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Home: The Toast

After all, perhaps it is we who need saving. Perhaps we are the abnormal ones. ­– Eugene Ionesco

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Bob finished it first. Stop everything, he told them, and get to your nearest e-book store. Paul found a PDF online. He clicked to download. Thirty-three minutes, it said. They waited.

What did you like about it? Frank asked.

It was… Bob began. He scanned his shelves, wooden and wall-length, full of books he’d actually read, summoning a word. His eyes fell past the electric fireplace, upon the sharp edges of his coffee table. Three bottles of wine stood, still corked. This is where they met on Wednesdays, to drink, to eat, to smoke a little pot if Harry came through, to discuss what they’d read and what they should be reading, and, of course, to write. To generate, Bob called it, unprompted, unprecious writing. There were no rules, other than the imperative. But this week it was already nine and they had not written, were not writing, hadn’t rolled a joint, nor snacked, nor even made so much as a lunge for the corkscrew. Instead they were talking about what Bob and the rest of the Internet were calling The Greatest Story Ever Written.

It was transformative, Bob said. As in, it will transform you.

Chatboards agreed. GreatBooks readers were requesting additional rating stars. The comment thread under the PDF offered one-word testimonies: Astonishing. Dumbfounding. The word transformative appeared more than once. This is the end of literature as we… the last commentator couldn’t even finish her thought, so transformed was she.

Is this his first book? asked Henry.

First and only. Apparently the author is this recluse type who lives in a cabin in the Adirondacks, Bob said. Or maybe it’s the Rockies.

Paul searched. It was the Catskills.

And he’s this former blue-collar type. A plumber?

A former schoolteacher, Paul offered.

Samson leaned forward. What’s it about? he asked.

I can’t explain it, Bob offered. I could try, but my recount will pale in comparison, which is, I suppose, what the book is really about in the end: the exquisite frailty of language, its inevitable failure to fully capture human experience.

Samson nodded. He was always bemoaning the failures of language.

Paul Dropkicked the file to the group, and then Bob sent them home, sober and unfed, where they all got into bed with their devices, next to their wives or lovers or pets, who were also in bed with their devices. All commenced reading until they tired, upon which they turned off their lights and toward their lovers (real or imagined) and sent their pets out of the room, so they could make love or masturbate, because the story inspired that sort of thing. All noticed that the book, while long, read quick, but only in the sense that time seemed to run while reading. However, time through the book moved at a curiously predictable rate, such that when the lamps were turned and the clothes taken off, everyone had read just as many pages as they’d hoped and planned for prior to the endeavor, and they were all happy about it; and that little bit of self-satisfaction, however small, felt like enough of a triumph to set their lovemaking off right, so that everyone climaxed in reasonable time, even Norman’s wife Sarah (and they’d been having trouble lately), and everyone fell asleep at a sane hour and awoke with just a little bit more spirit than they’d had the day before.

Everyone, that is, except for Dave. Dave tried to play along – he even let the file download onto his ThoughtPad while he fed and walked Rhino – but really he’d been feeling a kind of literary ennui since hearing about the book on LitPod earlier that week. Timothy Lasky had rehashed the entire plot of The Greatest Story Ever Written, including the part about the brothel and the decline of The Dictator and even the fifth act false ending with the living angel and her brain damaged son who redeems all the city’s crimes. He’d done so insisting that plot was a perfectly acceptable thing to rehash, fear no spoil, because plot was such an insignificant part of what made the book so grand, nay plot was mere filler for the book’s real contribution, which was, as Lasky put it, the story’s ability to answer if not all then at least quite a significant amount of humanity’s most insistent questions. The questions that keep you up at night. Lasky then read an email from the LitPot listener slushpile which confirmed his hypothesis about the book’s grandeur, quite literally. This listener had suffered from decades of insomnia, the great monster under her bed, she called it, which had, this monster, clawed through her marriage, eaten up her job as an underpaid copyeditor, mangled her confidence, and ravaged her very organs. She wasn’t long for this world, said the listener, until she picked up The Greatest Story Ever Written, and, upon completion, fell into a deep and dreamless sleep so restful she thought perhaps she was dead. But when she awoke, she was not dead, but rather reborn, revitalized, and she’d been living and sleeping, monster-free, ever since.

