About a year ago, dear reader, I began a piece of short fiction here on the blog. I ended that post with the message 'to be continued' with ever intention of promptly fulfilling that promise. Well, the world intervened, my writing went on hiatus, and I could no longer find those words to complete the piece. One of my goals, though, for this time in Edinburgh, was to return my attention to that writing, my first piece of fiction in nearly eighteen years.
Well, a draft, at least is complete, and, throwing caution to the wind, it is being promptly posted for your consideration, dear reader. Thus, to get straight to it, THE PROCESS.
The words don’t matter sometimes, when you’re two-thirds the way through your drink on your corner stool at whatever bar it is you happen to be in tonight. They could be an overheard snippet floated from across the room, a partial score of a game played in some distant city broadcast on one of the innumerable televisions, or an actual “Hello” from a newcomer near or far – the distance doesn’t really matter. They, for that moment, are your words. Though just a simple vocal manifestation, at that moment they are yours; they matter, and for that instant, perhaps, so do you. You briefly perk, listen for what might be an accompanying phrase, a second occurrence to string together into something more, some form of meaning to which you might attach yourself, an entrée, a way in. That is what you look for, you know, a way in. Every time you come here, wherever it is, you know that is what you are looking for. That literal way in through which you make your way every time before the sun even sets is easy to find; its that other one that seems to elude you tonight, as on those other nights before.
So you look up again, look up and out around the bar, pressing your eyes to the few or the many who are there with you on this particular evening. They may or may not notice it; they may sense the pressure of your gaze, that sad little exertion you effort as though by the force of your will to make more of the accidental co-occupation. They may or they may not, but if they do they make an excellent show of not letting on. It is not that they turn away, avert their eyes just as you do when you encounter the teenage girl asking for spare change on the street corner. No, they simply go about their business of social enjoyment or their own isolation that so closely parallels your own. Once again your eyes have failed at their task, have fallen short of reaching across that space, so you, once more, look back down at that drink you’re two-thirds the way through and wait to begin the cycle anew.
It isn’t very hard to stop coming here; of course – to borrow from some public service announcement or another – you could stop any day, right now, in fact. You could get up right now, walk back out through the entranceway, and go home, but you came here for something, and, anyway, that drink is only two-thirds the way through. So you sit there, feigning indifference, or at least solitude, while every moment that goes by you are keenly aware of your surroundings, of each body in the place, and, most especially, of your own and how you fit – or don’t – within the whole.
That is the problem, after all, your perpetual awareness of the whole. You see it; at times you are pretty sure you understand it; at some point, a while back, you were quite sure you were part of it – of course you still are, but that is an eventuality you would rather not ponder at the moment. But still it sits out there around you at this very moment, in the booths and on the stools, people outwardly and inwardly – whatever that might mean – just like you, but you simply cannot find your way in. In your more nostalgic moments you fancy yourself one of the Pevensies at the tail end of Lewis’ story. But when you fall along that thought-path you know the night’s search is futile and it is time to pack the expedition up, but it is not yet that time tonight, and that drink still remains only two-thirds the way through.
You have your book – you always have a book – and somehow that is a comfort. You always have something to do, or at least look at, or at the very least appear to look at, and isn’t that, in the end, what matters about your quest, not appear to be looking for anything, least of all a way in. And tonight, as always, as I have already said, you have your book. It is not that you don’t read; these evenings don’t go for nothing. You probably read more than anyone you know – and you travel in a circle of readers. And it isn’t that you just mail it in; you really do read during those times when that book hasn’t been reduced to a prop. You get your fair share of scholarly work done here on your corner stool, but, in the end, you know why that book is there, why you are there – or should I say here – and perhaps tonight’s selection will be just the key you are looking for. Perhaps, but you don’t really expect it. Thus, for the moment, you keep your eyes fixed upon that particular run of words beneath you while, of course, the rest of your body remains closely attuned to the movements of the constellations around you in case your eyes should be needed, once more, to be pressed into action.
