Fiction by Dennis Barone

Pass Go and Collect

Image by gato-gato-gato, Scotland: Graveyard Gate. Courtesy of Flickr.

Image by gato-gato-gato, Scotland: Graveyard Gate. Courtesy of Flickr.

One sunny afternoon in May, after finishing a brief hike in a state park, I fell over next to my car in the parking lot. Someone called for an ambulance and I went to the nearest hospital, where they discovered they had to open me immediately and replace this with that and sew me up and send me on my way.  That had been quite a blow, a derailment that knocked me from my tracks for five or six months, and yet the events of a different day a little more than one year later devastated me.

The day he died I had been out mowing the lawn, enjoying the sun beating down on me, something I refrained from doing the summer before – doctors’ orders. I showered after, put on some clean clothes, went downstairs and poured a glass of white wine, went back upstairs, turned on the computer, performed the necessary preliminaries, and looked at the list of messages. There to my surprise was one from a name recognized but unfamiliar with a subject line that included a name both recognized and familiar, a name for several decades bibliographically at least closely associated with mine own, or maybe I should reverse that order and say mine with it, but nonetheless the subject line importuned bad news, sad news, final news, or in short, the end.

When I fell in that state park parking lot I felt no pain and little discomfort. For much of that troubling time it had been as if my body separated from my mind and the latter looked down upon the former with distant and cold clinical interest.

Electronic mail. For someone who grew up when we did and can hear the sound of the old truck a mile distant or the step a block away, such a term seems an affront or an oxymoron at best. Electronic mail. One believed for decades that the phone could ring at some odd hour and if it did the news would be of a parent’s demise or something far worse, a nephew’s or a niece’s. But electronic mail – there it is with no dreaded ring, no mile distant engine … there it is amidst returned films received, requests for advice on historic homes … there it is – passed away.

And when did this euphemism become so popular? Everyone now says “passed away.” In the class the student says last year my grandpa passed. At the dinner party the nice real estate lady says a year ago my husband passed. Pass go and collect two-hundred dollars. Why don’t they just say died, dead, and kaput?

Let’s not be crass, but my second or third thought was this: where does this leave me? When a parent or child dies that is one thing, but when the voice of your generation and for your identity passes that is something else entirely. If one makes you angry and open to impossible deals, such as take me first God please, the other sets you adrift on a sea of despondency. Now what?

No more the expectation of a new book outside the door, retrieving it, and sitting with it through an entire day reading each new page from cover to cover non-stop. But all that has gone before remains for the perusal of graduate students in search of an acceptable dissertation topic and so the correspondence will arrive from Geneva and Tokyo; Palermo and Prague. More explanations of the bent genres and strong but indecisive characters offered for inspection and advice, but most of all for encouragement – never say a discouraging word. What would be the purpose?

There before me in the clearest phrase possible appeared disheartening words final words addressed to a list of one-hundred names, those same names that would receive the latest book at their door always accompanied by the cryptic card noting in bold type “gift of the author” without any name or conversely with a name – that of the publisher – and no words of greeting such as “gift of the author.” All the names for the message had been disclosed, perhaps mistakenly. There were all the ones I expected, some that I did not recognize, and a few that quite frankly surprised me, such as the chauvinistic old professor from Yale. (Our author attended Princeton and not Yale and did not share, I am sure of it, the old professor’s views.) You see, I had studied that list closely, even before reading the message completely.

What had I hoped to find therein? My own sense of inclusion in the contemporary world of letters, I suppose, or some inkling that here I am amidst the living and not yet joining hands with the dead – if that’s anything like what the dead do after dying. I don’t know. But at just the moment I completed the message proper I heard a ferocious growl from the pit of my gut and I clicked off the message but left the laptop on. After I had something to eat, then I would respond, then I would send my condolences and sincerest regrets and ask if there is anything I can do.

No sooner had I returned from downstairs, however, then a second message for the committee of one-hundred awaited our attention informing all of the details of the service. It seems that at the end tradition would be upheld and burial would be almost immediate. It seemed, therefore, all I could do would be to alter, slightly, my plans for the next few days and attend.

Let me begin at the beginning. I once had a friend – an elder friend, a mentor of sorts – who constantly mailed me paperback books he had worked on one way or another for one large publisher or another. I read some of them but certainly not all of them, for at that time I had to keep up with the rigors of graduate school course syllabi. But one book in particular caught my attention. I’m not sure why it did so before I had even read a sentence of it. If I remember right there had been no special cover design, no spiffy title, and no famous name above or below the title. Yet when I read the first sentence, when I by chance opened that book and read that sentence and not any other one I knew immediately – though at the time I would have been unable to articulate this knowledge to myself – that I would have to read every other sentence not only in the volume I held in my hand but every other one that this author would create. The sentence, then, I knew it at the start – these sentences fit the reader’s mind like a glove, a mixed-metaphor I suppose, but there you have it: words for both the body and the mind which together, yes, do indeed elevate the soul. Sentences so bound together that to read them one enters a state of reverie.

