“LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, honored guests, my friends…”
The front row had been reserved for VIP guests, people who mean something in particular to him. Instead, he saw the representative heads of his former lives lined up and glaring. Lisa, Debbie, Vicki, Liat, Annette, Christine, Aimée, Sarah, Mariana, Dakota, Elizabeth, and of course Tess. But Tess was not just tacked onto the end of the row, way out on the far right; she was precisely in the middle, holding court, talking with them all. The ones loved and left. The ones abandoned. She sat there, a tightly stretched protocol smile quivering from her lips. All her arguments against him found their justification in her row. She glanced up, head slightly bowed, and nodded. She knew all now.
Not that there were any secrets to be uncovered. Depending on who you asked, Harley’s whole life of relationships was hardly a libertine’s therapy session. In these many years, he could count just 24 women – that was his “number,” according to a ruinous game that was popular when he was just out of college. 24 is not a lot in relative terms. But then you have to break it down. Since he was not really interested until he was 16 years old and had been variously monogamous for about 22 years, the number gets more acicular. In short, during his remaining 18 years of eligibility there had been 21 relationships – or one every 10 months. Moreover, this does not account for the periods of bachelorhood in the between interludes. They were never very long-lived, and there were moments of what one might call significant “dating” during these lacunae, all of which just compressed the number 21 into an even smaller box. This was what Tess was learning now in Row 1, seat 12, of the Wacker Convention Hall of the Grand Hyatt. She was flanked by his sentimental and interpretably nefarious history.
Lisa, Debbie, Vicki, Liat, Annette, Christine, Aimée, Sarah, Mariana, Dakota, Elizabeth, and of course Tess.
In that front row he also saw the family he had scorned, the friends whose friendship had ruptured, trusts betrayed, and those who had left him behind. Harley never had many friends, and his family life was something of an oxymoron. Who had he known? He had known women. Two hands white-knuckling the podium, he felt the intense burn of their glowering eyes – accusing, judging. An invisible hand caught in his throat, and he could not get air. He shifted again and looked around for the glass of water, grasped it, and drank.
And suddenly, blinking, the front row was empty. As it had been before. Except for Tess and some friend who came with her.
Tess was there because it was a public function, and it would have been unseemly for her not to attend his award ceremony. She was tastefully dressed. Light pink accentuating her long blond hair. She was the picture of lovely propriety. An exemplary doting spouse. Except they were not married. It was not even certain they were even together still. Her coming out for this would be a “message” to him. But he was not sure what that message was yet. She was capable of making it an unburnished gesture of love and care, on the one hand, or a backhanded slap in the face, passive-aggressively telling him look what I am willing to do for you.
A September late-afternoon always feels like the last one.
No matter how he adjusted the chair, every few minutes he would tip either forwards or backward. The cobblestones beneath and the alembicated baroque metalwork of the chair legs did not fit together in any combination. He shifted a little and the chair reacted, making him startle. He was starting to become incredibly self-conscious about it – it was not contributing to the overall look he wanted to achieve: unflappable cool.
He did not want to be just regular cool, in the way the word gets overused, too often carted out by too many people. Cool had come to mean “ok” or “I don’t care” when really it was a state of being. To be cool the way he wanted to be cool was more like being in touch with himself and his surroundings, in synch, undisturbed and, perhaps even imperturbable. “Imperturbable” was not a cool word though. It evokes its own anxiety in a kind of linguistic loop. His legs were crossed such that they could maintain the pose for hours. His back relaxed yet straight. Hands posed on his knees and in easy reach of coffee cup and water glass. His book, face down on the bistro table nearby, indicating that he was a reader but that he was not about showing off his erudition – not until asked, that is. He was dauntless. From the beer slogan in the 70s.
“Some short stories. I’d never heard of the author, but I read he was good. I like them so far. Do you read a lot?”
