Friday, March 25, 2011

I dropped my cigarette to the floor

In the days immediately after the plague the buses were running again, though there were few passengers. During long stretches of the day, a coach would be occupied by the driver alone, guiding rows of empty seats through the rainy avenues. The smell of burning was still in the air. Everything smelled like fire: our hair, our clothes, our shelters, even the food we ate. It would take a whole winter of rain to wash all that burning from the air, to clean the soot from the faces of the buildings and citizens left behind. We didn't mind the charred air; it masked other, worse smells we wanted to forget. The buses were part of a general plan to return life to its normal state as soon as possible. Vast numbers of citizens and large swaths of the city had been reduced to cinders but public transportation was up and running. Schools, hospitals, churches and liquor stores were open and I made pilgrimages to all of them in their turn. We all did. What else were we going to do?

I saw the woman outside one of the hospitals, where she stood on the sidewalk opposite the main doors. People broken and breaking, mending and fading, living and dying all streamed past while she held herself immobile. Her hands and face were pale, almost the yellow of fresh butter, startling against a black wool coat. Beneath her coat a crimson scarf wound about her neck, a burst of color that brought to mind houses aflame in the middle of the night. I had seen this woman before, during the days of panic. I shuddered and walked on, into the hospital to do my duty. The woman and I were destined to collide; her duties intersected unhappily with mine and I didn't wish to associate with a thing like her. These were the sorts of thoughts I couldn't afford to be distracted by at the hospital. It was best to concentrate on the awful task that lay ahead of me.

The national guardsmen checked my identification and I was escorted back into the secure wards. A stack of files in sickening yellow binders with crimson and black tabs was waiting for me. The charge nurse put the files into my arms and then scuttled away as if it was me who was unclean. Her name badge said Angela. She was permitted to ask my name and I was permitted to tell her, but she never asked. I never offered. I carried the files to the dim office the hospital lent us, placed the ugly folders on the desk and closed the door behind me. I sat down and examined the files. The epidemic was officially over, the buses ran on time and there was fresh produce at the grocers but there is no end to death. Every day I think of that poem by Shelly: Death is here, death is there, death is busy everywhere. There is a high suicide rate in my department.

The files were all in order. The doctors had followed the directives and it was time for me to act as an officer of the state. One by one I signed the last forms, closed the files and set them aside. Through the closed door I heard someone cry out in pain, a woman I think. There was always noise in the secure wards.

I dug through my coat pockets until I found a pack of cigarettes. Smoking is of course forbidden in hospitals but the office stank of carbolic and the sickness and I needed the nicotine to steady my nerves before I went out into the wards. Some of my colleagues carried whiskey in pocket flasks. My colleagues were good men, or anyway they were men like me, but I did not believe in drunkenness on duty though I was never so forward as to chide anyone for it. We all must make our way through life somehow, from the safety of bed out into the world and back, from this morning to tomorrow's morning, facing all this alone. It's not my place to condemn.

I dropped my cigarette to the floor and with the heel of my right shoe I smeared the butt against the tiles. Someone would come sweep up later; I always smoked after signing off on the death files but there was never evidence of this when I returned to the office. Through the door I could still hear a woman crying and I hesitated to go out into the wards. It is little wonder that doctors prescribe tranquilizers so often. I was developing a headache.

9 comments:

  1. Scott, I just want to say that I'm really enjoying this and I love this line:

    "My colleagues were good men, or anyway they were men like me."

    That says a lot, as do many lines in this piece. I can't wait to see where it will go.

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  2. In a way, I'm sort of enjoying this less as I go along, because to write, to move forward, is to make irrevocable choices that narrow the possibilities and reduce and dispel the mysteries and magic of the story. So it seems like, for every word I add to this, the story becomes less than it could be. And that disappoints me somehow. It could have been anything, but it's just what it is instead.

    Writing is a strange business.

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  3. I get that more than you know. This is why I adore flash fiction.

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  4. This must be why I'm increasingly interested in side-shadowing and leaving questions unanswered and big slices of vagueness in my novels. This also might explain why fairy tales, myths and magic have endured: we don't necessarily want a completely empirically-described universe. Maybe as a species we need the unexplained to remain unexplained, or at least we need to always have mystery and limitless possibility. I don't know. It all makes me wonder what bizarre things I'm going to do with the detective story. I have considered having more than one version of the central story happening at the same time, with diverging plots. I'm not sure but it sort of confuses me in ways I can't quite explain.

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  5. The way you experiment is really exciting to me, Scott. It goes beyond what I try, I think. I recently realized that I have too much vagueness in my writing, and not because I was trying, but because I was scared of sticking to one idea or point. I really, really, really don't want that vagueness to go away completely because I love your point about mysteries and magic and I also love leaving things open to interpretation, because what is reading about anyway?! Still, I'm getting to the point where I'm finding a sharp balance between being clear and being magical. It has been fun so far. I guess that's my experimentation right now.

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  6. Yeah, I think that our prose should be clear and sharp and precise, but the world of the story can still be a mystery (or hold mysteries) that we don't have to unveil at all. I used to write sort of blurry prose because I didn't want to be pinned down, but now I think we should use very specific language while refusing to demystify/simplify/dumb down the universe. I also am starting to use the idea of there being more than one truth or reality to a story, and writing as clearly about all of them as I can, to sort of keep the doors of perception open. This is not stuff I verbalize much, so I don't really know how to talk about it yet. But you're too right that it's about balance.

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  7. I wish you would talk about it more. I need to talk about it more, I know that.

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  8. to write, to move forward, is to make irrevocable choices that narrow the possibilities and reduce and dispel the mysteries and magic of the story. So it seems like, for every word I add to this, the story becomes less than it could be. And that disappoints me somehow. It could have been anything, but it's just what it is instead.

    I know this nagging feeling. It is also the cause of endless-re-write syndrome.

    But as a reader, I prefer a story to go somewhere definitive, take a stand, not wallow around in ambiguity.

    I'm really enjoying this story.

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  9. Maybe as a species we need the unexplained to remain unexplained, or at least we need to always have mystery and limitless possibility.

    Yes. I like popping in to see where this goes, and even more, I like that the characters can exist in this limbo in my mind until the next excerpt. Your writing haunts me. I can so vividly see the cigarette butt smeared, hear the woman cry. I, too, loved the line:

    My colleagues were good men, or anyway they were men like me.

    Love your writing.

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