equal, and the flow of traffic perfectly balanced and expeditious. Never have I been such a satisfied servant to society. And never have I managed any situation with such grace, such finesse. For now I began to innovate, to discover the momentary path for every passing car that barely had to slow its pace, much less stop. More and more, the streams of humming automobiles ran without resistance like soft sand through the fingers of my mind. I wove the strands of traffic in a mighty pattern like a Celtic knot, but woven into it the mass and power, the steady thunder of the big Mack truck, and the maneuverable speed of buzzing Fiats and Festivas! The ecstasy! I was a four-headed Janus! I was a Herm! I was the intersection, the exchange of roads, the origin of new directions, the still point of the turning world.

But every Hubris has its Nemesis. Mine came in the form of a Peugeot; yes, a mere cyclist interrupted my apotheosis. You see, traffic direction as a fine art is entirely dependent on the accommodation of contingencies; the medium in which you work is whatever objects are coming down the road toward you at whatever speeds and from four different directions at once. The first principle of the art is this; no two objects can occupy the same space at the same time. In other words, you have got to find a window in the space-time continuum For each one, and that window is going to be limited by all the other objects for which you have to do the same. So, as you’ve got to be continually estimating speeds, sizes, momentums, accelerations, yadda-yadda-yadda, all the time intuiting a pattern in what is potentially chaos, you’d do well to simplify it as best you can. There are some general rules of thumb: like, make sure you’ve provided for the biggest and most unwieldy objects first; if you save them for last you won’t be able to squeeze them in at all. In the hands of the expert the smaller ones start to take care of themselves, almost… and you can work them in with dazzling intricacy once you’ve more or less got the bigger pieces in place; that‘s the really fun part. However you must not let even the smallest tile in your four-dimensional mosaic give you the slip.

Now I’m gettin’ it, that’s what you’re thinking, he forgot to leave room for the bicycle. No, ladies and gentlemen, I provided a needle’s eye for the cyclist to thread. It was a far more ludicrous error that spelled my fate. It was myself that I forgot. As Archimedes boasted to the Syracusans, “Give me but a fixed point on which to stand and I will move the world!” Silly, if you think about it. But Archimedes’ riddle was a joke on me. For in a kind of other-worldly trance, alive no longer to the growl and screech of rushing steel and rubber, but only to the ever-flowering pattern through which they rushed, I found myself within that needle’s eye. The blazing sun off the front reflector of the elegant French racer all but obliterated my vision, as with beatific satisfaction I watched the slanting cycle, a faint shadow following that brilliance, as it swerved into its appointed path. Then suddenly my legs were clipped; my head came back to the concrete with a kaleidoscopic explosion of pain. And the cyclist, her flight as perfectly projected as an Archimedes’ catapult upon its target, caught up with me and brought our spheres into shell-shocked collision.

Fate is always contact before sight. If you can gauge its approach, and see it coming at you, you retain some control over the situation. But fate is out of your hands, it annihilates, empties, slices you in half, re-does, fulfills, and empties you again, and all before you have a chance put a word in edgewise. Looking back it is as if that one event had so much sheer velocity collapsed into it that it has never yet stopped happening. So somehow there I am still, stunned, bleeding at the head, in midst of the now and forevermore hopeless confusion of those crossroads, that beautiful girl on every side of me, stunned: the two of us thrust into hopeless proximity by the miraculous impossibility of my happening to be standing right in the needle’s eye of the kosmos, and just then and there forgetting my existence.

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A Hunting Story

This interview originally ran in the October 2005 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This story originally ran in the October 2005 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

During the summer, following his annual release from the trial of attempting to interest scores of oblivious undergraduates in the finer pleasures of Edwardian literature, Peter’s lifestyle was entirely guided by a series of misanthropic considerations. He conducted his researches online as much as possible, and if he had to visit the library he would do so only at precisely 10:30 AM, when he knew that the affable librarian would be too absorbed in conversation with his stupidly beautiful wife to greet him in that infuriating way of his. Peter would read all afternoon and stay in evenings watching wildlife documentaries and drinking wine. His mail he would collect furtively under cover of darkness, and his daily constitutional through the park he would take only in the very early morning, when its paths were yet unpopulated.

