Eulogies and Epitaphs

Posted: October 15, 2011 in Uncategorized

This story was an extra-credit assigment I handed into my professor. My writing experience tells me that some editor would grab this up and publish it, but you never know. It’s the kind of story I love writing most.

***************

Eulogies and epitaphs

Some things are sweeter than
honey, more luscious than life, and they come in the form of dreams. At any
moment someone might walk through the door and enter your life, someone that
doesn’t even exist but on paper, and that someone has the power to change your
life.

Such was the case when Fred
entered the diner at exactly six o’clock on a Wednesday morning. He didn’t
exist except on paper, from a story I’d written for class. The instructor had us
set a fictional scene in which we’d meet our character at a diner, talk things
over with him and then write it down. The thing was this was a dream, the kind in
which the things that make absolutely no sense in reality make perfect sense in
the dream, like dancing rainbows or flying pigs. Sometimes life’s best lessons
come in unconscious absurdity, because that is the only time we let our guard
down long enough to swallow truth’s jagged little pill.

I knew who he was immediately from
the lines on his face. Each wrinkle told a morose story, a sad tale of never having
belonged anywhere, of never having fit in. I’d created him, but while sitting
at the booth near the window, I felt that I had it all wrong; maybe in some
measure he had created me. And then I had to ask myself, do we create our
fictional characters or do they create us? Does reality pour forth from books
and novels, or do we pump emotional truth into our fiction? And does the best
fiction have some affect on reality, such as the internet and cell phones
having first existed in the form of the written word?

Our eyes met and he knew exactly
who I was. I could tell by the slight smile, the illumination filling those
rheumy eyes. He ambled precariously over to my table, favoring his hip, and he
waved me back down when I tried to stand. I was uncomfortable because I’d never
met one of my fictional characters before. What was I supposed to say? Thanks
for agreeing to this interview? How the hell would we pull this off?

He sat down and the waitress appeared,
like one of those actresses off that seventies television program. Flo said her
nametag. Her yellow uniform contrasted against the beige walls, and she held a
green pad of paper.

“Coffee,” Fred said. “Black.”

“Just the way I like it,” I said.

Fred smiled as if he knew a
secret, and maybe he did. The unease I felt increased, as if something were
sliding up the back of my spine, a chill or slithering shadows. I looked behind
me but only saw the backside of the waitress as she walked back to the kitchen
with our order.

“So… you have some questions for
me, son?”

This interview was happening too
fast. It was too life-life, less of a dream, which made it disconcerting. If
this was a dream, then why did Fred already have a cup of coffee before him?
Why was the spoon he was using to swirl ice around in his coffee clang loud
like the tines of bells?

“The ice cools it down enough—”

“—I know,” I interrupted. “You
can’t drink it when it’s hot.”

Like me, I thought, as I realized
a cup of coffee was before me and I was doing the same cooling measure Fred
was, stirring cubes of ice from my water class into the thick liquid. The scent
of caffeine filled the air, mingling with the clank of sterling silver on
ceramic glass. The waitress’s perfume lingered like the seventies TV show,
almost forgotten but still there just the same. The entire setting seemed
dated, running backwards in time.

“Perfect place for an interview,”
Fred said.

“Yeah,” I said, without
conviction. “Nice… décor.”

Fred chuckled.

“What’s so funny?” I asked.

“The fact that you killed me in
your story, yet here I am.” He gestured with upraised palms. “Here we are.”

The waitress took our coffee cups
away, and I realized that she was part of the dream, like a looping event,
constantly refilling our cups and taking them away, without us barely getting
to sip the hot liquid before she took it away or brought fresh coffee.

A bit weird, but I could get used
to that, because this was one of those dreams that occurred halfway between
sleep and consciousness. I felt the pressure of the pillow behind my head,
heard my wife snoring next to me, so I knew I was asleep. But a part of me was
awake, in this semi-liquid state of quasi-consciousness, locked partway between
being fully awake and completely asleep, a realm of dreams in which anything
could happen, where just enough reality poured in like cement, until sounds and
colors hardened with a vividness that life never possessed.

I ignored my wife’s snores and
they dissipated into the sound of a large semi-tractor trailer rumbling down
the road… going… going… gone—and all that was left now was Fred sitting across
from me, trying to take a sip of his coffee before the waitress returned in
this dream that was not a dream.

“Here she comes now,” I warned.

