By Nathaniel Kressen
Got the the point I didn’t care about taste. I scarcely tracked minutes, hours, days anymore. Couldn’t be bothered. The royalties were pouring in and I was considered a genius in both hemispheres. Studied in classrooms. Speculated about in the media. The sun appeared at times, vanished at others. It did not concern me nor constitute a pattern. Only exquisite glass corpses did, their shapely hollow frames lining the linoleum and threatening to break underfoot. For all my faults, I could still count.
The typewriter was employed often, but only sober. I had long discovered that the click did nothing to aid creativity, only escape. When I felt the need to make something of substance, I ceased my pastime long enough to revisit the enterprise of my youth. Upon finishing a passage, I became convinced of its worthlessness. I reached for the propane and threatened to light the whole dank house on fire. It would catch despite the rot, I was sure of it. I would make it catch.
Assorted ailments had quickened my temper, but slowed my ability to act on it. The fires were never lit. The three room shithole remained standing. The clumsy feet below my arthritic knees walked the pages to the safe, dial spinning and regretfully finding the correct numbers. From inside, one could hear the completed manuscripts howl at their constriction. I had needed a bigger safe for more than a year, but rarely made it past the bottle shop in town before returning home again. I wanted to shove new material in there haphazardly. Crumple it into weird contortions. Rip it right through the middle of those contrived, dead metaphors.
One sun-up, after the latest supply of bottles had been exhausted, after I refueled the truck by hand, after I had eased into the driver’s seat and cued the ignition, the itch landed. I froze, staring past the windshield to the inexhaustible flatland soil, wishing I could leave my former self behind. The click was less than an hour away, travel time all told. I kidded myself that I could simply rev the engine and the desire for release would take over. It took a five minutes’ debate before I switched the car off and made my way back inside.
The itch was a woman. Eyes bloodshot and heavy, much too young to hold such fatigue. I had met her once, I was sure of it. Perhaps we’d been married. Perhaps she’d spoken to the press and I’d drafted her obituary. Perhaps she never appeared anywhere except the page as I invented her, using her body as a weapon against a man who at the time still attempted compassion.
The pages refused to fit. The safe had to be bought. I bound them with fishing line and hid them in the ceiling behind the shotgun.
The ride into town was filled with the stench of mildew from the previous week’s rain. A storm had rolled in during an exceptional riff on bourbon. Drinking can resemble jazz, if one is willing to put in the practice.
I parked in front of the shuttered bank. Residents knew to avoid eye contact. It was the fans that caused problems. I walked through a small pack of them consulting a map outside the drugstore. They had gone so far as to have the image of my first novel silkscreened onto their shirts. I was grateful for the beard, a recent addition. Recent by way of a decade or so. Many bottles. It had reduced run-ins considerably.
I forced myself to pursue the safe first. In twenty minutes I had unintentionally reduced the home appliance manager to hysterics by detailing the ineptitude of modern day manufacturing. The safes on display were light as plastic. One could have kicked them open, if he were in a state that only gradually revealed pain. I was escorted to a back room and shown an old model. The same one he still used to hold the store’s deposits. Or so I was told. He disregarded my request to see the funds myself.
In another twenty minutes I loaded three cases of cheap whiskey onto the flatbed. The store owner had included a bottle of top shelf bourbon to go with the rest. He’d worked there long enough to recall the years when I’d taken great care in choosing my alcohol.
The benefit of infertile acreage is there are no crops to block your vision. You know immediately when your land’s been intruded upon. I nonetheless headed straight for the house, knowing the road ended just beyond in a secluded field.
They’d had the sense to face their car back toward town. I parked in front, preventing easy retreat. I climbed out of the truck and stood listening. The hood was warm. There were maps. Satchels. I scanned for footprints but that unforgiving ground yielded nothing. I pulled the knife from my belt and slashed each tire in turn.
Men fail to understand the phenomena of losing virginity from the female’s perspective. I will not presume to articulate it here. However, if I did, it might resemble the feeling one has when his home is breached, his few possessions moved about, and his private work stolen to be enjoyed by someone else’s hands. I stared at the safe relieved of one of its manuscripts, grateful I had not yet pocketed the knife.