Aside from the occasional sleeping vagrant, the only person Peter ever encountered at that hour was an old man whose habit it was to sit all morning on a bench on the west side of the park, a man whose quiet presence was not irksome. His mouth churned constantly on his chewing tobacco, while his eyes looked always straight ahead, motionless, as though waiting, with the patience of a fishing crocodile, for something particular to happen, precisely there, in front of him.

Today, however, Peter’s routine was disrupted. Some nameless anxiety had kept him awake for hours last night, and he had slept in. Thinking of the horde of toddlers, picnickers, and layabouts who had surely taken the park already, he considered omitting the walk altogether; yet he knew he would not have the momentum to begin work on the syllabus for his new seminar on “The Infernal Saki” unless he got away from the apartment for awhile.

In the course of the first ten minutes of his walk, he was several times unpleasantly disturbed by the passing of joggers, who frightened the birds out of the trees around him. They were ruining his walk, and he suffered himself to be cheerily greeted by them only by imagining to himself how energetically they would tumble if he knocked them over, denying himself the more substantial consolation of actually doing so.

One particularly slow pair of women, progressing only slightly faster than he (though their attire and demeanor attested they were rather straining themselves) was too thoroughly engaged in conversation to offer any such greeting. As they passed him, the woman on the left, dressed in a lime green sweat-suit with matching head and armbands, was saying, “You won’t believe it. I swear to God, you won’t in a million years.”

“Try me,” said the other, whose costume differed only in its color, hot pink.

“Okay, but I’m telling you you won’t believe it.”

Peter slowed his pace a little in an endeavor to get them out of earshot.

“You know the old man who’s always sitting on the bench on the west side of the park?” began the woman in green.

“Wait, which way is west?” The woman in green thought a moment, then pointed. “No,” answered her companion, “I haven’t noticed that.”

Peter, however, had noticed, and he had often wondered and speculated about the old man’s history and habits, and imagined him to have walked a considerable path in his time. It wasn’t Peter’s way to indulge his curiosity by interrogating strangers, so he had always left him alone, but here was a chance to hear something of him that promised to be outrageous enough not to disappoint Peter’s fantasy. He sped his pace again and began to listen eagerly.

“Well, he’s always sitting there,” the green woman explained.

“Okay,” said the pink woman, absorbing the information.

“Well, last week, you remember, I came here alone . . .”

“I couldn’t help that,” interrupted the other, “I told you I had a lot to do last week. I didn’t have time. I thought I was going to have a breakdown.”

“I know, I know, don’t sweat it. Really, I mean it, it’s okay. I mean, I didn’t have anyone to talk to and it’s so boring to be out in the park by yourself, you know? But really it’s okay.”

“Okay,” said the other. “So what happened?”

“Well, I’ll tell you, if you’ll let me.”

Peter began to fear that the conflict would forestall the story too long for him to safely overhear it, but the hot pink woman soon proved accommodating enough to let her companion speak freely.

“So last week I went just the way we usually go. I wasn’t thinking about where I was going at all, so I ran close by the old man’s bench, right along it, without thinking about the guy. And do you know what happened?”

“No, tell me!”

“He tripped me! I fell right over into the dirt! At first I thought it might have been an accident, but then when I looked at him he was grinning horribly. If he weren’t so old I’d have socked him right there.”

Peter was outraged. The old man he knew was a much more magnanimous character, and he could not stand to hear him so belittled.

“You call that an unbelievable story?” He shouted ahead to them. It proved, not at all to his surprise, to be the first they had noticed of him. They did not alter their pace, but quieted the furious swinging of their arms to indicate that they were now walking. The woman in green was clearly affronted, and was about to venture a rejoinder in her defense, when Peter found himself shouting on, “I’ll tell you a story about that man to make your heads spin!”

