“Writing your name can lead to writing sentences. And the next thing you’ll be doing is writing paragraphs, and then books. And then you’ll be in as much trouble as I am!”
—Henry David Thoreau
James Harper Wells sat staring at the bright white of the computer screen, at a desk covered with all manner of clutter. There were newspaper clippings, energy bar wrappers, an empty coffee mug. Opened and unopened mail. Jewel cases for CDs. Blank CDs. CDs left out, stacked up. Music magazines, books. Books of poetry. Biographies. Books as inspiration. There was a stapler without staples. Headphones for an iPod that no longer worked. Pens with names and numbers of hotels he never remembered staying at advertised along the side. Pencils, erasers, Hi-Liters. Scraps of lined paper, some with coffee-stains, torn from ringed notebooks that had odd notes scrawled on them, random words seeming to correspond to nothing but themselves. And endless sheets of copy paper, written, sketched, printed on, of varying uses and importance, strewn about.
Beside him, near the edge of the desk, sitting on top of some papers being used as a sort of makeshift placemat, was a plate from lunch, an abstract smatter of tomato sauce caked on, knife and fork resting across it.
A desk that doubled as a dinner table.
He spent many of his waking hours here. An island of leisurely and work-related amusements, everything required to get through the day within arm’s reach. A controlled chaos he placed himself in the middle of, the heat of.
Before breaking for lunch he’d spent his morning typing three quarters of a page of new words, what amounted to a single long block of black lettering that he now could only look at vaguely, blankly, like one would the scene of an accident, unable or unwilling to bring himself to focus on the particulars.
Two years. He had given himself two years. The timetable laid out. And he was now well into the second year.
Funds were running low. There was the student loan he cashed out and would soon need to begin paying back. Also what was left of his savings, what was meant to be put towards graduate school.
He wasn’t working, not at present. At one time he held various part-time jobs. At a grocery store stocking shelves. In charge of inventory at a hardware store. Clerk at a video store. Janitor at the energy plant.
He would get fired. Or quit. All those times he couldn’t be bothered to break off from his writing, when it was really taking off. He couldn’t justify it to himself, having to give up his precious hours to something he felt only stifled his imagination.
It was a drain on his creative energies, he would tell others, family and friends, when they pressed him for an update on his current activities.
“You’re not serious?” said Melody. They had just come from a movie, a “rom-com.” Not particularly well-written, he’d thought. Derivative. Inconsequential. Not even that funny. An attractive but goofy single woman, clumsy, somewhat ditzy, crosses paths with a charismatic, blandly handsome career man with a checkered dating past. Personalities clash. Then gradually they take to each other, finally falling for each other. They learn things. A popular song plays on the soundtrack. Ninety minutes. It’s all so easy and fun and pat. The ending not so much inspiring thoughtful conversation afterwards—a meditation on modern relationships within a culture dominated by impersonal communication, say—as have you exiting the theater into the still night air feeling a kind of contented emptiness, like after buying a new shirt or pair of jeans, or finishing off your third plate of pasta during Tuesday’s All-You-Can-Eat special at Luigi’s Pizza Palace, the little Italian restuarant tucked away downtown, around the corner off Main. It depressed him. It was everything he wanted to avoid in his own writing.
But she seemed to have liked it.
They were at a coffee shop pensively sipping cinnamon-spiked espressos when he brought up the news of his latest, and what he said was sure to be his final, employment termination.
“Absolutely I am. I have to do this,” he said. “Scott Fitzgerald and Hunter Thompson both had their first books written by the time they were twenty-two. Look at me. I’m already twenty-three. Soon to be twenty-four. Philip Roth was twenty-six when he won the National Book Award.”
He was always throwing out names like this, names of writers she’d never heard of—Kafka said this, Conrad did that—a novelty, a quirk, the appeal of which having worn off some time ago. The way he casually brought them up, sprinkled them into conversations, it was like they were people he’d known personally, grown up with and had moved away but still kept in occasional contact, through email or Facebook. Any day now she expected to be invited out for dinner with one of them, this queer Bukowski fellow, say, and so have them made real. Name given its proper, physical form.