There was movement in the backroom. The sound of wind. I fetched the gun from the ceiling and walked out the front. Sure enough, bodies started spilling out my window. The fans from town, in their tee-shirts. I shot a round in the air. They scurried as field mice scurry. I followed the one with the manuscript.
He turned out to be the driver, and I confess it gave me joy to see him realize the car was undriveable. They clumsily rolled to a halt in reverse, then baled and headed down the dead-end on foot, manuscript still in tow. I got into the truck and drove after them.
It was a farce, watching them speed toward the vacant horizon. At last they reassembled and stopped. I caught eyes with the one holding the pages, and suddenly longed for the whiskey in back. Out of reach and out of time, I muttered.
We’re sorry! the only girl yelled. The boys on either side of her nodded furiously.
I kept walking.
My name’s Jack Coleman! the one with the pages yelled.
I kept walking, gun swinging.
The, the narrator! In your book! I –
God given or changed? I barked.
He looked confused.
Your name, I said, raising the shotgun.
My, my, my –
Maybe you start with why you’re holding those.
Your work! the girl interjected. It meant so much to us. And we thought, if we could help you get published again, maybe –
You’re going to help me?
Her smile faded.
Break into my home. Break into my safe –
It was open! she said.
I shifted the gun so it was pointing at her.
It was! When we knocked, the door was open, the safe!
I thought a second to the morning’s hangover. I’d finished the pages on the woman. There’d been no room in the safe. I hid them in the ceiling, and –
You can’t do this, the last one said, breaking his silence.
Is that piss running down your leg? I called out.
He shut back up.
My name’s John, the first one said, head bowed to his chest. John Coleman. But your book –
I don’t need to hear about my book. I wrote it.
It saved my life.
You and your friends and a thousand others.
More than a thousand.
Here’s what’s going to happen. You’re going to put those pages in my truck. You’re going wipe whatever dirt you got on them and you’re going to put them on the truck. Then you’re going to walk. All the way. Back to town.
What about the car? asked piss-boy.
What about it?
I walked to the side, giving them a clear path to the flatbed. As I watched them move, I suddenly got paranoid they’d try to rush me. I’d spent the last round on the warning shot by the window.
The pages hit the flatbed. The girl looked back at me. I couldn’t stand the look in her eyes. Bloodshot and heavy. Too young to hold such fatigue. I hated her for the wasting of youth on words, for the audacity of believing one person could help another, for the myth that I was a saint on earth, merely because of a book written when I had been in ignorance of world.
I raised the gun a final time.
And when you get back, you tell all your little friends that I shot you.
I pulled the trigger, and a thunderclap threw me backward.
The girl collapsed against the truck and her boys fell on top of her. I ran for what must have been the first time in years to check the damage. The one who’d stolen the pages retreated. Piss-boy stood his ground. Most of the shot had flown past her, but what landed had caught her inches above the heart.
Piss-boy shoved me backward and shouted indecipherably. I felt a swell of envy at his passion, at his concern for his friend.
Suddenly I was watching the rear of my truck speeding away, new safe weighing down the flatbed. In my hands I found the expensive bottle of bourbon, the stolen manuscript, and a bloodied copy of my first novel that had fallen from the girl’s hooded sweatshirt.
I sat where I stood, sickened that I had slowed their getaway long enough to fetch a bottle from the back. In the hours before the police arrived, I re-read my book for perhaps the first time since publication. I was amazed at its effortlessness. At its simplicity. At its heart. I could hardly remember writing it, and for a brief moment considered whether or not I had.
The dusk fell as I reached the final chapter. In the air I saw the ghosts of killed bottles with blood red x’s struck through. I treasured the unopened bourbon at my side. It offered all the possibilities of a quality click.
Nathaniel Kressen is the author of two novels – Dahlia Cassandra (published June 2016) and Concrete Fever (Bestseller, Strand Book Store). His work can be found at nathanielkressen.com and secondskinbooks.com.
Artwork by Nathaniel Kressen.