Dave felt as moved by the sob story as he had by the plot rehashing. It was all a bit on-the-nose for him. Maybe he’d had it with Litpod.

But this was Lasky, and Bob was so insistent – Bob wasn’t much of a writer but he was a skilled and diligent reader, could always articulate the aim of your story and how you were failing to reach it. Dave got into bed, Rhino at his feet, and read the first sentence of the G.S.E.W, and then the first page, and then his inbox chimed, and (he knew he shouldn’t but) he read his email, just one, okay another, and then he put his device down. Rhino was asleep but Dave was not tired, and he did not feel like reading, and so he did not read, what could not possibly be The Greatest Story Ever Written.

 

Paul sent an email on Friday. Wow, read the subject line. It’s the prose. A great story starts with a great sentence, Paul said, not for the first time. The G.S.E.W. is made up of great, nay spectacular, sentences, sentences so great they make other sentences look mediocre, if not outright depraved. He was having trouble writing this email, Paul joked, because his sentences looked so pigeon-footed and deficient in the echo of the G.S.E.W.’s Greatest Sentences Ever Written.

Dave felt very strongly about feeling exactly nothing toward the G.S.E.W’s sentences.

Norman weighed in next: It’s the punctuation…

And have you gotten to the sentence that’s sixteen pages long? (Paul again)

Haven’t noticed the punctuation, Samson contested.

That’s “because” great; punctuation makes (itself) unnoticeable. (Norman)

Punctuation and prose may play a role – George joined the conversation on Saturday – but I think it’s really the modulation of the voice that…

It’s just a fucking great story (Harry, on Sunday). I hope the hobo and his meth addicted teacup piglet make it to the clinic before Animal Services tracks their submarine!

None of the aforementioned elements – Samson weighed in again Sunday afternoon – rival the conceptual patterning throughout the piece. Like the work of a master quilter, each element is linked to another patch of the plot by a conceptual shade. Have you noticed all the isoscelar references? The circumference of the submarine is exactly the same length as its measure from head to tail, which is exactly the same height of the hobo’s tree…

Dave scrolled, yawning.

…and because ego (The Dictator) and appetite (the hobo + piglet) lack reason, the superego (the angel) must sacrifice her son, restoring redemption to all, which is, I don’t need to remind you, analogous to another iconic triad.

(Haggling about relevance of Christian themes, rehashing of Socrates on enlightenment, Freud makes an appearance and is denounced etc.)

Finally, Bob: You’re all daft, he condemned. The grandeur of the G.S.E.W is not located in one isolated element. We can no more attribute its success to its punctuation or its prose as we can to the Model E Tamsong typewriter the author had used to compose the thing. (And apparently he’d done so with his non-dominant left hand because he’d permanently injured the right in a fishing accident.) Alas, the whole is much greater than the sum of its parts, Bob concluded. Let us cease this haggling. It’s uncivilized.

Dave did not need to read any more of the actual G.S.E.W. to know that he did not like it: the punctuation, the prose, all the inane characters – at least nine mentioned in the first paragraph and he’d cared about exactly zero of them. Thumbing the California cabs in the Corner Wine Shoppe on Wednesday afternoon, Dave found himself wistful for simpler literary times. Had little Dave ever doubted the authority of The Solar King or any of the Epics of Goldenrod? Had he and his playmates ever even noticed the efficacy of the syntax in the Henry Stone mysteries? Little Dave used to read until his eyes burned, and it had filled him with what felt then like fairy dust. Something was promised to little Dave in the worlds of the Lone Star and the Odalisque, in the tales of pierced-neck Furdragons and their slippery spygems. Something that seemed eternal.