She relented doubtfully, and maintained a posture of defiance, but let him speak.

“I do not doubt the impossibility of its having not escaped your attention,” said Peter with a graciously conciliatory air, “that across the path from our old man there stands a considerable horse chestnut.”

The woman in green nodded uncertainly. Her companion shrugged.

“Three weeks ago, I was observing the gentleman, as I had often done, when I noticed that his eyes were not at their usual rest. Instead, they were shifting slightly back and forth, and his brow was folded in an unmistakable expression of concern. Struck by this aberration, I turned my gaze to see what he was watching and saw, to my disgust, a squirrel chasing a wounded swallow back and forth under the chestnut tree. The bird seemed to have a broken wing and it lacked the energy to fly more than a few feet at once; the squirrel was always fast enough to catch it on the other side and renew its attack.”

“The poor thing!” declared the woman in pink. The woman in green showed no sign of sympathy, but Peter could see she was struggling to remain composed.

“So thought I,” Peter admitted, “And so thought our old man. I watched as his pity grew until I thought that he would surely cry. Then, suddenly, his compassion turned to anger, and just as suddenly, his anger turned to action. He sprung up from the bench with a terrible swiftness and lunged at the squirrel! The sadistic little rodent valued its life more than its sport, and darted out of reach up the tree. But that didn’t stop the man. He clattered up the trunk in seconds and swung up onto a low branch. He was lost to my sight for a short while. Then I heard a dreadful little shriek, and then silence.

“When he dropped back down to the ground, he almost crumbled with pain. I ran over to offer him my assistance, but he found his composure again soon enough and waved me away. He had splashes of blood on his shirt, and if my perception was not altogether deceived, a runnel of blood stained his face from the corner of his mouth to his chin

“He scooped up the wounded bird and walked away with it; he would not tolerate my accompanying him. So I remained behind, staring in wonder alternately at him and at that tree. Since then, I have not had the courage to go near him.”

The women were astonished at this story. They could not work out between them whether the old man’s tenderness for the swallow was enough to outweigh his vile prank and his positively beastly treatment of the squirrel (though it surely deserved what it got). They were quite definitely resolved, however, to run a new route thenceforth. Peter wished them a good day as they turned onto a side path.

He made his own way to the west side of the park, where he found the old man at his usual spot. In the confidence of having just done the man a favor, he decided to attempt a conversation with him.

He approached the bench, stood before the old man and inquired, “Would it be all right if I sat here? I’m rather fond of that chestnut.”

The old man looked at him, and opened his mouth in wonder. Slowly, between his parted lips, he let a long strand of sickly brown saliva slide. When it had reached the bottom of his chin, he bent over and dropped it onto Peter’s left shoe. Then he looked up again and laughed softly and hoarsely through the grimace of a crocodile.

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Unfinished

This story first ran in the Jan/Feb 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This story first ran in the Jan/Feb 2006 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

On the first day of this year, I completed a journey begun three years ago, a journey whose way had scorned the order of life and come near to death. Of course, given such an introduction, the real story of that journey cannot fail to disappoint; but disappointment, too, had its part in the venture; this is a story of the paltriness of our most daring endeavors, as well as of the glory of minor deeds. In the end, the thing may seem hardly to have been worth the doing, or the tale worth the telling. Yet, as some receding gleam of possibility made me continue, so I am moved to give my little account.

To begin near the end, then, with the idea of apprising you right from the beginning of the unromantic limitations of time and space, thus creating a more dramatic effect when they are incredibly disrupted by the mandate of the world-historical moment, I was at a small New Year’s Eve party on Long Island, it was one AM, and everyone was ready to go to sleep. The hosts and half the guests were already in bed, and I—I was sitting downstairs in the lounge chair, chattering away in protest at the too early closure of the party, grimly envious of Samuel, whom the Lord was with, keeping his words from being without effect. My words were having no effect on Sebastian and Finbar, who were steadily, if a little lethargically, making up the couches for the night.

