Miscellaneous Mental Musings of an Emerging Artist
While searching for a copy of a Write Club essay that has gone missing I found this very short work of fiction that I apparently wrote in September 2012. I have no memory of writing this story; I don’t even know if I was assigned to write it or was simply following a personal whim.
If anybody knows why I wrote it, please let me know. Everybody else, well, here’s some short fiction.
The project began when I was eleven.
This was in June of that year, after coming home from the hospital and being forbidden from ever again hanging out with the Mosley twins, who had been so instrumental in my ascent and rapid descent from the tall maple in the backyard. I’d been forbidden from spending time with them before, had even suffered injury during their foolhardy escapades before. It was not the severity of my broken leg that had finally convinced me to obey my father’s edict so much as the knowledge that as I had lay there, surrounded by torn leaves and broken branches, unable to scream for the wind knocked out of me, that they had simply run home without so much as asking if I needed help.
The library books my father had brought for me during my recovery seemed to have been carefully chosen based on a meticulous calculus of his own devising: Tom Sawyer and The Three Musketeers, The Hobbit and Sherlock Holmes. Books that he knew his daredevil son would enjoy but perhaps also books that simply by being books could point out that there were safer ways to experience thrill besides searching for actual hazards.
It was a noble but futile effort, and the irony of ironies there is that he never considered bringing me a copy of Don Quixote. I enjoyed the stories well enough, like the middle-achieving child in a sophomore year English class.
Of the dozen or so works my father brought home during that first week, seven contained dog-eared corners or left-behind bookmarks, and for whatever reason, whatever synaptic connection was occurring in my skull, these were what captured my imagination. I wondered why the previous readers had stopped in each section, if they had run out of time and chosen not to renew, if they had decided that they were not sufficiently interested to continue. Was there significance to the page that they had meant to collect but forgot to do so before returning the book?
On a lark, and out of sight of my father’s certain disapproval, I carefully tore the marked pages from each book and hid them under my mattress. And that was how it began; with seven pages from the classics of western literature. I would read these pages like hymnals, like prayers out of the context of any god who created the universe. Soon I had gone from reading them to memorizing them, to finding places in my life where the phrases would appear, to creating opportunities to speak the sections aloud. Late at night I would often awaken from dreams of clockwork and lay the pages out in a row in front of me, flipping them over and rearranging their order, attempting to see if there was some pattern or cogent narrative that could be formed from the absurd collision of Smaug the dragon and Injun Joe.
There was not, and I became convinced that the problem was that I simply didn’t have enough pages to work with.
To the unsuspecting delight of my parents, I spent several hours a week in the library from then on, carefully leafing through every book in every genre, in search of pages with signposts sticking out of them. When I had the money available I would make the effort to photocopy any such pages I found; when I didn’t have the money I would make a note to come back when I did have the money, when I lacked the money or the patience I would check out the book and then hide someplace to tear the page out for my own.
When the local library ran out I started biking three extra miles to the next town’s library. When that library ran out I biked six extra miles. By the end of the summer after I’d begun my project I was as lean and muscular as a prize stallion and had ravaged the collections of eight different municipalities.
I grew up. I moved away. I found cities filled with dank cellars and $20 signs on the door that read “Used Books” and I spent the two hours each evening between the end of my workday and the closing of the store rifling through weather-beaten copies of To Kill a Mockingbird, through Tropic of Cancer with the cover ripped off and large sections stained with things I dared not imagine. But once a week, without fail, I would find something worth collecting.
My Frankenstein’s novel, which in fact contained no fewer than five different pages from five different copies of Frankenstein, had grown to a monstrous volume of four thousand pages by the time I turned 30. Some of these pages I had determined to be matches, to be groups, like a part of a jigsaw puzzle the size of the world’s history. Others I was certain I was close to finding the partners for. Others remained an enigma. I did not know if I’d found the book’s beginning or its end. Like all labyrinths, it was but a collection of passages.
On my 40th birthday I walk into a library in Detroit, while on a trip for business. I grab something off the shelf at random and sit in a chair, hoping to kill time before my meeting. On page 40 of the book I find a bookmark made of the 40th page of another book.
I unfold the page, and I read it. And it reads:
The project began when I was eleven. This was in June of that year, after coming home from the hospital and being forbidden from ever again hanging out with the Mosley twins, who had been so instrumental in my ascent and rapid descent from the tall maple in the backyard.
In an instant my lifelong collage is abandoned, a victim of shock and wonderment. I begin scanning the shelves again, no longer looking for pieces of every book but looking for the whole of a single book, trying to imagine who has been reading it, hoping that I have been compelling, and that whatever page is currently marked in that book is not the last page that will ever be read.