“I still think it’s crazy,” she said.
“It’s not crazy. You’re crazy.” He took a generous sip, grimaced from the near scalding temperature, then put the cup down and looked at her earnestly. “It feels like, honestly, it feels like everything in my life has led up to this point.”
“You’re referring to the passage of time.”
“I’m referring to my work. The novel in progress. It’s a monumental undertaking, all that you have to juggle to make it come off. I’m on the verge of a breakthrough. I can feel it.”
Melody rolled her eyes and turned her head away from the table. There was a time when this sort of sudden, self-serving decision-making, these heedless excursions into the grandiose he took, would have excited her, thrilled her even.
She examined a framed painting on the wall near the shop’s entrance, between a large window and the door. It was a watercolor of a man and woman. They were strolling hand-in-hand through the park amidst a splatter of golden swirls, splashes of autumnal reds and oranges filling out the background. It was a classic image, timeless. The man had on a trench coat and fedora. The woman a burgundy scarf, her long brown hair flowing out behind her like a ragged cape. Both smiling. They seemed so happy.
“It’s hard to explain,” he continued. “The whole creative process, it’s too...” James fell silent, absently tapping a finger on the table. He searched his mind, looking for the single word that would bring understanding and closure to the matter. Then settled on:
She sighed and turned back to him, her face not registering a reaction.
“If you say so.”
What did she know about these things, the whims and worries of the creative artist? She had never gone to college. Since graduating high school she’d worked as a waitress at various bars and restaurants in town. She met James during a six month stint at the Caufield Bar and Grill. He would come in occasionally, with friends or else alone, a checkered comp book nestled under an arm, pulling up a stool at the bar or hunkering down in a booth near the back, laying low, observing things, taking in the atmosphere.
He looked ambitious, she thought, whatever that meant. He was there, a part of his surroundings, but also removed from them, consumed by something else, something less tangible but bigger than it all. The idle drunkenness, full of cheery cynicism and tedious complaining, groinal humor and good-natured epithets—all part of the testy currents running just under the placid surfaces of small town chatter.
Maybe he was going somewhere. Maybe he wasn’t. The people she dealt with on a regular basis, it was tough sometimes to tell the difference.
He hadn’t shown much interest in her at first, leaving her to make the first move. She’d bring over his drinks, hovering over his booth a moment with an easy, open smile, waiting for the line to come to her that would start them off, take them beyond the usual what-can-I-get-ya patron-waitress banter. But he’d only look up, mumble a few words of appreciation for her services, and return to his notebook, jotting down more notes. Over time, she became almost jealous of those notes, whatever it was he was writing. But then again that would be ridiculous.
Then one day, as she approached his booth to take his order, she noticed a weathered copy of One Hundred Years of Solitude on the table.
“Hey, I’ve read him,” she said, gesturing to the book.
James stopped in the middle of what he was writing and dropped his pen, his eyes suddenly coming to life, slightly shocked and startled. Almost fearful, she thought.
“You’ve read it?”
“Well, no, not…”
“What about Love in the Time of Cholera?”
“Who’s that by?”
“Oh. No,” she said. “But I remember having to read a short story by him for an English class. About an avenging dentist or something. I don’t know. It was a long time ago. What I remember is his name. When a person goes by three names it’s hard to forget. It’s like poetry, the way it dances on the tongue and gets resolved.”
“I think I know what you mean.”
Melody wasn’t her real name. That is, her name of birth. Her full name was Melinda Olena Davies. One of those things growing up that seems to slip out of one’s control. Through a gradual process of reduction and reshaping, of having it tossed around, played with by people, morphed and twisted, it was given back to her in its present form. Melody.
“Do you read much poetry?”
“Not really,” she said. “Not any more. I mean, there was a year there in high school when I became sort of obsessed with Sylvia Plath. But I think every girl goes through that phase.”
James chuckled, let it die out, and with a slight tremor in his voice said, “I always preferred Anne Sexton myself. She was less wild in her images but had a better sense of form.”
His gaze dropped to the table.