“Better hurry up and take a sip,”
Fred said.

“Why can’t she just leave us
alone?”

“It’s part of the reason we’re
here, son.”

I raised my eyebrows and almost
laughed at my quizzical reflection in the window’s reflection beside Fred’s
head. Fred grinned as if he understood exactly where I was coming from. He
reached for his coffee mug but the waitress removed it before contact.

“Damn it all to hell,” he said.
“Just like life: you think you’re going to get a little moment of peace and
rest, then here comes life.”

“Here comes life,” I repeated, writing it down, wondering where the notebook and pen had
come from.  “So… the waitress represents
life like a metaphor—”

“It’s best if you don’t try to
understand it right now, son.” Fred took a sip of the coffee the waitress had
just set down, enjoying it immensely from the expression on his face. “Just
write it all out, let it flow… like a story or the drip, drip, drip of percolating coffee.”

He laughed at his own joke. Or was
his humor a metaphor, too?

I was beginning to understand that
this was as much an interview with myself as it was with my character. In that
semi-conscious state I wondered what time it was, realizing I had to get up and
off to school by a certain time—had I set my clock correctly the night before,
I wondered?—and I began to worry.

When I looked at the wall clock it
read six o’clock, the same time Fred had entered the diner.

“That’s impossible.”

“What is?” Fred followed my gaze
and read the clock. “I stopped it.”

“What?” I laughed, nervous. “You
stopped the clock? Or you stopped time?”

Suddenly the noises in the diner
intensified: the clanging of Fred’s spoon on the side of the ceramic cup, the
same beige as the drab walls; the conversations of other patrons filling the
room; the sizzle of eggs and bacon from the open window revealing the kitchen.
And such wonderful scents! I became hungry, my stomach growling as I thought of
hot buttered rolls and thick, rich coffee. The tempting goodness of syrup
licked the air, contrasting with the bitter twang of coffee Flo had just set
down before me.

“Such is life,” I said, feeling my
rumbling belly and realizing that no matter how much I ate or drank, I would
never be satisfied, not for long.

“You’re catching on, son.”

“In my story you never fit in,
never belonged to anyone or anywhere,” I cut in, intending to take control of
the interview. That was the number one rule: never let the interviewee control
the interview.

“How do you know it’s your story?”
Fred asked.

“What?” I was about to say something
that was on the tip of my tongue, like peripheral memory, almost a tangible
thought, an almost-question, but I lost it in the confusion. “What are you
talking about, Fred?”

“Don’t you think it’s my story?”
Fred asked. “After all, you’re not in the story. You don’t appear once. But I do.”
Fred brushed aside a wisp of gray hair that had fallen over his brow. “So
shouldn’t we say it’s my story?”

“Okay, YOUR story.” My words came fast and clipped, angry because already
I was losing control of the interview with a person that didn’t even exist.
“Whatever.”

I looked at the clock and it read
a quarter after six. But as I watched, the minutes-hand slid backwards until it
rested on the twelve. I was locked
between wakefulness and sleep, where anything could happen and often did. Flo
came back with another round of coffee. This time I was ready, having gotten
used to my strange surroundings, and I drank as fast I could before she took it
away again.

“Now you’re learning. You’ve got
to breathe it in when it’s there, and be content when it’s not.”

“About your story… ” I said, trying
to take control again. “You never fit in anywhere in your story.”

“I didn’t write that,” Fred said.
“You did.”

“But it’s your story.”

“How do you know it’s not your story, son?”

“Because I’m not in it. That’s
what you said, remember?”

“Doesn’t matter what I say; I’m just
a fictional character.”

“Damn it!” I pushed my coffee
away. “Why doesn’t anything work out the way I plan? I’m just trying to get this assignment done for
class, and you want to go all Socrates on me with philosophy.”

“Maybe that’s what makes for a
good story, son. Asking questions that others want to know.”

“Do readers want questions?” I
wondered aloud.

“Do they want them answered?” Fred
offered.

The interview was turning back
onto myself again, and I realized I’d already lost control a long time ago, and
not just with the interview; I’d lost control of life and love and all my hopes
and dreams; I’d let hope slip away for the sake of beautiful women with blond
hair, sacrificing my heart’s desires and offering my power to others who,
eventually, deserted me. Wasn’t my life the exact replication of what was
happening in the diner, with Flo giving us what was desired then removing it
before satisfaction?

