Telling the story

I observe; it’s my job. Being a writer means recording the details of the world, the colors and textures and scents and rhythms and flavors of life. We need to know how things are, so we can transport readers into stories.

Writers create the world with their words. We have to use caution in how we deploy them. Too much darkness and the world becomes bleak; too much brilliance and we become blinded to reality.

But the stories need to be told.

Miss Fuzzy was the porch cat, the one I never allowed into my house because I have a houseful already. When people would ask, I was always a little reluctant to even admit she was mine, because I don’t believe in letting cats roam around outside; it’s too dangerous for them. I would tell people “She’s half mine, and half her own.” I felt like a hypocrite; I was a hypocrite. But she was shrewd and scrappy and knew enough to run from trouble, and I made certain there were always plenty of places for her to hide. I hoped for the best: that I would find her a good home before her luck ran out. I wondered if the day would come when she would wander into the dusk and never return to my porch, as many have before. There’s an ache that can’t be salved when it happens; the dull throb of a pulled tooth, of an unresolved chord, an unfinished story. Nothing, I thought, is worse than not knowing.

Last Sunday afternoon I brought a cup of coffee out to the porch, and when Miss Fuzzy jumped down from the porch rail to say hello her leg gave out from beneath her. She lay on her side for a moment, kicking at the air with a puzzled expression, then staggered to her feet. I looked her over, expecting to see a cut or scrape, but there was nothing, and she hopped upon the table for water without any trouble.

After dinner Sunday night she fell again, rolling down the steps in a thoroughly graceless fashion. This time she twitched for longer before recovering; it was time for a visit to the vet. As they were closed until the morning, I arranged a crate on the porch, and coaxed her out of hiding with a second bowl of food. She didn’t struggle when I picked her up and carried her to the cage, she even purred a little.

With Miss Fuzzy safe — if not terribly happy with her accommodations — I went back inside to do some writing for Hallowe’en. Every hour or so I would go out to the porch and check on her, to see how much damage she’d wrought to the plants within her reach. The first couple of visits she was fine, if a bit surly. At about 3:00am, though, she went into full convulsions, mewling piteously as she flopped around in the cage.

I was sure she was dying, but after an eternal ten seconds she stopped, sat up, looked around quizzically, and started pawing at the bars. She looked terrible, as the convulsions had upended her water dish, the food bowl, and the litter pan. When I opened the crate’s door, she walked right out and into the waiting carrier, ready to go to the emergency vet.

How much detail is appropriate, how much is necessary to tell the tale? We wrestle with this issue all the time. Does it add anything to tell you how I raced up I-95, talking to Fuzzy through the vents in the carrier? How from time to time she’d be hit with another seizure, shaking the small plastic cage so violently it nearly fell from the seat?

It doesn’t matter. My mind records the details. A part of me stands back slightly and to one side, steno pad in hand, dispassionately recording the color notes of my life.

The vet tech was a big, burly fellow, but he was obviously intimidated by Miss Fuzzy. He told me to put her carrier on the stainless steel table, and asked some questions. I told him the story so far. Is she your cat, he asked? More or less, I replied, since she lives on my porch. Has she had her shots, he asked? Of course, I said. What about rabies, he asked? Well, yes, I paid extra for that, even though she was a stray then. How long ago, he asked? I don’t remember, about a year. Are you positive, he asked? It looks like she has rabies.

He hadn’t even looked inside the cage for more than a moment, long enough to see her in her disheveled state. How could he diagnose her so quickly? Was that possible, could she have rabies? I wracked my brain trying to remember what I knew about the disease. Doctors are supposed to know these things, I reminded myself. You aren’t an expert, you’re just a schmuck who reads a lot. Listen to the experts.

I can’t examine her, he said, it’s too big a risk. I’ll take her in back for the doctor to see while you fill out the paperwork. He gingerly picked up the carrier and held it at arm’s length as he carried it through the door into the lab. She was peaceful, though, laying on the floor of the carrier watching through the bars.

A while later the doctor came in, a nice young woman. There’s every indication it’s rabies, she said. You understand, of course, that I can’t put my staff at risk by examining her. The only option is euthanasia. There’s really no choice.