Dave was going to be late. He paid for the wine and hopped on his bike, over the bridge to Bob’s. Alienation and tardiness and bouts of nostalgia weren’t atypical for Dave, but now here was a new experience, a feeling in the heart space: a weakness, a lethargy, a swelling, indolent dread.

The evening began with a languorous circus of consumption, as Bob was contrite for last week’s lack of hospitality. He’d enlisted Mary, doting wife, to cook three courses. He’d even pitched in for dessert, and he warned his guests not to deride his attempt at domesticity. The burnt bunt cake was terrible, but no one admitted such. In service of alliteration, Bob joked, and Mary, who always seemed cagey and woe-be-gone, actually smiled, before she retreated to the back rooms for another bedtime without Daddy.

Attendance was uncharacteristically low. There was no Harry, so no pot, and there was no Norman, who was at home, finishing the G.S.E.W. in bed with his wife – they were reading it together, as in the same hardcover book, and apparently the antiquated scene was inspiring a symbiosis of spirit. It’s really helping them out, Bob winked. The men let this logistical mention of the G.S.E.W. pass, for fear of launching too eagerly into precisely what they all wanted to talk about. They were like overzealous lovers who, meeting for the explicit purpose of talking about their overzealous love, were, in a fit of reticence about their overzealousness, talking instead about the weather – which was lovely this evening.

Furthermore, the individuals present had an uncharacteristically large amount of good news to share with the group. Bob’s daughters had gotten off the waitlist at their pre-school of choice. Dan had an interview with a private school uptown. Samson had gone on a promising first date with a divorcee he’d met on Spooner – and Samson was usually pathologically shy during non-virtual encounters with women. By the second course, George mentioned something about the pepper-encrusted tuna reminding him of the caviar cakes served at The Dictator’s Slaughter Ball, and then Henry remarked that he hoped these slabs of fish flesh gave him totalitarian control over the city, and everyone laughed, which struck Dave as excessively charitable given how corny the joke was. From there, unbridled praise of the book wove in and out of more sharing of positive life news, none of which, Dave noticed, had anything to do with their writing lives. Usually at some point somebody would bring up their lack of publication success and then somebody else would remind them that they’d just had that piece up on Gaper last month and it was really quite solid, really just stellar, which would console the lamenter temporarily – even though they all thought Gaper was a pretty low rate E-journal. The lack of complaints, not to speak of controlled substances, made everything seem wholesome and unfamiliar. Dave drank much. He did not finish his Spaghetti Carbonara and he certainly made no pass at the bunt cake.

And then – most unsettling – the writing hour tolled (it was already ten), and when Bob stood, threw in the napkin, and invited the men to the living room, many exchanged reticent looks. Dan said he’d better get going – needed to rest up for the interview – and then George hated to admit that he was really quite tired, and then Henry muttered something about the trains running local, and then, even though there were only five butts seated on Bob’s leather couches for the next hour, Dave sensed more than the usual shifting and scratching and exiting for the restroom and staring off wistfully at the smiling bookcase, which leered down on them, a beast with too many teeth.

Poor Dave. Only Samson noticed his close-to-total silence this evening, and when they spoke at the bike stand all Dave could muster was a feeble: Jus’ feelin’ stressed, the excuse being: Work, and the like. Samson nodded. He was hip to the woes of a day job, his being equally soul-sucking and administrative as Dave’s. If only we could quit our jobs and read all day, Samson said, to which Dave forced a chuckle and did not say what he wanted to say, nay shout, in reply: Read all day? What about write all day? Isn’t anybody in this Writers Group an actual writer anymore? Dave thought of what was decidedly not The Greatest Story Ever Written, and he resolved to delete the PDF immediately, eviscerate it from his sights. His passionless dislike of the book had bloomed into something closer to hate. If he had a hardcopy he’d throw it from his window, watch it ripple and land among sidewalk trash with an onomatopoeic thud.