At some point, obviously, you drink. The glasses must not remain perpetually two-thirds emptied – that would be a dead give-away. But, it should be known, two-thirds through is the optimal equilibrium for a beverage in this context: more and you ought to be drinking, less and you are obviously nursing, and, as we all know, the guy at the corner of the bar nursing his drink is just pathetic, and that is a label you are not yet willing to accept this early in the course of events. Nonetheless, it is a challenge, one of great intellectual difficulty, to maintain a drink at this optimal level without being too obvious. Certainly you have been known to order a drink, take it with you to the men’s room, tip off a bit into the sink or urinal, and return to your corner stool once again supplied with the ideal cover. But, inevitably, throughout the night, you must drink. Since it has been a while since any significant movement on the behalf of your current companion, you are obliged to partake, and as you fear the label of “nurser” more than just about anything else, you finish this one off with a minimum of fuss and set it back down slightly closer to the back edge of the counter top signaling to the expertise of tonight’s bartender that you are ready for another, and along with it another round of consideration as to how to best bring this fresh drink to the golden mean of two-thirds through.
So you read; you’re good at that; you’ve always been good at that, that and math, but that is a skill that fell away – along with other things – in high school. But, for now, you read. It isn’t just that somehow the words come easily to you, though they do; there is something more to the relationship. You would never be so crass as to suppose literary pretensions, nor do you offer yourself the out of a specific sensitivity; it is just that you read. Always have. You conscientiously deny the stereotype of books as a retreat, or worse an escape, but then here you are tonight, reading once more. It is just what you do, so, as the evening’s bartender returns with your recently refilled glass – the same one reused, you notice – you defer the question of why and read.
Unfortunately, you are not a sipper, never have been, probably never will be. In your more Freudian moments you trace it back to the size of your mother’s breasts, but then you know you are indulging yourself in an unhealthy dose of intellectual irony to make yourself feel better. Occasionally you wonder if sippy-cups had been invented by the time of your toddler-hood, but the Google search just seems silly, especially since you know you only drink to get to that point of being two-thirds through, the sooner the better.
It is probably not a coincidence that that is your favorite place in a book. You often have pretensions of telling people that you have several stacks of novels at home all two-thirds finished, but as you cannot leave a book in that state, and to lie about such a thing seems a sacrilege, you never do. But there is something about two-thirds through that holds your interest at some peculiar peak that you are reluctant to let go. Like the drink that was before you a few minutes ago, that novel hovers on the edge of determination, you full of expectancy, which, also like that now replaced beverage, you inevitably polish it off in a single gulp.
You are in the infancy of your relationship with tonight’s book, which you, in a self-consciously reflective moment, equate to your fresh drink, only to chastise yourself for such a sophomoric parallelism, which, of course, induces a bout of outward discomfort in fear that someone else around the bar may have sensed this figurative transgression. You snap the book shut, perhaps drawing too much attention to yourself in the relative calm of the moment transpiring around you. Thus, to cover up the uncertainty of this moment, you finally lift the drink to your lips and attempt to hide behind the anonymity of a beverage.
You know it doesn’t work; you know that that snap will cost you for the rest of this night, at least until the congregation changes significantly. You know that you have, by means of that unthinking moment, violated a pact you already exist only at the edge of. Behind your glass you fume at yourself for the lack of restraint. Behind your glass you know you have condemned yourself to at least several more hours in your corner before any of the words will make their way over to your well established partition. You look at the drink in your hand and bemoan its status far from two-thirds through, but realizing the time you shall have to put into this night, now, you hold back and return it to its bar coaster cradle barely altered and go back, once more, to the source of your newly re-enforced position. At least, no matter the state of your drink or your night, you read.
For a while, though you can’t exactly remember when, you thought this was something to be sad about, this process you go through – and it is a process. Others, those few who know about it, have tried to convince you it is some form of ritual, but you know better. This process is important, it must be leading somewhere, otherwise why would you be so dedicated to it. You learned some time ago that it is not sad, is not something to be pitied – you hate when they pity you. It is important. It is leading you somewhere important – again those Pevensies come to mind. It is here on your stool at the corner of the bar – whichever one it is – that you will find the way in. You don’t know why you know this to be true, but you just do. At times you think there is something important about the vantage point, other times you are convinced it is simply a matter of your being in this here at this now that will make the difference, but you know that what you are doing, this process, is important. The details don’t matter so much, which where, what when, but you know that at some time that synchronicity of being two-thirds the way through some evening’s novel will come together with a certain drink two-thirds complete to bring this process to fruition. That is why you are here. Each time you remind yourself that it has nothing to do with any individual member of the set at hand – you are not awaiting the right person, whatever that might mean – you are involved in a larger process, one which will lead, once more, to that elusive whole.
