Short Story: On the breeze with a cigarette

It was nearly the weekend. Dan and I stood in the usual spot, in an alleyway just down the road where the building was almost, but not entirely, out of sight. Between an industrial bin and a parking garage. Dan leaned against the wall smoking.

“Smell that. Doesn’t that remind you of last year?”

Dan didn’t even sniff the air. Instead he gave a short laugh and raised an eyebrow. “That’s just cigarettes and filth. And I didn’t even know you last year. What were you doing for a smell like that to bring you back there?” Dan nudged me with his elbow, then pulled his phone out of his suit pocket. “Eight minutes left. Better make the most of it.” We fell into silence, puffing on our second cigarettes, getting them in before the break ended.

I thought back to the end of last year, when I’d started this crazy experiment: I hadn’t worn a watch for three weeks, hoping that maybe this could help me get the better of time somehow. Delay it, or scare it off, or get it out of my head. It hadn’t really worked. How could it when smells and sounds moved time around so easily? I’d thought about time a lot. I don’t really feel like my life is rushing by, but I suspect that sometime soon it might. At least that’s what the movies say. The movies. Always messing things up. Nothing had ever really bothered me until I’d started watching the movies. I’d been content to fake my way through life, in a white shirt and a black suit. But the movies, they’re dreams turned to liquid and spewed onto the streets like gas.

Sometimes I thought I’d run away. Or maybe just live in a tree somewhere, one of those crazy big trees on St Kilda Road. I’d make a dash one morning at the exact moment my train would be leaving for work. I could go earlier, but I’d wait for the train… For poetic justice or whatever they called it. I’d sell my car and rent an old bomb, maybe even steal one, not too dilapidated, but one with that antique charm about it. One that would be difficult to find parts for if it broke down. Maybe with those draw-blinds on the back window. I’d drive across the country and write a book about my escapades. Half-drunk and with borrowed pens, of course. I’d keep the pages of it in an old shoebox under the empty passenger’s seat. I’d get deliberately lost until the car ran out of gas. This would happen in the desert, or up in the mountains, or in some little backwater town that had a bar and a jazz singer but no band. They’d packed up and left. And I’d leave soon too, when I’d figured something out with the car. I’d call my book On the Breeze or something like that. Because that’s how I’d feel, on the breeze, on the way. That’s how I liked to be. On the way where didn’t really matter. I’d be like this guy I saw in America, years ago, on the sidewalk outside a restaurant. This man that had been wearing this beautifully cut wine-red suit, with a white shirt and a black tie, and a cigarette in his hand. The suit had obviously been tailored just for him and the guy was as handsome as they come, with a carefully managed Beatles haircut that made him look like he’d just walked out of the movies. The goddam movies. He’d had this look on his face as he stood there, this melancholy as hell look as if something wasn’t up to scratch with the world and soon he was going to have to do something about it. How was that fair? To look that good and stare so sad? The bastard had even had a fountain pen sticking out of his pocket, as if he were a playwright or a novelist, and was deep in the middle of some big project.

Well it wasn’t fair, but that could be me, maybe in a less impressive suit and maybe not looking so melancholy. Maybe someone would walk past me and think to themselves, what a good-looking bastard, what’s he doing looking so bored? Surely he drives a Cadillac or something, to be so well-fitted in that suit?

On the way home from work I sat on the train between an elderly woman knitting and a young boy nodding off to the music in his headphones. I stared out of the window and studied the parked cars with envious eyes. How hard could it be to open one?

They did it with coat-hangers in the movies.

 

 

 

Cadillac_Ads-263CZ09Z
1963 Caddilac advertisement

Short Story: Across a Table

‘But why are you screaming?!!

Stop screaming, we are right here!’

A look of bewilderment appeared in his eyes. He let it stay there so that this terrible exasperation might crouch behind its shoulders and remain hidden.

‘I’m not screaming,’ he replied in confusion, holding his palms upwards towards the sky. But his companions flinched and covered their ears.

‘I’m merely trying to make myself heard.’

He glanced around him, and gestured towards the waves stretching out far below.

‘After all, there is a vast distance between us; an ocean in fact.’

His companions stared, their brows descending with frustration. He tried again;

‘Can’t you see it? It is a terrible distance – much too vast to leap over – so of course I have to raise my voice.’

But they were hardly listening. While he had spoken their faces had contorted into horrible, sickened expressions. Their fingers were clawing desperately at their ears. Hostility, as they shot him looks of resentment; what in the world was he trying to do?  

Dismayed that they had not understood him, he tried again to explain:

But I am doing this for you!’ he pleaded. And he did his very best to smile.

Directly below him, the waves roared menacingly and smashed against the cliffs’ side. The water climbed up the rocks towards him, reaching out its icy fingers. He felt them claw at him as the spray drenched his face and ran down his cheeks like tears, the salt burning tracks into his skin. The water was thick. It fogged up his vision and burnt his eyes.

