First Friday Fiction: A Writer’s Lament

 

I might never have gotten into such trouble if not for my fifth-grade teacher, Mrs. King. The first day of class, as she took attendance, she commented on each of our names, predicting our futures. I was one of the first on her list. “With a first name like Arthur and a last name of Books, you surely will be great writer,” she told me in front of the whole class. If she had said it only once, it might not have stuck, but she held to her theme the entire year. If she was not satisfied with a written assignment, she would return it with a comment like, “I certainly expected better from Mr. Books.” On the other hand, if she liked something I wrote, she would say, “Arthur, you are becoming a true author.” The last day of fifth grade, as we students were going out the door, she stopped me to say, “In a few years, Mr. Books, I expect to see your work in the bookstores.”

Through Middle School and High School I got As in math and Bs or Cs in English. The career counselor at the high school told me I should train for a job with numbers, either engineering or accounting. Geometry scared me more than algebra and formulas, so I went to college and majored in business, with a strong emphasis on accounting. I interned at the firm of Linton & Associates, and the spring I graduated they had an opening. I applied and got the job. But all those years, I remembered what Mrs. King had said, that she expected to see my work in the bookstores. In my spare time I wrote, but I never had the courage to try to have any of my work published.

At work I met the boss’ niece, Marjorie Linton, and when we began dating, Mr. Linton didn’t object. Two years later we were married. Emily was born eighteen months after our wedding, and Bryanna followed about fifteen months later. Work was going well, my family life was happy, and my golf game was improving. Nothing, it seemed, was going to get in the way of a successful and comfortable life.

Right about the time that Bryanna was born, Crystal Hill joined Linton & Associates. She was attractive, she was talented, and she was charming. She brought a spark of life to the office, especially to our seasonal office parties. The clients that Mr. Linton assigned to Crystal always spoke very highly of her work. At times it seemed to me that the men in the firm gathered around her private office like moths heading for a flame.

I had not written much of anything since Emily was born. I had never told anyone what Mrs. King had said to me—not even Marjorie. Suddenly one day, for no particular reason, an outline for a story came into my head. I think it was a song on the radio that put my imagination in motion. If so, the song must have been about a man and a woman who thought they could never be lovers, until they suddenly had an opportunity they had assumed could never be. For three weeks, as I drove to work and as I drove home, I developed the story in my mind. Various plot twists came and went, and the main characters were constantly changing. Even if the story, in its first form, had been based on two real people, at the end of three weeks both the man and the woman were entirely products of my imagination.

By coincidence, just as that incubation time was nearing its end, just as my story was coming into clear focus in my mind, Mr. Linton made a dramatic announcement to all his associates. Crystal Hill, he said, was leaving us. She had accepted a position with one of our clients, one of the larger corporations in the city. He had accepted her two-week notice, he said, and he wished her all the best in her continuing career.

That night I began writing the story I had been creating in my car. It wasn’t everything I wanted it to be, not by a long shot, but I knew that over time I could make it better. Some descriptions needed to be improved and made more specific, and some phrases needed to be shortened or eliminated completely. Since I had no plan to publish this story, any more than I had tried to publish my earlier stories, I was willing to let it sit for a while. Then I planned to look at it again, to approach it with a fresh mind, so I would see what changes needed to be made.

A month went by, and then another followed. The year-end holidays came and went. One Sunday in January the newspaper announced a contest for short story writers. We had two weeks in which to submit an original work that had never been published anywhere. Needless to say, I pulled out my story, spent some evenings improving and polishing it, and emailed it to the newspaper the day before the contest deadline. Then another month went by, with family life and work life proceeding as they had done for the past several years.

On a Wednesday night, one of the editors from the newspaper phoned me at home. She told me that I had won third prize in the contest. A check for fifty dollars was being mailed to me, and the story would appear, along with the other winners, in Sunday’s newspaper. Marjorie was surprised by my news. “You never even told me you had written a story,” she exclaimed, “let alone that you had entered a contest.”

