All the Golden Lands Ahead

All the Golden Lands Ahead - Jacob Hadley
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I


           “So, how’s it coming?”
           “Y’ know, I don’t like to think about it as a work-in-progress, but more like a masterpiece unfolding and revealing itself one piece at a time.”
           “Yeah, that’s bullshit. How many pages? Give me a nice, round number.”
           “Fifty.”
           “I’m flabbergasted! Fifty pages in just as many days.”
           “No, words. Fifty words. On half a dozen or so post-it notes. I’m working on consolidating them, though.”
           “Son of a--. The last time you published, I still had more hair on my head than my back and had to flip my phone open to take a call.”
           “That’s a damn lie! There was that short story in The New Yorker. Helluva piece, too. Besides, how many times have I told you, Pete! This can’t be rushed! It’s a--”
           “Yeah, I know Harry, it’s a process. A damn long one. Like a vasectomy with a swiss army knife. Well, regardless of this “artistic process” bullshit, Random House is itching for a new bestseller and you owe them one more book. So, brew some of that dark roast and get to typing.”
           “Wonder what it’s like in the simple little chrome dome of yours.”
           “All right, you’ve got an unfurling masterpiece to attend to.”
           Click.
           Harry Kingsley laid his phone next to his Olympia, a blank piece of paper--reflecting his mental incapacity--loaded into the machine. He knew Pete was right, that as a writer he must do just that, write. But ever since his wife, Lizzie, had left him, he could hardly stand to look at pen and paper, let alone connect the two. He told her time and time again that a child would only slow his process, freeze the cogs of creativity, and now that she was gone, he couldn’t write a damn thing. Harry never truly believed in writer’s block. He always considered it a lazy myth fabricated by some “tortured artist” who was nothing more than a drunk with a typewriter, a miserable pseudo-intellectual that could only express a creative thought when he felt the musings of literary creation enter his body, usually brought on by some very potent whiskey. But that was all just bullshit to Harry. Well, not the whiskey part, seeing as he did some of his best work slightly tipsy. And with Lizzie out of the picture, he didn’t see a purpose in his writing. Each and every sentence he put on paper he crafted with the sole intent of wooing his nitpicking muse. She read each tale he wove before anyone, even before his agent, Pete, and never sugarcoated her brutal criticism.
           Harry often imagined how his favorite writers coped. Did those men and women who mesmerized him with their stories ever encounter such an obstacle? He tried to imagine Steinbeck sitting in front of his Hermes (he saw it in a magazine once), cracking his knuckles, setting his hands on the keys, and not being able to write a damn thing. Surely Kate Chopin didn’t challenge the gender roles of nineteenth-century society without the occasional creative roadblock? What the hell did they do at times like these, when the creative juices turned sour and the keys on their typewriter began to rust? Wouldn’t you like to know, Harry thought. He met Kurt Vonnegut once at a showing of his play Penelope. Well, he didn’t exactly meet him, per se. Fifteen at the time, his parents had forced him to go to the play, thankfully, as it would turn out, and Vonnegut was in attendance, eager to hear his words resonate throughout the theater. He was wandering about the lobby after the play and asked Harry what he thought of the show. It wasn’t until later, when he saw Vonnegut’s picture on a book cover, that he realized he had, in fact, spoken to the man who spurred his own fascination with the written word. What he wouldn’t give for the chance to go back and make that conversation count, to ask just one question.
           The weeks after the incident, when he wasn’t viciously cursing himself, he formulated the perfect question for the curly-haired author. He would look Kurt Vonnegut square in the face and ask, “Who do you write for?” That question accompanied each sentence he put on paper, and it wasn’t until Lizzie’s departure that he truly had an answer. As a writer, he never wrote for the audience, not even the editors or the critics. All that was simply background noise, just static that drove him bonkers every time he thought about it. And now that the person he wrote for didn’t give a damn about him, he had no guide.
           So, as Harry Kingsley sat in his oak armchair and gazed at the typewriter before him, he felt the sudden, undeniable urge to read, to pull a book off his dusty bookshelf and pretend that he was no longer a writer, but a sincere reader, a fifteen-year-old nestled under his flannel comforter with a stack of novels on his nightstand. Walking to the wooden bookcase in his cluttered office, he closed his eyes and reached for the top shelf. When he yanked on the book, however, it refused to budge and, opening his eyes, he realized his densely packed shelves prevented any book from moving very easily. So, he tugged again and again and, as the case began to wobble, he managed to dislodge the book. Turning away from the teetering shelf, he held Jack Kerouac's On the Road in front of him and heard the meek cracking of wood as the bookcase tumbled onto Harry Kingsley. As his eyelids lowered, he watched pages swirl about the office, and the weight of the bookshelf melted away, the room darkening except for a stark ring of light blazing in his mind.
 

