Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Mimeographed Memories

AS I MENTIONED last week, I'm starting to send some of my short stories out there in hopes of getting published. In a related development, the other day, while rummaging through my extensive and complicated filing system, among other noteworthy discoveries, I came across a folder of stories written during my all-too-brief halcyon days at university.

While encamped at that prestigious academy's dormitory quarters for a span of two semesters comprising my freshman year, I found myself enrolled in an interdisciplinary program. Such nebulous, loosely configured, relaxed approaches to higher learning were undoubtedly intended to resemble the famous Academy of Plato and its later incarnations throughout the history of higher learning. Classes were often held outdoors, tangential discussion was greatly encouraged, and all in all a spirit of intellectual precociousness seemed to reign. It's a long time ago now, but I seem to remember the outdoor classes most of all, with the discussion often splintering off into groups of two or three students talking among themselves, smoking, and perhaps even learning something along the way.

One of my favorite classes was creative writing, where the basis of the course was each student submitting a short story that was read by the class and then subsequently discussed and critiqued. The stories were of course submitted without attribution, all the better to protect the more sensitive students should too mean-spirited a line of criticism take hold. This was well before computers, when the Internet was but a gleam in young Al Gore's mind, and in fact even before the days when Xerox copy machines came to make their mark. So if you wanted multiple copies of, say, your short story, you turned to an ancient mechanical device known as the mimeograph machine.

The mimeograph was really little more than an elaborate roller with ink. You took the page you wanted to copy, and then a blank piece of paper, and then carefully inserted them into the rollers while cranking a handle, and the ink would somehow transfer from the old page to the new page through some kind of mystical, alchemical process that remains a well-guarded state secret to this very day. I told you the mimeograph was archaic, and it was that, painstakingly making a single copy at a time, all the while invariably dispensing ink all over the operator, and generally was one very small incremental step above Gutenberg's original handmade printing press. But like the 8-track player, until something better comes along, you don't realize that what you got is not what you want, so you wait until something better comes along. And you know what, it usually does.

Anyway, most of my college stuff, as you might expect, is too subpar to dwell on, but given that we live in an unlimited (bandwidth) universe, what would be the harm of from time to time posting stuff that isn't extraordinarily cringe-inducing. From the batch I wrote for that freshman course, that comprises a very short list. And out of that, I select this tale, The Pinstriped Man -- my literally juvenile attempt at an Oedipal Western, I suppose, although in retrospect Johnny Cash's A Boy Named Sue could have been equally as big an influence. If you're of a mind to offer feedback, I bid you be gentle, as everyone has to start somewhere, and these early efforts indeed represent something like the first tentative steps of the literary giant you see grinning sardonically back at you through the digital looking glass.

The Pinstriped Man

Wilbert Simpson had been riding for twelve hours without rest. His undershirt and pants were soaked with perspiration, and his faded deerskin shirt and Levi's jeans constantly stuck to his clammy, itchy skin. He had not eaten for the same twelve hours, and still had no craving for food.

The sky was the orange glow that directly precedes the setting sun. Wilbert had planned to arrive in Pittsdam at twilight, and was content that he had come so close to satisfying his schedule.

He jumped off the ebony mare, tied her to the post, and then dusted off his shirt and pants, all performed with the same restrained and controlled manner Wilbert prided himself in maintaining.

It was Saturday night, and inside the inn the crowd was in a partying, rollicking mood; about half looked legally inebriated. Wilbert shoved the door open, hesitated long enough to explore the faces in the room, and then started toward the bar. Wilbert's ten-gallon hat and desperado attitude and attire drew an array of stares, one in particular belonging to a tall, lanky male, aged around forty, wearing a dark pinstripe suit that looked to be at least as old as its owner. This is the man Wilbert would kill tonight.

Wilbert had followed the pinstriped man for exactly a year. Each day's particulars were painstakingly and quite graphically recorded in Wilbert's black log book. On the cover of the book, in elegant bold letters, the words THE GOOD LORD WILLING were inscribed. These words held a special meaning for Wilbert.

In the back of the book, using up the last twelve sheets of paper, was a calendar. The calendar started with the date of August 22, and ended with the same date a year later. Each day was marked with a black pen through it, until the final day, which was marked in a quite different fashion. On that date, Wilbert clutched his hunting knife and, with that same controlled air about him, made a one-inch gash in his left arm. Wilbert dabbed the point of the dagger in the wound and, in the box marked August 22, formed a neat red cross. Wilbert looked at the cross with glee, then glanced backward through the calendar. He snapped the book shut, fastened his hat comfortably on his head, and rambled outside for the last leg of his one-year journey.

The bar was crowded, and Wilbert was forced to stand as he ordered a drink. He called for a double shot of rye. While he waited, Wilbert turned around and searched for the man in pinstripes. Abruptly their eyes met, and each held firm for what seemed like a long time, until the pinstriped man sharply veered his eyes from Wilbert's fanatical glare. Wilbert eased into a diabolical grin, patting the bulging pocket that contained his revolver. He turned and downed his glass in one motion.