Something was wrong. Suddenly I
wanted to wake up, to run out of the diner as fast I could and head back to
reality where I had convinced myself that I was fully in control. I strained to
hear my wife’s snoring—she always snored—and soon the rumble of a diesel engine
grumbled outside the diner. I was going to wake up and write this assignment,
put thought to paper and be done with it—damn it!

“Not so fast,” Fred said, and the reality’s
rumble dissipated like fading dreams once remembered but quickly forgotten.
“We’re not done here.”

An icy hand touched my shoulder
and I remembered Edna from my story, Fred’s wife who, although deceased, still
spoke to him. You need to listen to Fred,
dear,
her words slithered into my mind, and I realized that in this half-dream
and half-wakefulness anything could happen, that ghosts could manifest, could
whisper things into my mind exactly as I had Edna whisper dark things into
Fred’s mind while writing my story—HIS story,
I mean.

I jumped up, but immediately I was
sitting again as if I hadn’t moved, and here came Flo with another round of
black ichor, the remnants swishing around and slithering up the sides of the
ceramic cups she set on the table. The coffee had changed, had become like life
at the end: old age and withered skin and aching joints; rheumy eyes and
failing health; funeral plans and coffins and, at the very last, the embalmer
filling our veins with eternal illusion.

“Make it stop,” I whispered.
“Please.” I wasn’t in control anymore—not that I ever was—but this made it
worse, this dream that wasn’t a dream. “Make this dream or story—or whatever it
is—stop.”

“It’s not my story, son. It’s not
yours, either. It’s our story; we
tell it together. That’s why you can’t wake until we both get to the end.”

“But this is an interview, not a
story.”

That’s what you think, Edna whispered behind me.

I turned around but saw only Flo’s
hips sashaying back and forth as she carried our coffee back into the kitchen.
I wondered what went on in there, where all those luscious scents and sizzling
sounds emanated from. But the rumble of a diesel engine grew louder, and I felt
myself beginning to wake.

“We don’t have much time, son.”

Why did he always have to call me son? Did he feel a need to rub in the
fact that he was older and presumably wiser?

“Much time for what, pops?” I
countered, trying to take another stab at control.

Immediately I felt bad for saying pops. Fred had never fit in anywhere in
his life, and here I was ostracizing him by calling him pops, by exposing his weakness.

“Or is it YOUR character weakness?” Fred asked. “Maybe you took your
weaknesses and filled me with them.”

Was he reading my mind? And why
not? After all, he had crawled from my subconscious where I was conscious of
nothing, had slithered like primordial ooze through my typing fingers onto the
computer screen where he’d been created. Fred knew more about me than I knew
about myself. And now he was asking whether I injected him with my own
weakness.

How dare he!

“I thought this was your story, Fred. So it has to be your
weakness.”

“Our story, son. Our weakness.”

“Whatever.”

Mine, too, Edna whispered, her voice growing fainter. It’s my story, too.

Maybe it was all of our weaknesses,
all of our stories: Fred and Edna and me. Maybe we all got involved and took
control, writing the story to let our emotional truths out, exposing our
shortcomings and flaws, revealing our fears and longings and—

Edna sat beside me, solidifying
her substance into a corporeal bag of flesh and blood. She smiled and the chill
of the grave wafted out like breath, slapping my face. Fred grinned at the
waitress who asked, “Will there be anything else?” Before I could respond, the
waitress took the tip that I couldn’t remember putting down.

“It wasn’t supposed to be like
this,” I said, indicating the interview and life and death and everything
in-between. “It wasn’t supposed to be like this at all.”

Edna laughed and the chill of the
grave intensified. I felt earth worms moving in the ground around her coffin,
wherever her body rested. The chill of dank earth and the scent of soil filled
my nostrils. Dark and secretive things moved in the deep earth, moved and
devoured.

“Make it stop,” I whispered, but
like life and death the dream never stopped, because we never had any control
anyway. We only told ourselves we did.

Flo brought more coffee and the
rumbling diesel engine grew louder. Fred mentioned something about not having
much time again, and Edna’s form thickened and congealed like the fear growing
in the pit of my stomach.

I had to get out, had to move
fast. I stood but Flo blocked my exit from the booth. I shoved her and
immediately found myself sitting in the booth again, with Flo setting down a
cup of steaming coffee and Fred shaking his head with a forlorn expression as
if I had just betrayed him.