I had been blessed by the gift that morning of this cheap paperback reprint of the author’s obscure first book. And so it began.

I wrote a short piece immense in its praise of the book for the local paper. And then one day perhaps three weeks later a postcard arrived in nearly illegible scrawl from the author himself thanking me for the praise that he said quite frankly embarrassed him in its profusion, but, he added, the theme that I had identified (though I almost buried any analysis in the praise) he thought plausible. “I’m glad you pointed that out,” he said and promised to send a copy of his next book, due out “imminently.”

As things often do in publishing that second book took longer than its author hoped or thought. Though an artist always, he did keep an eye out for this own bottom line and calculated that the paperback edition of his first book might give his second book a little boost and vice-versa, time was key. But it took the publisher six months at least, and maybe ten, though certainly not an entire year, to get it out. And so when a taped and bound with string, slightly damaged envelope addressed by the author himself in his barely legible hand arrived at my door I had all but forgotten about the promised gift, though I had not by any means forgotten about the author. Indeed, I continued to praise that first book and even bought ten copies to give by my brother, my sister, one much admired professor, and some of my local writing friends.

Over the ensuing thirty year period we met face to face only three times I think and certainly not more than a half-dozen times. We wrote to each other occasionally and exchanged books. (I’m certain I got the better end of this deal. Mine to him remained always in hand-printed make-shift envelopes without any ambiguous publisher’s card.) It must have been around the time of his third novel that we met for the first time at a diner not too far from his house, and now we meet one last time at a memorial park not too distant in space even if it is in time from that diner, Lucky’s Diner. The refrain I suppose would have to be what have you got to lose? Let’s see. Can we make a list: a friend, a moral compass, a voice grander than Caruso and Sinatra combined, a giver of gifts that came to my door with compliments of the author? What does that mean? It is too late to ask. Can I ask the family? Definitely not. Can I ask the publisher? Yes, but some years ago our mutual friend – also a writer – once warned us, don’t believe a thing a publisher tells you.

I didn’t know who to talk to when I arrived at the event. I offered my condolences to the wife and children. A couple of graduate students who had met with me over the past few years were there, and yet I felt out-of-place with the many celebrities from the world of high society literature or that of music and film. There seemed no space reserved for the adventuresome authors of Small Press Distribution best-sellers. To my chagrin I ended up next to his publisher.

She greeted me warmly. Why wouldn’t she. After all, for several decades I had done something to keep her top-selling author selling to an audience of intellectual refinement – the university world of readers in other words: that would be intelligentsia. Though I thought of my work as scholarly, or at least as literary criticism, I think she regarded me as a valued member of their marketing department. I suppose there may be some truth to that though whatever I accomplished amounted to far less than glowing reviews in global dailies or seemingly off-hand endorsements from the world’s most famous film directors. She held out her hand to me and I gently shook it. We looked at each other and saw that we both had tears in our eyes (it was a funeral after all) and then she offered me the seat next to hers and there I sat.

She also offered a book deal of my own, not for something of mine per se, but a quickly cobbled together overview of our deceased friend’s life and work. In between the Rabbi’s prayer and the Pulitzer-Prize winner’s eulogy, she would sketch out some of her thoughts for me. I hesitated, but felt curiously disloyal for having done so, and also rationalized that such a publication might help sell a few copies of my unsellable tomes. And so I said yes. I agreed to turn out something part memoir, part biography, and part appreciative interpretation all within two months’ time, which I thought might mean some well-chosen photos included but no poetry allowed.

And so I returned to Litchfield ready to begin. I thought I would describe the funeral service. It remained fresh in my mind and so many of the people in his life attended that simple recall and description would make for a readable, though sad, and meaningful opening. But, I conjectured, he wrote more of life than death, though I wouldn’t go so far as to say more of love than death. Eros and Thanatos – the two big themes. What else is there to talk about? Once the marching orders are written it is easy to follow with a much longer double-file: war and peace, rich and poor, old and young, city and country, and so on.

Every reader knows the bare bone facts of his life and all literate folks know some of his work. What had I agreed to – a publisher’s ploy to turn a quick dollar after an unexpected death or my own desire to write something easy, not out of necessity, to assuage a damaged ego more than a shallow pocket? I had enough income, a steady position that provided time enough to turn out a book of some sort every two years or so, and income sufficient enough to render the question of sales of that work one of interpretation, of disdain, of self-justification and certainly not one of appeal or need.

Even now did I still want to be so dependent on the deceased, so posthumously linked? To write of an author one decade my senior would be difficult – like if I were to write of my sister of the same age. What do I know of anyone born in that year? Far easier it would be to write of the long ago deceased parent.

What have I gotten myself into? I wondered as I walked down the street to the Village Restaurant where I planned to sit by myself with a beer, slowly nursed, and figure this out, but Dan, the bartender, decided that I would be the object of his interest, his inquiries, and conversation this fine afternoon.

“Why so glum?” he asked. I hadn’t realized I looked particularly glum or any other recognizable way.

