Thursday, October 15, 2009

A diversion

And now for something totally different, if only the sake of ultra-hip eclecticism. For today’s posting, a short story. Written by your devoted blogger, some time in the last half-decade or so, and never shared with anyone except my father and his wife, as part of a short-story collection I gave them as a wedding present—hey, I was broke!—and Yony, who found it while snooping around my room and gave it a drunken dramatization. The tone is borrowed heavily from whomever I was reading at the time, probably Robert Walser, but I like it nonetheless. And so.

________ was a forgotten town: neglected, overlooked and un-cared-for. The gas station, for example, no longer sold gas; no one wanted it. True, the soda machine in the parking lot was still stocked with soda, but the machine itself was long-broken. Pump in as many quarters as you like, you’re only throwing your money away. No, if you need soda, or gasoline, or anything else, you’d better head to the neighboring town of X, only ten miles down the road. Time has not been so cruel and careless to the town of X; over there, they have not one gas station but two, and not two working soda machines but four. The people there never go thirsty, they drink all the soda they please, and as for gasoline, there’s enough for everyone—a person can fill up his tank and drive away any time he likes.

Gas stations and soda machines were not the only amenities lacking in the town of ________. In fact, there was virtually nothing in ________. Restaurants: none. Grocery stores: also none. Taverns, movie houses, auto-repair shops: these simply did not exist, and if you went looking for them you’d only be wasting your time. A single place of business could be found in ________: Harold’s Junk Shop. Even this was not all it claimed to be. Harold, for instance, was dead; the shop was run by Harold’s bastard son, Lou. As for the junk, there was very little of it. On the one hand, there was an incomplete trombone, its mouthpiece long lost. On the other hand, there was an antique pistol, dating from the First World War. At this point the merchandise ended, and there was no more.

Lou’s job, then, was not a difficult one. At the beginning of the day he unlocked the shop door, and at the end of the day he locked it again. In the hours which intervened, he looked at pornographic magazines, purchased in the neighboring town of X—where, it seems, a person could buy anything and everything. Lest the reader condemn the shopkeep for his unwholesome taste in literature, it should be known that female companionship was scarce in town. In fact, there were no women at all. Neither, for that matter, were there any children. The truth is, Lou was the sole inhabitant of ________. As such, he also served as the town’s mayor, city council and chamber of commerce.

Can Lou possibly have been happy? the reader must surely wonder. Did he not get lonely? Fair enough questions, but don’t expect the author to answer them; it’s hard enough work filling the page up with words, I can hardly be expected to peer into the souls of other men as well, like a clairvoyant, and tell which secret feelings dwell there. Was Lou happy living all alone in the town of ________? Is anyone happy anywhere? On this topic you are as great an expert as I am. Perhaps we should consider our own happiness, before we go digging around in other people’s private affairs.

Am I happy, then? Even here, the answer is not so easy. I eat when I am hungry; I sleep when I am tired; when someone tells a joke, I laugh. Can I ask for more than this? Do I have a right to? The truth is, I eat but I am still hungry. I sleep, and am still tired. And when I am done laughing, then I am no longer laughing. Your author, if you must know, is a greedy little pig. He always wants more and more. Greedy people are rarely content or satisfied.

And you, are you happy? I truly and sincerely hope so; I pray vehemently for your happiness. No one’s happiness is more important to me, not even my own. If you, dear reader, are able somehow to achieve happiness in this cruel modern world, then I salute you warmly and vigorously, and ask only that you allow me to stand for a moment in the reflected light of your miraculous happiness.

