DING-DING-DING! Hello and welcome, good fans. How are you today? I’m fine, thank you. Welcome to FREE SHORT STORY DAY! Today I figured would be a good time to share a nice ditty. It’s been a while since I’ve put up a work, which I often do around Halloween. However, I decided to go this time with something a little bit absurd. A bit of satire, if you will. With that said, I hope you enjoy.
The Runaway Hack
Lawrence R. Dagstine
He was moving into it all again. It might be a few hours or a full day developing, but the mood rose in him, like compressed air in a tank. It was a pressure that must move toward an exit. He looked about. He looked at the big picture: friends and peers mostly, a few fans and admirers, well-wishers who were wannabes themselves, perhaps a few enemies, and for the rest all wordsmiths.
Wordsmiths were kind of like fucksmiths. Each had their own prominent place in this highly developed society. Both fucked things up when the need arise. The only difference was that the fucksmith was twofold: to have fun and to produce the works that will eventually not earn out. They will, in turn, each have one other function: to leave the field in a little worse shape than it was or at least aspire to. That is the history or function of each new generation: fuck it up a little bit more for the next. Actually, wordsmiths could bleed on paper and still be criticized about the amount they donated. In the end, they often begged for a rejection letter or a quick, painless death.
I’ve got that bit settled, Jermaine thought.
Much of his life he was looking for a kind of salvation called obscurity, which probably explained why he was always on the run from his profession. He tended toward a gruesome and descending philosophy when he was moving into despondence. Actually, when he wasn’t writing short stories, despondency was a chronic part of his nature. One of the main objects of his days was to keep the subject matter of his stories concealed, for it was the very opposite of the way the world viewed him. Off the page, audiences figured that he hadn’t a care in the world, and never did and never would have, that he lived for sensationalism alone. He even told himself the same thing, that he had a great gift for words. He wanted to live out of a fairy tale where, as someone had put it, there was indescribable bullshit eternally prolonged. He said it, he tried for it. He even sold it. But underneath there were the ideas. Often this showed on the page; it came out on his face, however, in a sudden set of despair. Or, he’d fall silent a while and have nothing to say. And the ideas drifted away from him then, fearing to cross him in all its syntactic glory.
Perhaps that was why he was looking for escape. Perhaps that was why he was groping his way toward Something Else (and yes, with a capital S and a capital E). Or maybe it was the repetitions of it that made it unbearable. To be at a convention or on a panel or at a writing function, with its outer sign of sheer bragging, ostensibly even to the life of the party, and yet inside to be saying to himself that he wished he weren’t there—at all. Not even alive.
He was alone. For a washed-up hack, the worst kind of aloneness in the world. It was a feeling he experienced more and more often, of late, at these special events. People all about were close-joined, seemingly delighted, and all was well with them. Then he would find himself on either side, but none opposite. Renowned as he was in smaller circles, he’d be sitting there by himself, the world moving about him, and he presumably along for the ride. The voyeuristic kind.
Here was a legion of the destined and doomed. He spent most of his time at the bar, watching them. Taking a sip of his brew, he stared up at a sign. STARCON 34 in moon-streaming colors. They should have called it NOBODY-CON. Some would go on to become editors or work for literary agencies. Some would start indie presses or become poster children for RPG handbooks. Others would die horrible deaths: being unknown. But was that such a terrible thing? He saw one poor sap at the door of the dealer’s room wearing Vulcan ears and selling some silly never-before-done novel about space stations that could create suns with smiley faces. The ridiculous blurbs on the back went as far as to say that the book would put a smile on your face, too.
Each convention it had been like this, sellers pacing back and forth, hours of windmilling about the dealer’s area of some hall or hotel before they could get to work or the customers would arrive to spend their hard-earned dough and pick up their usual merch. A Star Wars book here, a Limited Edition novella there. How the devil, Jermaine wondered, could a man in a Predator outfit have such a fat wallet and so many needs and appetites? What kind of an outfit was it that drew things into it like some absorbing tentacled underwear plant? Whatever reason, that was why the writers and dealers were here, to sell books and get insights into this strange being, in whom the rest of the public was so interested.
The man was trying to lure Jermaine further inside, to the point that he’d even give away his whole collection of Captain Carrot and his Amazing Zoo Crew if he purchased just one book. It was depressing. Jermaine wanted to smack some sense into him. The hotel lobby was filled with about four hundred people: fanboys with lightsabers and battleaxes and sonic screwdrivers, English fangirls in Japanese schoolgirl clothing, age-old scream queens in cheap corsets with terrible boob jobs and God knows how many facelifts, and another poor sap who had starred in one of the Saw pictures. There had been so many, Jermaine not only forgot the actor’s name but forgot which one.
Then, of course, there were the writers… Some retired, some semi-retired (which still meant retired). There were the Grandmasters, and in-between panels, they had to take their Geritol. There were the editors from the Age of the Flood, and they recounted tales of American Letters that had most people scratching their heads and thinking this all intoxicated drivel. One man in a King Arthur’s outfit drank from a chalice and read from “The Death of the Old Guard.” Industry heads disappeared upstairs to hotel rooms for hours. When they finally returned to the lobby, they said, “That felt great! I’ll see you next convention!”