II


           Harry Kingsley awoke to the sensuous rhythm of the sea, waves crashing and retreating against the shore as a nosy pelican nipped at his pant leg. His eyes opened slowly, squinting at the sun, and his other senses sparked to life. He smelled the pungent aroma of seaweed, which immediately invaded his nostrils, and tasted the slightest amount of blood on his tongue. Must have bitten it, he thought. His skull throbbed, seemingly expanding and shrinking, and his brain felt as if it clawed for release, snarling angrily after being struck by a bookcase. Was it my bookcase? he thought. Waving the pelican away, he rose to his feet and his legs wobbled slightly, feeling like partially melted silly putty under him.
           “How in the hell—” he muttered to himself.
           Scanning his surroundings, Harry searched for some general indication of his location. He knew the Santa Monica shore well but couldn’t quite identify where exactly his drunken stupor had brought him. Was I drunk? He cupped his hands in front of his mouth and breathed out, searching for a specific stench. Haven’t been drinking, he thought. He recalled grabbing a book from his bookshelf, but after that he had no memory. It wasn’t the first time he’d woken up on the beach but he typically recalled some moments of the journey, some moments of frantic scribbling or vehement cursing. Searching his pockets, he didn’t feel his wallet, which meant he had no driver’s license, and he turned to look for his car, spotting a few beach houses, a frenzied pelican pecking at a washed-up fish, and not a parking lot in sight. This doesn’t make any sense.
           Glancing towards the rolling water and then up at the sun, he tried to gauge the time by some timeworn Boy Scout skill he never truly cared to learn. Could be around nine . . . but last time I looked at the clock it was five. A cool breeze rustled the sand around his feet and sent the slightest chill up his spine. This definitely wasn’t fall weather. Harry stopped, stealing a moment to appreciate the sound of water against earth and the quivering yellow shrubs, moved by the wind. His eyes and ears followed the sound of the rustling vegetation to the closest beach house nestled between two sand dunes.
           Part stumbling, part running in the sand, Harry raced towards the beach house, a toothpaste-green bungalow with a small porch underneath a wooden balcony. A rickety swing gently shifted, pushed by the breeze. The house creaked as if someone were stealthily tiptoeing on the wooden floors, His hands around his mouth, Harry shouted, “Hello! Is anyone in there?” No response. “I need help! Please!” Climbing the steps to the porch, he looked through a glassless window and tapped on the sill, trying to appear as helpless and confused as possible. He turned back toward the water and immediately spotted a woman in a white gown standing on the shore, gazing out at the sea. Harry jogged back to the water slowing down once he neared the woman. She looked startlingly familiar, like an old friend, perhaps, like Lizzie; she gazed at the water as if watching for a lost lover, her soft brown eyes following the tide as it moved in, hugged the shore briefly, and then receded.
           “Excuse me, miss? Can you tell me—”
           Startled, the woman glanced up and narrowed her eyes, considering her new companion with brief skepticism before turning to the incoming wave, uninterested in Harry’s presence.
           “Excuse me? Ma’am? Are you alright?”
           Turning away and peeking at Harry over her plump shoulders, she closed her eyes and spoke, her voice barely comprehended above the breaking surf.
           “Do you ever listen to the beckoning of the sea? I do. It calls to me, and I consider following it, letting it take me in, releasing myself and becoming tangled in its brisk, frothy arms.”
           Harry raised a single eyebrow, and his mouth lazily fell open.   

           “That’s, uh, really nice, but I could use some help. I’m not sure where I’m at exactly but—”
           The woman interrupted, “Grand Isle, Louisiana,” and began kicking the water with her pale foot.
           “Grand Isle? Like in—? Excuse me, miss? What did you—?”