But what has happened to our story? It was beginning to go places; Lou, I felt, was emerging as a peculiar and almost compelling character, and the town of ________ a setting ripe for drama and adventure. But then we started discussing happiness, God knows how or why. How often this happens! At the most inappropriate moments, a person grows pensive and contemplative; but am I truly happy? he asks himself. This has been known to occur even in the midst of copulation. I once had a friend who was known to cry while making love. But then, he was a very maladjusted person. This friend, of course, is neither here nor there, and the more we discuss him the more he becomes an obstacle and a hindrance to the story at hand. The story at hand! How it keeps slipping away! It isn’t easy, writing stories, I’ll tell you that much. Even the writer of advanced talents, which I am not, faces formidable challenges. He invents a character, for instance; he spends hours on this character, examining him from a multitude of angles, putting him through all sorts of tribulations, and molding him like a lump of clay. And then, presto! Somehow, suddenly, this character, this invention so carefully conceived and nurtured, has turned before the author’s very eyes into an insufferable bastard! The author simply can’t stand his presence—onto the trash heap he goes! Other times, it’s not the character that’s the problem; the character is perfect, but a plot fails to present itself. Let’s say the character’s name is Hank. The author can see him clearly: six feet tall, with thick black hair and a long, hawkish nose. Hank awoke one morning… the author begins. Damn it, then what? No, it’s a bad beginning, he scratches it out and starts over again. Hank was a big man, with thick black hair and a long, hawkish nose…. Oh, hell! What’s he supposed to do with this Hank of his? The author yawns, groans, scratches himself idly; “What I need,” he finally decides, “Is a good stiff drink.” And so it is that many writers turn out to be not writers at all but mere drinkers. For every Hank character who fails to wake up one morning and actually do something interesting, the author pours himself another stiff, consolatory drink. By the end of the working day, he’s completely smashed—and he imagines this to be a key part of the creative process! Yes, writing is an occupation fraught with peril. Even this author has been known to hit the bottle, here and there, on occasion. No one is perfect!

One day a customer appeared in Harold’s Junk Shop. Exactly the last time a customer had appeared in the junk shop, no one knows; possibly there had been some back in Harold’s day, but since his death there had been none. So this was somewhat remarkable—a customer, at last.

Lou looked him over thoroughly; he wasn’t from the town of ________, that was certain, nor did he appear to be from the neighboring town of X. His clothes were big-city clothes, his haircut was a big-city haircut, and he wore a sort of big-city expression on his face.

This customer spent a good long while examining the merchandise. Though the merchandise was scarce, as has already been discussed, it seemed to hold some great fascination for him; the trombone and the pistol, in turn, he picked up and examined closely, as if they held some tremendous secret.

“I’d like to buy the trombone,” he said at last.
“I’m afraid it’s not for sale,” answered Lou, in a tone of genuine remorse.
“Ah,” said the customer sadly. He stood and contemplated for a long while. What he was contemplating, you and I will never know.
“In that case,” he said at length, “I’d like to buy the pistol.”
“The pistol,” repeated Lou. “Yes, it’s a very interesting weapon. Dates back to the First World War, and the handle is inlaid with ivory. But, the truth is, I can’t bear to part with it.”
“Not at any price?”
“I’m afraid not.”
“Ah, what a shame. It’s a very interesting weapon.”
“Yes, it certainly is.”
He picked up the pistol and put it back down again.
“Can you tell me where I am, exactly?” said the customer with the big-city clothes, the big-city haircut, the big-city expression on his big-city face.
“You’re in the town of ________,” answered Lou.
“What sort of town is it?”
“It’s a forgotten town: neglected, overlook, and un-cared-for.”
“Doesn’t sound like a very cheerful place.”
“Hm,” answered Lou.
“Are you happy here?” asked the stranger.
“I’m afraid that’s none of your business.”
What more could be said? They came from such different worlds, these two men, how could they hope to understand each other?
“Have a nice afternoon,” said the stranger. The bells on the front door jangled as he left the junk shop. He got in his car and drove off. He had a long way to go, and many miles to travel.

To where was he traveling? A more cheerful town, a big city even, where soda could be bought on a million street corners? Soda, and anything else a person might desire? Ah, you will never know. The author has chosen to end his story here and now; product of the modern age that he is, he believes in brevity above all things.

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