a short story
Gary Baker, July 2013
(based closely on a lucid dream)
Five consecutive years of blogging; ten works published by various degree here or there in some, admittedly triflous, public forums; two years work in freelance for tribunals ranging from Who’s That? to The Series, Quarterly; and a wonderful, dare I say it, wonderful expanse of more than seventy-two short stories all self-published and edited by oneself.” The man in the business suit across from me lifted his eyes from the off-white pages held aloft in his hand, to watch me with a glimmer of a smirk. “Not to mention, my boy, three versions of this very moment, all unique and each subliminal as Tabasco sauce in angel food cake, I might say.”
I squirmed in my seat, an overly-tall leather swivel chair meant to make a man or woman of any age feel like a child in the principal's office again. My hands gripped tighter together and I felt beads of sweat dribble down my spine to soak into the tail of my shirt tucked into my pressed slacks.
Suddenly he dropped the pages to his desk and leaned back to stare ominously into my eyes. His gaze boring holes like a termite on a feeding frenzy. The mood of the room, however, more closely resembled such a sight involving antelope crossing a deep gorge filled with vivacious crocodiles.
“So tell me, boy,” he began, finally addressing me as something more than an observer, more than a witness to my own plea bargain for death, “what reason have we to accept your application into this esteemed institution?”
I hesitated, believing this a question posed for fun. The hint of a smile appeared at my cheeks before I could stop myself, so I cleared my throat to cover it up as much as I could. “Perhaps what you are asking is better answered by looking back over what it was that you just read... sir?”
“Hum, yes.” He brought slim reading glasses to his nose, indicating the possibility of him having memorized the feats listed upon my transcript. “So very many qualities that we openly seek, and yet,” he reached over and lifted a second pile of papers from the left side of his desk, “it seems to say here that there also comes a risk of failure.” He looked to me from over the rims of his glasses, his head tilted to become parallel with the new pages, “a big risk, mind you.”
He dropped his gaze back to the new pile again and read aloud once more. “Three years to one when compared with the general time it takes for the average student to complete two semesters of classes, the average being the latter of the two; a six-to-one ratio of classes taken beginning to end versus dropping out of midway, while the average student holds such numbers at closer to ten-to-one at the very, very lowest; seven complete failures in the course of seven semesters, with an average of one class per semester having been failed; and, finally, a persistence in taking courses with haphazard aim, very seldom even correlating to the major listed on file.”
He dropped the new pile beside the old and leaned back into the chair slowly, speculatively. “So again, I ask: what reason have we to accept your application, my boy?”
I stammered. They weren't supposed to have that much on me. It made sense, but it seemed beyond the limits of privacy concerns and the like; a virtual Orwellian intrusion into the very core of who I was in the colleges concern. “Well,” I paused, mentally watching as a bead of condensation walked its way down my nose with the pace of a Sunday driver in beautiful back country, “because of my drive. If you would just look closely at my reputation for writing, you would see that such a craft is all I do. I mean, sure I have some failing grades here and there, and a tendency to drop out more than most people, but you can clearly see that it has been because of having gotten into another idea that fixates in my mind and takes over my life.”
As I trailed off, feeling like I had spoken too much, he sized me up in the way a cattle herder would appraise a new addition to his herd. I might as well have been an urn removed from the ruins of a monolithic temple, and he the museum curator deciding if I would be displayed on the main floor or left down in the basement.
“Yes, but your writing is crap. Plain and simple.” He leaned onto his elbows as my blood boiled and my skin went pale. “You try too hard to be poetic and it comes off corny and obviously young-witted. You never stay with one topic for long, instead flitting from one to the next like a bee in the field. Your punctuation lacks, your word choice overburdens, your ideas... well lets just say they bore the readers, making them feel like you've turned the tables and made them your therapist -- and believe me, you need one.”
“But isn't that the point?” I whispered suddenly, almost to myself. “To take the initiative that I already have and turn it into greatness through instruction and further molding by those who have done it already? Isn't that the entire reason for colleges in this day and age?”
He smirked, then. His ivy-league, holier-than-thou idea of human ranking apparent as he lifted his chin to watch me from over the end of his nose. It was like talking to a man so in-touch with the universe that everything held hidden meanings and effects that he, alone, could see and understand. “Good point, I’ll give you that.”