“Is that so?”
He looked back up at her. She caught something pass through his eyes, quick and tense, hard to pin down. A hurt, a heaviness, a loss. It took her aback. Then she found an instant familiarity in it which became a source of comfort. Like a dying deer on the side of the road, she thought.
“Just my opinion,” he said.
The next day before work she stopped off at the bookstore down the block. She found a copy of Anne Sexton’s Collected Poems on the lone, sparsely-filled shelf of poetry. She paid for it and slipped it into her bag, pulling it out and leafing through it during breaks, becoming more and more curious about this odd boy and the secret knowledge he was keeping to himself.
He continued coming in to scribble, sit and sip, often during times she was working. They struck up a rapport. Shaky at first, it eventually found its own logic, and they moved it outside the dim, noisy surroundings of the bar, and started seeing each other the next month. It was October.
In the weeks and months that followed his coffee shop announcement to Melody, James made sporadic progress on the novel. Holed up in his one room apartment. Anchoring himself to his desk. He usually worked late at night, keeping nocturnal hours, moving ahead fitfully. At the best of times he’d get on a roll, knocking off page after page in steady succession. But just as often he slowed to a standstill, having to fight for every word, every sentence, every fragment.
Regardless of his productivity, he was never entirely happy with the end results. There was always something about it that, reading it over, made him turn away. Something was off. Not quite right. He tried to go on, ignore it as best he could. But the more he wrote on the more obvious it became.
The manifold problems were persistant in asserting their presence.
For one thing, the characters were flat and lifeless. They moved mechanically, rigidly, like they were strapped to an inverted table and being pushed around on a set of crooked wheels. At the same time, the overall form was fuzzy, dispersive. His exposition digressive in the extreme—dipping at times into the abyss of abstraction. Adjectives that missed the mark. Adverbs that were there for no other reason than to draw attention to themselves as prosaic adornment. He couldn’t get a handle on it—attend to the artful shaping and scrupulous cutting so obviously required. But above all, the biggest problem he found, what really ate away at his writerly confidence—small and fleeting as it was to begin with—was he couldn’t for the life of him make the sentences sing. Consistently. Not like the writers he admired.
In their assured hands, they were capable of making magic out of mere words. Transformative. They had the ability to take even the simplest language and wring it for all its mercy and meaning, impact and implication. Give it a haunting resonance. Fire-branded with emotion. Phrases and images that, when read for the first time, even after multiple readings, detonated in the mind with a fateful blast, a penetrating shock that continued to linger on, a wave, a tremble, a flicker, a spark, potent and alive like an exposed wire, for days and weeks after. What did the masters have that he was lacking?
He sat staring at his dead words on the screen trying to think up ways of zapping them to life. Nothing was coming. He gave up, clicked on his web browser and watched the homepage load. The flashes of distraction, the instantenous feeding of information, a temporary cyber haven from the psychic storm swelling up inside him.
There were five or six sites he visited daily while working, their addresses appearing at the top of his search history. One was eBay. Though he didn’t have sufficient funds to make many purchases, he liked to search the names of his favourite writers and pore over the results. Mostly what came up were used copies of their books—the occasional first edition, the rare signed copy, legitimate or otherwise. Sometimes he came across bits of merchandise: homemade t-shirts, lighters. Mugs displaying their silhouette. Posters of their grainy black-and-white image blown-up to full size. Framed portraits of them appearing effete, coy, unassuming. In others, there was a playfully mischievousness in their expressions, lit up as if in response to some private joke being shared between themselves and the camera. But in others still there something far darker subsumed in their features, the author’s brooding gaze projecting a severity—an inexhaustible angst, a barely concealed cosmic sense of indignation.
It was true they weren’t known for their longevity, these writers whose work James was drawn to, whose observations on the human condition, meditations on the eternal questions, stirred something strong and unnameable in him. It came with the terrority, he supposed. The risks one assumed in approaching this line of work. And left it at that.