I stepped back and to the side, and took note of the other white coated young woman visible across the hall, peering into a microscope. Two employees stood in the hallway outside, one telling a story about going hunting with his grandfather, and being around big dogs. There was a bit of dirt and a few grayish-brown hairs on the otherwise spotless steel table. A middle-aged man was standing at the table, leaning on it heavily, shoulders slumped, red-eyed.

I’m sorry, the doctor said, I’m very sorry. The man, who was aging a year a minute, was muttering something about this all feeling wrong, and how this couldn’t be right, but it was difficult to make out his words because of the crying. The doctor patted his shoulder — absurdly, as though she were reassuring a skittish Irish setter —and left the room.

She returned with a clipboard holding a single photocopied sheet: Authorization for Euthanasia. There were words about releasing the clinic from liability, but it was hard to read, and legalese, anyway. Are you certain, I asked? It’s the only thing we can do, she replied. I can’t put my staff at risk. Surely you understand that. It felt wrong, but she was the expert.

I scrawled my name using the cheap blue plastic ballpoint pen, condemning Miss Fuzzy to death. I wasn’t allowed back into the lab; I never saw her again.

For four days my life was defined by absences: an empty spot under the palms; a vacancy on the porch rail; no one watching from the sidewalk as I drove up. The other cats did their best to comfort me, particularly Gordon, Miss Fuzzy’s son. Well, generally “comfort me” meant they knocked things over, nipped at my ankles as I fitfully slept, and reminded me that they are not dead. Meanwhile, I did my best to get some closure, and to understand that this was a terrible thing, but necessary. Rabies is dangerous, after all, and I couldn’t expect other people to risk infection.

Until Thursday afternoon, when a pleasant and efficient woman from the Broward Country Health Department called, assuring me that I had nothing to worry about: that feral cat I brought in didn’t have rabies.

Miss Fuzzy was killed without cause.

I showered. I nicked myself shaving. I brushed my teeth. I dressed. I drove to the office of my usual vet, who had previously treated her. I watched myself do these things, disappointed in how poorly I played the game.

When I told the office staff what had happened on Sunday night, they were angry. There was no reason, I was told, why professionals should have been so scared. There are simple and safe ways to sedate an animal without putting themselves at risk, they said. Blood could have been drawn and tests performed to rule out the most likely cause of the seizures: poisoning. If it was poison, it might have been treatable. Rabies isn’t treatable, but the only test for rabies is postmortem, and is too horrible for me to describe.

They called the clinic for me to try and get clarification. I sat in a hard plastic chair in the waiting room, numbly listening to one side of the conversation. People brought big dogs in and tiny puppies out. A smiling woman in a low-cut dress spoke kindly to me, a pug wrapping it’s leash around her ankles, but I don’t know what she said. Caged songbirds appeared.

There was more talk. The cat was feral, not a pet, the clinic said. How did he get her in a carrier, then? the vet asked. The cat was aggressive, the clinic said. She only weighed five pounds, how aggressive could she get? my vet asked. The clinic insisted they did the right thing; my vet insisted they did not. Still, nothing was concluded, but nothing could be done, anyway. Nothing would return her to me. I will never know what was really wrong with her.

Far worse than not knowing the end of the story is knowing the end, and never knowing the reason.

Standing slightly behind, and slightly to the side, I watch a tired, red-eyed man type. His back aches as he hunches over the keyboard. There is a bottle of pills beside the computer, and several empty glasses.

He’s writing a story about a cat he loved, a cat who died. He’s typing faster now, rushing to reach the end of the tale, hoping that in the telling he can wrench some meaning from his anguish, to craft some closure to ease his pain.

This story has ended, this tale has been told, but it will never resolve.

Only words

I decided to go out on the porch to write tonight, dragging a laptop with me. It’s way too hot, really, and the rain’s only made things sticky. Still, I’m going to stay out here for a while. I need a change.

The porch cat’s off exploring in the darkness, and the security light’s burned out again. This house has such lousy wiring — and this neighborhood such unstable current — that even compact fluorescents only last a few months. I’ve given up on keeping a toaster or an alarm clock alive. In this house everything burns out.

Ah, but I feel a mood taking me. Maybe it’s because I’m tired. Maybe it’s because it’s too hot. Maybe it’s because I’m bitter and a little frustrated. Nonetheless, hold on, children.

I feel a rant coming on. Let’s take a deep breath, and go.