Dave walked his bike over the bridge, waiting for the spins to subside, and when he reached the halfway point, he looked right, at the sparkling city that could make him feel so small but so special. Dave had come here from somewhere else because this is where small bright boys came to be big bright men. It had never mattered to Dave how many other boys were dreaming up constellations; Dave could see his own so clearly, just out of reach. Dave saw stars in his eyes all the way home. And all through his walk with Rhino, down the block and around the construction zone where an All Foods was going up, past the late night teenaged riffraff who flicked ash like they owned the world, he thought of the lines he’d just printed in his moleskin, and he resolved to write till morning.

 

By Friday, Paul was through read two of the G.S.E.W. and expounding, virtually:

This time around it’s all the extended metaphors that have me green as a lime, his email reported. Pre-G.S.E.W., I’d thought this literary device, like the tasteless bloat of GMOs in our nation’s food, merely fattened a story with carcinogenic fluff.

GMOs refer to a wide range of modified foods… Dave began in reply.

But here, Paul’s email continued, fertilization with extended metaphors causes neither bland nor toxic bloat but a veritable placenta upon which the mind may feast.

In fact, they often indicate nutritive supplementation and are a godsend in the fight against hunger. (Dave, yet unsent)

Yes, Frank replied first. Consider the branching of trees…

The endpapers, Norman offered, are imprinted with the branches of trees.

And notice that the endpaper trees are fractaling to the power of 3. (Samson)

If GMOs were less regulated, we could likely feed…Dave leaned on the delete key.

Doesn’t the prose have a fractaling quality, somehow? (Harry) Like the way music sometimes seems to bloom.

The book is clearly written by a genius. (Frank)

Have you ever noticed (Dave, another draft) how the word ‘genius’ denotes, by definition, a set of things misunderstood by the labelers? The signified ‘genius’ cannot think he is a genius, because there is always something he misunderstands, something he might call ‘genius,’ that is if he yielded to such specious language…

This book will feed the world indefinitely. (Paul)

The word is a shroud. An invocation of magic for science unexplained…

Tried to pick up a collection of Holliway shorts this afternoon. (Bob) Put it down for read three of the G.S.E.W. Apparently there’s no discovered end to the riches of rereading. This (hyperlinked) blog is the most popular for rehashing re-reads. And this (hyperlinked) chatboard has turned into a full-fledged boast-fest re: number of rereads. @Hobochic just hit 23.

Likely erroneous. Who’s vetting these claims? (Samson)

…and how this ‘magic’ leads to worship, to requisite cultish behaviors: compulsion, erasure of personal identity, eradication of other desires. It’s totalitarian, this ‘genius’. It’s…

Dave clicked out of the draft.

 

Attendance was even lower at group the next week and the food was even better. Filling the seats, enjoying her own endive salad and the many complements it inspired, was Mary, and beside her the twins, who had been especially well behaved since switching to Pre-Prep. Small children made Dave itchy and too aware of his face. Paul was gaping at them with doe eyes, asking them what colors things were and if they liked said color, which they always did. The girls’ educational future and well-behaved-ness was the main topic of conversation until they were taken to bed. Bob wore an apron with pink ruffles through the lemon caper sole. He was very proud of not burning the white chocolate chip macadamia cookies, he reported as he served them, still warm.

Dave gulped down his Malbec and inquired about the groupee’s various absences. Harry was on vague, indefinite leave, Norman and the wife were on vacation, and Dan was neck-deep in course building. He’d been put in charge of the English curriculum for Grade 12 and it looked like he was actually going to get to teach the G.S.E.W. Everyone swooned.

And speaking of jobs, Bob elaborated. George is home prepping for his interview tomorrow with a promising little start-up called Toggle.

Everyone raised their eyebrows. ‘Toggle’ practically had its own etymology.

