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