You remind yourself that you are not so deluded that you are looking to make yourself whole with this process, nor awaiting some deus ex machina. You are well read enough in post-modern literature and theory to know that that is a myth. You certainly could not live with yourself if that was what you were looking for. There is something larger than a twentieth century ego quest going on here, why else would you expend so much effort in pursuit of the drink two-thirds through? You obviously realize that you have a tendency to verge upon the metaphysical, but that is the risk of the process. You are here for something far more concrete, something, carefully, not to be confused with looking for someone else, but you are, in fact, looking for something. Unfortunately, at this precise moment, both the newly started book and the recently poured drink stand in the way of such considerations and demand some form of attention, one way or another, but, as usual, you are confronted by the problem of which way to direct your efforts.
This, as should be obvious, is a continual problem, straddling a fine equilibrium between what you do here and what they, the rest of them, are doing here. If you could simply sit on your corner stool, perched at attention for it to happen, and ignore the basic necessity of the drink, you would. But that, as any field researcher could tell you, would blow your cover. Thus you spend your time divided, precariously attempting to induce that ideal balance of things two-thirds through.
I remember, when I was three years old, being in an automobile accident. My mother was driving, I in the back seat awkwardly buckled in, in those days before the car seat. I remember turning the corner that immediately preceded my mother's scream and the brief moment of airless levitation as the crunching of the green station wagon sent a wave of impeded inertia through the interior, lifting me off the rear seat into the constriction of the nylon lap-belt. I remember my flushed and frightened mother looking down at me, feeling about my extremities checking for damage, eyes frantically searching to re-establish my security.
More Words. It is another evening, either the same barstool or not; you never worry about such details; the ancillary can only impede the process, you remind yourself. As it is early, you are the only one here, an unusual moment in the life of a bar in this place, and you somehow relish this. The words are simpler in times like this; they are purely external, from the television or jukebox, and do not require that peaked awareness of your body that grows so fatiguing.
The words come to you, reach to you, and you have a sense that they are, in fact, only for you – the day's bartender is currently somewhere hidden amidst the inner-workings of your chosen place. You almost believe you can sense a way in with these words you need share with no other, but then of course you are not so easily fooled by this guilty pleasure, by the emptiness of transmission. So, again, you sit and wait for those coming hours amidst those unknown others and turn your attention back to the drink before you.
You wait. You wait for the words, those invocations and invitations, the simple syllables. You wait. Another sip that verges on nursing without the eyes to notice, not even the bartender who remains absent, sensing the silence of the outer space you occupy. You sip to mark the time between now and a future marked for attention. You wait, and watch the glass before you, carefully planning for its progress towards two-thirds through, calculating the moments between now and the time those others will arrive, filling this space with their bodies and, more importantly, their words. You wait. You drink; you listen to the stream of language from the television above you and luxuriate in its continuity, one that is not yours. At a noise you look up, sidelong, at the door for arrival only to return to the glass before you at their absence, and wait.
I remember being scolded, not by my mother or father, but by a kindergarten teacher. It wasn't that I was acting out – I was far too self-conscious at that point for any form of overt misbehavior – I was reading. Somehow, during the general activity of playtime, I had wandered over to that all-important ring of chairs that comprised the story space. I made my way over to the one adult-sized chair, removed the book placed there for the teacher to read later that day, placed myself upon the adjacent miniature seat and began to read. I remember being asked what, exactly, I though I was doing and the laughter that followed my response, followed by the quick progress to the principal's office where phone calls and inexplicable accusations were made of my mother's interference with New Jersey's educational plan. I remember the battery of tests that ensued later on and my subsequent removal for the class of Miss. S_____. I remember first grade.
And of course you worry. It is not that you never have your moments of doubt, of crisis, when it comes to the process, you wouldn't be human if you didn't, but that, at least not primarily, is not what causes you worry. You worry about the other things; take tonight, for example. It is the person next to you, so close to your space, that little sanctuary you claim as your own, those few square feet circumscribed by the back-rest of this stool, the far corner of your current book on the left before you, and that drink, to your right, that is gradually making its way to two-thirds through.