“What is it that you want?” I
shouted at Fred, I shouted at them all. The patrons looked at me as I stood,
and Fred and Edna and Flo just laughed. “Just what the hell do you people want?”

“What is it that YOU want, son?” Fred asked. “When you’re
writing stories and ruining the lives of your characters and hurting them like
you hurt Edna and me, what the hell is it you really want?”

“I don’t know,” I admitted. “I
just don’t know.”

“Just tell us what it is you really
want, dear,” Edna said, her voice loud and her body fully tangible.

“To write… simply to write,” I
said. “What else is there?”

“To live on through your fiction,”
Fred said.

“To live and never die in the
minds of others,” Edna offered.

“Each character in your fiction,”
Fred said, “each minor person who dies, lives on in the minds of the readers, and
thus they never die.”

“None of us do,” Edna said with a
smile. “Even when you kill us off.”

“Except for you,” Fred said.
“You’re going to die, John.”

The rumbling of the engine grew
louder, shook the window beside the booth. The table vibrated and spoons
wiggled. Ripples circled within the coffee mugs, rippled outward from the coffee
and spread throughout reality, spiraling outward with truth. And the truth was
that my characters might possibly never die, not if they lived on in the minds
of others.

But me?

I was going to die. The finality
of the situation grew louder, like the rumbling of the diesel looming closer.
The spoons bounced on the table and the window cracked. The minute-hand on the
clock spun around faster and faster as life slipped away like seconds and
minutes and hours bleeding into eternity. Time was slipping away with each
story I wrote, with each word spoken and each day lived.

I was going to die… !

It was through my characters that
I wanted to live on and be remembered. It was through the death of Fred and
Edna that I hoped that I would continue to exist in the minds of others.

How ironic to use death in order
to live, to use fiction for truth, and to write words in order to replace
reality’s illusion. Or was that merely wishful thinking?

Suddenly the rumbling grew louder
and I awoke. My wife’s snores filled the bedroom, the smell of sleep saturating
the air. The warmth of coziness oozed over my body, but I forced myself up into
the darkness with a gasp. It was a half hour before the alarm was set to go off
at six o’clock. Gradually, I calmed down. All
a dream… that’s all.
My breathing returned to normal and I wiped sweat from
my brow.

The scent of coffee lured me toward
the kitchen. My wife mumbled something in her sleep, the diesel engine almost
forgotten.

I sat at the kitchen table, a
ceramic mug of steaming coffee in hand, voraciously hungry. But hungry for
breakfast or hungry for life? I heard the alarm go off and then it died. Had I
been sitting there an entire half-hour?

A few minutes later my wife moved
into the kitchen past Fred who sat across from me. She didn’t see him, but that
was okay because he existed only for me, a fantasy come to life, a character I
had breathed life into. He had been created piecemeal from portions of myself
and others, cemented together by my own emotional truth. Fred existed only for
me and no one else, unless they let Fred into their minds by reading my
fiction.

Did you enjoy the interview? Fred asked.

I grinned. My wife asked what I
was grinning at and I cleared my throat.

“Just waking up, honey.”

She poured herself a cup of coffee
and sat down in the same exact spot that Edna was sitting; Edna and my wife
occupied the same space. When did the dream end and reality begin?

“I understand,” I told them all,
but my wife only knew I spoke to her.

“Understand what, honey?” she
said.

Edna and Fred reached across the
table and held hands. I did the same with my wife. Arms crossing dimensions,
hands from different worlds, clasped on one table in one time and space; the
dream bled into reality, or maybe reality bled into the fantasy. Regardless, we
were all there, in one place and under one roof. Together, with our arms
crossing over and through each other as we held hands with our partners.

“My stories aren’t just
expressions of who I am,” I answered my wife. “They’re eulogies.”

“What does that mean?”

I shook my head. “Never mind.”

Some things were best left
unexplained. How could I explain that Fred and Edna were with us although I’d
killed them off? How could I tell her that each story I penned was nothing more
than a tombstone, the words nothing more than epitaphs etched into the mind of
others. But only if I sold those stories, only if others actually read them.

An image of a solitary tombstone
came to mind. It rested on a grassy hill, and no one knew it was there, no one
ever read its words or knew who was buried there. When I looked around the
table, Fred and Edna were gone, and only my wife remained.

I squeezed her hand tighter.

 

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Comments
  1. The topic is good and its all about what you think in the whole day of your life and its related to every common people.

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