It was a good line, opening up a subject that engages her. Keep the conversation away from himself. Not that he did not like to talk about himself – on the contrary, it was his specialist subject. But he never felt confident about talking about himself or revealing things until he knew the other person was interested. This instinct was quite ingrained in him; it was nearly debilitating. He hated saying anything personal or private, let alone intimate or secret, if he had the slightest notion that the person was going to be judgmental or, worse, adopt a patronizing attitude, lumping Harley’s guarded secrets into a hopper with the rest of humanity’s foibles. He was not so generic. And even so, no one should presume.
Too many times, even as a child, he had been left with the rug pulled out from under him, the misapprehended illusion of security among “friends” replaced by stark isolation and shame. No more of that.
Reading was an easy area for him though. Harley was exceptionally well-read, having spent a lot of time by himself over the years and having been bored by binge-watching old television series. Bored was the wrong word. Lobotomized, or very nearly. He went back to books, as happens every few years. He should have asked if she liked reading. Not if she read a lot. Now she was in a corner. If she says no, then he will not know if that means she does not like it or that she does not have time. Or if it is a non-reading period. In the late nineties, Harley went two or three years without reading anything. He was otherwise occupied with being a father and running a business he knew nothing about. But that’s for another time.
“I don’t know,” she said after a pause. “It depends I guess.”
Nothing. She gave a perfect non-answer. Ok, this is not an interrogation, and he tried to recover a little by telling her the bit about the non-reading period. She smiled widely.
“So it depends a lot for me too. Right now, after I finish these stories, I will probably take a break for a week or so. Maybe more. A good book stays with you and needs time. You need to honor the work of the author and allow the story to settle in your mind before picking up the next one. I did that in school – you end up forgetting everything,” he laughed. He had a hard time laughing since this was not even in the neighborhood of funny. Now he sounded like some kind of crackpot, worshiping old books and laughing at his own introvert jokes.
“I don’t know why I said that,” he looked at the marble effect of the tabletop as he spoke. “I get a little carried away about books. Not a lot of people are interested it seems.”
“I like to hear about it. They tell me about you,” she quickly shored him up, sensing that he needed it. This was her standard move: if it seemed like she could appear supportive without actually doing anything, she was there in a flash.
“I mean, I like to hear the passion you have about it.”
Tess’s passions were quite different. She had not had an easy time of it in her life, but what kept her afloat was her ability to keep smiling through the storm. She was barely 20 when she found herself pregnant and making wedding plans with a man she really did not care that much about. Unprotected and uncareful, and stupidly she now thought, neither of them really thought about her getting pregnant. It happened to other people. Before she had booked any venues or spoken to him about invitations, he had unceremoniously slinked into the night. Disappeared without a trace. For what she knew now to be the next 20 years and counting.
So there was that. And while it would get mentioned, she did not complain about it. She told Harley how, yes, it was difficult, but so many people came to her assistance. The deadbeat was gone and untraceable, so she lived at home with her parents for several years. After that, she had had to find a job she could do while watching her daughter, Emma. It was all so rushed and tempestuous that she felt like she turned around and suddenly years had passed until now. Harley knew that the tempests blew a lot of details into the corners and out of sight. But maybe he would have time to learn about them.
It was not their first date. They had met seven other times for “coffee” and talk. Somehow the conversation always flowed very nearly easily with her. Tess was not a natural storyteller, but she could make up for it with flowing quantity. Her stories contained tales and anecdotes and parenthetical interludes, so much so that it was not always possible to retrieve the original thread of the conversation. This actually helped Harley as well, giving him plenty of time to think about what he wanted to say. He was much more deliberate in his speech than Tess, a little more ponderous most of the time. When he finally was able to relax with someone, he could be funnier and less strategic. This did not serve him well during the fights.
It was like a first date, and it stayed with him, like a painting that represented more the tone and the outline but less of the detail. Its colors were soft and spoke of springtime, although it was September. It was a suspended moment as if the memory was a gallery and this one was chosen to represent a significant time. It has no words. It is not a book or a song. The pervasive influence of this moment smoothed over many rougher areas, many harsher tones, many accusative voices. Why didn’t you? Where were you? How could you?