Of these literary flameouts was an east coast writer by the name of Howard Dexter Moses. Writing in the early seventies, Moses’ debut short story collection was lauded by critics, claimed to be the brave new voice of the post-Love Generation. The only other published work of his was a slim novel about his youth in Denmore, a once thriving mill town located fifty miles from where James grew up. Considered an immature work, it nevertheless demonstrated the same flashes of brilliance found in his earlier short stories. Next was to be the Great Novel, the one that would realize all the raw, teeming potential found in his earlier work, and vaunt him into the literary big leagues.
It never came to be. His death, before the age of thirty, was, as they say, shrouded in mystery. Differing accounts were brought forth and spread around the college town where he lived and wrote and occasionally taught, amongst the east coast literary circles that first championed his work. Further speculation was provided by the morbidly inclined hearsayers, less interested in his artistic output than the unseemlier details of the case. But over time a general consensus was reached, and the ensuing years seemed to only confirm what had long since passed into fact: that the gunshot wound that killed him was self-inflicted.
Rumours got kicked around about the novel-to-be, its literary potential, but nothing was ever recovered. Some said he had given instructions, prior to his death, to his widow, a then twenty-three year old graduate student and office secretary, to burn any and all of his papers left behind. Others said it was stolen during a break-in of the lakeside cabin where the writer had been known to disappear to for months.
Stories like these had fallen into the lore surrounding Moses, and his was name given up largely to obscurity, save for the few aspiring writers who, through chance or a bit of digging, stumbled upon his stingy output and became as much transfixed by the myth as the work itself.
James typed in his name and waited for the results to load.
There were eleven results for Howard Moses. Five of them were for his short story collection, three for his novella, Seaside Memories. Two were for used copies of his collected letters. James read all them including the letters, most of which were addressed to his mother while he was away at college, and then later on an unidentified woman—younger or older, who knew? Not his wife—known only as “KEL.”
James scrolled down the page. There was one other result. Something called WHERE THE WIND BLOWS BY HOWARD D.J. MOSES. In the linked title the seller had typed *RARE*. No image accompanied the item, no avatar. James was curious and clicked the link. The listing page came up. The seller’s name was mack_da_knife65, operating somewhere out of Arizona. The seller’s description was limited to a few oblique sentences.
This auction is for a used one of a kind hardcover book by the world famous American writer Moses D.J. Howard. Some of the pages starting to yellow and has a loose spine (reconstructed) but good condition overall. 880 pgs. Big! Limited print run made. Hard to find item. Perfect for collections! Payment options: Major credit cards accepted but PayPal preferred.
He stared at the screen, incredulous. Splittered impressions began to take shape in his mind, crisscrossing, back-and-forth, drifting into and out of each other—finally realized in a series of half-committed questions. But before any of them could fully register, he already placed a bid, twenty-five dollars higher than the previous one—the only other one placed thus far—and was now the High Bidder.
James closed the webpage and pulled his writing back up. He started to read over the words, methodically, searchingly, looking for some new hook or insight. Some way in. He brought his fingers to the keyboard to start a new sentence when the phone rang. He got up and answered it.
Michael, a friend of from college, was back in town. He wanted to meet for drinks. It was just the excuse James needed.
They were sitting together in a bar, the same one they once frequented during college. It had a pool table, leather couch and Sundays were karaoke night. It was just like old times, only different.
James was drinking the beer of the day, Michael a scotch and water. This was a new development. There were also changes in his general appearance. His formerly loose dark curls were now slicked back, flattened out into a domed shield melded to his skull. He leaned back in his chair with a hand fastened to his drink, like an anchor. He was wearing a shirt and tie, a button undone at the collar.
“Hell of a thing, being back here. Nothing’s changed a bit. It’s the story with hometowns. So what have you been doing with yourself, Jim? Still holding on to the writing dream?”
“Working at it, I guess. What can you do? Call me cursed. You write anymore?"
“The only writing I do these days is legal briefings and the occasional love note.”
“You should get back to writing your own stuff. Hell, you were a better writer than me. And with half the effort.”