“It’s a shame,” Sebastian said, apropos of none of my prating, “that we have to get up so early tomorrow.” He was alluding to the necessity of making it to a ten o’clock Mass the next day. The natural response would have been to mock Seb’s effeminate need for beauty rest, and in other circumstances, I might have indulged, but it was not possible on this occasion, acting, as I was, under an unseen influence: that is, not those four glasses of spumante, but a little book.

I had been reading The Picture of Dorian Gray and my thought was insatiably fixed upon the prospects of stirring, by the power of speech, some spark—any spark—in another, of igniting another with his own secret intentions. In The Picture, Lord Henry Wotton, the body of all the flippant cynicism for which alone Oscar Wilde is now remembered, deliberately leads Dorian to recognize himself as the living icon of “a new Hedonism,” moving him to begin his unpredictable life of adventure and sin.

I had not arrived at the gruesome consequences of Dorian’s bad behavior, or perhaps the book would not have had such an effect on me. I have a stronger history of being led astray by half-finished stories than I do of learning from whole ones. When I was seven years old, I began to read a picture book called The Snoop, in which a mouse wearing a dress makes herself busy about other people’s affairs, reading their unopened mail, among other transgressions. No doubt in the end she gets hers, but I never got that far.

I may consider myself fortunate that there were no dresses in my size at home, but of unopened mail there was a considerable supply, renewed every morning, not only in the house but also in the boxes placed in front of every house on the street. I methodically collected it, and stored it behind a large piece of plywood leaning against the fence in our backyard.

I didn’t really see the interest of most of the mail, but I liked having it, and I do remember a thrill of wicked glee at the knowledge that, despite her excellent performance, Debbie Jackson would now never receive her “Dolphin” level swimming certificate. (I felt no remorse at this, because Debbie was clearly a girl.) The process of methodically returning the mail, on the other hand, of facing the master of each household alone as my watchful father stood waiting at the curb, was distinctly unpleasant, probably much more so than the unread fate of the original Snoop.

You might attribute my pliable observance of the Snoop’s lifestyle to my age at the time, seven being numerologically less stable than eight, which, as Plutarch observes in his account of Theseus, “is the first cube of an even number, and also the double of the first square. It is therefore an especially appropriate symbol for the immovable and abiding power of Poseidon, whom we call the stay and upholder of the earth.” Perhaps that very nearness to the unyielding determined the susceptibility of my will in that year. Indeed, my age at the present is twenty-three, the seventh prime after one, and one short of the third multiple of eight, being the triple of the first cube, and therefore all the more stable than the double of the first square.

Whatever the reason, on New Year’s of this year I was quite under the spell of Lord Henry Wotton’s yet unpunished misbehavior, and anxious to have an effect. That is why I said to Sebastian, “There is an alternative.”

Now I had his attention, and I was not going to waste it. “Have I told you,” I went on, “about the time I almost went to Manhattan?” I hadn’t, but neither Sebastian nor Finbar were ignorant of it. Nevertheless, they now consented to hear it recounted. So it has been decided, I thought, so I shall give the telling.

In those days, we were known as the Moxie Clan. By “we” I mean Kevin Ryan, and by “Kevin Ryan,” I mean my first roommate and all those more or less under the sway of his comically venturesome irresponsibility. Kevin, the only one I know more fascinated by the first chapters of books than I am, introduced me to what was to be my favorite book for some time. Italo Calvino’s If On a Winter’s Night a Traveller consists of a series of first chapters alternating with a second-person narrative about the reader’s heroic efforts to come to a conclusion, and I read it instead of finishing the Iliad.

