16 October 2012


[I wrote the following short story for a fiction class in college.  Though it is in many ways a mess, I think the ideas are solid and even, toward the end, well-expressed.]


Feb 7th
     Oh, Jeanne,  it's all a mistake.  Me, you, this letter.  Today I was walking home through the cold and I felt for once the absurdity of trying to escape it.  I am becoming a part of the cold. Even when I go inside and warm up with a cup of tea, it's still there deep down, resting against my diaphragm, giving its occasional groans and denials to all my livelier inclinations.
     I watch more and more television, Jeanne.  The people who lived here before didn't want to go through the pain of moving their old forty-inch TV, so it was left to me.  It probably weighs half a ton.  What a creature, this TV.  You turn it on and it gives out that high pitched sound that makes you feel okay.  I swear the thing has a personality and this is its way of saying hello to me.  The nights here are so desolate and sad.  The snow's been gone for a month now, but it's still only fourteen degrees outside, with wind chills below zero.  Sun sets before I get home.  I eat in darkness and watch Wheel of Fortune.
     I'm out of words.  I don't know if I'll mail this to you.  Maybe.
Feb 9th
     Considering we haven't spoken in about two years, I guess it was silly of me to start things up again with that letter.  I was in a bit of a funk, but your Christmas card was there in my mail, and I needed something to reply to.  Merry Christmas, anyway.
     Yesterday I overheard this girl Rachel at work talking about how she likes to light candles when she takes a bath and how warm and happy they make everything look.  So I decided to buy some candles.  The best they had at Walgreens were prayer candles, and I got a few.  (Francis, Michael, Jesus, Guadalupe)  They're a little odd, and I feel like an old Catholic lady, but it's surprising how much of a difference they make.  I'm not quite as cold, though I think the wind has found a way to get through my windows.  I made a big pot of chicken soup tonight (lots of carrots) and watched PBS.  They're doing fundraising and Anne of Green Gables was on for the fifth or sixth time this week. 
Ugh, Jeanne, I have a hard time believing that I'm not a fundamentally boring human being.  I bet you're never wracked with guilt over writing someone a letter.  I suppose that makes me crazy.  But I have to wonder, what do people write letters about?  Probably not about what they ate for dinner or how they bought some candles at the drug store.  My fingers are tired.  I'm going to stop now.


Feb 10th
Dear Jeanne,
    I'm going to continue writing, at least until you reply or I run out of things to tell you.  I took a little expedition today after work and went to the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue.  It's a very sterile building.  Ugly concrete face with a glass interior.  I don't have a computer at home, you know.  No, you don't know.  Well, I don't have one because about five months ago I realized the total futility of the thing.  I spend most of the day working in front of one, checking email, working on reports, etc.  When I talk to my family, I prefer the phone.  I don't bother with people from work outside the office much.  Which is to say, five months ago my crappy old laptop finally crashed, and the irritation of losing all the data I'd stored on it made me resolve not to get a replacement.  I told myself I was going to live a real (as opposed to virtual) life.  That's when I started watching TV.
     Back to the Apple Store.  It's a bit like a tomb, now that I think about it: a cold stone casing that encloses a mass of fleshless white fragments.  That's a stupid metaphor, though.  This is all stupid.  Why am I writing to you, of all people?  At this point I have to admit that you're little more than imaginary to me.  All my memories of our time together in college have crystallized into a little Jeanne figurine.  It's brittle and transparent and every now and then I take it out of the cabinet of memorial knickknacks and stare at it for a while.  You seem to shrink every time I think about you.  Or it's not that you're shrinking exactly, but that the number of cuts the artist made on the crystal decreases, so that you've become rougher and more caricaturish with time.  When I handle my memories, my fingers smear away the details.  (I'm waxing philosophical.  Ridiculous.)
     Ugh, but I can't escape it.  I might as well be writing to an imaginary friend.  This line of thought is becoming irritating.  Whatever the case, someone is getting these letters.  Well, after several months trying to replace the glories of glossy bright LCD screens with an old cathode ray tube and cheap antenna, I've noticed something.      I don't like the shiny candy machines.  They're creepy, to be direct about it.  (I can already tell this is going to take a while to explain.  But you can burn it all if you want.)  When you look at a Monet painting, there are a couple of great things about it:  first there's the color, but that's not so interesting.  The thing that really gets you is its suggestive power.  Here's a collection of colored strokes on a canvas that someone could never mistake for a REAL haystack or a REAL pond, but which capture something about seeing the haystack and the pond better than the most anal hyperrealism.  The messiness does something that sharp detail ruins.  There’s a story I heard once about a kid in the fifties who was asked what he thought about television, and he replied that he preferred radio, “because the pictures are better.” 
     That's not entirely what I'm getting at.  My sister started at Northwestern last fall, and she lives in these screens.  I visited her in October to see the trees shedding in Evanston and make sure she was settling in alright, and I'm now convinced that she experiences the world as a series of brief, highly coordinated emergences from a virtual sea.  She spent half of our walk along the lakefront staring down into her hands.  What did she miss?  The breeze in the trees, the colored leaves, the sound and sight of the lake.  What’s the point of all this nitpicky environmentalism if you’re just going to live inside a flat panel display? 
      In my own lifetime I've seen things change to the point where my friendships exist mostly through screens.  Seeing people face to face is awkward and somehow different.  There's a Henry Fischer I've been working with for several months now.  We communicate probably three or four times a day, but I've seen the man once in my life and heard his voice less than ten times.  I would barely be able to pick him out in an elevator.
     What's wrong with LCDs?  Have you ever noticed that when you're in a bar with people your eyes are always drawn to the screen?  But that's not all.  What I really felt today is how much these machines overflow with pretty possibilities.  I could live an entire, well-ordered, painless and enjoyable life in one.  Perfect independence.  No one could ever make me unhappy.  It’s horrifying. Who wants that?Martin
Feb 11th
Dear Wanda,
     Your name occurred to me earlier.  I thought to myself, "Oh, Wanda! How you delight me!"  We've never met, of course, but my name is Martinus Blibberus.  You, (Alas! A thousand sorrows!) don't exist.
With utmost sincerity,