“Well, I didn’t have very high hopes,” I explained, “and I didn’t want you to get your hopes up either.”

“Can I read it?” she asked.

I smiled. “It’ll be in Sunday’s paper,” I told her.

Sunday morning the story was there, as promised, along with all the other winners. A few people at church congratulated me, and a few others overheard the congratulations and promised to read the story as soon as they got home. Even the pastor said a few kind words to me about my story as Marjorie and I were headed out the door with the girls. Nothing that happened on Sunday gave me any warning of the trouble that was brewing.

The story was not mentioned by anyone at the office on Monday. Of course I didn’t go around asking people what they thought, but I was surprised that no one said a word about it. Perhaps I was self-conscious, but it seemed to me that people were unusually quiet when I was around. Mondays are generally quiet at the office, though, so I told myself that I was imagining things.

When I got home, Emily met me at the door with tears in her eyes. “Daddy,” she said, “why do you want me and Mommy to die?”

Aghast I answered, “What makes you think I want you and Mommy to die?”

“In your story the man’s wife and children all died. Why would you write such a terrible thing?”

At the beginning of my story, a plane crash had taken away a man’s wife and children. “But, honey,” I told her, “That’s just a story. That man isn’t me. For one thing, he had three sons and not two daughters. But just because I wrote a story where something like that happened, it doesn’t mean that I want it to happen to me.”

Emily didn’t seem convinced, so I went into the kitchen and told Marjorie what our daughter had said. “How do I explain to her that a story isn’t about what the writer wants to have happen?” I asked.

“You’re going to have to figure that out on your own,” Marjorie replied. “To be honest, your story took me by surprise as much as it did Emily. The details seemed rather close to reality. Knowing you and your life, it’s hard not to think that what you wrote is based on your wishes, whether you know that you’re wishing them or not.”

Taken aback, I didn’t know what to say. “I honestly don’t want you and the girls to die,” I said, but my words sounded feeble even in my own ears. I had to ask myself, did I secretly want my family out of the way so that, as in my story, I could replace my wife with someone new? I didn’t think that was true. I certainly had never sat around, daydreaming of what I would do if Marjorie and I were not married to each other. By no means had I ever wished her dead or imagined what I might do if she should die.

Marjorie did not demand that I sleep on the couch that night, but she was most certainly cold and distant for the rest of the evening. Emily stopped crying, but she also refused to let me convince her that the story I wrote was only a story and that I did not want her to die. Lying next to Marjorie that night I tossed and turned, asking myself how I could convince my family that I did not wish them gone, wondering if such a wish might really be hiding somewhere inside my mind, waiting to come out in such a story.

The next morning I was tired when I got to work. I had barely gotten to my desk and started to check my email when the telephone rang. Picking it up, I heard Mr. Linton’s voice. “Arthur, would you come to my office please?” he asked me. “Of course,” I answered. “Right away,” he said.

I walked down the hall and knocked on his door. “Come in,” he said. I entered. His large leather chair was turned to the window, facing the city and its many tall buildings, but he was not in his chair. Uncharacteristically, he was seated on the edge of his desk. “Have a seat, Arthur,” he said, pointing to the chair right in front of him. I sat. “Now, about this story you wrote that was in Sunday’s paper,” he began. I wanted to shout, “What?! You too!” but one does not talk like that to Mr. Linton. At least I don’t. I sat quietly, waiting to see what he was going to say.

“I found it a bit disturbing,” he said. “At first I thought it was just me. So I asked around the office yesterday. Pretty much everyone here is convinced that you were thinking about Crystal Hill when you wrote that story. In fact, your Jennifer is almost exactly like Crystal—the way she looks, the way she smiles, the way she laughs…”

“Mr. Linton,” I told him, “It’s just a story. I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and this was just I story that I wrote. I wasn’t thinking about Crystal or about anyone else when I wrote it; I just wrote it the way I imagined it.”