As for “Moxie,” that is another story. It is one of the few slang words in the American language whose development is quite easily traced, and has its origin in Maine in 1876, when Augustin Thompson began marketing his “Moxie Nerve Food,” borrowing the name from an Algonquian word meaning, “dark water.” The only difficulty in determining how “moxie” came to mean pluck, courage, and energy would be in deciding whether to attribute it to the tonic’s purported medicinal effects or to the audacity of its advertising campaign. After the FDA made the company tone down its outrageous claims, the advertising genius Frank Archer reinvented Moxie as a soft drink, “the distinctive beverage for those of discerning taste,” while simultaneously marketing it as a spectacular and exciting phenomenon with such legendary gimmicks as the “horse-mobile.” That was a golden age, when persuasion was simply a matter of stating one’s case adventurously. But before I get so carried away that I tell you how Moxie’s reign as the number one soft drink in America came to an ignominious end, let me get back to what this has to do with a little coterie at Thomas More College.

I forget why we started drinking Moxie. It wasn’t because we were balding or impotent. It may have been out of a need for some clear banner to distinguish ourselves from the normals, but I don’t remember there being any of those around. Besides, we weren’t exclusive—at least, I wasn’t; I wanted everyone to acquire the bizarre taste to enter our plucky, courageous little world. Nevertheless, the large contingent of detractors (those who contended that Moxie tasted like motor oil or cough syrup) defined itself clearly against us, and the more enthusiastic elite of aficionados remained distinct from the dabblers and sympathizers.

That is why we were called the Moxie Clan. Yet it was a fitting name, even apart from our predilection for the old dark water. It was our habit to undertake any scheme that occurred to us that might produce unexpected results, especially if our fearless leader thought it might be funny.

One Friday night, after a lecture on the passing of Aeneas from Troy to Rome, our own epic journey was beginning to unfold. In the hall outside my room, where I sat trying to begin a paper comparing Nicias (the Frank Archer of his time) and Alcibiades (who probably had Archer beat: he roused the Athenians to the very stupid expedition against Sicily, which in his mind was just a little stepping stone to Africa—I mean, all of it), I could hear Kevin and a neophyte of the clan, known among us as Hoffbrincker, forming a plan. It was their idea to leave at midnight and arrive in Times Square early enough to spend a few hours of night and a few of morning there before they returned, in the meantime enjoying a full flat of Moxie.

It was certainly more feasible than conquering Africa, but I didn’t see the point of it, and when they asked me to come I told them so. When they argued that even the bums in Times Square are inherently more interesting than anyone anywhere else in the world, I was not sold. Here’s how they got me: they told me that they would not be able to go if I did not join them. Wow. It wasn’t that I would have felt sorry if I had ruined their plan; it was that I had the power to ruin their plan if I chose to; it was the fact that neither the enthusiasm of Kevin Ryan nor four six-packs of the distinctive beverage were enough to move them to action, but I was.

We left at midnight. Our journey had begun. But perhaps in our ardor we had forgotten that every epic begins, not with a single direct thrust at its final goal, but with a radical displacement: ships get wrecked, Troy gets burned, the hero finds himself lost.

Hoffie was at the wheel and going at least eighty, which was fine until that semi-truck going sixty swerved into our lane in Connecticut. Now in that situation, there are two things you could do: you could brake, or you could swerve out of your lane into the lane that the semi just swerved out of, figuring that whatever frightened that wimpy little sixty-miles-per-hour semi will not be a match for your eighty-miles-per-hour Volkswagen. Hoffie, always on the watch for a brave chance, went without hesitation for the latter.

Seconds later we slammed directly into the empty car lying inert across the middle lane.

It was quiet. Smoke poured out of the dashboard. “What do we do?” Kevin said. “I guess we better get out,” Hoffie said. Too dazed to find my glasses, I stepped out of the car and blindly crossed two lanes of interstate traffic to the shoulder. Fifteen minutes later I noticed that I was holding a crushed, empty and blurry can of Moxie in my right hand. Then, somewhere in the night, a tire exploded.