There were also the newbies. Some weren’t published, some had a polished hand. They had set out once with their aspirations and their energies, like young untried actors in Hollywood, and they had a story to tell, and now here they were pitching it. Out of the two hundred or so of these fools who attended semi-regularly, only a dozen or so would go on to be anything. Now they were spending airfare and hotel fare to tell the ‘Holier Than Thou’ communities that they’ve constructed worlds, that they’ve created unforgettable characters, that they’ve got the ultimate trilogy! And now they were flaunting it, at agents, at publishers, who smiled and nodded respectfully: “Sounds terribly interesting. Don’t call us, we’ll call you.”
And then, Jermaine knew their secret, he knew what the whole attendance of the convention was doing that day. It was like a giant black hole swallowing everything up into a pile of computer-generated debris. At some point he stood stock-still and asked himself, “What the hell am I doing here?” He was doing what a few others were doing: standing or sitting apart thinking. Perhaps he was not alone after all. “I’m thinking while these other boobs are imagining that they’ve got a future or they’re having a good time. The only difference is I’m trying to make some sense of it.”
A significant silence followed.
Jermaine no longer asked himself what he was doing there. He frankly didn’t know, and he didn’t care anymore either. He swallowed his drink in one gulp. As a poor writer traveling from place to place, from editor to editor, from small publication to small publication, he discovered the world was seen from billions of varying vantage points. Or disadvantage points, depending upon each person and what they believed. His moment of failure just happened to come when he halted to ask himself what he was doing walking the floors of a particular convention.
He understood that writers were a sea at sea. This convention was a wave on the surface, and only the best of the best—thinkers, wordsmiths, folks with MFAs and top degrees—or those with the right connections managed to get down under a few feet. He tried to go under from time to time, but he didn’t see or feel much. More often than not he found himself drowning. He watched them at their work, for they were working at being productive and making money. Most were actually having a good time, and that might be sufficient, for they were toiling for the maws of a great beast called legacy.
He sought the opposite now.
Jermaine was suddenly alone at the bar, lost in his reflections. Those who had gathered about, talking with him, all at once received no answers. “I am just a mere hack,” he said, looking away shamefully, “you don’t want to know me.” After that, they sensed that the poor fellow was in deep thought, and they moved away.
Then a writer-editor he’d talked to on occasion approached. “So which is it this time?” he asked. “Science fiction, fantasy, horror, or that paranormal romance junk?”
Still looking down, Jermaine said, “I dabble.”
The writer-editor felt sorry for him. “What’s really bothering you, Jermaine?”
“Do I look distressed?”
“I’d say so.”
“I am. I have the feeling the gift is leaving me, the inspiration and gusto just dwindling away.” He smiled, knowing that such a verbal crime would provoke other writer-editors into a fury. “The thing is I kind of like the idea.”
“I don’t get it. Why, because of deadlines or you’re under strain?”
“Heh! What deadlines?” Jermaine laughed. “When I was a kid genre magazines used to do a lot for me. I’d buy handfuls of them. The moment a new issue hit the stands, I was there. I bought them so often that the act of reading short stories had some kind of impact on me. It comes back to me from time to time, of its own volition, when I’ve got writer’s block or I’m diddling my own asshole for a forty-dollar check. Sometimes, late at night I tell myself I don’t want to be famous and I put the computer away. Sometimes there’s no reason for this at all. That I can understand. Go figure.”
“That’s not the only thing,” he continued. “I thought it easy and satisfying work, for one thing. Lately I’ve got a feeling of monotony out of it. When my fingers grow tired of typing, I am seized with a great discomfort. I want to hurry outside and do other much livelier things. When the job is finished and the words THE END stamped, it often seems to me that my hands are still held out though. I could still feel the puppeteer looking down at me, face contorted and strings being pulled.”
“All writers get those urges from time to time, Jermaine. We call it the Need, or the Fix. There are many names, but no faces. We finish one story, we tackle the next.”
“Well, I’ve refused to go through it again! I’ve had a bitter argument with my conscience, and I’ve seen the light. Years and years of putting myself through this. At critical moments, the re-reflection of this pseudo-literary image of myself, typing out a manuscript, watching yet another zombie or vampire story unfold before my eyes. Sooner or later, the depression comes back. I saw myself staring at the genre as its prostrate enlarged. I saw my fingers curving, away from the keyboard over and around to the back door. And as I prepared to open it, I always felt the heaviness.”
“What’s the point?”
“The point is that the same heaviness is over me now, a fatigue with the critical process. As if the last yarn is spun. The artform comes back to me every now and then, but it is blurred, hasty, and it’s a jarring impression.” Jermaine hesitated, then: “With time I have begun to understand what each piece of the story, from page to page, means in my own life. It has become a twist from fear to stress, fear to stress, round and round. After each story I write, sometimes before the story, the prostrate gets bigger and the puppeteer laughs harder. Now I have the same feeling of monotony and pointlessness that pressed on me before the writing is done.”
