By Arnold Serapilio
You’re halfway to the Athenaeum before you even realize where you’re headed, trudging through the snow on autopilot. You don’t remember getting dressed or leaving the house. Did you turn the lights off? Did you lock the door?
It’s just as well you’re going to the library, because you’re on a deadline and you need to focus. And you just can’t do that at home. You need the surrounding scholarship to keep you grounded. You’ve been working the manuscript for months. Your draft is due in one week. You’ve written the opening line, which you’re still mulling over. Once you nail that opener, the rest of the novel will fall into place.
As you turn over an idea in your head you pop a piece of gum. The chewing helps you corral your nervous energy. Extraneous gum wrapper in hand, you survey the area for a waste bin. Aha! There’s one not ten paces ahead. You straighten your posture. You hold your head high. A problem arises, you solve it. C’mon life, that the best you got?! You strut over to the waste bin. You bring the gum wrapper to the precipice of eternal trashdom—and a directive on the side of the bin catches your eye.
PLACE LITTER IN WASTE BIN
You stop dead in your tracks. What you hold in your hand you have hitherto understood to be a gum wrapper. But is it litter? Doesn’t something need to be discarded on the ground to be considered litter? Merriam-Webster defines litter as “trash, wastepaper, or garbage lying scattered about.” Ah, but you intentionally did not cast aside the gum wrapper thoughtlessly, as you were specifically trying not to litter! The fact that you still hold the wrapper in your hands precludes it from being litter.
So now what?
What is the waste bin looking for here? Does it want honest-to-goodness litter, or will it accept content that, in less socially conscious hands, would inevitably become litter? And does it have a mechanism to tell the difference, and if so, and you make the wrong choice, what’s the accountability?
Hold on a minute. You’re spiraling. Think about this rationally. Let’s say the wrapper in your hand cannot be classified as litter. What litter would they be referring to? Surely they weren’t implying you had to pick up other people’s litter off the ground and throw it in this waste bin? Surely this sign wasn’t meant to single you out, out of the hundreds of thousands of people in this city, and appoint you judge, jury, and executioner of all things litter—or was it?
And what if the wrapper in your hand did qualify as litter? This is where it got really tricky. Because even if what you held in your hand was truly litter, wouldn’t responsibly depositing it into the nearest waste receptacle effectively disqualify it from being litter, from the instant the “litter” penetrated the rim of the waste bin, henceforth? And so you’d have a paradox on your hands: in honoring a waste bin’s call for litter, you’d be transfiguring the litter into something beautiful: properly-disposed of trash.
Life is a roller coaster of mystery and contradiction.
A clock strikes noon. It occurs to you you’ve been deliberating for fifteen minutes. You wonder what some of the great thinkers would have made of this. What would Socrates say about litter, Simone de Beauvoir, the Brothers Doobie?
Finally you decide the only outcome with any moral certainty is to lay the wrapper on the ground, thereby converting it into litter. You can come back and place it in the waste bin later. Someone yells something in the background. People are so loud and rude, you think.
By the time you stand before the red leather doors your gum has lost its flavor. You adjust your bowtie. You raise your face to the skies. In all probability the cold winter sun makes you glow like an angel. You push through the doors. Inside, you fail to notice a discarded banana peel and now you are on the floor. You hear calliope music. One of your fellow members, commonly referred to as Adjacent Jason for who knows what reason, helps you to your feet, skillfully imbuing some dignity into the proceedings by engaging you in conversation unrelated to your spill. You dust yourself off.
“How’s the book coming, friend?” he asks.
You nod, chewing your gum with indecorous intensity.
“Bet it’s just teeming with ideas, laughs, and emotions, all assembled flawlessly by your deft hand vis-à-vis that impeccable brain of yours,” says Adjacent Jason. “Say, what’s it about, anyway?”
You never know how to answer this question, but you do say that Oh, what isn’t it about really, life, death, everything in between.
Adjacent Jason nods. He’s too polite to press you further. “And now simply pull your pants back up and you’ll be all set,” he says finally, at which point it dawns on you your pants are at your ankles. So that’s why your legs are cold.
You thank him as you head for the elevator. You notice your walking is labored but you don’t care to investigate why.
“They’re still not up!” he calls after you.