So that was how our travels really began. None of us were hurt, but we all decided to get strapped down on boards by the EMS units and taken to the blurry hospital, where we stayed the night, getting x-rayed and sleeping on the waiting room floor. In the morning, Hoffie’s aunt arrived to bring us over to her blurry home in Rhode Island, where she served us the finest blurry bacon and eggs I have had in my life. In the afternoon, we stopped by some place somewhere to take some things out of the totaled car, and then got back to New Hampshire in time for me to make it to the Boston Symphony. But Manhattan was nowhere on the itinerary. The path was winding that would take me there in time, but I never imagined I was still on it until I found myself telling this story to Sebastian and Finbar in Long Island on New Year’s Day, three years later.

“So you see,” I concluded, “we could leave now, get there by three or four, and make it to an early Mass without having to worry about waking up at all.” I said it for a lark, but I knew I had Sebastian hooked when he said, “Amos does not speak to no purpose,” and started looking for his glasses. I crept upstairs to see who else was up that might be enticed, and found Natalie writing at the top of the stairs. We came back down, and Finbar, too, was dressed and ready.

Now, you don’t really want to hear about the songs we sang in the car, the traffic on the way when the expressway was closed, the diner where we had coffee and rice pudding or the people we met there, our call to Kevin Ryan to inform him of the achievement, the many blocks we walked in search of St. Patrick’s, or the garish hypnotism Rockefeller Center may exercise on the sleep-deprived. I know I didn’t want to hear about it afterwards. But when we did get back to Long Island, and I lay down to sleep at last, my darkening hearing met not the still murmur of a household waking, but the definite, unflagging line of Finbar talking to the hosts and guests who had not come, telling them the whole damned thing.

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The Conversationalist

This interview originally ran in the October 2005 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

This interview originally ran in the October 2005 edition of Grub Street Grackle. It appears here online for the first time.

We’re re-releasing two classic Grackle pieces every day through Sep. 26, in celebration of our 10th anniversary. The pieces that get the most attention will be included in a free “Best of the Grackle” audio collection, so please share your favorites. See this post for more details.

Our Exclusive Interview with Lance Sheary

Grub Street Grackle:  Thirty years into your career, you’re still getting a lot of attention, both favorable and critical. How do you feel about your enduring celebrity status?

Lance Sheary:  I don’t much notice the praise; most who speak sympathetically about me don’t seem to me to know what they’re saying; they’re probably just repeating something they heard once. But it still riles me when people call me a hack. It’s a prejudice, I know, that anyone entering into this profession must be prepared to face, but it gets to me all the same. Not that it’s ever hurt business any. I can tell you for a fact that the critics are just as glad to enjoy my services as anyone else, and even to pay for them handsomely, but in exchange for their patronage, they’re convinced it’s their right, even their civic duty, to be patronizing about it.

GSG: Is there some justice in the criticisms of your profession in general? Or is the public perception colored by a few bad apples?

LS: It may be so—no, I’m sure it’s so—that most in my line will do whatever they’re paid to. There are more still whose motivations are betrayed by the thin quality of their output. “Output” is a strange word to use of any writer, I’ve always, thought, but in this case it’s frighteningly appropriate. By and large this is an industry, not a craft.

But still, I must insist that there are those of us who remain true practitioners, and I won’t shy from submitting myself as an example. I work hard and take deep pride in everything I write, despite the obvious fact that in a hundred years my work will all have disappeared and my name will be forgotten, a fact some of the others forget. Everyone talks about the test of time. If it dies, it was worthless.

Once, at the funeral of an acquaintance, I was speaking with an old friend of the deceased. We had been chatting idly for some time when I lit a cigarette.

“Hey,” said the friend, “You know, smoking’s a sign of weakness.”

“So is death,” I said.

I didn’t mean anything by it, but the guy took it really seriously, like I’d called his mother a whore. He wouldn’t talk to me for months. You see what I mean?

So I wrote that one down and kept it on file, just in case I ever needed it. It was a pretty obscure scenario, true, but I thought, it’s good to have a diverse repertoire.

As it turned out, it did come in handy, several years later. Two men had decided that one ought to insult the other at a funeral, and they came to me to fill in the details. I was extremely pleased to have on hand the very thing for them, and, after a few minor adjustments to the opening chit-chat to better suit their circumstances, it was indeed the perfect fit.