The pinstriped man knew for some time that he was being followed, but of two things we was unsure. The first was just how many months had he been followed, and the second was why was he being followed. The pinstriped man's thoughts floated between these two questions as he nervously fondled his glass.

Back at the bar, Wilbert ordered another shot. The first drink worked on Wilbert's empty stomach, and erased any apprehensiveness he might have had. The second drink arrived, and with it came the memory of an incident of fifteen years ago.

Wilbert was very young, about five years old, on the night his father walked out on him and his mother. Outside, it was raining, and inside the house his mother was weeping. Wilbert's father had been adulterous for over a year and was now abandoning Wilbert and his mother for another woman.

"If you leave me, you son of a bitch, don't ever come back here," cried Wilbert's mother, hysterically.
"I don't wish to, my dear. That's why I'm leaving," said Wilbert's father, matter-of-factly.
"You bastard! I swear I'll kill you, you diseased vermin!" Her face was overcome with rage and her body was quivering. She seemed on the verge of physical collapse.
"I don't like to leave you in this condition," Wilbert's father countered, "but I'm leaving you just the same. You'll make out, the good Lord willing. So long, son." With a wave of the hand, he was gone.

After about five minutes, Wilbert's mother stopped crying. She walked over to where Wilbert had been sitting throughout all of this. He seemed untouched by what had just happened, but his outward appearance failed to show what he felt inside.

He listened intently as his mother softly but forcefully uttered these words: "If it takes me forever, Wilbert, I'm going to see your father die. I gave him everything I could. I bear'd his child, and he left us anyway. As God is my witness, I swear he'll die before his time, if it takes my last ounce of strength to do it. Now listen carefully, Wilbert. I am not a well woman. If anything happens to me, I want you to carry my wishes out. I want you to kill your father." Two weeks later, Wilbert's mother was dead.

Wilbert picked up his drink and carried it over to the table that the pinstriped man was sitting at. He took a seat across from him and, nodding, blurted, "Hello, father."

The man in pinstripes was startled at Wilbert's assertion. But then he looked deep into Wilbert's cold blue eyes and realized it was true. From deep within himself, he felt a heavy and hot rush rising up throughout his body. His mind bounced back and forth between thousands of previous moments in his life. The pinstriped man's turbulence was a telling contrast to Wilbert's calm demeanor.

Wilbert looked down into the glass that rested between his hands on the table. "I hope you understand why I have to kill you. Mother would have wanted it this way. You remember mother, don't you, dad? It's a shame she won't be here to see it." Wilbert said the last line with exaggerated reminiscence. Wilbert lifted his head and inspected his father's troubled face.

"Look, I'm not your father," declared Wilbert's father, himself not believing the words he just said. "I don't know who you are, but you're crazy if you think I'm your father. Now stop following me, ya hear."

Wilbert just smiled, as the pinstriped man got up and hurried out of the bar. The same expression of concentration mixed with self-assuredness still marked Wilbert's face. He slowly drank what was left in his glass, and then he too started for the door.

Outside, Wilbert saw no sign of his father, but was unworried. He had mentally disposed of his father already, and all that remained was the physical act. To Wilbert, that would be ecstasy.

Wilbert untied the horse and mounted her in that same distinctively smooth manner that was his alone. Wilbert and the mare slowly galloped away from the inn. It was now so close he could taste it. The culmination of a year's journey and a lifetime's mission was a hair away. Wilbert wet his lips in bestial anticipation.

Wilbert scouted the area around the inn for a short while. Then he decided to check for his father near the lake. There he found the pinstriped man with his back to him, sitting on a large rock. He was hunched over in an odd way. Wilbert debated between shooting his father while on the horse, or getting off and killing him close up. He chose the latter.

As Wilbert walked toward the solemn figure perched on the rock, he eagerly clutched the gun in his pocket. Soon he would be at peace with himself. Soon it would be over. He called to his father, but received neither an answer nor a movement. A second call again produced nothing. At that moment, Wilbert realized his father was already dead.

Wilbert's father died with a smile on his face. He died clutching the knife that punctured his heart, and with blood spilling on his hand and clothes. The deep red of his blood blended eerily with the darkness of his pinstriped suit jacket.

The stars winked defiantly at Wilbert. The tranquil water provided unharmonious background for the scene near the rock. Wilbert threw his gun down into the dirt, then deliriously seized the knife from his father's hand. With a violent thrust he punctured his heart with the knife, letting out a demonic shrief. He fell to the ground, and landed at the feet of the pinstriped man.

-- BW


jimithegreek said...

love that purple ink for the mimeograph! story's not bad a bit familiar n dark

Anonymous said...

I liked it better when he fastened his cat to his head.