The fifth floor is silent, which in theory is good because people have work to do. The downside is you are alone with your thoughts, and who wants that? Just a little someone we like to call Nobody. All you can think of is Adjacent Jason’s question: what is your book about? How should you know? What’s with the third degree? Though once upon a time you did know. Certainly when you first dreamed up the idea, there was a purpose. Then you made the rookie mistake of actually writing things down and suddenly the ideas were gone and the words on the page didn’t make any sense together. You had to scrap it and go back to the darling board.
Sometimes you scribble down gibberish to get the cobwebs clear. And sometimes it helps to be running out of time. The grandpa clock nearby ticks loudly and with a palpable grumpiness. You watch the hands push through the seconds, minutes, hours...the clock’s hands remind you of your own hands, for they are dry and calloused in the exact same spots…wait a minute, those are your hands, and where your left and right hands should be are a pencil and an eraser, respectively. You shriek. The other patrons look up from their work to regard you like you’re something that’s seeped through the bottom of a garbage bag onto their shoe. Never you mind them. You’ve got an opening sentence to write. Thank gob you swapped out those pesky hands for writing utensils. Right tools for the job.
It was a dark and stormy night.
Nah. That had been done before, hadn’t it? How about:
It was a stark and dormy night.
Now you’re getting somewhere. You sit back and admire a job well done. When you’re on you’re on. Although—and you don’t want to overthink it, but—does it need more? Maybe a notion of setting?
It was a stark and dormy night in Sandwich, Massachusetts.
You wonder who names a town “Sandwich,” and if they call the next town over Soup.
Turns out having a pencil and an eraser where your hands should be isn’t such a sad state of affairs after all. You’re getting some good writing done. Although—and you don’t want to overthink it, but—does it need more? Maybe a character should come into play?
Poof! Adjacent Jason says, “Friend, are you looking for these?” He is holding a pair of pants. You show him your modified arms to indicate that you are more concerned with getting back your hands not your pants, there’ll be plenty of time for pants in retirement.
“What is wrong with your hands? They look perfectly fine to me,” Adjacent Jason says, studying them with an indecorous intensity. “Cuticles look a little rough, but otherwise.”
Indeed your hands are fine. You look at the grandpa clock. It no longer ticks and its hands are gone. “What’re you looking at?” roars the clock with the fury of that god of the ocean there, whathisname, Jobeidon? You gasp. You ask Jason to leave you to your work, informing him that you are on the cusp of something great but that it requires a deep and abiding focus.
“I shall be Far-off Karloff,” he says, before disappearing in a burst of tiny pieces of glittered paper. “Or Confetti Eddie.”
You gaze off into the noncommittal distance. What you need is inspiration. There’s a book you often turn to in times like these, Original Dirigible. Now where is that thing? The book lives on the fifth floor somewhere but you don’t remember where. It’s your favorite book ever in the whole wide world but you don’t know where it lives. You scan the stacks but the books have been shelved with the spines hidden, pages facing out. Madness! There’s the calliope music again. How will you ever find what you are looking for? What the heck. You grab a book at random from the bottom shelf at random from the bottom shelf at random from the bottom shelf at random. The title page reads: Original Dirigible by Leland Grossjoy. You flip to the opening paragraph.
So spake the great reverend Grossjoy. The moral of the story: the book you’re after is always on the bottom shelf.
You peruse your favorite book but nothing’s jumping out at you and throttling you by the brain-throat and in order to serve your purposes you require nothing short of divine so you throw the book over your shoulder with unwarranted insouciance. “Ow!” you hear someone exclaim from behind you. You tell them to be quiet—this is the silent floor.
What is your book about, anyway? What kind of a question is that, honestly.
...perhaps one to answer in your opening line?
The following book is about how once, it was a stark and dormy night in Sandwich Massachusetts, and get this—things were not as they seemed!
That’s better isn’t it? The exclamation point conveyed a sense of urgency that would yank the reader by the lapel, shake them with great vigor, demand they read on. Now, anybody asks what your book is about, simply point to this doozy. OK, so the line might need some work. You’re not going to just settle on the first brilliant line you think of. The fate of your entire novel hangs in the balance; whatever opening line you choose will set the stage for the rest of the story so it is imperative that you get it just right. But this wording can be your placeholder.