Through it all, his focus was overlaid with this tegument. He heard it all, he felt it sharply against his ribs and in his stomach. They had contended on the edge of breaking up so many times. And each time for Harley it was the end. Each time he was reduced to disconsolate anguish. Is this really worth it?
Each time he resolved to put an end to this. But all it took was the slightest indication of softening on her side, and he was back in. Waiting for the next meltdown and self-destruct sequence.
“Is this why you called? To break up with me?”
“I never said that.”
“I know you are out of work and that everything is piling up. I am sorry.”
“I am tired of ‘I’m sorry’. There are too many things to feel sorry about. Sorry is shit – I am sick of it. I have to get out of here.”
By that she meant she had to move to Norway or Ireland or someplace far from here, someplace where the public services serviced the public, instead of trying to service them with their pants on (her words, her image). Anywhere but here and everywhere was better than here. But here was everywhere and anywhere. She could not hear that from him. Harley had tried to explain – not explain but to illustrate maybe – that moving away did not free you. You bring your problems with you, packed inside you. When you move to a new country, you are distracted, sometimes for a very long time. You have new street names, a new language, new faces, new duties to learn, new habits to form, new surroundings to assimilate, new neighbors to meet, new Sunday walks, new supermarket choices. Everything is different and feels new – but it is only new to you.
And it is only new until it is not: this year, next week, or Thursday in the early evening walking along Øvre Slottsgate or O’Connell Street, suddenly it is no longer new and the problems you thought you were running away from start to leak out of their boxes and ooze onto the floors. You bring it all with you. But she would not hear that. She would run.
Why didn’t you? Where were you? How could you?
Just the idea of leaving is an indictment against all of us who wish to stay. And this was a problem for Harley as well. The mere fact of her need to escape the shit meant somehow that living in a state of shit was somehow pretty much ok with him. Both premises missed their mark. He does not accept that everything is bad here, because it is not. This is a city like every other one. Richer and poorer, there will be good and bad anywhere you land. In Italy the utilities work but god help you if you need a repair. In France the trains run. Whether the trains are running on time is what English people worry about. In Manila there are typhoons. In Beijing there are faceless crowds.
Why should he be thrown into a basket of people who are happy to roll around in the pig sty just because he does not see the necessity to flee? Because he knows what she will not find after she runs away. It is frustrating.
Tess had been trying to find a job for over two years now. She went after everything she could find but never got any kind of response. Proud and stubborn, she did not really want help from people she knew to make connections for her, introductions, to meet a person who might know something or someone helpful. Most employment works like that, sadly. It is who you know and what connections might be able to pull some strings for you. She effused dignity but also enthusiasm. She was attractive, charming, always smiling even under stress. She would make a good employee if only because she was pleasant to be around. She actually has a profession – architect, graduated and fully licensed to operate – but nothing seems to present itself in that area for her. Someone should recognize her and lift her up. Harley could not do that.
His knee slipped as he leaned forward to take his phone, disrupting the delicate balance he has achieved – the knee slipped, the foot hit the metalwork, the table jolted, the water glass spilled, water ran under his book. He scrambled to hold everything at once and simultaneously reestablish the previous state of cool – but it was gone. She smiled and laughed quietly, helping him take control of the things on the table, saving his book cover from water damage. She knew the show he had been trying to perform. It was sweet.
“Ladies and Gentlemen, I am reminded of a story….”
It always begins again. Always a memory of a story. Each time he comes on stage, he has a new story to tell. It is usually a little wilder than the last one, usually a little less verisimilar than the one before. It is always his story, and it is always true – especially the lies. The times that he has started out on something new, boldly, stupidly, dauntlessly, ineluctably, blindly, are countless. The times that the system has had to reboot, restart, reset, hard reset are also without number. Still fragments will always remain. There is no wiping the disk completely.
The story and the memory are not the same. The memory fades.
