Shooting For Immortality
I wasn't shooting for immortality. If anything, I was shooting for anonymity. Why else would I start a basement blaze intended to burn every trace of my existence...my poems, my stories, everything but my dental work? (No plan is perfect.) Face it: you reach a point in life where you realize despair, not recognition, is the payoff for your lifelong labor. Splattering my brains in Jackson Pollock randomness over my library's bookshelves and ceiling seemed the best way out. Quick, painless, no hope of rescue---not even for my manuscripts.
When my teeth notched the barrel of my twelve-gauge (purchased for this special purpose), my fingers couldn't stretch to the trigger. Take off your right shoe and sock, I told myself. Use your toe. It reached: clumsily, but easily. I thought I was ready. Then, the September coolness breezing over my bare foot reminded me just how nice life's little pleasures could be. Why not enjoy your last moments? I took off my other shoe and sock. Why not? A little relaxation... No!Cut the banality. You've lived your writer's dream, paid the price. It's time to stop. But the quiver of finality in the pit of my stomach shivered bile up the back of my throat. A desperate gulp kept it from clogging the barrel. The next surge of the unexpected war between my urge to end it all and my urge to live spewed its reek along the weapon, down my T-shirt and into my corduroy lap. As my hand wiped the vile trail off the blue-black metal, those little pleasures surfaced again (despite my disdain for the people who lived for nothing else)... "No! I've been through enough." I bit down so hard the gunsight stabbed the roof of my mouth. But it ends sosoon, I thought. Stop it! As the smoke sneaked in from the cellar, my toe pushed down.
While a wave of satisfaction washed away my wounds of rejection, a page of manu-script rose over the next crest, flames charring its margins. A hand plunged through the flare, pulled away the paper, whirled it through a healing glow, then flashed it so close to my eyes I not only read but heard its large bold print inside my head:
entered into between__________ and the man under the ceiling light who camped up DeNiro's Lucifer character in Angel Heart. My startled leap from the chair brought me back to my library. Who is this grinning cueball haircut and van dyke who tore me away from eternal delight? A skinhead in a pinstripe suit? Maybe. But his eyes didn't glare sullen hatreds. Actually, they looked slightly upward at me, cinders bright with inspiration. Or were they just reflecting the flames now inching up the curtains? Regardless, the blissful, all-embracing light continued to glow, coming as well from the alabaster teeth set so invitingly in front of me. His expression saidtrust me, but a tremor of suspicion jarred me out of my primal comfort. "How did you get in here?"
He shrugged. "Opening the locked doors of Opportunity is What I Do."
I nodded toward the curtain crackling with yellow heat. "If you're a burglar, you don't have much time."
"I've got all the time I need, babe."
"Who are you?"
"I'm an agent. I represent people like you, people who find it too much of a struggle to manage their own careers."
The bitter laugh of the failed cackled through my teeth. "I never had a career to manage."
"You never had the perception of having a career," he said, with a snake oil vendor's charm. "And why not? Because you never had the Opportunity. However, I can create a tremendousOpportunity for you." He raised the contract to my face. The type melting inside its flaming margins formed an image of me hunching over my typewriter, intense to the point of oblivion as my fingers blurred across the keyboard. Thousands of editorial hands lunged through their trial by fire to clutch at the papers blazing endlessly off the roller, the way they did before I made my decision. If nothing else, I was as prolific as I was unpublished. My back braced up. "Look. I made a Life Decision. I don't want it. Not anymore."
"I can see that," he said, scanning the wall of my hardbound mentors (Martin Manley, Reyes de Nada, Kafka Smith-Jones, among others) before locking eyes with me. "However... At this very moment, I have information that could make you reverse your well-thought-out decision."
"It's too late," I barked. "Look at that chair."
"What about it?"
"That's where I blew my head off." I flapped my hand toward the armchair, but stopped in mid-flight. The seat was empty. The gunbarrel rested against its cushion. I glanced at my feet, then at the smirking head of spikey fuzz, no longer sure if I'd pulled the trigger.
The would-be agent raised a knowing finger alongside his growing leer. "To paraphrase one of your predecessors, 'The world ends not with a bang, but with a whimper.'" As he waved his finger, a laugh clucked deep in his throat.
"I've read Eliot. Don't insult my intelligence."
"Sign with me, and I'll guarantee that nobody---I repeat: nobody---will ever insult you again," he said, teeth wide beside the contract page.
Again, the margins blazed. My house leaped from the print. Orange daggers stabbed through its roof. As beams crashed down, a wiry, bearded figure burst through the front door with my red torch of a steamer trunk and skidded belly-first along the lawn. The trunk-latch broke. My manuscripts flared across the yard. The figure pulled the burning papers to his chest and rolled over the grass till he smothered them---except for the one glowing sheet his outstretched arm held in my face. It curled and browned in the heat surrounding it. "Why should I continue this life on your word alone?"
"Because I've represented thousands of people like you, babe. Make that millions. Without a single exception, each and every one of them has a growing demand for their work." Behind his mesmerizing stare, rows of writers working intently at their desks climbed deep into the shadows of his gleaming irises.
"Impressive," I said, nodding. "Where do I sign?"
A cackle of conquest cracked the corners of his grin. "You've already signed."
"I did?" The letters filling the space for my name grew indistinct as the contract receded from view. "So, what do I do next?"
"You can stay here and write, you can go out and enjoy your newfound celebrity...It's your call."
"There's really a demand for my work?"
"An anthology is rolling off the presses as we speak."
"In that case..." Enjoying my newfound celebrity seemed like the right thing to do, even though the publication seemed to be taking place too quickly for a slow-moving business like publishing. "I think I'll drop in at Dante's..." the subterranean bar where the glitterati celebrated book contracts with their famous friends and agents.