Less than a week later, one of the two, the insultee, came in with his girlfriend to plan a break-up (the poor guy’s life was going to pieces). “You’re good,” he said to me, “I am really pissed off!”

Now that one gave me a lot of pleasure.

GSG: Job satisfaction.

LS: You know, I’m not sure you understand. That one little idea had been lodged in my brain all that time, screaming to be used, and finally, I was rid of it, I could throw it away.

GSG: You don’t keep words on file after you’ve used them?

LS: No, I don’t see the point. Someday, soon enough, I’ll be reciting the finer scripts, the ones John wrote down so we’d be ready when we got there. And should I want a few little scratches out of my own weak mind to be neatly preserved down here, probably in someone else’s growing collection of words that won’t die at their own pace? It’s already happening with some of the others. I know of a few who are training apprentices so there will be someone left to guard their treasure when they’re gone. No, I throw mine away, and before I’m done, I’ll empty every file in my office. It’s often delighted me to imagine myself on the top of a hill, giving my words to the wind, letting the wind decide what stays, what goes.

GSG: You’re not writing for posterity.

LS: No, I think I would have got into another line if I were. Novels, or maybe advertising. No, I write just for one moment, for the knowledge that something I created will gave shape to a little piece of time before it fades away forever. I like to think I’ve added a few beautiful moments to history.

GSG: I suppose it doesn’t hurt that you make a killing at it.

LS: Well, that’s a fact. It’s nice to have the luxury of being a patron of the arts when I was exclusively on the other side for so long. At first, I really needed that money; I was just trying to get out of debt. Back then, I had a very professional attitude toward my work, and I always gave people exactly what they wanted.

These days that doesn’t seem so important. I mostly just take the jobs that are the most interesting, and I surprise the customers often.

GSG: Do your customers like that?

LS: Sometimes they don’t. A few months back there was a boy who had a date with this girl he was really crazy about, and they agreed to come to me because he was afraid of not having anything to say. So I wrote up a script in which he had lots of things to say. Thing was, the girl didn’t. I had her speak only once to order linguini alfredo. So the poor kid memorized the pages and pages of lines I’d given him, but the girl wouldn’t open her mouth to anything he said.

He came storming into my office the next day to demand his money back. “You sold me half a conversation,” he said.

“Then I’ll give you half your money back.”

“Don’t joke around with me.” He was fuming, his voice was shaking. “You really messed this one up.” (I don’t think the boy knew any curse words.) “I was counting on you.”

“How did the date go?” I said.

“Well . . . it was good, but only after I threw out your worthless script.”

I gave him his money back.

GSG: Thanks for your time, Lance.

LS: Not at all. It’s been a pleasure to talk like this.

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Jane Austen’s Broken Spine: Re-reading and Forgetting

5411945096_a4922d9f3c_mMy wife’s copy of Pride and Prejudice falls open naturally (that is, by a second nature in which its reader has thoroughly trained it) to a certain page near the middle of the book, in Chapter 35. This pivotal chapter consists almost entirely of a letter from Mr. Darcy to Elizabeth Bennet, in which he explains the motives of his actions in such a way that Elizabeth’s judgment of him is overturned–along with her judgment of herself. All along she has prided herself on her keen and unperturbed insight, on commanding a clear view of the hearts of men. The letter from Darcy is a letter of introduction, which introduces Elizabeth to two men she thought she knew. But more than that it introduces her to herself. Her reflections on the letter culminate with the astonishing exclamation, “Till this moment, I never knew myself.”

Reading Darcy, Elizabeth discovers herself. And reading Chapter 35, we in turn discover ourselves; for the typical reader of Pride and Prejudice will go along with Elizabeth’s self-understanding throughout the first half, all the while maintaining a confidence in his own ability to interpret the character. The discovery of Elizabeth’s failure to read herself is at the same time an indictment of the reader’s failure to read. This indictment is part of exactly what makes the book worth reading, and why adaptations and sentimental evaluations of it are doomed to rob it of its treasure.