They have the most comprehensive healthcare package in the country, said Frank.

And they play racquetball on their lunch breaks, added Henry.

They’re upping their ad game, Bob explained. I swear there’s a literary revolution sweeping the private sector. Thanks to you-know-what.

It was unclear to Dave whether or not this enthusing over George’s Toggle move was produced in earnest, or if the supposed writers were, as writers are supposed to be, skeptical of storytelling for anything other than the intrinsic value of storytelling.

You think there’s a correlation between the G.S.E.W. and the availability of corporate writing jobs? Samson asked, unconvinced.

How did George get this interview? asked Henry, a little too nonchalantly.

Bob leaned back, face aglow. His writing sample was inspired, he said. A sixty second Tampmax plug – that was the prompt – so George went rom-com/magic realism. Average Single, but also Handicapped, Joe loves Beautiful, Single, Long-legged Jane who lives on a fifth-floor walkup. It’s her time of the month. Her elevator is out…

Is this for serious? Dave looked for a read on Samson’s eyebrows.

So Joe wheels over with the goods, discovers the elevator in disrepair – cut to Jane in the window twittering – and then Joe, in a stroke of genius, attaches the Tampmax tampons to the Tampmax pads – which have wings – and flies them up to her window.

Dave could not tell if Bob was recounting this narrative atrocity with earnest admiration or irony. Something was wrong with Bob. He’d lost his clarity of critique, and Dave found this quite unsettling.

What about the stairs? Dave asked, immediately regretting it.

Yes, the stairs, Samson echoed. Samson! Dave rejoiced at his friend’s (were they friends?) skepticism. Samson clarified: Magic realist plot twists should arise only when there is no realistic solution to the problem at hand. Surely the building had stairs?

Obviously the man is handicapped, Bob replied.

The woman – the woman could take the stairs! Dave was practically yelling.

Bob reached for the ice cream. True, he said. But. It’s inefficient.

‘Inefficient’ is inadequate impetus for regression to magical modes, Samson began.

Yes, tell him, thought Dave.

The living angel, for example, is given her wings only after she dissociates from her abused body. In a sense, she dies, and only then enters the non-rational world.

Dave felt woozy. Samson was an unreliable ally, a sheep in wolf’s clothing.

I can’t argue with the G.S.E.W. said Bob, standing to clear the plates. Samson let the debate end, but Dave was still thinking about magic as they adjourned to the study. Magic was a cheap way to resolve a narrative. Magic was like genius: the author draping his failure in golden threads. Dave hadn’t liked magic in his fiction since he’d stopped believing in it.

And now Dave was convinced: something very real was bludgeoning their writing time. Henry and Frank had excused themselves before the session, which only lasted 53 minutes. Halfway though, Mary called for Bob. A nightmare, he whispered upon returning, and then he stared at the bookcase until Paul stretched and yawned rather loudly, and then Samson sighed, and Dave, even though he’d been in the middle of an epic scene, and coming along prolifically – who knew if it was any good but it felt good – finished his sentence and then stopped, reluctantly. Dave found, after he’d closed his moleskin and descended to the street, that the well of inspiration in which he’d just been stewing turned very quickly back into dread as he spun the numbers on his bike lock. So when Samson asked him how he was doing, what Dave had planned to say came out instead: Awful lousy. Samson admitted that he was also feeling off after hearing talk of corporate futures, to which Dave nodded vigorously. Samson couldn’t tell whether or not Bob was condoning this move, as it seemed like precisely the kind of thing Bob was allied against, not that he should condemn it outright, as not all of us had been imparted such large trust funds, such lovely brownstones in the village, nor such docile and accommodating wives, and of course Samson knew Bob had to at least feign support of the practicality of his less privileged friends, but Samson just thought he would have detected a smidge more judgment in Bob’s reportage of the Toggle option, which he, Samson, did feel, like it or not. Dave found all of this profoundly comforting and when he revealed that he thought Henry had asked about George’s writing sample because he was vying for a Toggle job too, Samson curved his eyebrows into exactly the shape of judgment that had been lacking in Bob’s face all evening.