At what point does the story wrap itself so tightly around the memory that they become one? When does invention surpass recollection? Maybe they are all stories. He remembers Tess both fondly and with terror, with shades of feeling between. And the stories he remembers, the narratives his mind holds to, all support the feelings that stay with him. Is it a story or is it a version?
As he stands before this audience, without any of the haunting figures he imagined in the front row, he prepares to envelop them in yet another construction of himself, sent forth by another prologue. This one will tell the story about his struggle to become a writer. His hardships. Like the time when he ran out of coffee. Or the time when he had writer’s block so he hopped a plane for Marbella and “recuperated” on the Spanish Costa del Sol. Ok, not hardships. But the story he tells will help people decide if they like him or not, if they will buy the book or not and bring it with them to the seaside. Or leave it in the bathroom beside last month’s magazines. Or under them. Or not at all.
The storytelling is a game of seduction and intrigue, and not one that Harley goes into willingly. The game fills him with uneasiness. It is deadly, and the stakes are always high. A writer or an artist of any stripe has to be seen and appreciated and well talked about, otherwise he fades away into the undisclosable darkness of an untold memory. A story with no words.
Harley’s address tonight must be riveting and harrowing (he’s not quite sure if that’s the right word here, but nevertheless), and it must grab the listening audience by the viscera and lift them from their seats, eyes apoplectic, sweat on the brow. It is less important that any of the details be true. It does not matter if Lisa, Debbie, Vicki, Liat, Annette, Christine, Aimée, Sarah, Mariana, Dakota, Elizabeth, or Tess have real lives, true existences. Some could, most are metaphors, some are allegories, others will be red herrings and at least one is an outright lie. But which is which?
What matters is that they mesh into Harley’s overarching narrative, describing the life of a writer in all of the expected glamor and decadence that his readers deeply desire. Because in this prologue, the story following includes an audience of readers flocking to the bookshops brandishing cash and wild with curiosity…
“How do you look ‘wild with curiosity’ anyway?” Gowan was absently stirring honey into his tea but allowed his focus to land quizzically on Harley.
“It’s an image. Is that all you have to say? Just an editing note?”
“Nothing,” Gowan’s eyes were back on the tea. “I listened. I think I get it. But it’s going to be a little confusing to anyone else.”
Gowan worked part-time at Olivetti, and since Olivetti itself was only working part of the time, he had time on his hands to read and be a focus-group-of-one for Harley. The speech he had to give at the Hyatt was kind of important. He won the Sterne award, for chrissake. It’s a thing. But he couldn’t help thinking that this speech was going to bury him.
“Don’t be funny. You’re not funny,” he finally added. “And don’t be smart. They’re not smart.”
“What does that leave me? I should just throw this whole thing away. Start over,” Harley eructed, tasting bile. “All I want to do is get up, thank them for the award, tell them they’re boneheads to have given it to me, but thanks anyway. And them exit stage left, pursued by a bear.
“Midsummer Night’s Dream?”
“Winter’s Tale. Act III.”
“I knew it was a seasonal.”
Sitting up straighter at the table and realigning the paper, Harley appeared serious. “This isn’t helping. I only have a day left. Give me an opening line. Anything. I just need to get this going. I only really have to talk for five minutes if I want.”
“Tell them about your childhood?” Gowan ventured.
About Kansas City, Missouri? A city that was not even sure where it was. Maybe that explained a lot about Harley’s essential indecision about what to “be” for this audience. He was shaping a mask, of course. It went along with his prologue idea. But Gowan was right – he can’t overshoot. And he can’t be someone he isn’t. Stephen Daedalus at the door. They thought it was someone else.
“Tell them that everything they read is untrue.” Feeling happy with that suggestion, Gowan sat back in his chair and smiled. “That will freak them out and give you a lot to say in five minutes.”
Truth. Does anyone believe in it? Is it still out there?