The era of the intellectual field of honor has long gone; I miss the old Internet. People used to debate (and flame, and argue) about topics of substance. Sometimes it was hard for me to stomach the diatribes of the crypto-libertarians and anarcho-transhumanists and techno-pagans, but at least they had something to say, and they thought about it before they started typing. There was character and there were characters, and the ground was littered with the blood of ideas.

And of course it was all done with videos. Wait, no, that’s not right. Audio? No, that’s not it either. Graphics, photos? No, something else, what’s the word— That’s it! It was all done with words.

Words, damn it, words. Remember them?

People communicated with carefully chosen (if often insulting and inflammatory) words. Storytellers wove words into honest or funny or painful tales, and published them for the sheer joy of sharing. Creeds and philosophies and manifestos were written, tried and tested in the fires of creation. Endless verbal sparring on topics as varied as you can imagine, with all the fervor you could stand, and sometimes more than anyone could stand. That’s what the Internet was about: ideas, passion, creation, debate.

Now that kind of thought, when you can find it, is a frayed thread of signal is a labyrinth of noise. There are many possible reasons for this degeneration, but the primary culprit is money. On-line commerce was once as welcome as the proverbial punchbowl turd; now it’s the web’s entire raison d’être, making the possibility for intelligent debate as likely on-line as it is on television. You mustn’t risk offense unless, of course, those you might offend are outside your target demographic. Keep calm, keep cool, and don’t rock the boat unless your marketing plan accounts for the furor.

Once the web was words. Now it’s all about sales. You’re selling ads, you’re selling product, you’re selling your staggering insight into how to get other people to buy stuff. Blog posts are engineered, not written. The content doesn’t matter as long as you’ve got the right keywords and SEO bait. Shops in Mumbai crank out 500 words on the topic of your choice for US$1.00, guaranteed to get past the plagiarism test. And you know what? Those Indian guys are still better writers than most of the people getting published today. At least they’re creative, even if only at reusing content without affecting search rankings.

Clearly I put way too much effort into Hidden City; I over-think things. I will let an essay or story sit in draft form for weeks, months, or longer, until I feel like it’s right. Sometimes — often — it loses relevancy before I publish it. Other times someone else will knock something out on the same topic, leaving me to wonder if what I have to say is still original enough to make the effort. It can be frustrating to take the time to think an idea through, cutting and polishing the words just so, only to have someone knock two hundred words out on their phone while waiting in line for their soy latte and be instantly lauded as a new media genius.

Today if you mention that you write for the web you are afforded the same respect as someone who scribbles tales of old Nantucket on men’s room stalls. They say: You’re blogging; quality doesn’t matter, just quantity. They say: Stop thinking so much and just fill the page with buzzwords. They say: You don’t need to have anything to say, you just need to keep on updating so the rubes keep coming back.

Or they say: “Oh, yeah, my six year old’s got a blog, too.”

Don’t take the spit-shouting and arm-waving too seriously, though. It probably wasn’t the best idea to take a vacation from the self-congratulatory circle-jerks of the social media scene and spend more time with bitter, cynical, misanthropic writers. In fact, this whole rant is just one rocking chair shy of chasing you damned punk kids off my lawn.

Speaking of the lawn, the cat’s ambled back through the grass and is on the porch again now, looking warily at the way I’ve been pounding this poor keyboard. It’s five o’clock in the morning and my shirt’s soaked with sweat and I’m hungry and want a drink rather badly, so it’s time to call it a night and try to sleep this off.

Words take a lot out of me.

Monologue

The sky is a desaturated blue, a faded summer day filtering forward from my childhood. I’m sitting on my porch steps clutching a tumbler of ice water, wishing a breeze would stir. A rivulet of condensation runs across my knuckles, the glass sweating like I am.

“You gotta publish something soon, you know. Most people have probably already forgotten you. If you don’t do something you might as well shut the site down. It’s just a blog, fer chrissakes.”

I don’t bother turning around. I know who it is.

When I first started telling stories and writing them down as I child I didn’t give the sources of my inspiration much thought. Stories just poured out of my head constantly, an unstoppable torrent of improbable events and characters. I hadn’t yet become aware of the limitations the world tries to impose on creativity, and that we impose on ourselves.

As we get older, though, those limits lose their elasticity, and we often turn to muses for help. I’ve had many of them over the years, providing varying amounts of help and motivation. We tend to get the muse we need.