Feb 11th
Dearest Jeanne,
     I'm back.  Unfortunately I purchased a rather large number of stamps.  Notice the nifty latin quotations on the envelope?  I took some time off to look them up at work today.  I've just finished writing to my new friend Wanda.  I'm nuts, I know it.  But the idea of writing to someone totally imaginary was too much to pass up.  I'm including the letter for your amusement. Yours, lovingly,

Feb 12th
     What I really like about my TV is how bad the image is.  You have to fight to watch anything other than PBS and ABC.  And even when I've got a perfect image, it's still clearly just a TV.  The technological frailty of the thing makes me remember that somewhere someone is sitting awkwardly in front of a camera in order to communicate this worthless information about school closings.  And with the snow tonight, they're almost not getting through.
So, I've got a story to tell again today.  Let's hope it turns out better than my last one. 

ACT I (Scene:  Martin lives in a reasonably posh neighborhood just north of downtown Chicago.  The apartment he occupies alone consists of two bedrooms, a kitchen, bathroom, and three other rooms of varying size.  We can see the kitchen only through a doorway upstage.  A stove is in view, behind a small table.  To the fore we have the main living space, filled with various small tables, an easy chair, a desk, and a large old TV, manufactured sometime in the early 1990s.  Overall, the place is poorly furnished.  Aside from the easy chair and television, which are undeniably solid, everything exudes an air of frail ephemerality (without being ugly).  Plain, spindly coffee tables, the odd magazine on the floor, etc. Tall, white candles in jars of various colors are scattered throughout the room on all surfaces.  About half of them are lit, but all have been used.  Several stand atop the TV, each with an image of some saint on it.  Martin sits at his desk, writing.  He is in his mid-thirties, shriveled and pathetic except for his body, which is clearly over-nourished and well attended to.  He is wrapped in a synthetic fleece blanket, back to the audience.  The TV is on, but too low to hear.  It is the primary source of light in the room, and its flickering colors complement the candles.  Martin clears his throat, as if preparing to speak…)
That was fun.  But I won't write it as a play.  It doesn't happen here anyway.  After I wrote to you the first time, I decided it was time to give in and start taking the train to work.  I'd been walking all the way between Lincoln Park and the Loop twice a day.  It's about a mile and a half.  Sometimes my face would get so cold that warming up just made it feel colder.  Anyway, my passion for braving extreme weather finally died sometime in early January, and since then I've just kept going out of habit.  Until three days ago.
I hated the El when I first took it because it's dirty and loud and full of nutjobs who urinate on the seats regularly.  Maybe they don't, but the thing reeks for some reason or another.  Aside from these facts and its particular inefficiency, the CTA is like any other major transit system.  You sit down and do your best not to stare at people who are doing their best not to stare at you.  All but a few ears are plugged into deafeningly loud hip-hop music.  A dozen men in suits clutch at their blackberries like manic squirrels.  Toothless man sitting in front of me is muttering accusations at the empty seat in front of him.  Despite my complaints about Toothless's bladder control issues, he's kind of amusing.  I like him better than the twitching berry-pinchers, at least.  Eh, I've lost the thread, and I'm getting tired.  
I'll finish tomorrow.