“Jim, my man, you’re too kind.” Michael threw his head back and called out: “Somebody get this man another drink!” He turned back to James. “I was set on it for a time. What can you do? Folly of youth, I suppose. But I woke up. Realized that if I was going to dedicate myself to something, I needed to be compensated for it. You know as well as I that this is the age of digital entertainment. CGI movies. Electronic media. There’s no market, no living to be had in plain old words. Now it’s all about the visual, the concrete, the real. What’s there in front of you, see.”
He cocked his head to the side, studying the ice in his glass, then glanced up, shooting a look across the table at James. “Sorry for the spiel, Jim. I don’t mean to be that guy. The one warning you of the peril that lies ahead. Silly. What do I know? Here I am, just back. Haven’t seen or heard nothing from me in well over a year. Just ignore it. Do what you’re going to do. Don’t let my sermons deter you.”
“I won’t. And you’re wrong. They still have value. Words. And the writers who write them. They’re needed today more than ever. Someone bringing truth into a world that increasingly has less and less of it. Who else if not the writer?”
“That’s a nice sentiment, Jimmy, old boy. To the humble few that plod on, in spite of it all,” he said, holding up his glass. He lowered it and took a sip. “No, but seriously. There was a time not too long ago, back in my idealistic days, you might say, that I would have agreed with you. But look. Truth’s become an outdated commodity. It has no currency in today’s market. We strive not for truth but compensation. It’s in our blood. Instilled in us over the generations. Important to us as food and shelter. And if you don’t realize that, than on some level you’ll always be lying to yourself.”
“Oh, I see. I get it. That’s what you want to be a lawyer for. This whole rationalization of yours. It’s to give you carte blanche to rake in all you can, and to hell with the rest.”
“Yes and no.” Michael leaned forward, elbows on the table. “The way I see it, it’s a compromise. Do I still want to effect social change, the way writers were once able to? Yes, for sure. Truth and Beauty and lounging under apple trees waiting for the song of the nightingale. Open people up, you know. Affect people’s lives in a positive way. That’s still the aim of the game. But now I can do it in a more direct way. Focusing those aims through practising law. And if I stick to that, well, the rest will take care of itself.” He flashed James a wicked grin. “Come over to the dark side, James. It’s not too late. Put that philosophy degree of yours to use.”
“I don’t know,” he said. “Right now I’ve got too much invested in it. Besides, I can’t picture myself doing anything else. I’d have to become a completely different person. Shed my old skin. I'm not prepared to do that.”
“You’re never too old to change,” said Michael. “Only too dead.” He sipped his drink. “So how far along are you now in this For Whom the Bell Tolls magnum opus of yours?”
“It’s hard to say. I’m too deep into it. It’s hard to be objective. It all blurs together. The meaning is buried. But what can I do? Can’t turn back now. Only soldier on.”
“Well, don’t kill yourself over it. It’s important to step back. Appreciate the finer things in life. There’s never a day goes by that I don’t remind myself that anytime all this”—he spread his arms out in a sweeping gesture that took in the whole room—“can be taken away.”
He picked up his drink, pointing a finger at James with the same hand, ice swishing around in the glass as he spoke. “Perspective, my friend. That’s what’s important. See the big picture.” He looked at James, letting his words sink in. His cheeks were flushed from the scotch, eyes reflecting either sorrow or pity—or maybe that was the scotch, also.
“Self-knowledge,” he continued. “Don’t let yourself be defined by your circumstances. Know who you are and what your aim is. Always be true, that way you’ll never lose.” He brought the glass to his lips. “My oh my,” he said. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe I should have been a poet instead.” He finished off the rest of his drink, the ice crunching around the bottom of the glass as he brought it down.
“Let’s get another round here!” he called out to no one in particular.
They kept it going after that night. A three day drunk during which time they got caught up, brought their lives back into the present. On the fourth day James was back at his apartment. Having groggily roused himself with coffee and an aspirin, he sat down at the computer to check his email. In his inbox was a message from eBay. CONGRATULATIONS! YOU ARE THE WINNING BIDDER OF WHERE THE WIND BLOWS BY HOWARD D.J. MOSES *RARE*.