I replied, “I just got back from a funeral.”

“That’s tough,” Dan said.

“Not so tough for me. Tougher for him,” I wittily added.

“Maybe,” he said. “Sometimes it’s harder on the living.”

I nodded. He paused and then asked, “Friend or relative?”

“Friend,” and then I paused. “Well, more a colleague of a sort then a friend, I guess.”

“You don’t sound very sure of yourself.”

“I’m not. Believe me, I’m not.”

He wiped the bar-top and I continued, speculatively, “We grew up in the same state, but in different towns and a decade apart – which makes a big difference when you’re young; less so as you get older.”

“That’s correct,” Dan agreed.

“Had we been the same age and had we attended the same schools, I think we would have been members of different cliques, though certainly with some overlap.”

“Okay. So you weren’t a relative of the deceased and you weren’t a friend but a ‘colleague’ from the same state but still a different time, place, and, so it sounds, sensibility. Why’d you attend his final rites then?”

“He was a writer, very well-known, and I wrote about him from the book that launched his fame until – so it seems – after his burial.”

Dan looked at me askew. “That’s cryptic,” he said. “A bad pun, I know, but what do you mean?”

And so I told him how I felt obligated to go to his funeral and by chance I sat next to his publisher and she asked me to turn out a quick tribute book in his memory.

“And that makes you sit here with a beer looking glum? That doesn’t sound like a bad assignment – colleague or friend, friend or colleague. Get started,” he chided me.

“It’s not so simple,” I moaned.

Dan was right: it needn’t be complex. Either I sat down and did it or I didn’t. My choice. I knew enough – backwards and forwards. And the pay I had been offered to churn this out seemed significant. In fact, more than I had ever been offered for any sort of writing project.

At home I checked for messages first off, and there near the top I saw that I had one from Hillary, probably the very top student I had ever taught. Her message thanked me for several books I had given her, ones I didn’t need to keep and ones authored by friends who taught at a couple of the universities she had been thinking about for graduate school. And she said, “Thank you for helping me become a better writer. I will never forget all you’ve done for me.”

Those two sentences made so much worthwhile – the anti-intellectualism of contemporary higher education; the administrative bloat – gluttony might be more accurate, had been so discouraging lately. “The justification for universities is not to certify that there are so many course units per square head, but to advance knowledge and to teach it. We should do what we came to do, and to hell with the administration.” Unfortunately things have decayed a lot since Murray G. Murphey penned those lines several decades ago. Now, alas, the esteemed administrators can’t even count heads.

Hillary had written two long works of fiction her senior year, both of them in that no man’s land (like some of her professor’s work) of a novella’s length, though one moves in continuous narration and the other jumps about in brief chapters. What most moved me were her enthusiasm for the tasks, that old abstraction imagination that she brought to bear upon those tasks, and most of all the language employed to do so. To borrow a phrase from the poet Wallace Stevens, hers is a prose that wears the poem’s guise, hers is a supreme fiction or, at least, one in embryo, one about to be born.

As I sat there in front of that screen that stared back at me almost in accusation I wondered if it might be better for someone young and quite frankly brilliant to take on the contract project, someone new, rather than another writer who knew him from the start. I toyed with the idea of hitting reply to message and asking if Hillary might be interested in a bit of ghost writing.

Here’s how I had it figured. I did not feel like the labor of it, but the benefits in terms of prestige did interest me. While the money offered had been generous for me, it could not make much of a difference in the larger scheme of things. I have a decent job with an okay salary. What really might matter, or so I thought, would be the advertisement for myself that such a publication would produce. Then there was the fact that Hillary had been offered tuition at a few of the schools, but not a single stipend for living arrangements. Quite frankly, this angered me a little. I knew she’d be as good as or better than other students in her grad program, but since she graduated from a small, indistinct institution, prejudice and condescension would greet here every step of her way. And so she who so loved writing in and of and for itself, she who had a genius of language could ghost write the thing. She’d get the money; I’d get the spin. She had some familiarity with the books in question for she had read some of them in classes I taught and others on her own. I’d be around or at least just an email address away to answer any questions that might come up, and I could provide a few anecdotes to give the thing that proper true to life human tone.

Or maybe I should take on a co-writer and be more upfront about the whole thing. Or maybe I should call and back out. So I wondered. How did I get myself into this? Or maybe the prayers should have been for me. Maybe, if our places had been altered, he could have been talked into delivering the eulogy. A far-fetched thought perhaps, but who knows? And maybe that eulogy might have been just the ticket. Maybe my books might have witnessed a sudden uptick in sales during the days and nights that followed their author’s demise.

Dennis Barone‘s Memoir / Biography is forthcoming from Quale Press. Quale published his prose collections Field ReportNorth Arrow, and Precise Machine. Recently he edited two poetry collections: Garnet Poems: An Anthology of Connecticut Poetry Since 1776 (Wesleyan UP) and New Hungers for Old: One-Hundred Years of Italian-American Poetry (Star Cloud P).

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