But there is a puzzle wrapped up in this central passage of self-discovery (a puzzle I will leave as an open question to conclude this post). It is undeniably the crucial event of the novel, and as the broken spine of many a copy attests, it is eminently re-readable. So what could be stranger than declaring that it would better be destroyed and forgotten? But that is exactly what Mr. Darcy advises towards the end of the novel. Elizabeth consents, indicating that the letter itself is an empty document, and at another point even says that her former feelings were best forgotten. The letter of introduction has done its work, and now that Darcy and Elizabeth have by its mediation come to know themselves and each other, there remains no need for it.

Yet the letter does remain, and even constitutes the most impressive passage of an impressive book. To be sure, the letter is preserved for readers of the book rather than for Elizabeth. But if, as I claim, the letter introduces us to ourselves as much as it Elizabeth to herself, why do we still need it once we have learned the lesson? Should we stop reminding ourselves of what we were like before we read it? Is there ever a time when we stop re-reading Chapter 35 of Pride and Prejudice?

(A version of this post originally appeared on August 23, 2008)

Image credit: “This Book” by flickr user Bob AuBuchon, used under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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Another Way to Listen to People

The first time I read Eudora Welty’s “Why I Live at the P.O.,” (you know, the story you read in high school to learn about unreliable narrators), I took everything the narrator said for gospel. I followed carefully along, point by point, as she mounted her case against her family and justified her every move, completely unaware of the irony, obvious to everyone with any literary sensitivity or a copy of the Sparknotes, that with every piece of evidence Sister recites, she is exposing herself as a vindictive, score-keeping bitch. I only knew one way to listen to someone, and that was to gather the facts as she laid them down.

So for me, “Why I Live at the P.O.” read like a slam dunk prosecutor’s case in a courtroom drama, and as a fan of “Law and Order” I wanted more. Imagine my confusion when I sat down to read “Keela the Outcast Indian Maiden,” the tale of a retired chicken-head-eating carnival geek who receives a visit from a feckless former colleague, accompanied by a local shopkeeper who wants to have nothing to do with either of them.

In this story, too, there is something like a trial, only here, the prosecution rested its case ages ago, and the verdict passed not guilty, but the defense continues pleading in the most inept style. Nobody seems to be listening to anyone and there are always at least two conversations going on at once. In short, the first time I read “Keela” I felt disoriented and confused and did not want to read any more Welty.

image by Victoria Reay

image by Victoria Reay

This week I read the story again, but this time I paid attention to the physical details, instead of rushing past them to get to the action and dialog (as TV has trained me to do). Now here is another way to listen to someone, that you have to learn if you’re going to understand Eudora Welty. When people talk about body language, usually they mean that the position of a person’s body expresses a feeling the person has. But whose feelings are expressed in a tableau like this: “The little man at the head of the steps where the chickens sat, one on each step, and the two men facing each other below made a pyramid.” Here, “body language” would mean that bodies in the physical world speak by way of their relations to each other, and that human beings take responsibility for the saying of things when they step in among these relations. And in some way the saying is the thing itself. Here, three unimportant men are responsible for justice. A higher justice, in which the defendant pays homage to the plaintiff, and the witness for the prosecution faces judgment together with the defendant as his brother.

Yes, I am still talking about a short story about a sideshow barker, a geek, and some other third guy who just wants to go home. Read it if you don’t believe me.

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The Jomes Rag and Bone Shop, Limited

If you wanted to listen to Rictor Jomes bare his heart and reveal his secrets, this is not your lucky day. But if you want to hear him dodge questions and prevaricate, you have come to the right place. Last year I had the sad fate of interviewing Mr. Jomes over the telephone, and I am sorry to say that I am now sharing the first 10 minutes of that conversation with you.

jomes

And if for some insupportable reason you want to suffer through more of this kind of thing, then all you need do to further explore Rictor Jomes’s factory of lies is to click this attractive button and relinquish $9 from your bank account:



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