How long have you been sitting here? You glance at grandpa clock, who sneers, “4:01, chief. Happy now?” You shrug, hoping to convey to grandpa clock that your grasp of the concept of happiness is tenuous at beast. Grandpa clock harumphs. You must have ticked it off.
Time to stretch your limbs. There is a reflecting pool in the middle of the Long Room floor. Legend has it the pool was haunted by the ghosts of dearly departed librarians who grant wishes to those who submit a “supreme tribute.” So people throw all kinds of things into the pool: pennies, bananas, stock tips. The point is you’re stuck and you could stand to relax. Only when the mind is calm can your solution come. The reflecting pool offers respite. Spend a few minutes there, come back ready to solve cold fusion. You jump in.
You surge through the water like a torpedo. You’re not sure what is to account for the velocity as you are not even swimming of your own accord, you are just hurtling through blueness without agency. Story of your life. Your trajectory, a tornado of water weaving before you. Ahead emerges a narrow ring of orange light so vast it appears minuscule at first but growing larger as you close the distance between until it is immense, all around you. A buzzing ricochets inside your head. Everything goes black. Your body convulses. You note a dull ache in each of your shoulder blades, and a writhing. Something is inside of you that wants to get out. You feel your skin begin to tear and you let out a yelp. And then you notice that something new is growing out of the slits in your shoulder blades. The surrounding blackness deletes itself. You are awash in white fluff. Oh—it’s a cloud. You are in the sky. You are flying. You are of the sky. You squeal with delight, confident there is nobody around to hear you make such a ridiculous noise.
“Ha-ha-ha!” You make funny sounds, human.”
You turn your head toward the unexpected voice, feeling the wind in your hair. You ask, nay, demand to know who goes there.
“I’m Mandy the bald ego,” says Mandy the bald ego, “and I’m here to escort you to The Great Feast.”
You explain that you’re not hungry, and in point of fact you’re actually quite busy writing your novel, you’re just taking a wee little break.
“But they’re expecting you,” Mandy insists.
You explain that you’re working on a novel and that you can already tell it is going to be very dense and very long, and that it requires long stretches of sustained concentration. You’ve got very high hopes for it, for you are going to plumb the depths of the human psyche, stare head-on into the gaping maw of the human condition and report back with candor, clarity, and wit—but before you can do any of that, you need a killer first line. And you really should be getting back to it, as you don’t want to toot your own horn but you were on quite the roll before and you don’t want to lose the momentum.
Mandy does a fancy bald ego swoop and says, “You’re coming with me, and that’s that!”
You say that you don’t know, you’re still pretty new to this whole flying thing, and although it’s been a novel experience, it seems kind of dangerous and you’re just not sure it’s sustainable.
“What, you grow wings, suddenly you’re a chicken? Live in the moment, punk,” says Mandy. “Or I’ll mop the floor with ya.” She raises a winged fist for emphasis.
You decide a quick zip-in/zip-out to the Great Feast couldn’t hurt.
Together you soar across the expanse—
“Excuse me friend, but as your fellow countryman I believe it is my duty to once again inform you that you are, once again, noticeably distanced from your pants.”
You inform Adjacent Jason that Oh, come on! How are you supposed to get any work done around here with all these pointless distractions?
You raise your hand, signaling the conversation is over. Adjacent Jason might not be happy about that, but he’s no fool, he knows when to scold ‘em and when to fold ‘em. And so, with a snap of his fingers, he transforms into Not Here Greer.
You look at your notebook. Stark and dormy night. What an excellent turn of phrase. But something’s missing…
—You do loop-de-loops and swoop-de-swoops, whirlsy-twirlsies and flipsy-dipsies. You love the butterflies in your stomach but after a while , eh, not so much. You ask Mandy, How much longer it’s going to be until you arrive? Mandy nods and begins the descent. You follow soot, floating into a meadow dotted with tulips and three lips and daisies and nightsies. You brush yourself off, wondering how this ashy substance got all over you. Upon an improbably large patchwork quilt is spread what is indeed a Great Feast, and dinner guests line the perimeter of the blanket, forks in hand, brandishing them in unison whilst the sounds of soft bells and a violin in gentle yearning flutter on the breeze.