“Couldn’t you even change some details so your Jennifer didn’t look exactly like Crystal? Give her short blonde curly hair, maybe, instead of long straight black hair.”

I wanted to say, “Because if she had long straight black hair, she would look like a young woman at my church who really is named Jennifer,” but I didn’t think Mr. Linton would understand.  Besides, he did not give me time to answer his question. “It’s not just a question of hair, though,” he said, and the tone of his voice changed as if he was talking to himself instead of me. “It’s that smile and that voice that you described so convincingly. The man in your story, frankly, is flat and lifeless. I don’t even remember his name. But Jennifer seems alive. She seems real. And the real person that she resembles, in every way imaginable, is Crystal Hill.”

I took a breath and tried again. “Mr. Linton,” I said, “The philosophers have written that there is a standard of beauty, a Platonic standard, and that every beautiful thing we see is an image of that perfect standard. If I write about a beautiful woman and you read what I wrote and you think of Crystal Hill, that might just mean that Crystal Hill comes close that standard of perfection, at least as you and I perceive perfection. If I write about a woman and want her to seem beautiful, I guess I can’t help it if she ends up seeming a lot like Crystal Hill.”

“Do you really think I’m perfect?” a familiar voice chimed. Mr. Linton’s chair swiveled away from the window. Sitting in his chair was Crystal Hill.

I’ve seen TV shows in which a character, normally calm and collected, sees a person they did not expect to see—perhaps someone they thought had died—and cannot control himself. Instead, he shouts the person’s name, smiles broadly, and is generally out of control. I never expected myself to lose control in such a way, but when I heard Crystal speak to me and saw her in Mr. Linton’s chair, I did indeed shout her name, and I’m sure I must have smiled. No, that behavior is not typical of me, at least not at work.

Dead silence followed my overreaction. Mr. Linton finally spoke. “Yes, Arthur, even Crystal herself read your story and felt uncomfortable. We talked about it last night. Now that she is here, would you like to apologize to her for her public embarrassment?”

“Well, I guess,” I stammered. “I mean, Crystal, if you feel embarrassed by what I wrote, I am truly sorry. I never meant it to be any kind of embarrassment to you, though. I mean, Jennifer is just a character in a story I wrote, but I made her a likeable character. If you really thought I was trying to portray you, I would think you would at least have felt complimented by the portrayal.”

“It’s not the way she resembles me—and you can’t deny that she resembles me. It’s the way her husband is murdered and the way everyone assumes that she is the murderer. And then she ends up with the man who so obviously is supposed to be you…”

“Wait just a minute,” I interrupted. “Marvin is nothing like me. For one thing, he’s an architect and not an accountant. He and his wife have three sons, not two daughters. And they live in a different city. And he tells Jennifer, at the end of the story, that he fell in love with her so gradually that he could not even remember when he first loved her. Whereas I… well, I know exactly the day I fell in love with you.”

I could not believe the words that were coming out of my mouth. If I had not been so tired, and then taken totally by surprise so early in the morning, I’m sure I never would have said such a thing. Mr. Linton seemed just as surprised as I was by my confession, but Crystal simply nodded. “I know,” she said, “Eleanor’s retirement reception.” Tears welled in her eyes as she added, “Arthur, that’s why I had to take another job when it was offered. I loved working here—well, most of the time, anyhow—and I could have spent my entire career here if it wasn’t for you: always looking at me when you thought I didn’t notice, and always listening when I spoke to other people, and always looking for some way to compliment me for even the smallest thing I did. When you said that you would do anything for me, when all I asked was for a coffee from the shop downstairs (and I gave you the money for that; I was just too busy to leave the office)—Arthur, I just couldn’t take the pressure anymore.”

“Crystal, what pressure? How could my affection for you be any kind of burden or pressure to you?”

“Arthur, I don’t live on Mount Olympus. I don’t belong on the kind of pedestal that you built for me. And I can’t help thinking that the way you feel about me can hurt your marriage to Marjorie and even threatens my marriage to Terry.”