Dave was now flooded with good will toward his friend (surely they were friends). Dave had always thought of Samson as the only other writer in the group worth his commas. He was why he joined the group, after all. Samson had invited Dave along after they’d met at the Neat Street Writer’s House and Dave had admired the Socratic dialogue structure of Samson’s interpretation of the Blindfold prompt, and he the repetition in Dave’s imitation of Manx’s medieval horror shorts, and they extolled these praises and other observations to one another in long-winded letters, handed in among other, much shorter, much less articulate letters at the end of the second class; and they had, these letters, felt to each one as they wrote them like a revelation not only of praiseworthy elements in the writing of their peer but an articulation of the aims of all good writing, not that the other had achieved this yet, but they were close…if they just kept chasing it. This articulation of the closeness of the other to some hidden gem of a something that all good writers were chasing had made each one feel in their own right endowed with a transcendent kind of insight, the spark of the very thing they were praising. Ever since, Dave had enjoyed something more than intellectual tolerance of Samson. He rather looked forward to being in Samson’s presence, really. Dave was sorry he’d just now noticed it.

Any good writing tonight? Dave ventured.

It’s funny, Samson said.

You’re writing something funny?

No, Samson smiled. It’s funny because I feel quite dried up, prose wise.

Ah. These things pass.

Usually they do. Samson said, laughing. A haunting laugh, thought Dave while he biked, for it was not the shifty chuckle of shame but the hoot of a happy man.

 

Happiness, Dave thought, was precisely what bothered him about the faces on the giant All Food’s ads papering the cinder blocks around the construction zone. Rhino’s tongue hung from the dog’s mouth, flapping to the rhythm of his trot. Dave was not anti-happiness, but he believed in a certain protocol for happiness. Happiness was not the result of, let’s say, eating a Giant Extra Ripe Tomato because you saw a poster of a beautiful white-toothed, shiny-haired woman eating a Giant Extra Ripe tomato and her glee at eating said G.E.R.T. caused you to believe that eating a similar G.E.R.T. yourself would endow you with all the happiness of either being or being with such a luminous and hygienic woman. The happiness of eating a G.E.R.T., in order to be happiness unadultered, must be intrinsic to the act of the tomato eating – it’s color, it’s coolness, the pillowy descent of the teeth through skin and flesh, the rising of the seeds to the roof of the mouth, the thrill of the swallow – and not due to any manufactured memory of white teeth and/or shiny hair and the enterprising desire to acquire these non-intrinsic-tomato-properties for one’s own. Dave feared that most people did not have enough time, nor interest, nor brain-power to think to analyze whether or not their enjoyment of tomatoes or any other vegetable or food item or thing or experience was injected with manufactured memories and if so, where and/or who those manufactured memories came from. It was exhausting, such vigilance.

So it was this kind of happiness Dave had heard in the laugh of Samson. A happiness bought and sold. Not for money exactly, but for something just as valuable.

Rhino woofed and wagged, turning Dave toward home.

There was something sad about the happiness of a dog, thought Dave as he sat at his desk to type, the sound a staccato mourning march that seemed to raise the sun.

 

For the next week, Dave could not stop thinking about Samson. Dave would never have reported a particular dependency on his writing peers, but now, newly haunted by the fear of Samson slipping away, Dave wondered if he had always been writing for someone else, someone whose authority he trusted more than his own. Like a lover in mourning, Dave felt not only the imminent loss of Samson’s kinship but a globalized grief, an awareness of life’s most dreadful possibilities, namely that people do give up on each other and themselves.

It was with this urgency, the mania of the spurned, that Dave showed up at Samson’s apartment – which was not so far from his, it turned out – on Tuesday night, Rhino in tow.