You land softly on the edge of the blanket between two guests. Up close you see that while they are sized and shaped like people, they are paginated, like books. One book’s er person’s edges are deckled, the other’s, heckled (“People are always interrupting me to ridicule me,” Heckle explains). Their pages flutter when they speak, producing a whooshing sound.
“Ah, you’ve made it! says Deckle.
“Grab a plate! Get your feast on! Says Heckle. “And—”
“Cram it, Heckle!” Mandy says.
“See what I mean?” Heckle says to you, and throws up its—his?—hands. Hard to know exactly, the “hands” are bookmarks.
You nod your affirmation as you gaze down the blanket, which stretches as far as you can see, and you can see pretty far! Doctors have always marveled at your vision, always asked to study you for a breakthrough medical article they’re hoping to get published, but you always demur. Perhaps you shouldn’t have, perhaps you could have become famous, could have leveraged that fame for your own means. Perhaps you’d have enough money by now to build that robot clone of yourself that you’ve always dreamed about. The other dinner guests have stopped eating and are staring at you in befuddlement. Have you actually been saying these thoughts out loud? Then again you are the only one around here, other than Mandy, who doesn’t look like a book, maybe that’s their beef.
You’re famished. Recall that you haven’t eaten since the morning when you fixed yourself some eggs—or did the eggs fix you?
“Well, go on, dig in,” whooshes Deckle.
"Have some grilled brisket," says Heckle, pushing raw meat at you.
You observe that this meat isn't cooked.
"Oh, no, we didn't apply any heat to it. We simply bombarded it with a series of probing questions in rapid succession."
You wish they could've at least bombarded it with microwave particles to kill the bacteria.
Deckle says, "Be sure to try the spaghetti sauce. I made it myself. I let it simmer on low heat for 30 minutes, until the plot thickens."
You load up your book-shaped plate (what’s the deal with everything looking like a book?) real nice-like. You scoop polenta, you scoop risotto. You scoop spaghetti and meatballs. You spill sauce on your shirt. All part of the creative pro-cess! You take prosciutto, you take la-zag-nuh, you take arancini and bruschetta. You gotcher gelato, your biscotti, your cornetto con panna. Wash it down with espresso. You eat it all with an indecorous intensity, and when you’re done, Mandy hands you a digestif: the writer’s block of cheese. You hold the cheese in your hands. It’s heavy like a stone. You raise it to your nose and take a big juicy whiff. A tangy, salty pungency overwhelms your nostrils. It is swonderful, smarvelous. You want to gobble the thing whole. But you aren’t quite sure how to tackle it. You turn to ask your flying companion for advice, but Mandy is already hurtling up into the sky shouting down, “See you in the ether, Esther!”
“Perhaps it’s time you invested in some suspenders, eh?”
Adjacent Jason is in front of your desk holding up a pair of trousers.
You begin to indicate that those don’t look like yours, but something impels you to look down anyway. You find that you’re sitting in your underpants. When did this happen? You play it off like you didn’t recognize the stitching.
Adjacent Jason indicates that in previous encounters you spent no fewer than seven minutes asking him to behold the stitching on your pants and regaling him with the tale of how you traveled to England to have them custom made.
You indicate that that doesn’t sound like something you would say, but as a show of goof faith you put on the pants, noting what a surprisingly good fit they are.
Sensing his work is done Adjacent Jason announces that “I shall be Gone Shawn,” and collapses into flickering fireflies. “Or Sparky Marky.”
Now where were you? Right, the opening sentence. Let’s get those juices flowing again.
The following book is about how once, it was a stark and dormy night in Sandwich Massachusetts, and get this—things were not as they seemed!
Hmph. After that flight with Mandy, It was a stark and dormy night doesn’t seem nearly as special as you’d thought. Dangit. Why is wrangling an idea from thin air and manifesting it as a sentence taut with meaning and imagery so difficult?
Your belly is full and your eyes are heavy. Oh no. Don’t put your head down, not now, not while you’re rolling. You’ll lose the rest of the day. Keep alert.