“It’s an unpleasant image,” the writer-editor remarked with a consoling nod.
“It’s the key to me, my good man, it’s the key!”
“The genre is getting very big now.”
“Bloated would be a better word, but when you’ve worked in this business for as long as I have, what can you do?” The writer-editor reflected for a moment. “You know, now that I think about it, I don’t really know anything else either.”
They drank for a time. They were silent as they knocked down rounds. They were thoughtful. Then the writer-editor asked, “What I can’t understand is why you keep working and seem so anxious to get to work. I should think you’d be a little weary of the grind. Puppeteers and prostrates aside, do you know why you’re still writing?”
Jermaine gave him a look that concealed what he really thought. He thought, Real writers are not smart. Real writers are so goddamned blind and ignorant, it’s a fucking blessing. But he said, “It’s weird. I have to write. If I didn’t write it would all end at once. Writing is the root of a tree, and if you take away the root the thing on top will fall over. I’d fall over. So I write because I write. Whether I need the money or not. There is a thing we hacks call Keeping Afloat (and yes, with a capital K and a capital A). And you do it. You keep afloat. I keep afloat with the short stories; the short form is a bladder that holds me up. Maybe the only time I feel alive and dead is when I write.”
Some of it was true. The writing ruddered Jermaine, kept him afloat in the sea which shook more and more heavily these days. Writing was the stabilizer. He knew it, and like a twenty dollar a day drug addiction, he even escaped from himself when he wrote. But how long could he keep on at it. It was not salvation. And that was what he sought.
“So where do you go from here?” the writer-editor asked. “What now?”
“Peace of mind,” Jermaine answered.
“Ahh, now that’s impossible in this game. You and I both know that.”
“I don’t think so. I’ve been yearning for obscurity for quite some time now.”
“But what for?” The writer-editor was confused. “After your death you have the chance to be anthologized.”
“No, I don’t.”
“But your fiction will be archived.”
“No, it won’t.”
“But your work exists, and therefore it is.”
“No, it isn’t.”
The writer-editor was astonished. “Don’t let the Literary Police find out.”
“I could give a damn about Grammar Nazis!” Jermaine shouted.
The whole bar turned around; one Grandmaster spit up his drink.
“Sorry.” Jermaine began again. “I need to walk away from these writing organizations a new man. I need to turn my back on the politics and step down from these panels once and for all.”
“Through fiction, how else?” He snapped his fingers as if it were that easy. “Fiction got me into this mess, and it’ll get me out.”
“You must be some storyteller then. You know what’ll happen afterwards, don’t you?”
“Yes, I am fully aware of the consequences.”
The writer-editor shook his head worriedly. “Is this so-called salvation— Let me rephrase that, is this permanent anonymity really worth that much to you?”
“Where sanity is concerned, yes. It could also mean new growth!”
“But you yourself even said that if you didn’t write the thing on top of the tree would come plunging down!”
“And the moment I leave this convention, my good friend, I snap my fingers and reverse the polarity of my thoughts. Hopefully, it changes for the better. If it doesn’t, at least I tried.”
The writer-editor felt overly sentimental. He shook Jermaine’s hand and patted him on the back. “I wish you good luck in your new life. I only wish I had the balls to join you. But I’ve been in this field for over two decades. I don’t have anything else. I just have my words. Flinging myself into obscurity for some kind of deliverance would be too much of a risk on my well being.” He smiled. “I guess I lack the courage of a hack. At least let me buy you one for the road.”
When he finished the drink, the author said his goodbyes and headed for the hotel’s automatic sliding doors. He closed his eyes and inhaled a deep breath. He looked behind him very briefly… at the boys and girls wielding lightsabers and sonic screwdrivers… at the jolly attendees dressed in Vulcan ears and Viking’s armor… at the Grandmasters and Industry heads immersed in their readings.
Outside he whistled for a cab. A taxi pulled up directly in front of the building. He hopped inside. The cabbie grinned at Jermaine’s reflection in the mirror. “You look like a Jedi Knight in that blanket. A regular Obi Wan Kenobi.”
“I’ll give you an extra five bucks not to make any comments.”
The cabbie reset the meter. “So where to, old man?”
“Someplace far away.”
The taxi didn’t move. “Where exactly? You’re the author of this tale.”
Jermaine stared out the passenger side window and into the hotel lobby. All the big writers danced outside the convention hall: wonder and uncertainty, progress and decline. The bewitcheries of status, ambition, success and poverty rose from their voices. The goods and evils of the human competition, the demonology of lives spent, misspent, the mystique of literature’s disorder and hope. Fear of the new, dread of the old. They were like witches celebrating a Sabbath of chopped-up modern catechisms.
Finally the hack turned around. He was beaming, his big handsome smile, the one that had won the hearts of amateurs everywhere. “A place called obscurity. Now step on it.”