“When King Lear dies in Act V, do you know what Shakespeare has written? He’s written “He dies.” That’s all, nothing more. No fanfare, no metaphor, no brilliant final words. The culmination of the most influential work of dramatic literature is “He dies.” It takes Shakespeare, a genius, to come up with “He dies.” And yet every time I read those two words, I find myself overwhelmed with dysphoria. And I know it’s only natural to be sad, but not because of the words “He dies,” but because of the life we saw prior to the words. I’ve lived all five of my acts, Mahoney, and I am not asking you to be happy that I must go. I’m only asking that you turn the page, continue reading… and let the next story begin. And if anyone asks what became of me, you relate my life in all its wonder, and end it with a simple and modest “He died.” ― Dustin Hoffman
I rarely remember my dreams – but last night I had a dream so realistic I woke up convinced it had really happened. I dreamed that Dustin Hoffman had died. I remember reading the word “Suddenly” in the article. It was so vivid that when I woke up I had to look it up to see if it had happened. I’m glad he’s going to appear in “Our Town” once Broadway opens back up.
Why did I dream of Dustin Hoffman? I have no idea. While I respect his impressive body of work, I never was a particular fan (I actually didn’t like Tootsie).
I do remember reading that because of his death Ishtar had shot to the top of the streaming charts.
He remembers those vanished years. As though looking through a dusty window pane, the past is something he could see, but not touch. And everything he sees is blurred and indistinct.
― Wong kar-wei, In the Mood for Love
A Gentle Touch
The drugs didn’t work. The stents failed to keep the flow going. Time had wracked its fatal damage in its efficient and inexorable way.
Nobody really told him what was happening but he knew. Especially the way they were gathering around him, a circle of faces either somber and quiet or swallowed in a false cheer. When they told him his sister was flying in from Seattle he knew the end was very close. She had not been on a plane in fifty years.
He had so many tubes stuck in him that when he would move the slightest bit one or another would be jostled and he would be hit by a horrific beeping from the machine attached to that conduit. If he was alone, he would suffer, palming the call button again and again for what seemed like an eternity until a nurse would finally come and turn off the infernal sound. It was worse if others were in the room – they would cluck and scatter like chickens until the nurse came – their protestations bothered him more than the beeping.
The balance of his life between future and past, between memory and hope, had now shifted completely to memory and the past. There was no future left and no hope.
And finally his memory was beginning to collapse and implode, fewer and fewer recollections were left. The past would slowly go to black and white, like an old television, then begin to fade until only a handful of echoes were left.
His life had been full. His marriage had lasted over half a century. He had been blessed with children, grand children, great grandchildren. He had a few victories and many, many defeats.
He was shocked, however, at what remained after all these accomplishments and catastrophes had faded.
Many decades ago his company sent him to a multi-evening seminar to learn a new accounting software program. He had met a woman there. She was sitting in the back near where he was and he noticed her walking to the front table to get supplies.
After the classes some of the employees would grab a coffee and talk about the software and how much they didn’t want to use it. Each time the woman seemed to end up sitting next to him at the large round table.
The two of them enjoyed talking to each other and he felt strangely excited on the drive home. After the last day of the class a handful of folks decided to keep meeting in the evenings – both he and the woman were in that group.
It was the start of a decade long friendship. The meeting became the high point of his week. The two of them would almost always sit next to each other. He remembered that sometimes she would laugh at something or make a point and reach out and gently touch him – on the shoulder or leg.
Nothing more ever came of the two of them. They had never even met outside of that group. He decided that they simply enjoyed each other’s company. He couldn’t say why.
The friendship eventually faded and finally dissolved completely. He hadn’t spoken to her in twenty years. Now, in his weakened state, he could barely remember her name and wasn’t sure the hazy memory was right.
But as the last few days fell away, the times he spent with her loomed larger and larger in his mind. His family wondered about the otherworldly expression on his face and the fact he paid less and less attention to them.
“He’s losing his mind,” they all said. And shook their heads sadly.
They weren’t wrong. But he was aware enough to wonder why it was this particular set of memories that were filling his last few miserable, precious days. Pleasant, bittersweet memories. Something that, at the time, meant little in the flow of days.
As his heart struggled, weakened, and finally gave out his final thoughts were of a quiet laugh and the innocent gentle touch of a friend’s hand along his leg.
“The difference between sex and death is that with death you can do it alone and no one is going to make fun of you.”
