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Thursday, October 20, 2005

Art and adversity

I know this is off topic but …

A couple months ago I wrote about a movie called The Five Conditions, by Jørgen Leth and Lars von Trier.

It demonstrates that even with arbitrary and seemingly impossible conditions art will persevere.

I decided to confirm this at work - a singular place totally devoid of creative spark and moments for quiet contemplation. Fueled by machine-made coffee I decided to write a story amidst clicking keyboards and laboring Xerox machines.

The following story was written under fire, so to speak.

Constant interruptions called for conversation-filling platitudes and, at times, actual work. This forced me to write in short passionate bursts. I really didn't know where I was going, but I had a definite character in mind which acted as a narrative rudder. Sort of an exaggerated version of my favorite humorous archetypes. Then I threw in some ingredients from my real life and the story formed its own tragicomic universe.

***

Epilogue for a dreamer

Barney always had a book or magazine on hand. When he rode the subway, or sat in a café, he scarcely noticed the whirring, spinning world around him.

His passion had taken a turn for the worse since his break up with Terri. He picked up just about anything, from bold-colored newspaper supplements to instruction manuals for electronic gadgets he hardly ever used. He would read on the toilet, or while waiting for a microwave pizza. He had even found a way to read discreetly at work. He would surf the internet, always aware of the peripheral presence of his boss. Once he found an interesting biography or gossip column, he copied it and pasted it into his word processor. That way, anybody walking by would think he was a hard worker. Sometimes, his coworkers would catch him off guard: “Hey Barney, where did you file the copy for the Coca-Cola proposal?” – and he would stare back at them with his mouth slightly cracked and his eyes wide and out of focus. His coworkers had, once again, interrupted him right when he was nearing the end of whatever it was he was reading. His eyes, like his brain, were finding it ever more difficult to adjust to real life.

His real obsession was endings. No matter what book or article he was reading, he had to finish it. Terri, his ex girlfriend, broke up with him because he would get so absorbed in his stories that entire conversations with her disappeared in the dusty nether regions of his subconscious. His answers were perfunctory, like, “Oh yeah, that’s fantastic honey” or, “Oh, whatever you say”. Later, when referred back to the conversation he would act hurt and confused when she berated him for not remembering. When she left him one bright morning, she said, “You’ll never fulfill your commitment to me or anyone else. The only things you care about are your stupid endings!” Barney looked up from a box of cereal, eyes glazed over, and said, “Uh … yeah ... hold on a second, just let me finish this part.” The door slammed with a dull, irrevocable thud.

Somewhere in his nebulous thoughts Barney felt lousy about Terri. She was fun and liked to rent the same DVDs as he did. She even listened to his rambling monologues and highly personal summaries of the latest internet scandals or obscure investigative journalism. But he quickly found solace in his books, and the words in them laced his brain like dope does a junky’s veins. Weeks went by, and he even forfeited meals to finish whatever he was reading. He cinched his belt one notch tighter and his hair was permanently flat on one side, due to excessive contact with his couch.

On the way home from work one day he had a shocking realization: he had forgotten his book in the office. Now, on the subway, he would have to interact with the rest of humanity, and this thought terrified him. How could he deal with such boring monotony after the rich prosaic weaving of Chekhov?

Before entering the subway station, he passed a bum selling junk on a blanket spread out on the sidewalk. Next to an old Super-8 camera were some tattered paperbacks with covers depicting muscular men and exotic beauties. One in particular, The Danger of the Perfect Brunette, caught his attention. The idea of reading trashy dimestore romance appealed to him. Just asking to be ridiculed, he thought. He asked the vendor how much, and forked over the derisory sum of 50 cents.

He found himself laughing out loud, despite the proximity of his fellow passengers. He felt their stares but was indifferent. They couldn’t possibly understand his advanced sense of humor. In fact, he took a special delight in hating The Danger of the Perfect Brunette. Passages like: Her palpitating heart literally leapt from her ripe bosom; the palimpsest fluttered to the cruel earth, almost made him delirious.

He got off the subway and walked home, unable to take his eyes off the fusty yellow pages. He walked the two blocks to his apartment reading the entire way. He knew the route by rote and could practically do it blindfolded.

Once inside he collapsed on his sofa and continued reading for hours, until sunset. Gabrielle, the buxom protagonist, was in the nexus of a criminal conspiracy. Little did she know, but her latest paramour (three so far) had close ties with the infamous Leroux family mafia. She was now taking her fifth shower of the book.

Steam engulfed her in her crystal prison; cascades of shimmering water flowed from the gold-plated apparatus; her fine ivory digits picked up a sensuously rough loofah and soaked it through…

Just when Gabrielle was about to trace her voluptuous curves with the loofah, Barney heard what sounded like a woman singing in his own apartment, rousing him from the book for the first time since he got home. The singing was faint, like behind a closed door. He also heard what sounded like running water. He got up, book still in hand, and crept on socked feet toward the bathroom. Yes, the sound came from there, but when he peered inside it was the usual sight – one frayed toothbrush, one lumpy tube of toothpaste, and one tattered towel draped over the shower curtain rod. He stood still for a moment and heard the definite sounds of a woman showering - coming through the extractor vents from the apartment next door.

He went back to reading. Gabrielle, scrubbing way, didn’t hear the window to her posh seaside bungalow opening. An intruder was trying to slip into her apartment. Could it be the evil doppelganger Norbert Crestwood? Her treacherous boyfriend?

But then there was a scraping sound coming from the end of his apartment, next to the window. Despite his efforts to keep reading, the scraping continued to pester him. He groaned, and went to the window to inspect. Nothing, as he suspected. Probably his plant being scraped against the window by the wind. He stood there in a kind of blank stupor, when his doorbell rang.