“So…” Harley warmed up to this idea. “Thank you for this award, truly. But everything you read and everything I wrote and everything that was left on the editing room floor, they were all lies. There is no truth in fiction. There is only fiction. The news is a convenient fiction that makes us feel good when needed, feel afraid when it suits them better. Advertising is all lies and fiction. Biographies are all lies and hyperbole and tall tales made up to aggrandize the subject or to tear him down and aggrandize the author. Non-non-fiction.
“My publishers liked this book because it was neither too good nor too bad. Just a middling amount of lies, lies that don’t cause any interference with the instruments, like mobile phones do. And do they really interfere? Another lie!
“The truth that you can bank on? The truth to take home tonight and tell the kids and babies as you tuck them in? The truth is that it is all lies.”
“Not just a little on the nose, Harley? I just meant you tell them it is not about you…”
“They should know that already! A novel must be made up and about made-up people! It is the best form of fiction because it announces that it will be full of lies beforehand. Give me an opening line, Gowan, for the love of Mike!
“Ladies and Gentlemen,” Gowan says. “I am reminded of a story.”
“Laurence Sterne was funny, a comic genius really. Unfortunately for you, they tell me I am not,” Harley smiled apologetically and furtively checked the faces of the people sitting in the rows of straight-backed chairs. Polite smiles all around, waiting for him to start. He wasn’t funny. Even Tess was blank. Tess used to laugh at anything he said.
“This story is not mine, and it is not even the story that winds through my novel that we are here to celebrate today. I want to tell you the backstory of the story, and I hope it will be something that helps in a certain way to color your reading of Portrayals.
“We all pick up books with expectations, with hopes, or a wish to be enthralled, swept up, and entertained. Some books frighten us even before opening the first pages. Ulysses springs to mind. Anything by Joseph Conrad. But sometimes we do the thing that Coleridge predicts, we willing suspend our disbelief and fall under the spell of a compelling story.
“What kind of stories do we like to read? That is the million-dollar question I suppose. But if I had to guess, I would say we want to read stories of anything that shows how we can be better, how we can overcome obstacles, how we can face our fears and darknesses. We want to enter the story as a stubborn boy and come out on the other side as a wiser and more temperate man.
“That’s Huckleberry Finn. With apologies to the women in the audience.” Looking around Harley detected a few smiles. They were listening. They were starting to suspend their disdain.
“I said I was reminded of this story,” Harley segued a little bumpily back to his original idea. Another thing that Gowan always told him was to stay on point. Harley could drift off on tangents if he didn’t pay close attention.
“It was a Facebook post from someone I went to high school with. William James. Bill. Bill and I were in most of the same classes together. We knew a lot of the same people in our year, but our circles had only a few areas where they crossed and overlapped at all. We talked a little, sometimes, when we happened to be sitting at the same lunchroom table. It happened mostly, I think, because Bill would seek me out. Me and my friends were louder and more noticeable.
“‘Hi, I’m Bill, I sit behind you in English and Bio?’ He stretched out a shaking-hand, stepping into the aura of our table. I looked at it for a second and shook. It wasn’t the most common greeting in the school. More like something he watched his father do. It wasn’t awkward or anything, just slightly out of phase with the rest of us.
“Bill sat down and started to present himself. He had prepared what seemed for all the world to be rehearsed introductory remarks. It was a wide chasm he was leaping across, and I felt for him in a way. It takes a spine to put yourself out there like that. Bill was a day-student; my friends and I were boarders. Bill was an average student; we were honors listers. Bill wasn’t in any conceivable way cool. And we thought of ourselves as cool. Very cool in fact. Not everyone agreed, of course!”
Bill James went on to tell us about his life. His family was from Maryland. His father worked for an international corporation that would soon be scooted out the door and overtaken by technology. Harley couldn’t remember what it was called but it was something like WESCAC, as in the fictional West Campus Automatic Computer in Giles Goat-Boy. It was a real computer company, unlike Barth’s, and actually met its techno-demise a few years later, in 1986 – the year of the Apple Mac Plus, Intel’s 386 processor, and MS-DOS. The great paleolithic mainframes of the 50s stopped being repaired and upgraded until they were finally gone. And that’s where Dad worked. Harley had spent some time working with Gowan at Olivetti, a typewriter company in a typerwriterless age. He could easily appreciate what was about to befall Bill and his family. In retrospect.