You do fifty jumping jacks, or is it thirteen? You’ve lost count. You can’t remember the last time you did jumping jacks, childhood? You have seven days to finish your manuscript and so far all you have is about two thirds of your opening sentence and your attitude towards it at the moment is ambivalent at best. Your eyes fall on the statue of the wow cow at the front of the Long Room. A wow cow is a cow that when one sees it, one goes, “Wow.” The statue was donated by a patron who had frequented the Athenæum since she was a little girl and learned so much from all the books she’d read that she just had to express her udder gratitude. Leaning on the wow cow is a man without a face. He has a head but no hair, eyes, nose, or mouth. But ears? You betcha! Wouldn’t have it any other way. He wears a three piece suit but who’s counting really, in the big scheme of things. His hands are calendars with the date your manuscript is due circled in bold red accusatory ink. Just so long as he stays put right where he is, thank you, you’ll be fine. Whoops, he’s walking toward you. He casts a shadow over your notebooks.
You say that you beg his pardon but that as he does not have a mouth you cannot make out what he’s saying. Furthermore you wonder what other anatomical elements he lacks—teeth, a tongue, a throat, vocal cords?
This is going nowhere fast. You indicate that never fear, you will simply ask yes or no questions and he can either shake his head no or nod yes. Capeesh?
The Faceless nods yes.
Tending to the low-hanging fruit you ask if he is looking for a restroom?
The Faceless shakes his head no.
You ask does he need assistance from a librarian?
The Faceless indicates no.
You ask is he unsure of what happened to his face and is he looking for guidance?
The Faceless: no.
You ask does he feel adrift in a cold and unmoored world?
You sigh. You ask, are you wondering what my book is about?
You notice, for the first time, the Faceless’s lips, hitherto unknown ‘round these parts, watch them curl into a smile. His teeth are straight from the toothpaste commercials, get your cameras ready people! He leans into you, so close that you’d be nose to nose if he um, had a nose. But his breath smells of lilac, curiously.
The Faceless nods yes and says, “Stole the words right out of my mouth.”
You stare at the page. You write, It was a stark and dormy night in Sandwich where villagers danced and had boils lanced. No, that won’t do. You’re not sure you have much to say on the topic of boil-lancing. In fact you’re beginning to think It was a stark and dormy night is not going to work out for you. It’s too general.
You write, It was the stark and dormy night, just to see what it looks like.
“It doesn’t look good,” says Mandy who has flown from gob knows where to perch on your shoulder. “Sleep on it.”
The talking bird has a point. You lay your head on your desk. Just for a minute, you tell yourself. Your desk is shaking. No, the entire floor is shaking. Is it an earthquake? The floor is opening up now, what the heck? You look down into the void and are reassured to find that it is, if nothing else, iridescent, and you hear what is either the sound of a fluid and mellifluous laugh or else a babbling brook, it’s impossible to know. Your seat is suddenly as cold as ice—no, it is ice. Your entire chair is frozen. One slip and you’re a goner. Steady yourself. You can do this.
You put your pencil down. You’ve been scribbling aimlessly long enough. You know a work day is over when you’ve dripped sweat all over your notebooks and Leland Grossjoy’s Original Dirigible. You notice your pants laying on the ground next to your chair, which is perpantserous, how’d they get there? You ought to put them on but first things first. You ask grandpa clock if it is closing time yet.
“Sure thing, buddy.” And with that, grandpa clock falls asleep, snoring loudly.
May as well head out. You gather your notebooks and head down the stairs. Your legs feel cool for whatever reason. All in all this has been a pretty typical day.
Outside the first thing you notice is the air, the temperature is perfect. Where does your skin end and the air begin? You decide that it must be 67 degrees Fahrenheit. What is your book about? You have seven days to answer that question in long form prose. First though you must take in your shirt to the dry cleaners to have the sauce stain removed, otherwise it will be nagging at your brain while you are trying to work. Everyone stares at you as you commute home but it’s no bother because you are back in your house before you know it. It’s two in the morning and you’re wide awake lying on your back staring and trying not to think when the ceiling melts away in a swirl of purples, blues, and greys. You regard the stars. They are bright tonight. You hope you see a comet pass by and sure enough one does, swinging extra low so you can climb on its back and rocket off into the cosmos in your nightgown and slippers, which you were wearing in bed for reasons unclear. What is your book about? You realize you never picked up that piece of litter from earlier.