Through it he could see that the faces of his companions remained dry. Dry, but disfigured still; marred by the expressions of bewilderment and hostility that he knew he had created there.

Desperate now, more alarmed than he had been before, he sought one last time to explain himself:

‘I am trying this time, I am playing your game. Still I know, I am struggling to succeed, but I am making an effort at least.’ And here he wiped his face hastily with his sleeve, to rid it of that embarrassing salt water. A kind of apology, for he sensed that his efforts were a violation of some sacred convention – something perhaps, that he had not understood.

‘See, I am making an effort at least. Surely you cannot hold my failure against me, knowing how hard I have been trying. The water is salty, clouds are approaching, and I can barely see you across this absurd ravine!’

He searched their faces for a response, but still they covered their ears, and even their faces with their hands. Only their strange, twisted expressions stared back.

Soon even these became difficult to make out, and their faces started to blur at the edges. Apparently a fog or some other kind of capricious ocean mist was building up between them, creating a wall. He squinted, but could not see through the mist.

Waving a hand frantically he made one last effort to catch their eyes. Their shrinking faces were becoming indistinguishable from the surroundings, and he did not want to remember only their angered expressions. He waved, and then jumped suddenly, foolishly, up into the air, trying desperately to reach them. He was losing them forever across this mad ravine.

They did not see him. They merely continued exchanging confused glances amongst themselves, searching for an explanation in their own faces instead of examining the waves that were raging so wildly below them against the cliffs’ edge. His shoulders fell and he stopped waving, but he stared across the ravine, trying not to lose their figures in the mist.

All the way across the ravine – across that violent spray that had now soaked so thoroughly into his cheeks that even a year in the sun would not dry it out, that had worked its way so painfully into his eyes that he scratched at them but could not free them – in the midst of that terrible violence one of them raised a cup of coffee to his mouth and slowly took a sip.

It seemed so out of place in this wilderness.

On the Train Towards Tralfamadore

So, for something different….This piece was written as a dialogue between Djuna Barnes’ character ‘Dr.’ Matthew O’Connor, and Kurt Vonneguts’ character, Billy Pilgrim. Both Nightwood and Slaugherhouse-Five take place in the historical context of World War II. However, as Vonnegut wrote his novel in the 1960s during the Vietnam War, interesting parallels can be drawn between the two periods and characters. Billy Pilgrim approaches the doctor with hopes that he can suggest an antidote to the symptoms of PTSD.

Please find footnotes at the bottom, which I hope offer some clarification about what I was aiming for when I wrote the piece, as well as information about how this piece ties into the themes of the two novels (although it was intended that the piece would make sense even without prior knowledge of the texts).

This piece was also published here, where you can read other stories from some classmates in the American Literature subject for which this piece was written.

Billy sat quietly in the doctor’s office; which really was not an office at all, but an abandoned train carriage that the doctor claimed had been a gift from ‘Europe’.

‘You know, when it stopped moving forward,’ he had said of it.

Staring out of the window behind the doctor, Billy considered the space that the train now occupied. A field stretched before them, peppered here and there with tiny flowers that grew in isolated little clumps; but they were feeble, and easy to overlook.

Beyond the field stretched a road, with a stream of cars disappearing into the distance. They moved slowly in a long line. Strapped to the roof of a small red car was a giant missile, pointing rudely at the heavens. The men inside the car – dressed in formal suits and ties – were dancing in their seats as though loud music were playing. When the missile was launched everybody would be able to hear it and could join them in their dancing. But from this distance it looked ridiculous.

‘So you have come to me for guidance?’ asked the doctor, staring at Billy.

As he spoke his eyes moved from his patient to a small, framed mirror upon his desk. He finished the question while considering the mirror, staring quizzically at it as though it had tricked him somehow[1]. Shifting his gaze back to Billy he demanded abruptly,

‘Why would you think that I have it?’

Billy thought silently for a moment, wondering how to put it into words.

‘Because of a feeling really. I have become unstuck again, unstuck in time[2]. Only this time I can’t tell if I’ve moved forwards or backwards. I thought you might know?’

He finished simply, waiting for an answer. The doctor considered Billy silently for a moment; a grown man sitting still in his chair like an uncomfortable child, unsure where to rest his hands. Then the doctor stood abruptly, and spun to face the window, his arms flying out emphatically.

‘My dear fool, the world is unstuck! We’re all unstuck! Look at that traffic jam out there, everyone in it is stuck! Especially that fool with the missile.’

Billy, still seated at the doctor’s desk, looked to where the doctor was pointing. A group of young people had surrounded the red car, and they too had started dancing. But they were dressed in flowers and held signs and danced more angrily than the men in the car had. The men in the car had stopped dancing and now watched through the windows, annoyed expressions marking their faces. They poked their tongues out at the protestors, and talked animatedly amongst themselves. The doctor shook his fist at the line of traffic in the distance, and rounded once more to face Billy, a frustrated expression lining his face.