           The woman exclaimed, “I said Grand Isle, Louisiana! This is Grand Isle, Louisiana. And I am here on vacation and would appreciate some peace. I will not entertain any more of your absurd inquiries, so please move along.”
           When Harry first began writing, he would often bring a stack of lined paper to a crowded bar or restaurant, order a drink, and record the conversations floating about him, the conversations drifting to his ears and moving through his busy hands onto the paper. The dialogue never really made any sense, all disjointed and out-of-context, but he learned to write in different accents and styles and to detect many delicate nuances of speech. This woman’s speech, besides being unlike anything he had ever heard, struck him as distinctly dated.
           “Um, sorry to bother you again, but what, uh, year is it, exactly?” 
           Spinning around, she stomped up to Harry, thrust her head inches from his, and asked, “Tell me, are you inebriated, sir? Or are you merely some miscreant bent on disturbing my quiet afternoon?”
           “Well, I’m not drunk, at least not right now, and only occasionally a miscreant. Those two things tend to go hand-in-hand, though.” Harry rather enjoyed this woman’s spunk, and their banter reminded him of late night conversations with Lizzie. Try as she might, Lizzie could never stay mad at Harry. Among his talents, the ability to lighten the mood of any situation remained Lizzie’s frustrating favorite. Even when he could see it no longer worked, he kept up the act, hoping to crack her resolve. And now she was gone.
           “What’s your name, sir?”
           “Harry Kingsley. And yours, ma’am?”
           “Kate.” 
           “No last name?” Harry inquired.
           “Pardon my offense, but aren’t you the one out here rambling about the ocean?”
           “Well, yes,” the woman stammered. “And why does that concern you?”
           “No reason. But I’d really appreciate your help. I seem to be lost, I’m definitely lost, actually, and, frankly, I’m not even sure how I got here.” Taking one more skeptical look, Kate turned from Harry and began walking toward the toothpaste-green beach house.
           “Come along then,” she said, and the two walked towards the empty bungalow.
 

 ※※※


           The beach house was, in fact, teeming with children, six actually, who hid as soon as they spotted Harry on their porch. Once he entered the home and encountered the nineteenth-century decor, Harry settled on two possibilities. One: he had entered a lucid dream-state, likely brought on by the blow to his skull from his aging bookshelf. The second option, the one he hoped for, concerned his own demise, and he settled into the notion of death quite comfortably. Now I don’t have to finish that book, he thought, as Kate set a cup of tea in front of him. Something about Kate struck him as distinctly familiar. Sipping on the tea and burning his already sore tongue, Harry watched the six children that darted in and out of rooms, chasing and shouting and playing.

