… [I]n small, hopelessly sincere handwriting, were the words, “Dear God, life is hell.” Nothing led up to or away from it.
—J.D. SalingerFrom where I stand it’s as if I can see a set of steps descending before me. Down they go, one at a time, while I perch, conceptually, somewhere near the imagined top, each step waiting to lower me into decrepitude of one sort or another. I am fifty and have yet to really feel my age. So far little has failed me, though the other day I broke a tooth and the barest edge of the illusion began to fray, and clichéd though they are, those steps appeared.
This happened after the meeting with Janette, the one where she said, “Write a piece intended to appeal to the widest possible audience.” Actually, she wrote those very words on the back of the piece we were discussing at writers’ group and handed it to me. “That’s your assignment,” she said, “Even though you never do anything I say,” which is not entirely true, though often true enough.
Quite possibly I’m the last person who should ever attempt to describe the stories I write. To say that I often undermine the purpose of what popular fiction aspires to is one way to think of it, but I’m equally comfortable with my hazy attempts to bypass the conventions of its “higher” forms as well. Why? Oh God, I don’t know. Perhaps because I was told I shouldn’t.
If rejection slips were money, I’d be rich.
What would that story look like, the one I’m not writing? And what is “the widest possible audience”? What do they want? Romance? Do they want to be titillated? Do you show them people trying and failing and trying again and succeeding? Is that the formula? Give them an underdog, someone to care about? Someone who’s basically good but flawed and succeeds despite it? And do all the words have to be ones any grade 9 graduate could understand?
I can’t. Not deliberately. And I can’t tell you why I can’t. But there seem to be principles involved.
What have we got so far then?
We have a laboured suggestion of metafiction with the author tapping out his dreary claim to be standing at the top of some sorry set of steps. That’s about it. Not even funny. Squalor? There’s little of that. No vomiting in trash cans, no allusion to anyone losing his f-a-c-u-l-t-i-e-s. Just the idea that sooner or later it’s all downhill from here. Or to overstate the case: “Dear God, life is hell.”
Too melancholy? It’s a pretty word, but a sentiment best avoided.
So, to escape that, here’s a very short unfathomable story in which there is no melancholy, no plot and even less sense, a story that might be about reaching fifty and doing just fine, or perhaps it’s just words in search of a story, a mere suggestion:
The landing craft, just one of many in this unnumbered wave, approaches the beach. The crowd huddled in its hull are a happy lot, drinking tea and coffee, eating fruit salad and Queen Elizabeth cake and banana bread covered with thick pats of butter.
The beach ahead is still a ways off. Some look at it with binoculars, others claim to see it unaided, and still others can’t be bothered about the beach, since it too, like everything else in this story is merely wishing it represented something, and in fact, more people are looking back, trying to come to terms with the ups and downs and shortcomings of the crossing so far.
And so it is. An invasion of fools, or rather, an indiscriminate gathering and the fools just happen to outnumber everyone else by a wide margin.
One leans towards another and says: “Were you born old?”
The look back is one of pleasant confusion, the question repeated: “Were you born old?”
“No. I don’t think so.”
“Me neither. Don’t tell anyone, but I like it this way.”
The landing, when they eventually find the beach, goes swimmingly. All get wet. All get sand in their shoes. Everyone winds up in the crosshairs of someone else, but it’s to be expected. Such endeavours are not without risk.
The ensuing procession through Europe—or wherever this is—is diverted here and there by various stops at trellis-shaded cafes and quaint village inns with holy books in bed-side tables written in languages no one speaks any longer. Not really. And in this way, an agreeable number of misunderstandings are avoided. And everyone sleeps well.
Everyone. Or so the fantasy goes.
A few puzzled souls stay up late to take a second glass of wine, perhaps a third, perhaps some brandy or a little schnapps. The air is cooling, the sun has long set. Dew falls on the small, cloistered gardens. Questions get asked. Always more questions, but that’s fine. Just knowing there are questions is a great comfort, a balm for those with doubts, especially when the questions are understood, the reasons for asking in the first place, acknowledged.
A plate of biscuits appears, some bowls of dried fruit, a round of cheese on a worn cutting board.
At one point, to illustrate one thing or another, somebody laughs and recounts a brief but very old vignette of two men, hunched over with age. One of the men cries out when a willow branch suddenly begins to grow from his shoulder. The other asks, “Do you mind?” The first says, “No. We came here to watch life pass and life has caught up with me. Why should I mind?”
It’s not clear if there’s anything to be garnered from this, but everyone nods and smiles all the same as if there must be something to it.
A Corporal arrives. He steps into their midst, wearing dusty olive drab and looks as if he has probably spent the day behind the wheel of a jeep. He has a letter from his girl, back stateside, his girl Loretta. “She says the darnedest things,” he says, “The darnedest things” and scratches his head. His presence is neither welcome nor unwelcome. He has merely arrived to accentuate the contrast between those who are touched by events and those who are not.
What events? Why, any event louder than a whisper. Any event worth more than two nickels and a dime.
“Well,” says the corporal, beginning to back away, “I just wanted to bring you your mail.” And he leaves a stack of envelopes and packages on the table nearest him, adding that there’s a dance going on a little ways down the hill, in case anyone’s interested. “No?” he says, no one having stirred at his mentioning it. “Then I’ll cut a rug for you.”
And he leaves. And he leaves. And he leaves.
Non sequitur, non sequitur, non sequitur.
The envelopes are handed round. One package is opened. The stamps are first admired. They are beautiful, as are all the various markings showing how the package has been redirected over the years. Inside is a broken watch and—since it is not only possible to write it but also to imagine it—a long and dwindling list of people who’s hearts were moved and how and why.
Oh, such indulgence! Whatever for?
God so help me, I do not know. Respect perhaps. Curiosity. Since over at the edge of things, off in a corner, there’s movement, and a certain Sergeant, until now unnoticed and half-asleep, says, “I miss anything important?”
“Ah,” says a voice, affable, authorial. “Well… no. Not really. Just a bit of fluff. And people growing old.”
As if rehearsed, someone stands and takes the broken watch to the Sergeant, saying, “This came for you. Like always.”
The Sergeant nods, or something like it, and he too grows old. He takes the watch and looks off into the warm night, and in his way, when seen in a certain light, is almost dignified, while I… I lower whatever defenses I had. I surrender and mumble my apologies to Esme.
Where to from here? Well, we could open our eyes and watch the wind bring down branches or we could stand by the skid-marks where the car went into the river. Random personal details, obscure, I know.
Or… Quite on my own, I could go to the dentist and get my tooth fixed and watch as the steps mist over again for a spell, hiding them for later. Something like that. Not forgetting this began with losing the corner of a tooth. And not shedding a tear either. Even if time has played freely with what I once thought so solid.
The photo credit is to John Climenhage.