― Woody Allen
When I was a little kid – kindergarten… maybe first grade – I remember finding a praying mantis at recess. I don’t, never kill bugs (except sometimes spiders) and nobody else would have – even at that young and cruel age. But someone said that praying mantises (what is the plural of “mantis”? manti? mantis’s? – so I looked it up) are protected by law and if you kill one the police will find you and levy a hefty fine, at the least.
I’m not sure why that made such an impression… but to this day, more than a half century later, I remember it, remember the bright green mantis and the other child seriously warning the rest about the protected status of the Mantis.
I still get a thrill when I come across one – they must be very special and rare to have a law passed to protect them.
“After being bombarded endlessly by road-safety propaganda it was almost a relief to find myself in an actual accident.” ― J.G. Ballard, Crash
He had a nice townhouse in the city, but Brian Newman spent every weekend at his girlfriend’s apartment, driving a hundred miles after work on Friday and back Monday morning before work. He would leave at five to be sure and beat the traffic. Brian was never a morning person and the Monday drive was difficult, but he had done it so many times over the last couple of years it became a familiar blur.
He was waiting at an ordinary red light with his left blinker on and his mind somewhere far away, but an oncoming truck still caught his eye. It was the middle of the summer and the sun was above the horizon. The truck was a big dump truck, red, faded, peeling, patched with rust. The massive front bumper, painted black, was an angry scowl. It was coming fast. Too fast. Much too fast.
It shot through the red light as if it wasn’t there. Brian felt his heart jump and wondered if the truck would swerve and hit him. He knew that there wasn’t anything he could do if it did.
Right then, a small white car moved in from the left, with its green light, and was hit broadside by the onrushing dump truck. The truck came on as if nothing was in its way. With a horrific sound of tinkling safety glass and rending sheet metal the car was pushed along until it was smashed between the heavy dump truck bumper and the stout light pole in the center median.
The pole snapped off and fell over but not before it brought the massive truck to a final halt. All that kinetic energy reduced the car into a wad of compressed metal like the foil left after a wrapped sandwich, ready to toss in the bin. Brian was in the left hand lane and as he looked out his side window the driver was only a few feet away across the hood and in clear view through the windshield as the light pole came through the side tearing him apart. Brian had a clear view of the man’s panicked face right before the collision crushed his skull, sending bone, blood, and brains in all directions.
The police interviewed Brian at the crash site and at the local office. Over the next week a parade of lawyers asked him the same questions over and over… “Did you hear brakes?” “Did the truck swerve at all?” “How long had the light been red?” “Did the truck sound its horn.”
It seems the driver claimed his brakes had failed. The suspicion was that the driver was on his phone and hadn’t seen the red light. It would be the difference in damages and possible murder charges.
“It happened so fast,” Brian said. “I don’t really know, I don’t know what happened.” He didn’t understand how nobody cared about what had happened to him. Just because he hadn’t been hit didn’t mean he wasn’t affected. The look on the driver’s face in that split second before he died haunted Brian. He thought they made eye contact. Brian was the last person he had seen, a complete stranger, before he died. There was not a scratch on Brian’s car but he had to go to the car wash and scrub off some of what looked like blood and a bit of what might have been skull bone.
Brian called his girlfriend and told her that he had to take some time off and stay at his place for work. She said she understood. He called his work and said he had to take some time off and was going to stay at his girlfriend’s. They said they understood and would sign him up for a workplace disability program.
The lawyers paid for a hotel in the town where the accident happened. Brian figured it was so that he would be available if the case, civil or criminal, ever went to trial. He wasn’t sure which lawyers paid for the room; the defense, or the truck driver, or the dead man’s estate, or the truck manufacturer, or the company that owned the dump truck. They all called him all the time, asking him the same questions over and over. They would always end with saying how lucky Brian was, to have so much violence and horror so close to him and yet to be unaffected. The truck did miss him completely, of course – even if only by inches.
He spent the time binge watching old crime shows in his hotel room or taking long walks around the perfectly ordinary town he was now living in.
As the weeks went by his girlfriend decided to make the man she had been seeing, cheating on him, for a year during the week while Brian was in the city at work her full-time partner. The man proposed and Brian’s old girlfriend accepted. She sent Brian a thoughtful and carefully-worded letter to say goodbye but Brian never opened the envelope. Though he didn’t know exactly what had happened he guessed the main thrust of things and didn’t care much about it.