           “Settle down now!” Kate shouted. “We have a guest! George don’t—!”
           Ripping a blanket off a rickety rocking chair, the boy, George, tied the blanket around his neck and scurried around his mother, evading her grasp. Harry watched in mild amusement as the boy disappeared into a room, emerging with a wooden crate. Setting it in the middle of the kitchen, the boy stood on the crate and began his performance. Two of the other children, Felix and Lélia, sat next to Harry at the table, marveling at their brother.
           “As you can see, my hand is in its complete form, five fingers all together,” George said, waving his hand in front of his semi-captivated audience. Covering his left pinky with his right hand, George told his audience to watch as he made one finger disappear and, pulling back his right hand, revealed only four appendages on his left hand, the pinky stuck behind his index finger. The crowd—including Harry, begrudgingly—began clapping and George reversed the trick, reattaching his lost pinky. “The Great George Chopin!” Lélia exclaimed, causing Harry to choke on his tea.
           “Chopin,” he muttered. “Chopin! Chopin! You’re Kate Chopin!” Harry bolted from his seat and turned to the woman, who rested in the rocking chair, her eyes swollen and warm tears meandering down her sand-coated face.
           “Yes, I am.”
           As the children continued to romp about the creaking beach house, Harry sat in a large, quilted armchair next to Kate. Her hands trembled slightly as she wiped away the tears that lined her face.
           “My husband, Oscar, died of malaria only ten days ago. I brought the children here as his family makes the proper arrangements for his funeral. They are completely unaware of his passing, and I have no inkling of an idea as to how to inform them. Strange, isn’t it, how the death of one ripples within some lives and not in others? How life exits and enters with only isolated celebration? How the world of one changes so drastically and all aspirations can turn to dust, swept up in a tempest of despair?”
           Out on the beach, a quiet wind threw sand up in the air, and the sun slipped behind a passing cloud.
           “I don’t require consolation. But I would like the world to cease, just for a moment, to celebrate my husband, to exclaim him and the beauty he gifted the world, such as these children. I cannot help but watch them and detect a glimmer of Oscar lingering within them, slowly blooming and flourishing until suddenly Oscar lives again, not in one body, but in six, prepared to encounter the world with the gifts of their father. And now I, alone, must nurture these gifts, and I fear I will fail.”
           Finally turning to her companion, she said, “Do you have children, Harry?’
           “Oh, no. We—uh—just never got around to it, I guess. My wife wanted one, but I just couldn’t. I don’t think I’m the father type anyway.”
           Placing her cold hand upon Harry’s, Kate locked eyes with him and sighed. “I doubt I will give much to the world in the way of ideas or relics. But I could not be more joyful that these six children exist in my life. Do not let their rambunctiousness fool you, sir. These children are a gift, to myself and humanity; their innocence and knowledge, in its purest form, deserves unending preservation.”  
           “Don’t sell yourself short,” Harry said. “These children are only a fraction of what’s to come.”
           Only Lélia stopped her playing, watching the two writers share this moment of unbridled tenderness.
           “Mother, what’s wrong?” she asked, her voice laced with unease as she approached the pair. Taking the youngest girl into her arms, Kate kissed her forehead and tucked her unruly hair behind her ear. Harry looked down, almost embarrassed by his intrusion. Besides family reunions when his brother and sister-in-law brought their three heathen kids, Harry had little experience interacting with children and never truly wanted to try his hand at parenting. Observing mother and daughter, however, he felt a small stirring at the back of his mind, like someone striking a match, and an unfamiliar warmth enveloped him. 
           “Excuse me,” he said, rising out of his chair. “I think I need some fresh air.”
           Making his way to the shore, Harry tried to maintain his composure. He suddenly felt a strange, unfamiliar desire, a yearning, not only for Lizzie but for the same splendor he witnessed within the toothpaste-green beach house. Lizzie’s absence left a hollowness within Harry’s mind, and he believed both his will and creativity had stowed away deep in Lizzie’s suitcases. He rubbed his temples. Harry picked up a stone and tossed it into the cool, calm ocean, watching it bounce quickly before it submerged. He tossed another and another, the force of each throw growing until finally, he scooped up a round stone, the size of his palm, and violently released it into the cloudless sky, grunting. Suddenly, a voice came from behind him, asking:
           “Can you teach me how to skip a stone?”
           Little Felix Chopin came to Harry’s side, turning a stone about in his hand. His eyes seemed to glow, even in the bright summer afternoon, and he watched Harry carefully, studying him.
           “Well, uh, I’m not quite sure how to teach it,” Harry stammered, reaching down to the boy. “Here, just take it in your palm like that, yeah, yeah just like that.”
           He manipulated the boy’s hand and guided it as they tossed the stone out into the sea, watching it skip twice before sinking. Felix’s face broke into a toothy grin. He clapped and jumped.
           “I did it! Did you see that?” he shouted.
           “Yeah, I did.” Harry’s voice cracked slightly. He watched as the boy picked up another stone and skipped it. Like the stones, Harry felt himself descending into some eternal abyss, a trench where he seemed to sink without end. Up until now I’ve been floundering, he thought, circling the drain. Now I’m submerged and drowning, and there’s not a damn soul to pull me up. Without warning, the sky darkened, hefty clouds invading the sky, and the air grew chill, charged with the electricity of a sudden storm. Looking up at Harry, Felix said:
           “Get outta the way, wouldja!”
           “What? What did you—?”
           The previously clear sky turned gray, rainclouds materializing and exploding, drenching Harry as the smooth sand grew hard under his feet. Slowly, Harry’s vision blurred, the rain like static before him, and Felix became a mere silhouette, shouting. 
           “Hey, move on over!”
           Harry squeezed his eyes shut, clenched his fist, and fell backward into oblivion, like a stone falling into the abyss.