Would never have pegged you for a dog person, a robed and slippered Samson said, stepping onto the stoop to light cigarette.

Didn’t realize you were smoker, Dave remarked, and then asked for one himself.

Samson took long drags. Dave realized he had no idea where to begin and he felt quite silly about his hysteria, here in the quiet of Samson’s company.

Just thought I’d stop by, see if you wanted to do some writing.

Samson eyed the dark. It’s a bit late, he said.

I always do my best writing at night. You know, with the day job.

Samson nodded. Thinking of quitting that thing, he said.

The job? That’s wonderful.

I’ve decided I don’t want to sleep through my life.

I completely agree. It’s torture. It should be illegal.

I want to feel like I’m really doing something. All day, every day.

Yes, one day, if we persist.

I’m thinking of going back to school.

School?

I like being around people, learning, figuring things out. I’d like to be useful.

You like other people? Dave did not say this aloud.

I’m thinking maybe Clinical Psych.

Dave had no words.

You know, the writing thing. Samson began gingerly – a doctor around a wound.

Your block, it’s passing?

It’s not passing, and the funny thing is – Samson delivered his condemning revelation with the sensitive caution characteristic of successful therapists and social workers. The funny thing is: I don’t mind.

Dave was unwilling to draw the onerous conclusion.

It’s a relief actually.

Relief. The word echoed in Dave’s head like the ring of a golden bell, a song of a word that, upon its utterance, called to mind the bell-prison from which it sprung. Their suffering: so banal, so expected that they never thought to relieve themselves from it, and now Samson had called it up only to leave it behind, this golden den where Dave had laid his home.

It feels, Samson continued.

Don’t say anymore, Dave pleaded wordlessly. Let’s just leave relief for the dogs.

It feels like somebody…somebody with authority…

Dave filled with dread from his small intestines to his eyebrows.

It’s like an authority has told me: Samson, that’ll do. It’s like…

Oh God, Dave pleaded silently. Don’t say it. Don’t even think it.

It’s like the job is done.

The diagnosis smoldered with the snuffing out of Samson’s cigarette. Although he hadn’t named it, the G.S.E.W.’s chestnut prose was tattooed all over his self-affirmations.

Dave crushed his own butt into the concrete of the steps. So what’ll you do, then?

Samson brushed ash. For now, I’ve got this lady.

Ah, thought Dave. Said lady was probably behind the door, or curled up in bed reading the G.S.E.W., sipping scotch and eating salted slices of a Giant Extra Ripe Tomato.

Nice to see you Dave. Samson stood. Come by anytime.

Rhino had to practically drag Dave home, past the smokers and the construction zone where the cement blocks were adorned with new faces eating not only Giant Extra Ripe Tomatoes but Giant Extra Ripe Peaches and Giant Extra Ripe Strawberries. Dave felt acutely alone.

 

Dave was not surprised to find that he was the only one to show at Bob’s apartment the next night, and he was not amused by the show Bob put on welcoming him into the kitchen, where the father was sitting down to a family meal, which he’d cooked entirely himself – okay Mary had measured out all the ingredients into color-coded cups, but Bob had put it all together, and it wasn’t half bad, especially the eggplant parm.

Please sit. Bob dragged a chair from the living room. Dave sat at the short end of the rectangle, facing no one. Mary had a new haircut. The twins had sauce on their noses.

The eggplant parm was good, great actually. The pleasure of food was alarming. Had he eaten today? Not much. He held the food with his back teeth, savoring. Some things were unequivocally good. And he had been craving tomato lately.

It’s fantastic.

Dave said little else all through the remaining courses, aware that he was awkward and unwelcome, but he wore his uneasiness like badge, proof of his destiny. The meal helped quiet the tide in his esophagus. Sensory pleasures had a way of re-anchoring whatever had become unmoored inside of Dave. It reminded him of the world, that it was a real place, something he could taste and touch, and that it was the setting for his real life, in which he had desires and needs and a particular, inalienable purpose.