A week later a package arrived. James signed for it, took it inside and cut open the brown wrapping and extracted its contents.
It was big alright. A weighty tome. He held it in his hands, turning it around and around, examining it as one would a piece of fruit for blemishes. He cracked the cover, letting the wide spine rest in his palm while thumbing through pages, slowly at first, then rapidly, in a rhythmic flicking, fanning through large chunks at once. A wisp of a breeze, marked by a stale, acerbic smell, like the dusty, old furniture in Grandma Wells’ basement, caught his face.
The pages were indeed aged some years, decades probably, loose and dry and fraying. The plain red hardcover that contained them was obviously a homemade job, constructed out of a tough, cheap cardboard material, fitted and glued together, with the only lettering being the title, printed in all caps, in black marker.
Even now as he held it in his hands, physical, real, affirmed, the questions were still with him. The mystery of its origins remained.
He got down to it. He spent the next week on the couch, camped out reading it through, beginning to end.
The story followed a Midwestern couple, the Wheatleys, and their four children, three boys and a girl, that had moved east and settled down in New Vestment, an industrial boom town on the rise just as war was breaking out—Germany having already invaded Poland. At a glance it seemed like a traditional tale, an examination of familial bonds and breakages spanning decades, a throwback to the kind of sprawling generational epics once popular when being penned by the likes of Thomas Wolfe, Steinbeck and others.
It would seem dated now if not for the structure. The nonlinear narrative, though nothing new for its time, cast a new light over the relationships, saw them from a different angle. There was a mounting tension in its main plotline, which followed the oldest son, Byron, a longshoreman who’d been ostracised from the family during a misspent youth, and his struggle, now that he was grown up, with the bureaucratic workings of the town’s major banking firm. His story was placed alongside the father’s earlier rise to corporate wealth and eventual fall into delusion and senility.
A building narrative tension, unfolding as it simultaneously closed in, tightened. Their stories intersecting, bumping up against each other in an uneasy dialectic of chance and causality. One not so much following the other as mirroring it, the two men’s fates interlocked, sealed together, despite the thirty years separating them and their circumstances.
He could see where it was leading, he knew. It was inevitable, how it would end. There could be only one outcome. But he was drawn in all the same, seeking confirmation, belief solidified. He read on, inhaling a hundred pages or more at a sitting. The action built and built as fewer and fewer pages remained. And then it stopped. Just like that. Plenty of rising action but no final climax.
It just ended, abruptly, inconclusively.
He put the book down and looked over to check the time. It was late. Three-thirty according to the illuminated digits on the microwave clock.
He felt an exhaustion he’d never felt before. Not so much shattered by the intense focus, the prolonged mental play of eye and object, eye and word—deciphering, sorting, retaining, recalling—as he was relieved, what felt like a purging. A weightlessness enveloped him.
In the bathroom he ran the tap, splashing lukewarm water on his face. As he patted himself down with a hand towel he caught a glimpse of something in the mirror that stopped him cold. He stared ahead starkly, charged with a disorienting sense of a ghostly presence, of this shadowy self reflected back at him. The stranger whose gaze he shared.
Back in the main room, he went over to the kitchenette, taking a beer out of the fridge and over to his desk. He opened a web browser and popped the cap on his beer and took a sip while waiting for it to load. He put on music, some plaintive Will Oldham album, and opened a folder in his Favourites menu labelled HDM. A stream of links spilled down. He clicked one.
It was a link to an essay written for an online literary journal on the life and mysterious death of Howard Dexter Moses. Of the many searches he performed on the writer, this was the only substantive piece he could find, researched and annotated, including interviews with friends and colleagues. He had read through it twice already and began reading it again, hoping to perhaps make some unconscious connection between the author as he was represented in the essay and the book he had just finished.
He read until strain on his eyes from the light of the screen became too much. He minimized the page and leaned back, downing another slug of beer.