III


           Opening his eyes, Harry stood among a crowd of pedestrians, soaked with rainwater. He spun about, searching for some indication of his location, both temporal and spatial. Manhattan, he thought, recognizing the almost palpable restlessness of the city he grew up in as muted voices, grumbling and whining, surged passed Harry, until one emerged.
           “Hey! Whata ya doing? Move on over, pal! I’m trying to get home!”
           The exclamation came from behind Harry and, turning to the voice, he came face-to-face with Jack Kerouac. Harry froze in place, his face painted in silent awe, and his eyes widened at the man who, in return, only smiled.
           “You alright? You better get moving ‘fore you catch something,” he said through the grin. 
           “Oh, I—uh—I’m all right, just enjoying the weather,” Harry responded.
           “You’re insane.”
           Jack made his way up to a door, one of many in the four-floor complex, and, as he turned the key, Harry grabbed the man’s shoulder.
           “Whoa what—!”   
           “Can I use your phone? My, ah, car broke down a couple blocks away and I need to call a mechanic,” Harry asked, attempting to prolong their meeting.
           “I thought you said you were enjoying the rain?”
           “Well, I am enjoying it. But I’d also like to get home. Can I use your phone?”
           Jack scanned Harry once more, gauging his sanity, and, deciding he was an interesting character, said, “All right. Come on up.” 
           The pair trudged up a narrow staircase. Musty yellow wallpaper came off in flakes with the force of their steps, flinging dust into the air and sending Harry into a coughing fit.
           “Already gettin’ sick, like I said,” Jack muttered. “What’s your name again?”
           “Harry Kingsley.”
           Finally coming to a door with a brass “62” below the peephole, Jack unlocked the entry, and Harry entered the Beat pagoda. He walked through the home, marveling at the King of the Beats’ trophy room; notebooks stacked two-feet high lined the walls and piles of crumpled papers hid in the corners and crevices of greasy walls, a writer’s den filled with lazy ruminations of the night. A desk sat next to the open window, Cracker Jack packages lightly rustling, a ceramic Buddha and a crucifix resting on a wooden shelf above the workplace. Cracking a window on the far wall of the home, Jack let in the sounds of the street seeping through the window, riding on the back of the smells, the still water of the Hudson, smoke from street vendors. All of New York in a minute.
           “The phone’s in the kitchen. Good luck getting a mechanic in this weather.”
           The rain pecked at the window and Jack landed in a brown armchair, lighting a cigarette and watching the water fall. Harry decided to feign a conversation, picked up the phone and made some faint grumbles, which hardly reached Jack’s ears. Loudly hanging up the phone, Harry stopped before exiting the kitchen, staring down at his hands. Where am I? he wondered to himself. Assuming he had, in fact, died, which place had he been sent to? Surely a writer is a noble enough profession to enter the pearly gates? Well, maybe not the kind of writer I am. A writer who doesn’t write. Jack’s voice came booming from the living room, still watching the rain and rubbing his thumb and index finger against each other.  
           “Whata ya do for a living, Harry?”
           “Oh, well, I’m a writer,” Harry responded, rather cautiously.
           “Ah. My condolences.” 
           Harry walked back to the room, pulled a chair out from a round four-person dining table. He sat, hunched over, resting his elbows on his knees and tapping his foot.
           “I guess I haven’t written much in a while,” he said. “Just can’t seem to find the right words for the right feelings. Or even the wrong feelings.”
           “Well,” Jack began, turning to Harry, “I find that the right words, especially the ones that keep you up at night, are usually the simplest ones. I’m a writer, too. Damn difficult endeavor. The whole deal, every bit of it, it’s not about what you put on the page, but why you put it there.”
           Down on the street, a yellow meadowlark dodged the oncoming steps of disillusioned commuters, eager to escape the increasingly icy rain.
           “There’s no right or wrong words,” Jack remarked. “If they’re on the page and they came from whatever bits of passion you could muster, that’s right where they belong. Not about controlling them. Let ‘em control you.”     
           A furious pounding on the door brought Harry to his feet, and Jack motioned for him to sit down.
           “I got it,” he said.
           Almost charging through the door before Jack turned the knob, a dark-haired woman in a speckled dress crashed into the apartment, her high heels clattering on the wooden floor. Small bundle in hand, she didn’t say a word at first, just huffing and groaning in the middle of the room. She turned to Jack, her eyes dark with exhaustion, mustering just enough spirit to appear enraged.
           “Hello, Joan. What can I do for you?” Jack asked, his voice terse and sharp.
           “I thought you’d want to spend some time with your daughter, Jack.” Her voice, like a vacuum cleaner, filled the room with a shrewd whining.
           “Well, if she were my daughter, I would. But she isn’t. Joan, I’d like to introduce you to--.”
           “Harry.”
           “Yeah, Harry. He’s a writer, too.
           Pivoting to face Harry, she examined the writer, scanning him up and down. Clearly uninterested in what she saw, she offered only a small “hmph” and turned back toward Jack.
           “Listen, for the last time, she’s your daughter! I don’t care who left whom, you owe me something. I’m not doing this alone.”
           “Joan, I’d love to help, but I just can’t help raise another man’s baby in good conscious. Simple as that!”