I exhaled with relief. I hadn't expected any concessions ever since the outright refusal to accept my life’s work as anything to have striven for, and this solitary moment gave me the chance to hope for a better outcome.
“...that doesn't mean to stop there,” he motioned impatiently with a relaxed hand. “I want to hear what else you have to say for yourself. How might your persuade me? After all, should you be accepted, you will be writing such essays more often than not.”
I brought my eyes to his own, facing him down with apt vehemence that startled even myself. “No I won’t. I write stories, be they truth or otherwise, but I do not write essays. Essays involve the wish to change, to adhere the environment in which they are intended into standards felt to be currently under par. I don’t do that.”
“But is not a story, even one of fantasy and supreme surrealism, an example of just that? Of a need to write where others might better decipher the change at hand, whence embedded in colloquialisms and sub-contexts such that any who read it might find ultimately altered ideals?”
I sighed and stood, ready to leave. I was done; there was no further point in arguing with him. He’d made up his mind about me long ago.
I was turning away when the last glimmer of reciprocating what I held deep within rose out unexpectedly. “No,” I grit my teeth and turned back toward him, ready to bear my whole inner truth, “a story is not meant to change or alter at all, but to express the awe over that which only human minds can comprehend in its entirety. Inspiration is an unreal force, brought about by preliminary creation and subsequent creation thereafter, and yet it pulses all around us like nothing anyone can ever imagine. Trying to take that force, something so totally human and existentially tied to the prospect of our kind surviving into unknown ages, is like taming a rabid lion with nothing but a blunted pencil.” I lifted my hands off the back of the chair that I had so previously been sitting in and thrust them into my pockets. “The story is the outlet of that experience, where none but writers understand how to fully grasp the events that have taken place and turn them into words on a page without leaving anything out.”
While he watched me with eyes of a hawk, I pressed on, knowing I had very little time in which to fully explain myself. “That’s why I want to come here, of all places, sir. I strive to find that connection which eludes me. I may not be the worlds greatest writer nor storyteller, but this is so because I still have not yet found the combinations and paths which I can take to better explain that battle.”
At that I turned and left the room, passing through the large, unnecessarily thick oak doors and then the man’s secretary at her polished desk just outside his office. I heard the sound of her phone ringing, of her polite replies indicating subservient behaviors that I felt odd for still existing in the workplace, and then of the wheels of her chair squeaking as she stood up. Undoubtedly she had been sent to retrieve the next victim, to undermine their confidence and sell them short of anything they felt was their right to achieve.
And then I felt a dainty finger tap my shoulder and paused in mid stride.
“Thank you, Mr Valiant,” she sighed as I turned to face her, unsure of what exactly was going on. “Although next time I would appreciate not being ignored so much.”
She was younger than I had expected, having not paid much attention earlier as she had brought me into my torture. Her crystal blue eyes hinted of green toward her pupils and slim reading glasses had been set at the tip of her nose where she could easily see over them when needed.
It was like talking to my librarian from grade school all over again.
“Sorry,” I mumbled, “wasn't expecting anyone to speak to me after....” I trailed off to avoid bringing the scene back to mind; not exactly something I wanted to bear at the forefront again. “But what do you mean by 'next time', anyways?”
She grinned then, as though I’d missed something entirely. “He wants to speak with you, Mr Valiant. You fled his office before he could finish.”
The frown appeared on my face before I could stop it. “Then tell him to find someone else to torment. I’m done being told that what I do, that who I am, is worth nothing. If I wasn't accepted, why not just send me a letter instead of making me believe that, by the meeting even taking place, I was?”
She pursed her maroon lips and tapped one finger against her jawbone. “But that’s just it, Mr Valiant, your acceptance letter was sent out -- early this morning, actually -- but that meeting was merely to judge how high of a level to place you into when you start.” Again she smirked. "And it looks like you ranked quite high, indeed."
Suddenly my skin was sheet white again and my blood boiling.
This had to be a joke. It couldn't be real.
“Um,” my jaw hit the floor and I struggled to find the right words to express the chaotic maelstrom going on in my head, “...say what?”