My most recent muse stopped showing up for work a few months ago, and after endless fumbling around, I got a new one. But he isn’t working out too well.

“Look, like I said, it’s just a damned blog. Blogs are for uninformed political debate, pictures of naked broads packed fulla silicone, and epic stories about what you had for lunch. No, wait, that’s Twitter now, isn’t it? Blogs are for epic stories about how your friend is a lying bitch and you hate her and all her friends and all that high school drama.”

My muses have always helped by giving me inspiration. This guy won’t even give me his name. More than likely he knows how fast I’ll find out his name is Ancient Greek for “flaming asshole.”

“Eh, whatever. No way are you writing for posterity here. Just type ‘The End’ and push the button. Quit playing around.”

Still, he has a point. There aren’t many people who really try to craft words for their personal sites. The Internet, for most people, is ephemeral, transient, a source of momentary distraction or a way to make a fast buck. Few people look to the web for permanence or quality. If no one cares, why am I wasting my time thinking about what I write?

“Hey, you know, I saw this great video on YouTube, this guy was reading stupid personal ads in all these funny voices. You’ve got a funny voice. I bet you could do that, and maybe make some money, too. You’ve got a webcam and a sense of h—”

“Look, knock it off, okay? I’m a writer, I write, it’s what I do. If you aren’t going to help me write, then just go fuck off somewhere.”

There is no response. When I turn toward him he’s leaning against the front door, slack-jawed, staring at me with one raised incredulous eyebrow.

“Whoa whoa, look who’s suddenly growing a pair! It’s about time!”

He’s wearing one of my t-shirts. I hate that.

“Oh yes, another thing. Quit looking like me. It doesn’t help, it’s really creepy, and it’s a little depressing, too. I’m not that fat.”

He gives me a smart-ass little smirk. God, I hope I don’t look like that. Please don’t let me look like that.

“Ready to give up, then? Throw in the towel? Take that ‘paper or plastic’ job?”

My temples start to throb and my hands start to shake so that I’m afraid I’m going to drop the glass. I turn away from him and look up into the blue. Was the summer sky that same color when I was sitting on the patio in Carbondale, reading The Mystery of the Green Ghost and deciding I was going to be a writer?

I turn back to my muse, who is taking a deep chug from what was originally a full bottle of my good rum. I know what I need to do.

“Hey, listen to me for a second.”

He wipes his mouth on his sleeve and looks at me, still smirking. “Sure, boss. What’s up?”

“Thanks for your so-called inspiration, but your services are no longer required here.”

He tilts his head and looks at me with curiosity.

“Are you sure about this? You don’t need any help?”

“I’m… Yeah, I’m quite sure.”

For the first time I notice that he’s actually several years younger than me, hasn’t lost as much of his hair, and doesn’t resemble me much at all. He looks oddly familiar, though. A thought occurs to me.

“Hey, is your name Malcolm, by any chance? You remind me of—”

He puts down the (now empty) bottle, picks up his backpack, and laughs. The sound is surprisingly open and cheerful.

“It is if you say it is. You’re the writer.”

With that he heads down the street and toward the college.

I go inside and sit down at the computer to start writing. As I do, I remember something.

The bastard’s still wearing my t-shirt.

Context

In my workplace a have a reputation as a writer, probably proving the Erasmus quote that “It is well known, that among the blind the one-eyed man is king.” I was not terribly surprised, then, when I got a call asking for a few sentences on the subject of freedom for a company newsletter. I was a little annoyed that I only got two hours notice, but that’s the way the company does things.

In between meetings I knocked out the following and e-mailed it off tot he committee.

If a society truly values freedom it must nurture a diversity of perspectives. Progress never comes from complacency, only from action, from challenges to the status quo. Ideas may be discussed which make us uncomfortable, but nonetheless the dialogue must be free and fearless. When ideas are exchanged openly and honestly, when citizens are allowed to express themselves fully, when society is safe from the tyranny of the majority, then and only then will freedom flourish. Fear and freedom cannot coexist.

They liked what I wrote and published it. Unfortunately, I wasn’t informed that they were asking other people to contribute, as well. My somewhat lengthy (and fully attributed) paragraph was put alongside the single-sentence submissions of my co-workers. Ah, well, I already had a reputation as a troublemaker in this joint, anyway. Now I can add perceived demagogue to my resume.