 Jack turned to Harry, searching for some assistance, and Harry looked down at the floor. Opening her mouth once again, Joan glanced at Harry and, acknowledging him for the first time, said, “Jack, can we go into another room?”
           “Dammit, Joan, I don’t have anything to say.”
           Stomping over to Harry, Joan thrust the baby into his arms. “I’ve been holding her the entire walk and cab ride over here. Her name’s Jan. Since her daddy won’t take her, I could use your help. Come on, Jack.”

Joan grabbed Jack by the collar and nearly threw him into the kitchen. Tapping his foot nervously, Harry looked around for something to set the baby on, sure he would drop her. He was afraid to even look at her, fearing she might start bawling and screaming. Finally, out of pure curiosity, Harry chanced a peek at the child.

He pulled back a wool blanket to reveal the child’s soft visage. Her cheeks were like large cotton balls, and her lips were slightly blue from the cold. Her golden hair seemed to glow in the dim apartment, and her blue eyes shimmered like a calm pond.
           He observed himself in her eyes, his face worn with the exhaustion of his journey. His own eyes, dim and dull, appeared like grey stones. Perhaps she knows it all, he thought. Maybe she’s got it all figured out. Maybe the moment she speaks, the moment she expresses a clear thought and the world begins to judge her for it, maybe that’s when she loses it all. As Jack and Joan argued behind him, Harry considered the child as if he were a fortuneteller gazing into a crystal ball, searching for an answer to a question he never thought to ask. The child sneezed and droplets of clear mucus seeped out of her nostrils. Regardless, the gentle bundle in his arms enchanted Harry. He couldn’t ever remember seeing such pure benevolence and innocence. Though without speech, Harry was sure she observed the strife that infected her parents and he suddenly felt invested in her tender understanding. He knew she would someday have something important to say and he stood in Jack Kerouac’s musty living room ready to listen. Her nose leaked further, the cold apartment causing her to shiver. This is what I need, Harry thought. Resting in his arms, this child emulated all that he craved, the very reason he stayed up until the dim morning hours, hugging a bottle of whiskey. Sadness and apathy had rendered him idle but this child had none of that. Instead, she had hope.
           The small, yellow meadowlark landed on the windowpane, shaking off rainwater.  
           “You’re just afraid, Jack! You’re just too scared to give up all this Beat bullshit for something that’s right here, that exists right now!”
           Joan’s violent screeching woke Harry from his reverie, and he spun around, searching for someplace soft and warm to set the baby. Laying the child on the brown armchair, he sprinted to the kitchen in time to see Jack, the veins on his forehead swelled, grabbing Joan’s wrists.
           “The baby ain’t mine and I ain’t gonna sit around here and be pushed around by some promiscuous who—!”

Fearing further physical violence, Harry pushed Jack from Joan. Jan began screaming and howling in the living room, and Harry thrust Jack back into the living room.  
           “Listen, people! I’m sure all this’ll be worked out! Just calm down and—!”
           “Get your hands off of me,” shouted Jack as his fist made contact with Harry’s face. Harry staggered backwards, clutching his bleeding nose.
           “You—you hit me!” He almost smiled at the absurdity of the whole thing.
           “I missed,” Jack said.
           “What? No! Oh shit,” Harry exclaimed, as the apartment melted away, propelling him into unconsciousness.