It seemed plausible enough, that it was the work of Moses. The style was unlike any of the other writing of his that he had read, but he recognized the hallmarks, embryonic as they might have been, of the earlier work. The indistinct longing for home. The mad need for personal expansion, to test and stretch the walls of self. The resigned isolation underpinning his characters, which they wore like a second skin. The choking power of the past and the beating onrush of the future. Even the meatier, more textured prose, for the first time given free reign in the long novel form, were tempered by a melancholy, a stoical sadness that seeped off of every page.
He brought the webpage back up and scrolled to the bottom where there was a photo of Moses, the only one he’d been able to find, the one on the dust jackets of all his books.
He had even started to look like him, he thought. Take on his qualities in some dimly discernable way. The neat, trimmed beard. Solemn forehead. Pale, thin hair receding above the temples and parted at the side. He stared at the photo like he had so many times before but with a new intensity. His features were downcast, head bent forward, as if in prayer, sombre reflection. Chin swallowed up by his open collar. Eyes that might have been closed though it was hard to tell, darkened as they were by shadow. The crown of his head was lit brighter than the rest, halo-like, contrasting with the darker grays shading the side of his profile. From an overhead light most likely. But the religious connotations were not lost on him. There was an irony there. Or was it coincidence? In the essay it mentioned his conversion, in his mid-twenties, to Catholicism. This accounted for the extra initial, they said, the J. sometimes included in his name, and only made his end a scant few years later all the more baffling.
So maybe it was and maybe it wasn’t. Who could know for sure? How many others had read it? He had googled the title, and though it brought back 3,720,000 results, they were all for pages that were either variations on it or had the words randomly contained within the body of the article.
He couldn’t know for sure, and yet he was sure of one thing. It was an amazing piece of work. Even without a proper ending, there was the compelling command of language throughout, an insistent thrust to the narrative that never let up for one page. The characters complex, layered. And just then, as he thought back on his reading, he felt a sudden sense of hopelessness, of sinking and utter futility at the realization that it was something he could never match. He could continue to write and write day in and day out for the next hundred years, into the total destitution that loomed with the next rent payment, and never come close to that concentration of scene and character. Rendering the unrenderable. A gesture, a look, life momentarily captured and distilled to its essence. Held under the lens to reveal the subtle intricacies and eye-flicker movements of things.
Sitting there in the familiar confines of his workspace, he felt a strange ache rise up inside him. It wasn’t anything he was used to, related in any way to the typical tensions associated with the creative process at its most grim and grinding. The precision demands of a tricky descriptive passage, frantic tightening of a loose-hanging plot thread. No, nothing like that. It was an elusive yearning, without attachment or intention. Lean, unprocessed desire. It gnawed at him, whatever it was. As if he hadn’t eaten for a week, body left reeling. A deprivation accompanied by a dizzying, vacant cry that echoed, both shrill and sonorous, all through him. And then there it was, crystallized. What it meant. Bitten with absolute certainty. The terrible, inescapable knowing that everything he had done up until that point, the last year-and-a-half of work and anticipation he had given himself over to, had been for naught.
He turned back to his desk in near collapse, his elbow knocking over some papers that swished off the desk and landed with a light slap against the linoleum floor. He ignored them, head held in his hands staring down at the keys. F-G-H-J. It was code, he thought, a puzzle. Something to be deciphered. Inaccessible to immediate understanding. He rubbed his temples, looking over his brow at the screen. Right palm settling over the mouse, he moved the cursor about the screen. And then, as if to bear out the doubtless fact that now resided in him like a soundless, resounding scream, appropriate the apprehension such a heightened, delirious state brought him to, he moved a file on his desktop labelled NOVEL IN PROG over to the Recycle Bin and right-clicked EMPTY.
Sleep that night offered a scarcity of solace.
He woke the next morning having only stolen a few restless hours. Caught in a tangle of damp sheets, he turned himself over in bed, looking bleary-eyed at the red, crumbling hardcover on the nightstand. Suddenly it became clear to him. All at once he knew what he had to do.
He took the book over to his desk, and minutes later had a steaming mug of coffee with him as he sat down, ready to begin.
It was all he did for weeks, typing out every page word for word, for hours on end. He became lost in the rhythms of sentences, the push and pull of punctuation, the sudden, breathless jolt of an em-dash, dips and turns of clauses, working through the dense valleys of paragraphs.