It is not that the person next you concerns you, and it is usually only one person as you gravitate, carefully, to the corner stool or the last one in a row, but tonight, as occasionally occurs, it happens to be the case. The problem is that he is speaking, and you are excruciatingly aware of the irony that this is what causes concern. It is not that he speaks, in and of its self, but that he is trying to speak to you, but then again he is not. His words are not for you; you know this, can sense it, from experience. He is speaking at you, through you; his words are for their own sake; they bounce off of you, rebound to elsewhere, back to him. These are not the words; they offer no access; they are void.
You have never been interested in chatter, at least not here. It is not that you are incapable, or so remote as to miss the point – you can be quite good at it when required. It is simply that it lies outside the purview of why you, this night, and all those others like it, are here on this corner stool with that book and this drink which has too quickly slipped past its ideal of two-thirds through, due to worry you cannot help but feel. Thus, once more, there is nothing for it but to finish this one off and once again recommence the cycle by taking that last sip and sliding the glass those few inches forward to signal that another is required in hope that nothing so direct as words will be necessitated, hence causing further distraction.
You give hints, obviously, to this man next to you. You bury your head in your book; you stare off into the middle distance; you fail to respond – you your mind's eye quite pointedly – to his most pressing of queries, but he persists. So, you direct your attention to the drink that stands before you with perhaps overly-specific involvement; two-thirds through comes and goes; your attunement to those other words that you know are emerging across and throughout this space you have encamped within tonight falters and slowly reduces to nil. Your worry slides into discouragement and inevitably you pack up and depart, left ultimately wordless, wondering what you may have missed.
I remember, with an unnerving clarity, what I thought then to be my greatest moment of error. I stood before the three-person tribunal at the sixth-grade Olympics of Mathematics. I remember precisely being asked to explain, in all possible detail, how I would go about solving a certain algebraic problem set before me. I remember the answer coming to me, as if by instinct, and the excitement that flushed my young face as I blurted that answer out. I remember the reproach given to me by the center figure on the dais before me, explaining that the panel required my method of obtaining an answer, not, as had been requested in the paper-based preliminaries, the answer itself. I remember the incomprehension, my grasping for understanding, and my stammering attempt to put into words how it was that I saw the numbers shifting and slipping, sliding around each other, ultimately finding their natural and necessary relative positions. I remember my desperate effort to offer to these three before me the words that would make clear, apparent to all, just how these numbers worked. I remember the third-place trophy that sat in my lap, in the back seat of my mother's car, the one that signified last place among the finalists. I remember the acute meaning of the word third.
From your corner, or end of the row, you crave a crowd. You wait for it, watch for its arrival even as you deplore that moment; you are torn. You look for, listen for the explosion of words that invariably stems from that mass of people at the same time you fully comprehend the difficulty it entails, the obstruction that wealth of words creates for you. You listen, at the edge of the multiplicity, working to separate the individual voice, those unique words that might come to you, offering that elusive way in. You wait, trying to maintain patience, as the proliferation of conversations fills the space you occupy on this occasion; you look to find the drops amidst the tide.
It is when there is a crowd that you most require your book, whichever it might be; you find it focuses you, reminds you of the individuality of words. There is something reassuring about that minimal typographic space between the last character of the preceding word and the first of the following. You find it helps you see the words, and those connections between them, instead of being caught up in the tangled mass they approach. You find that it helps, works as a balm perhaps, but you know, ultimately, that it does not work.
You are torn; the words are there, but they do not find purchase. They belong to the crowd; they are precisely the flood to which you do not belong; that is precisely why you have this process; that is why you sit, within this precise configuration, sipping gently at this drink before you, carefully reading those words printed upon the collection of pages you have brought with you, expending this effort to bring about the perfect conditions. You know what you are doing; you know that you do. You have made this commitment, and that is not for nothing. It will work, eventually, so you sit, you drink, and you read. You listen, carefully positioned in just this place. You balance this book and this drink, this barstool and this building. You listen. For the words that you know will come, you listen.