    IV


           “The end,” a voice boomed from the stage.
           Harry opened his eyes as a red curtain closed and the house lights of the small theater steadily grew in intensity. People in suits and ties and dresses began exiting the rows of seats, stumbling over Harry’s feet. Looking down, Harry found a purple tie with white stripes resting on his chest, a diamond-studded clasp pinning it to his white dress shirt, and the collar starched to a sharp point below his neck. Harry recognized where and when he was. Standing up from his chair and making his way toward the end of the crimson velvet-covered chairs, Harry looked about the Theater de Lys, familiar chandeliers lining the ceiling and the modest sculptures—ornate swirls and graceful wisps of gold—emerging from the walls. If his memory didn’t deceive him, the year was 1970, and here he had attended his first stage play, Penelope, written by Kurt Vonnegut and first performed in this very theater. His parents, though not entirely sure how Harry would receive the gift, bought him the tickets for his fifteenth birthday, framing it as a “family event,” a bonding experience. Of course, it became much more. Turning his hands about, Harry recognized that he hadn't reverted to adolescence but glanced around the shuffling crowd anyway, hoping to find his parents, as he pushed through the masses to the theater’s exit.
           Finally breaking free of the crowd, Harry stumbled into the lobby. Turning about the room and catching sight of the meandering crowds and brightly lit box office, the night of October 7, 1970, came further into focus for Harry, as did the splendor of the evening. He was shorter, he remembered, than anyone there, elbows constantly clanging against his head as he weaved through the audience. He recalled losing the comforting grasp of his mother’s hand and being thrust into the surging suits and dresses that threatened to overtake him. He remembered the feeling of confused intrigue following the performance, not quite understanding his joy but recognizing its source. This was the night that began it all, Harry thought, the night that sparked a passion and, as it turns out, a downfall. After leaving the play, he asked his parents to take him to a bookstore, longing for more of Vonnegut’s works, not entirely satisfied with the play alone. What a wonderful year, he thought, for it was the year he began the journey that ended with a rickety bookshelf crushing his skull. The year he inadvertently discovered his passion.
           In a flash, all he saw in little Jan Kerouac and the Chopin children connected, searing his mind’s eyes and igniting a desire to live again. Perhaps this is my punishment, that in death I’ve come to understand what I want, what I need, in life. As Harry stood in the center of the lobby, reliving his past, a man materialized—almost literally—before him, emerging from a crowd of chattering Broadway aficionados. A mess of curls bobbed up and down above the man’s rather thin face, and a prickly mustache caused him to wrinkle his lips.
           “What’d you think of the show?” he asked.
           Blinking slowly, Harry replied, “I liked it, I guess. It was all right.”
           “Ah well, better luck next time. So, it goes. Ring ring. Ring ring.”
           “Wait, what?”
           As if controlled by a turning dial, the sound of wandering voices in the lobby began to dim, descending into a quiet chant before transforming into a sharp ringing. The lobby melted away, the walls peeled back, and the floors fell out, thin dendritic lines spreading across the carpet to reveal blackness. Harry floated in the middle of it all, suspended in a cerebral limbo between enlightenment and ignorance, his eyes darting back and forth underneath their lids.
           Ring ring. Ring ring
           Somewhere in the distance, a baby cried, howling at a mother or father. His eyes still closed, Harry reached for the child, grasping at the noise, his own mind ringing with a closer tone.
           Ring ring. Ring ring.
           The world began to brighten, peeking out from behind the veil of blackness, as images of a fallen bookshelf and scattered paper came into focus. The ringing persisted, growing closer and harsher, and the child continued bawling. Harry opened his eyes and saw a flickering apparition of his own body standing over himself, reaching out, inviting him to stand. He heard his own voice, soft and smooth.
           “Do you know what to do now? Do you understand? It’s not for you or Lizzie. It’s about them, making them appreciate it. Making them appreciate every bit of it. But you have to first.”
           The baby’s cry turned to a whimper and then to nothing.
           Ring ring . . .


V


           Harry Kingsley’s eyes shot open, and he inhaled deeply as he sat up, pushing the bookshelf off of his knees and glancing at the scattered books. He found droplets of blood trickling down his forehead, and his back felt stiff and bruised. His phone, still on his desk, continued to ring, and he slowly stood up, the world teetering under his feet. The “904” area code told him it was Lizzie, calling from her sister’s house in Jacksonville. Apprehensive at first, he let his inhibitions slide away and answered the call.
           “Look, Harry, I really need you to send me those papers, I’m—”
           “Lizzie, stop. I want to do it. I—uh—well, I want to have a baby.” The words spilled out and he meant all of it. “I know I messed up but, Lizzie, I can’t do this without you. You comple—”
           “All right, stop right there,” Lizzie interjected. “No need for clichés. Listen, if you’re serious, and this isn’t some sappy bullshit that you’ll forget in the morning, I’ll think about it. Call me tomorrow.”
           Harry felt, even over the phone, a hint of affection.
           Setting the phone down and picking up a clean sheet of paper, Harry loaded his Olympia, cracked his knuckles, and began to type.

Jacob Hadley is a Sophomore from Phoenix, Arizona, majoring in both English and Philosophy and minoring in Italian. In his nonexistent free time, he enjoys writing prose, poetry, and sometimes incoherent scribbles. After spending a semester in Europe, he unfortunately got a taste for fine art and culture and greatly looks forward to his next adventure, whatever that may be. This is his first publication.

 
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