"I've written down a lot of shit in that book." He nodded, adding emphasis to his statement, hoping for me to agree with him. I sat listening to him in church, and though I winced inwardly at his choice of words, kept my face blank. He took it as agreement to continue. "I have been working on this story for five years." He emphasized the words again, this time with his eyebrows, lifting them. I was impressed at his dedication and grunted in a musing sort of sound, encouraging him to go on and biting my own tongue. Who spent five years writing stories in spiral bound notebooks?
"It's a war story. Wait" He hesitated, brow furrowing. "Well it is a love story too. A sort of war-love story. The main guy falls in love with the Four-Star Generals daughter and he is a commissioned officer. A low guy. The General is really pissed off about that. " He laughed and I wondered if he was ex-army. So I asked him. "Yes" he replied, terse and focused on his blue covered spiral bound manuscript. He jumped about in the conversation as a jay would, branch to branch, interested in a shiny bit, fascinated by the next, point to point to point.
He handed the tattered notebook to me then, his fingers on some of the very same white marks on the cover they must have graced countless times over the course of his writing. I was surprised at his willingness to yield it up, suppressing the idea of walking out to the foyer without a word just to see if he would leap up and follow, birdlike in his possession, bobbing and desperate. I stay put and opened the story somewhere in the middle.
Machine gun fire met me there, the protagonist was pinned down in a muddy foxhole and his lady love was with him. I had no idea why she was there, or even where there was, but I gave it a chance. The moment anything was rippling or throbbing I was going to close the notebook and tell him it was great, then find an excuse to leave. In the story, the lady was screaming at the poor fellow through the din. He didn't appear to be particularly henpecked at the moment, but it would be interesting if he were. A mortar shell landed 15 feet to their left. The hero and the lady dove into the muck and I left them there, skimming forward a dozen pages.
This guy was watching me read I realized, noting him out of the corner of my eye. I pretended to read more, instead studying him for a moment. He was mussy haired and ill dressed, mustard stains on his pants, and an untucked shirt. He had a broken tooth, the right incisor, broken in the sort of way one breaks a tooth in a fist fight. It made him whistle a bit as he spoke. I was amazed to note the contrast in appearance and his smooth flowing script. Could the guy have found this writing somewhere, picked it up, called it his own? It seemed likely, given the strange juxtaposition of his appearance and the perfectly formed lettering I was looking at.
I turned back to him, flipping through the rest of the pages to see if the handwriting changed ever. It ended fifty or so pages in. I asked him about it. "Oh, this isn't the only one of those I have." He pointed at the book then scratched a small spot under his eye, pinching and rolling it for a moment. A loose eyelash fell from his eye as he let go of the small spot of skin. "I have six or seven others, all told about thirty three hundred pages." I raised my eyebrows this time, and he smiled, finding the thing he had been looking for in introducing me to his writing. He'd found his validation. When I asked him, quietly of course as we were still sitting in the church, if he had ever sent the story to an agent or a publisher, he just shook his head. "Nah, I don't want to do that. I don't want them to change anything." He pushed the hair back from his face and I handed the notebook back to him, noting how my own fingers lined up on the white marks of the notebook. I wiped my sweaty hands on the thighs of my slacks, and nodded. I told him he should see about doing that. "Maybe." We were back to single responses, and I began to wonder if he used them as a bridge--a slender transition from one topic to another, baiting one along until the other side, a narrow catwalk leading over to the punta gorda.
I asked him if he had ever written anything else, something besides war, or love. He shook his head and I knew he was an ex-army guy, and that he most likely had never had the love he wrote about. The kid was far from attractive. He had his stories, and they were beautiful to him. Sort of like the effect of The Magic Cottage, yet this was one fellow acting out both parts.
I nodded again, this time to validate my own thoughts, and reached out my hand, introducing myself. He took it and shook "James. Nice to meet you". He balanced his open notebook on his thighs, the jacket covering the mustard stains. The fountain nib of his pen had leaked on his right index finger and he transferred a bit to me as he shook. He was writing again, the smooth slowing script marching on, inexorable, carrying the five year story forward to a resolution I could not see, exposed as I was to such a small moment of it, to him. I wondered at the similitude of life and literature and saw the parallels shaping James' writing.
The service ended then, and I realized I had not heard a single word of it. I had visited, read, mused, and discussed right over the top of it all, even through all the prayers. I stood again, a man coming out of a fog, and extended my hand to James again. I could almost see the tendrils of smoke on my hand as he shook it and nodded, he was lost to me now in his manuscript. I released his hand, mine letting go first in a sort of peeling-of-a-glove manner, and noted I bore another ink stain. I found my hat and coat, and stumbled out the door, strangely unable to locate my feet amidst the insight. I had analyzed this poor fellow and found myself. Blinking, I stepped through the double doors to the outside, and drew a deep breath, a man fresh come to the surface after a lung-burning oyster dive. I searched the sky for birds, and wondered what the Greeks would say about the two ravens that flew past.