‘Perhaps what you are suffering from is not really the trauma of the war, but the trauma of the world. It is just that you have been unfortunate enough to have seen it.’

The doctor studied Billy silently for a moment, before turning back to the mirror and nodding emphatically at himself.

Billy had no words with which to respond; he sat silently, staring at what looked like a dress draped over the back of a chair in the corner, just behind the doctor. From where Billy sat, it looked almost like the parachutes he had seen in the war. Although then it had been useless to have a parachute, since even when he had flown away from the war he had ended up here, where another one was taking place. But he thought it would look nice on the doctor, with his elegant gestures and curly hair, and wondered privately to himself why more men didn’t wear dresses. On Tralfamadore the aliens had not.

‘I must say that I like it here,’ the doctor said all of a sudden, in a much more amiable tone. ‘The aliens are out in droves, not hiding underground as they used to.’

‘Aliens?’ repeated Billy hopefully, moving forwards on his seat, a little closer to the doctor.

The doctor fixed him with a piercing stare, as though he knew exactly what Billy was thinking.

‘Aliens aren’t just a symptom of space travel Billy,’ he said mysteriously, ‘just look out there, there are multitudes of them. Only they won’t admit it.’

The doctor gestured once more towards the scene beyond the window behind him[3]. Billy again had nothing to say, so instead he asked meekly,

‘What would you recommend doctor? What is your diagnosis?’

After a moment of thought the doctor scoffed into his jacket, a sardonic smile upon his face.

‘A diagnosis? Why what useless things they prove to be! What should I say of you Billy, which I should not say of the world? What can be found in you that cannot be found in the Grand Canyon?![4]  Or in the bottom of my shoe for that matter?!’

Billy did not know, so he tilted his head and waited, sure that the doctor was going to tell him. The doctor remained silent for a while, his eyes glazing over as he stared into the mirror. Then he spoke briskly, turning the mirror over and laying it flat on his desk.

‘Take a walk Mr Pilgrim. Walk to the busiest intersection you can find, stand at the side of it to watch, and flip a coin as you do so. Look around you and see what fortunes chance bestows upon you and everyone else. And see if anyone objects as you throw your coin into the air. Or better yet, take a nap on a railroad, with a blanket and a pillow – perhaps even bring a pair of slippers – and see when you wake up! That is my advice, if you insist on having some.’

The doctor finished with a frustrated flourish in the direction of the window and the world beyond it. But Billy Pilgrim had stopped listening. He was travelling through time again, towards a blinding red flash, and the sound of Kilgore Trout, singing what sounded like it might be the Tralfamadorian national anthem.

Pamela Silvan, La Trobe University.

Footnotes 

[1] In Djuna Barne’s novel, Dr Matthew O’Connor is notoriously self-possessed, and very entertaining in his philosophical ramblings. Often, however, they are full of contradictions which he nonetheless always manages to make sense of.

[2] In Slaughterhouse-Five, Billy Pilgrim uses the phrase ‘unstuck in time’ to describe his experience of what is generally agreed to be a form of post-traumatic stress disorder – or shellshock. His experiences of time-travelling to an alien planet – Tralfamadore – are usually interpreted as symptomatic of his PTSD after having witnessed the bombing of Dresden in 1945. Thus his retreat into Tralfamadore can be understood as a coping mechanism.

[3] At this point it might be interesting to consider The Human Condition by Rene Magritte, 1933, [oil on canvas], National Gallery of Art, Washington D.C. This painting is a useful comparison to the works of Barnes and Vonnegut in how it draws attention to the ways in which our perception of reality is necessarily constructed and influenced by social forces, values, and mores. The painting seems to question the idea of an objective reality, and draws our attention to the ways in which we are limited to our own perspective of the world, in the same way that Billy Pilgrim is held captive by his flashbacks and visions of Tralfamadore.

[4] See discussion between F. Scott Fitzgerald and his wife Zelda, in which she comforts his frustration with the consolation that whatever problems exist in him, also exist in the wider world around him. A crack in him is a crack in the Grand Canyon – a miracle of nature – so he needn’t carry the weight of it alone. This discussion can be found in the essay ‘The Crack-Up.’

References

Barnes, D 1936, Nightwood, Faber and Faber Ltd., London.

Fitzgerald, F. Scott 1936 (2008) ‘The Crack-Up’, Esquire, 26th February, viewed 5 April 2014, <http://www.esquire.com/features/the-crack-up&gt;.

Vonnegut, Kurt 1969, Slaughterhouse-Five (The Children’s Crusade: A Duty-Dance with Death), Vintage-Random House Publishing, London.