"Here," he said, whipping a cane out of the air. "You've earned the part, you might as well look it."
I caught the black stick in flight and twirled it before tapping its gold tip against the white-hot floorboards. Literally a man with a new lease on life, the bounce returned to my step as I walked through my basement door's blue and yellow flares down to the maw of Dante's entrance and into the strobe-glittering inner sanctum of the world's most renowned writers. My boyhood hero, Martin Manley, the part-time pug and full-time womanizer who wrote a Great American Novel every month to pay his alimony and bar tab, nodded his patrician curls as my peacock strut carried me past him. Reyes de Nada, the reigning Magic Realist, transformed himself into a Margarita on the bar in front of the seat I'd targeted. "Gracias," I said, not sure whether to direct my voice toward the drink or his now-empty seat.
"De Nada," he said, his lips parting the salt on the rim of the glass.
"Verdad," I said, surprised at how comfortably I made superficial conversation in a tongue I'd never studied. No words in any language could express how grateful I felt for the recognition my agent had brought me. If I was fool enough to pull the trigger, he was smart enough to stop me. Another fraction of a second...
But why dwell on the unpleasant past when the caviar buffet of future glory spread before me? Not even the mocking smirk of Kafka Smith-Jones, the first metafictionist to make the NewYork Times Best Seller list, could block me from my place in the literary pantheon. I disregarded the knowing glances Manley, de Nada and Smith-Jones cast at me while my cane and I twirled to the display case of the anthology reflecting its brilliance in Dante's walls of mirrors. The prismatic beams lighting the books warmed me while their luminescence assured me that my place in literature was secure, thanks to my agent's efforts.
Manley swaggered to my side, cocktail splashing his hand. "I hear your work has been included in the latest Anthology of World Literature," he said. "Congratulations."
Despite his macho reputation, Manley's handshake didn't seem stronger than mine. "It might have happened sooner, if you'd answered the letters I sent you years ago."
Manley winced, then shrank into the cherry at the bottom of de Nada's Margarita glass. "Each of us must make his own way here, senor," the rim said.
"I my agent hadn't found me, I never would have gotten here."
"You might not be here the way you think you're here," Kafka Smith-Jones snickered, insinuating himself into my thinking in his most postmodern way.
"By your aesthetic criteria, I have to be here the way I think I'm here," I said, asserting the strength of my own consciousness in the mocking void of the trendy author's face.
"Why don't you show us?" all three said in near-jeering unison.
My flourish lifted one of the thousand-page hardcovers off the top shelf of the display. I scanned the table of contents for my name...again...and yet again.
Manley squinted over his dribbling drink. "Well? Where is it?"
"No esta aqui," de Nada's voice sing-songed from the volume in my hand.
"It's all in his mind," Kafka Smith-Jones intoned from the place he identified.
"It's in here. I'm telling you, it's in here." Where did Manley go this time? And de Nada? And Smith-Jones? Was I shouting to myself? I'd show them. While I searched for the piece, the invisible trio's doo-wopping laughter loudened with every page I leafed. "Where is it?" My voice shuddered my frenzy. Their swelling onslaught of teeth chomped derision at me from every mirror. I backed away, spun around. Bolted. Their clattering choppers trailed me down the mirrored vortex through the vault door all the way back to my library.
"WHERE IS IT!" I screamed at my agent.
He was leaning on his cane---my cane---in the middle of the torches which had once been my library furniture. His hair flowed manelike down his back now. "It's in there," he said. With a nod, his now-full beard pointed toward the book I'd cocked like a club.
"Where? I couldn't find it. I've never been so humiliated."
"Look again." When I lowered the book, it fell open to my poem.
I blushed, then grinned. "How come I couldn't find it?"
"It's right here, babe. Right in the table of contents."
"Anonymous! That's not my name!"
"It was the best I could do. The fire..."
"But, but----you know who I am."
"I know you're a suicide whose---"
"I'm not a suicide. You saved me."
"I saved your work." He nodded toward the flickering fingers surrounding the chair. Inside them, my body sprawled across the cushion, limbs dangling, face blown beyond recognition. Behind them, red and beige spattered the books and ceiling.
My stomach hollowed from shock, then bloated with anguish. "All my life I wanted---I struggled---to get my work recognized..."
"It is recognized." He held up the heat-curled manuscript. Anthologies bearing my work marched over the white into the crumbling ash margins. "It's recognized by more people than you canbegin to conceive of."
"I want my name on it."
"I told you, babe. The fire..."
"But my work is my being."
"And the demand for what remains of your being is growing."
"You tricked me!"
"You started the fire, not me."
True, but.... "You broke your promise. Manley, de Nada, Smith-Jones...they laughed me out of Dante's."
"What happened to you will happen to them, all in good time. It just happened to you first. Each of us makes his own way here."
Under his point-clinching gaze, I said my name over and over, hoping my memory would hold it against the onslaught of history. The more I repeated it, though, the more peculiar it sounded. The longer I thought about it, the more distant it became, like the body I had formerly occupied, now growing indistinct with cinder and decay. The details of my life blurred. What had I done? How did I get here? Who sat in that chair across from me? None of it mattered as much as my agent's reassuring voice following his stare into my head: "You're a pro, babe. And a proproduces."
I glanced at the body gradually blending in more ways than one with the books and the ceiling, then stepped through a sheet of flame to sit at my typewriter. The melting keys molded to fit my fingers. As I blazed a page through the carriage, I grinned.
Previously published in FIRST INTENSITY, MIND IN MOTION and PLAIN BROWN WRAPPER.