For the moment, though, Bill and his parents were in the catbird seat. They had a nice middle-class suburban lifestyle. They lived in a two-story house in a planned community. They had their own pool. Bill and his sister were bussed into the city for school every morning and shuttled back in the afternoons. The work-and-school week was a flurry of activity, but they all came back each night for a family dinner. Saturday mornings they all ate breakfast together. Mr. James smoked a pipe and read the papers with his coffee. Cream, one sugar.
By this time, Harley was the only one listening. His friends had decamped quietly and light-stepped their way out of the lunchroom.
“The post which Bill put up,” Harley said, raising his voice slightly for emphasis, “was about a hill. It called itself the ‘world’s tallest hill,’ meaning that another foot higher and it would be a mountain. This tall hill is in Poteau, Oklahoma, where Bill and his family happened to be.
“By itself, this is unremarkable. But then I began to think about the whole story. It is an unremarkable story about a negligible natural monument told by the World’s Most Mediocre Man. The post and the writer and everything about them was spontaneously revealed to be so much warm backwash at the bottom of a bottle of RC Cola. And I was suddenly terrified by it.
“As you probably realize by now, Bill is not his real name. But this is no made-up person or story, and the fear I felt was real. My whole life I had lived in fear of the mediocre, the uninteresting, the run-of-the-mill. Coming from a family of company-men, like Bill’s dad at WESCAC, I had seen the plodding existence of my grandfathers, my uncles, and my father, all in lock-step with their respective companies. All doing their best to be only a part of the big picture. To be a splash of blue in a field of blue. Just blue, only blue, seamless and uninterrupted. This is not a life that I ever wanted.”
Harley paused and smiled inwardly that he finally had their attention. He took a sip of water. Out of the corner of his eye he caught sight of two people, seated toward the back, leaning in and conferring. What was it? He couldn’t make out their faces, but the two were not with him. Why? He looked away.
“I don’t mean to say that I think my life is so remarkable and worthy of interest – a mountain instead of a very tall hill – that’s not my point here. I wanted to say that people like Bill have always favored anonymity, conforming, and what is often called ‘the quiet life.’ This Facebook post reminded me in a direct and quite jolting way how easy it is to be seduced by the quiet life.
“I do not really know Bill anymore, not since back then, but I imagine that his life is full of muted achievements and mitigated setbacks. No glory. No ignominy. It is a middle way, one that Greek philosophers tell us is the best way to be happy. Don’t allow for excess. Don’t be too happy, don’t be too sad. In the end you will feel moderately content.
“In a way, Bill’s story is not so different from most people. And there is surely nothing in the world wrong with wanting to live a quiet life and avoid the rocks and shoals. But I guess this is what I had always been most afraid of – not to leave any kind of memory artifact on the world as I pass through it.”
He paused again, transitioning to the end of his short speech. That’s it, he thought, the right note, the right idea. It was the foundation stone beneath his life, his characters, their conflicts, everything. But it wasn’t everything. He scorned the mediocre, yes. But more was at work here. The scorn was symptom. He shifted his weight from right to left. Looked up. Stretched his neck a little.
“I have lived as much as possible out on a ledge. I write about people who have lived like that, people and characters and protagonists who have tried and failed, triumphed and tumbled, basked in the light and cowered in the dark. The characters for me are a way of testing and experiencing the extremes of each. Life does not reward these kinds of experiments very often.
“So I am prouder and happier for your recognition of my novel, Portrayals. The Lawrence Sterne Award, named after one of my favorite and most influencing authors, pushes the classification of this rather tall hill into that of a small mountain.”
Copyright © 2022, Chris Farmer
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