He was startled, but when it rang again he took three calm strides to the door. He looked through peephole and saw his neighbor, Jackie. He opened the door and she stood there with sly honey-colored eyes, long chocolate curls glistening wet. She was luminous and appealing, despite the sweats she was wearing – and her slight frown.

“Something really weird just happened,” she said, stepping into his apartment. “While I was taking a shower I think someone broke into my apartment.” He hardly knew her, besides their brief exchanges in the building’s foyer. He’d seen her come and go with her boyfriend, a sharp dressing suit type. Barney was surprised she just stepped into his apartment, but he wasn’t going to deny it: she was attractive, and that opened doors.

“How’d they get in?” he asked.

"Well, actually, I left the door open when I took out the trash. When I came back in I think I left the door open,” her eyes were slitted and faraway looking. He wondered if she was high or something. She’d asked to use his phone a couple times in the past when she locked herself out of her apartment, and this just confirmed his first impression: that she was kind of an airhead.

“You missing something? I mean, how do you know?” he asked.

“My cell phone.”

“Why don’t you call yourself from my phone, see if you misplaced it?”

“No, no … it’s all right. My boyfriend will be here pretty soon and he has a cell.” She looked at him for the first time since entering the apartment. It always seemed like she was flirting with him, the way she smiled and appraised him. But he figured she probably did that with all men.

“Yeah, you know, the neighborhood is getting sketchier everyday.”

“Oh yeah, like I try to spend as much time at my boyfriend’s as possible.”

She left the apartment as precipitously as she had entered it, and Barney went back to the sofa. The idea of crackheads or street kids robbing apartments disturbed him momentarily, but he couldn’t get his mind off the book. It was open face down on the floor, within arm’s reach. He picked it up and started reading again.

Gabrielle was out of the shower, drying herself off. The intruder, in the apartment now, was just around the corner to her bathroom.

He pulled out a platinum stiletto; it made a barely perceptible snick, yet Gabrielle was oblivious as the blade glinted in the tenebrous moonlit

And the page ended. “Impossible!” he cried out. But sadly, it appeared that the contiguous pages were missing. 188 jumped to 191, the About the Author page.

Barney tossed the book to his lint and crumb laden floor. Having this happen to him was like building up a sneeze, only to have the urge dissipate before the satisfying expulsion. He envisioned the sidewalk vendor now in a sinister light. The bastard knew he was selling damaged ware. Then his mind drifted back to Jackie, and the missing cell phone.

After a moment’s contemplation, he left his apartment and walked down the hall to Jackie’s. He knocked on the door and noticed that it was already slightly open. Strange, he thought. Why would she leave it open again?

“Jackie?”

He pushed it open and called her name again, but still no response. His palms went sweaty as he stepped into her apartment and found himself underneath bright halogen track lights. Faint curls of Nag Champa smoke. R&B bass notes rolling softly out a room down the hall. Navigating her apartment wasn’t too difficult, as it was almost the exact same layout as his. He walked towards the master bedroom, and halfway there, on a shelf, he spotted the cell phone. He shook his head and laughed to himself as he picked it up. At that moment, he heard a gasp coming from behind him. He turned around and saw Jackie near the door. Words failed him when he saw her face, taut with fear.

“Oh, my god … what are you doing in here?” She was gripping the door handle, ready to spring out of the apartment.

“Wait a second,” he said, moving towards her, “it’s not what…”

”DON’T come near me!”

She was so dramatic, Barney thought she was pretending. But then a meaty hand clomped on the door behind her and pushed it further open. It was her boyfriend, sporting a new powercut and angry, squinting eyes. Jackie grasped onto his waist. He looked at Barney with unwavering eyes.

“What’s going on here?”

“He broke into my apartment while I was taking a shower. He took my cell phone, and now … and now I don’t know what he’s doing in here!”

“What? How the hell did he get in here if you were here?”

“I was talking to the neighbors asking them if they’d seen anybody suspicious. I left the door open because I was right down the hall …”

“This is crazy! Look! The cell phone is right here!” Barney picked it up and tried to give it to her.

“You’re just trying to get out of this,” said her boyfriend.

“Oh, my god… this is soooo creepy. Do you think he was stalking me?”

“This is all wrong! There’s no way I would break into your apartment. I definitely was not stalking you.” They were silent, which Barney took as a sign of receptivity. “Ummm … this is going to sound crazy, but I was reading this book and it’s like everything in the book was happening in real life. There was the protagonist, Gabrielle, taking a shower, just like Jackie…” Jackie’s boyfriend looked at her still-wet hair, then back at Barney. “And while she was taking a shower the bad guy entered her apartment. You came over to my apartment,” he said, pleading with Jackie, hoping she might realize her mistake, “and told me that someone had entered your apartment and stolen your cell phone. I thought it was all coincidence. But then I got to the part where the bad guy… the bad guy …” Then, he mumbled, “I thought your life was in danger.”

“So, smart guy. What happens?” snapped her boyfriend.

“I don’t know,” said Barney, his voice, his confidence, totally deflated. “The pages were missing. I don’t know the end.”

Her boyfriend pulled out his cell phone and punched some numbers. He held it to his ear and looked directly at the thin disheveled man with rumpled clothes and violet insomniac’s rings. He knew those types well from his subordinates at work. Slackers who were always calling in sick to work; who slept badly because their minds weren’t quite right; who were dreamers, not men of action. “In that case,” he said, “you better think of one fast.”

_

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