Dave wiped mascarpone and dusted chocolate from his lips and offered to help clean up, which Bob vigorously insisted against.

Will you join me in the study for writing then?

Of course, Bob promised, he’d be in shortly, just after he did this and that and the other – and as Bob listed the domestic duties he was all too happy to fill, Dave resigned himself to another writing hour alone – the only hour a week he ever expected to be not alone. Dave chose a seat from the field of leather stretched out beneath the stacked and sneering bookcase. The room filled with his dread. He could hardly summon the strength to open his moleskin. He reminded himself that this aloneness was proof of his singular commitment, his skill, and yet the formulation struck Dave, as soon as he thought it, as the kind of untrue thing he would anticipate telling himself in a moment like this – transparent consolation. When faced with the actuality of his abandonment, the real truth tolled. In the absence of others, he was no more accomplished, only more alone; he was the same writer with no readers, a tree un-fallen in the forest. Dave reached for his wine. The edges of the glass table had been capped, he noticed, child-proofed.

Then Dave realized he was staring at it, the hard copy. How pedestrian it looked, sitting upright on the table, cover on display, pages fanned open. Like a slut, he thought.

With nothing else to do with his hands, he reached for it. How silly that such an innocuous object had caused Dave such despair. With his antagonism, hadn’t he imbued the G.S.E.W. with his own brand of grandeur? Shouldn’t he read it to put it rightly in its place? But how slippery were concessions… first the reading, then the loving, then the losing… Oh what might become of him? Dave practically threw the book back onto the table. It landed open, an invitation that filled him with desire, then revulsion.

Dave could hear the rhythmic trill of Bob’s reading voice through the walls of the backroom. He wondered if those words filled Bob’s children with something like fairy dust, if they too would be chasing that lightness for the rest of their lives.

If Dave were the better man he secretly thought but wouldn’t admit to thinking he was, he’d take the thing home, give it a real chance, risk having been wrong. Dave’s hands were shaking. Did he hope he was wrong? Did he fear it? Which mattered more, the integrity of literature of the integrity of Dave?

 

Bourbon in his left hand, Bob’s book in his lap, Dave was in bed, well past midnight. He started from the very beginning and was determined to finish – he’d take a sick day if he had to. When he tired of sitting up, he laid back, and tiring of that he flipped to his side, then his stomach. He read on the bed, on the floor, at his desk. He read aloud to Rhino. He read through five more fingers of bourbon, two bars of chocolate, and one tomato.

When Dave got to The Dictator’s Slaughter Ball, he shivered. When the Dictator’s wife died, Dave sighed. When the hobo and the meth-addicted piglet were captured by Animal Services, Dave gasped. The living angel received her wings on the mountain. The brain-damaged son was born on a stack of hay. The sun rose outside Dave’s window, and when this son grunted his final sermon to the city, before climbing the mountain to mark his grave, Dave’s lips curled up. His eyelids were heavy, his restlessness quelled; he felt like he, too, had reached the pinnacle of something. Now he could cease his toil.

And so Dave turned the last page of the Greatest Story Ever Written and then he closed the back cover, stained with chocolate and tomato, and then he held the book, front cover to his chest. He reached for the light, noting the sting of his weariness. He exhaled – relieved – and prepared to dream.

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Amy Kurzweil's short fiction and comics have appeared in Shenandoah, Hobart, Blackbird, Hot Street, Short, Fast, and Deadly and forthcoming in Washington Square. Her graphic memoir Flying Couch will be published by Black Balloon, an imprint of Catapult Books, in Fall 2016. Amy teaches writing and comics at Parsons The New School for Design and the Fashion Institute of Technology. She earned an MFA in fiction from The New School and a BA in creative writing from Stanford University. Boston-born, she currently lives in Brooklyn.

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