He got on a roll. His focus honed in, hardened and exact. So attuned was he to the work, the repetition of keystrokes combined with the line reading of words, thousands upon thousands of them, that over time he began to take on their aura. The words imprinted on his consciousness. During those heady, solitary days of typing, rereading, and more typing, he lived with the characters in a way he hadn’t that first time, that week on the couch. He came to know them deeply, inside and out, in their full scope and depth. It was an intimate knowledge. The privileged position of the creator, who having extended himself to his emotional and imaginative limits, is made one with his creation.
It took him nearly two months, all told. On the night he finished the last page and printed it off, he sat back in his chair aglow from the endless creative surge, his senses alert, attentive, almost painfully so. The nice composed stack of pages towered on his desk, the only thing on it now save for the monitor and keyboard. Everything else had been cleared off, boxed up, thrown away. Discarded. He looked on with satisfaction. There was a sense of being redeemed somehow, like having undergone a total blood transfution. Something brought into line. Revitalized. The old made new again.
He hadn’t changed a word or sentence.
He went downtown and had copies of the manuscript made and sent them out to the five east coast publishing houses he knew of, their contact information having been recorded and stowed away for such a time when they would finally be of use.
Time passed darkly. Then one day, two months on, a call came from one of the publishers, Clyde and Jefferson, out of Stanton, Mass.
It had been accepted.
It was all set, they said. This was an amazing piece of work. Everyone who read it had been floored. “An extraordinary achievement,” said the editor, a man by the name of Tom Murphy. They would be proud to be the ones to put it out there.
There were just a couple things. Small things that needed to be taken care of before it could be considered publishable.
For one thing, it was too long. Cuts needed to be made.
“Also, and about the ending,” said Tom. “I like it. I like where it’s going. But where you decide to break off, it doesn’t feel right. It doesn’t completely satisfy.” He wanted James to work on it, massage it out. It was too great on the whole to let a weak ending spoil all that came before. “It cheats the reader,” Tom said.
He invited James out to their offices in the city, to meet and discuss cuts and a new, improved ending. As soon as possible. He mentioned a beach house belonging to the managing editor who was away in Europe until the fall. If he could make it out in the next few weeks he could stay there while polishing the manuscript.
It had happened.
“My novel got accepted,” he said. “They’re going to publish it.”
“Like a book-book?”
“The very kind.”
“Liar,” she said. He had surprised Melody at her apartment, where she was on a break between working a split shift. Her hair was still wet from the shower.
“It’s true,” he said.
“Really.” She thought about it in a peripheral way, what it might mean. “Can I read it?”
James had mentioned to her once an idea for writing a book with her as the main character, based on events from her life. Coming from a broken home. Growing up with her mom and younger sister, moving around. Their travels back and forth across the country. At first she was flattered by this. But then she thought it over, and as the reality of what this would entail began to settle in, she found it vaguely disturbing, almost creepy. Going so far as to censor certain stories she told him, in the back of her mind aware that they may one day find there way, in whatever mutated form, filtered through his writer’s imagination, into the purported book. But now, thinking this might be what he was talking about, the book that was to be published, she was getting excited all over again.
“Sure. Of course you can. But there’s still some work to be done on it.” He told her about the beach house, that she could come with him.
“But I have to work,” she said. “Next month’s schedule just got put up.”
“So quit. This is it. Our chance to get out of here. It’s what you’ve always wanted, right? What you’ve always talked about.”
She let out a breath, looking him over. She couldn’t remember ever seeing him like this. He couldn’t stop smiling.
“Well, yeah,” she said. “But I’ve barely seen any of you the last however long. You even look sort of different. Lost or gained weight or something.”
“My metabolism jumps around when I’m working. What can I say, it’s been a crazy time. But this is it. What everything’s been building towards. Whattaya say?”
“I don’t know.”
“Hey. Come on,” he said, a hand clutching her arm, pulling her close. “I need you in this.”
She looked him up and down.
“Who are you?”
“Same old me,” he said.