I didn’t answer her, because I knew already that she was right. That winter, when I had gone to the mall to buy a gift for my wife, I had struggled to shop for Marjorie. I couldn’t find anything that seemed right for her, anything that I wanted to give her. On the other hand, I could hardly walk into a store without seeing something that I would have bought for Crystal: a dress that would have been perfect for her, or jewelry that completely matched her personality, or even a purse that I could picture her carrying.

Mr. Linton frowned. “If I had known that you left the firm because of Arthur, I would rather have fired Arthur,” he grumbled.

“Oh, Arthur wasn’t the only reason I left,” she said airily. “There’s the money, of course; they’re paying me better than you could afford to pay me. And the work is easier since I am only focused on one company instead of trying to keep track of seven or eight different clients. But I have to be honest with you both: when I sat down and considered the pluses and the minuses of both jobs, Arthur was one of the minuses about staying here. It was a hard decision. I might have left even if it wasn’t for him; I don’t know. But now that it’s gone this far, I had to tell you both the truth.”

“This is such a nightmare,” I groaned. “Crystal, I never in a million years wanted to make you unhappy. My heart just about broke when I heard you were leaving. And now you tell me that you left because of me! If I had known earlier, I could have changed. Why didn’t you say anything about what was bothering you?”

“I tried, once or twice,” she confessed, “But I could never find the right words. And, in the end, I didn’t want to hurt your feelings.”

“Why not?”

“Because, Arthur,” she said, looking down at the floor, “I care about you too… more than I should. I didn’t leave because I disliked you or hated having you care about me. I left because I liked you too much, and I felt too flattered knowing how you felt about me. I never told Terry about any of that, but it’s all true. I wanted to stay faithful to him, and I want you to stay faithful to Marjorie, and that meant that you and I couldn’t see each other anymore.”

Another long silence followed her words. Each of us was staring at the floor or out the window, too uncomfortable to look the others in the face. Finally, I spoke. “So where do we go from here?” I asked.

“You should know,” Mr. Linton growled. “You’re the writer. You’ve just won an award. Finish the story. Tell us how this turns out.”

“Maybe we should check with the first-place winner,” I suggested, more with sarcasm than with any real humor. “I’m sure at least that her characters don’t end their sentences with prepositions.”

“Honestly, Arthur,” Crystal blurted out, “You know that it can’t be like this anymore. I’m gone. I’m out of the office. I’m out of your life. You can’t call me back in.”

“I never called you back in,” I protested.

“Well, your story called me back in,” she answered. “You know I couldn’t ignore it.”

“It’s just a story,” I said again, for what seemed like the hundredth time since Sunday. “It has nothing to do with me or with you or with anyone else. I just imagined a situation and a couple characters and started writing to see what would happen. You can’t blame me for telling a story about two people. Those two people are not me and you; they were never supposed to be me and you. It’s just a story, and anything more you see in it is what you have put into it yourself.”

If only Mrs. King had been there to help me explain myself! She had told me again and again that I was to be a great writer; and now, years later, my first published work had already landed me in hot water. My wife and my daughter thought that I had wished them dead. My boss was hinting that he wanted to fire me. Worst of all, I had been forced into a confession that I didn’t want to make, that my affection for Crystal Hill was stronger than I had any right to feel. And all this came about because of a story that I was sure was nothing more than a product of my own imagination!

I must not be that great of a writer, though, because I cannot even finish this story of my own experience. Let it be said that no one was happy with the way things turned out, even though no major changes were made in anyone’s life. Marjorie and I are still married, Crystal and Terry Hill are still married, and Crystal and I are not talking to each other. Mr. Linton did not fire me, although he warned me that I would be fired if he heard that I had crossed the line with Crystal or with anyone else. My fifty dollars from the newspaper went into the bank, where I guess it just helped pay for groceries or gasoline or something like that. I know I never bought anything special with the money. And, aside from this memory, I haven’t written anything else since my story appeared in the newspaper. I wouldn’t dare.

 

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