His work eventually promoted the temporary replacement to take over Brian’s full-time job. Then, as the various cases were settled the lawyers told Brian that he would have to move out of the hotel. They were glad, however, to help him sell his city townhouse and buy a place in the town. Property values were less and he was able to get a small bungalow with a big yard and still have some money left over.
He didn’t need much and was able to find a simple, thoughtless position near his house with the town government and that was enough. Ironically, the job was vacant because it had been held by the man killed in the accident. Brian’s years passed in quiet, lonely peace. He never married, never left the town.
And never drove or rode in a car for the rest of his life.
“In the shop window you have promptly identified the cover with the title you were looking for. Following this visual trail, you have forced your way through the shop past the thick barricade of Books You Haven’t Read, which were frowning at you from the tables and shelves, trying to cow you. But you know you must never allow yourself to be awed, that among them there extend for acres and acres the Books You Needn’t Read, the Books Made For Purposes Other Than Reading, Books Read Even Before You Open Them Since They Belong To The Category Of Books Read Before Being Written. And thus you pass the outer girdle of ramparts, but then you are attacked by the infantry of the Books That If You Had More Than One Life You Would Certainly Also Read But Unfortunately Your Days Are Numbered. With a rapid maneuver you bypass them and move into the phalanxes of the Books You Mean To Read But There Are Others You Must Read First, the Books Too Expensive Now And You’ll Wait Till They’re Remaindered, the Books ditto When They Come Out In Paperback, Books You Can Borrow From Somebody, Books That Everybody’s Read So It’s As If You Had Read Them, Too. Eluding these assaults, you come up beneath the towers of the fortress, where other troops are holding out:
the Books You’ve Been Planning To Read For Ages,
the Books You’ve Been Hunting For Years Without Success,
the Books Dealing With Something You’re Working On At The Moment,
the Books You Want To Own So They’ll Be Handy Just In Case,
the Books You Could Put Aside Maybe To Read This Summer,
the Books You Need To Go With Other Books On Your Shelves,
the Books That Fill You With Sudden, Inexplicable Curiosity, Not Easily Justified,
Now you have been able to reduce the countless embattled troops to an array that is, to be sure, very large but still calculable in a finite number; but this relative relief is then undermined by the ambush of the Books Read Long Ago Which It’s Now Time To Reread and the Books You’ve Always Pretended To Have Read And Now It’s Time To Sit Down And Really Read Them.” ― Italo Calvino, If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.”
“I was born on a storm-swept rock and hate the soft growth of sun-baked lands where there is no frost in men’s bones. ” ― Liam O’Flaherty
Though I am partially of Irish heritage (and Scottish and German and Native American and ???) I know nothing of Irish history. This short story is set in the Battle of Dublin in June of 1922 and it an arresting testament to the horrors of war and the particular horrors of civil war. I think it might get me to do some research and reading. Another rabbit hole.
“He is mad about being small when you were big, but no, that’s not it, he is mad about being helpless when you were powerful, but no, not that either, he is mad about being contingent when you were necessary, not quite it… he is insane because when he loved you, you didn’t notice.” ― Donald Barthelme
Donald Barthelme is one of my favorite authors. He was a pioneer in the nontraditional school of short-short fiction – eschewing traditional plot structures and styles. I actually came to reading Donald Barthelme from reading about his brothers, Frederick and Steven – both also respected writers. I came across them by reading an article that they wrote about their gambling addiction. It was a fascinating and sad story – two accomplished, intelligent writers caught in a disastrous downward spiral in the gambling barges of southern Mississippi. Really something. So there are three authors, all worth seeking out – both for fiction and non.
I remember when I was a kid growing up – moving from school to school (I went to twelve schools, more or less, in twelve years) sometimes we would have animals or plants in the classroom for the children’s edification. I don’t remember very many specifics except for a nice big bull snake in Mr. Clinkingbeard’s seventh grade class. I remember it because I had no fear of snakes and would handle it whenever I could. Once it bit me on the hand pretty good (nonpoisonous – though it hurt) and once it crawled past my neck and under my shirt. I grabbed the end of its tail and pulled it out. Unlike today’s story, though, it never died (well, as long as we were in the class).
The story has a really nice structure. The first paragraph reads like a memoir. It starts out small, pedestrian, ordinary, and begins to get bigger and stranger and more poignant as it goes along until it springs out of the form and becomes something completely different. I really like that – will make a note and add that structure to my list of writing hints – maybe do a story or two like that.