Feb 13th
Dear Jeanne,
Just did some grocery shopping, and I've decided on a way of telling you my story without getting distracted.  Oh, but it's too late already.  Telling a story efficiently is almost impossible.  There are too many details to get lost in, too many ideas and problems that get in the way.  Let me try it in five simple sentences.
1.  Yesterday I bought a magazine.
2.  A woman sold me the magazine.
3.  She is...
4.  Once I went to church.
5.  It's the same way.
Now here's the full thing.  I once read somewhere that reality is iconoclastic.  That's nonsense, Jeanne, and today I know why.  Yesterday I bought a magazine.  I needed something to stare at on the El, and there's a newsstand on North Avenue that I walk by on my way to the train.  Whenever I'd taken the train in the past, this newsstand was inhabited by a half deflated old black guy with a voice I could barely understand.  Yesterday I bought some reading material to stare at on the train, but my withered friend had been replaced.  A woman sold me the magazine instead.  I'm guessing she's his daughter or something, but the replacement struck me.  And not just the change, but the girl.  She is...
How do I explain it?  A few years back, when I was still living in Cleveland, there was an old Russian Orthodox church on my street.  I used to drive past it all the time.  Well, one week I went inside.  There was a lot of incense and chanting, like something out of the middle ages.  When I think back on it, it was beautiful, Jeanne.  Those people belonged there, and there was a kind of seamless unity to what they were doing, though at the time I felt confused and felt out of place.  I remember that whenever anyone came in, they always went up to this little icon of Jesus and kissed it.  Everyone did it, even the little kids.  It was just an icon, a really unrealistic looking painting of someone they'd never met.  So, what am I going to pull out of this?  Well, I don't know.  Back to my newsstand girl.  She asked me what she could get for me, gave me a copy of LIFE, and returned the change from my ten.  And I thanked her.  I guess that's the whole story.  Somehow it reminded me of that time in church.  The dots remain sadly disconnected.  Tomorrow I'll try again.


Feb 15th
There's an excellent story I remember from when I was little.  A prophet is tired of preaching and he goes out into the desert to complain to God.  He wanders for a long time and ends up in a cave.  Then God passes by the cave.  First there's a powerful wind that tears the rocks and fills the air with dust, but God is not in the wind.  Then there's an earthquake that shakes the whole region, but God isn't in that either.  Last there's a whisper, gentle and barely audible, and this is the voice of God.  And the prophet goes out and speaks with God.
She wears large hoop earrings and a white puffy coat.  There is an excess of eyeshadow.  Two-inch nail extensions on each index finger.  Jeanne, nothing is happening in my life.  My candles are burning, the TV is playing.  Local news anchors are droning on and on.  I'm powerless to make anything happen in my life.  Just too tired.


My TV broke today.  This leaves me with none of the usual modern modes of entertainment.  I took all the candles and set them in a circle around me on the floor and lay face down for a while.  There aren't any images left to stare at except these letters I'm writing to you.  Jeanne, I don't want to burden you with my stupid thoughts, but I guess I'm going to anyway.
I love the girl at the magazine stand.  Not erotically, but because of the way she sees me, as if not distracted by my swollen settled look.  I'm not the insane guy who has a hazardous number of devotional candles burning in his living room or who writes boring, self-obsessive letters to people he's barely friends with anymore.  She sees me and I think she must love me too.
That's not what I was getting at before with the icon story from Cleveland.  Those kids didn't just see a poorly-done painting.  The real meaning of it is whatever shone through the image.  That's what the children encountered when they kissed it, not a bunch of pigment on a wood panel.  What really got me Tuesday morning was how, on the edge of becoming merely another crystal figurine, she hovered for a moment and came back.  Just as I was about to see her the way I see every stranger, I saw her seeing me.  It's so cheesy, Jeanne, it's about to kill me.  But somehow she was intensely there in that moment; we were in life together.  I don't know this girl, just like I don't know the berry-pinchers on the train or that irritating cashier in Walgreens who smirks at my purchases.  But, for lack of a better expression, we saw into each other.  I walked the rest of the way to the train that day with a rare sense of the crispness of life.  It vanished pretty quickly, but I've been buying a magazine every day since.


P.S.  Knowing people.  Is  that it?  No, that's not it.  The weird thing isn't that you can't love the people you know, but that it could be possible to see as a person someone you don't know, and miss out entirely on the people you know well.  Does that make sense?

     I've started boiling water in a pot, to replace the TV-sound.  It warms things up a little and makes me feel like I've got company.  Somehow my companions are becoming more primitive:  Laptop, TV, now plain water.  If you ever write back, I bet you'll tell me I need a girlfriend.  That's easy enough to say.  Show me someone who's willing to put up with my whiny self-absorption all the time. 
     I mentioned that your letters are the only images left, but that's not quite true.  There are still the candles with their little saint pictures.  I wonder if anyone's ever thought of the possibility that people themselves are images.  That's more or less what I wanted to say about my magazine girl.  She is just an image, but an image that points to something hidden and unfathomable.  When I tell her I wish I had her coat and she smiles back, something much more alive than mascara or nail polish is bubbling up from the depths and moistening the dry Chicago air. 
I keep saying these letters are images, and somehow I've been thinking of them as images of you, Jeanne.  It's stupid of me, because obviously they're images of me.  I can't see myself in them because everything I say about myself is obvious, and therefore even more transparent than what I say about you.  I no longer have any notion of what it would be like to read these letters.  The figurine of myself has been worn down to nothing from all my handling of it.
    But what is it that's boiling up when I see her?  Right now she's the best part of my day.  If only I could see everyone else this way.  I wish my life were filled with this mysterious thing.


I received the volume of Kierkegaard today, together with the matches and the Don Paterson poem.  Given the cold, I'll obviously burn the former (a single sheet of paper wouldn’t warm me much, and it’s too fine a poem to burn).  I'm taking your package as a reply. It’s a good one.
With love,