Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Skill Set

It was Sharon’s thirteenth anniversary
at CommSolutions, Inc.
(Not that anyone noticed.)
But she took herself out to lunch
at the Panera a few blocks away
and allowed herself one of those
oversized cookies for dessert.
To celebrate.
She had walked into her beige cubicle
the first day,
an enthusiastic, motivated 23-year-old.
An artist at heart,
doing this as a mere “day job”
until she started getting published.
Would probably have to put in her notice
when she got her big advance
and had to schedule a book tour.
But she also wanted to do her best
and be the kind of person her manager
considered “indispensible.”
She vowed that she wouldn’t take shit
from anyone,
nor would she stand for it
when Doug talked to her like that.
Thirteen years on,
Doug continued to talk to her like that
because he was a VP,
and she wasn’t even a manager,
even though she was certainly indispensible.
But she had learned to keep a poker face
at meetings when people used words like
“innovative” and “state of the art” and “circle back.”
She learned to smile and say, “Sure, no problem,”
when it certainly was a problem.
She learned that quality mattered less than quantity and speed.
She learned to congratulate people she didn’t like
for promotions and weddings and babies.
She learned to sign birthday cards
for coworkers in the other suite she had never formally met
and couldn’t identify in a police lineup.
She learned not to feel so bad for her lost literary dreams
because at least she had a 401k and three weeks of vacation.
She learned to avoid the girls in the kitchenette
and take her lunch outside,
eating a turkey sandwich in the sunshine,
under a blue, cloudless sky,
listening to birdsong
and cars rushing down the highway.


You don’t appreciate a radiant, sunny day
when you’ve got a migraine.
Turn the goddamn sun down!
Bright, saturated colors hurt my eyes,
make my head throb and my stomach swim.
I turn my head, close my eyes,
look like I’ve eaten something sour.
Bury my head under a blanket.
That’s too hot, and I can’t breathe.
Feel acid rising in my throat,
please don’t barf, please don’t barf.
It doesn’t help to vomit.
It only makes your eyeballs throb more.
Sleep it off.  It’s all you can do.
Wake to a glorious lack of pain.
Feel incandescent and reborn.


These dogs,
in their unbridled joy and enthusiasm,
stomp on the tops of my pale bare feet
with their sharp eagle talons.
I can yell and curse,
but they barely notice.
Because I have put jeans and a bra on,
pulled the nearest t-shirt over my head,
stepped into my black flats
and reached for the nylon leashes
hanging off a silver hook on the light yellow wall
by the front door.

The Realms of the Broken Realities

The first night of the conference,
I bumped into a famous professor
from Stanford
in the hotel bar.
When I say “famous,” I wouldn’t say
he was a household name,
but everyone in your university’s
English department knows who he is
and is either a passionate follower or
a vociferous detractor.
I quite literally bumped into him,
spilling his drink a little on the cuff
of his right sleeve
and I profusely apologized,
not even realizing who he was at first.
Then when I recognized his sonorous voice,
I felt even more mortified,
but he just smiled.
“No, no, it’s quite all right,” he said,
with a little wave.
“No harm done.”
He even bought me a drink.
He peered at my nametag,
which listed my university as well,
and, in just a few moments,
he had sized up the big stars
of my department
and dismissed them all.
He had nice things to say about the campus
and the restaurants downtown
and teased me about our mediocre football team.
“Now, what’s your specialty?” he asked,
and, a little sheepishly, I admitted
that I was a Harrisonite.
“I know a thing or two about Harrison,”
he replied with a sly grin.
I reached into my messenger bag and pulled out
a dog-eared, highlighted and underlined, used copy
of his “Critical Analyses of the Seminal Works by Anthony E. Harrison,”
the sixth edition of which was published in 2014.

“It’s a rich and rewarding field,” he told me,
“and as I’m sure you know, lots of people
disagree with my ideas about…
well, just about everything to do with Harrison,
but I actually welcome the debate.
If one person could provide all the answers,
Harrison’s work wouldn’t be much worth studying, would it?
I’m looking forward to seeing what you contribute.”
“I feel like I’m still learning how to read him,” I demurred.
“I think it will be years before I have something to contribute.”

“Are you familiar with his final work?” he asked.
The Fall of the Red Night?” I replied, “Oh, yes.
My master’s thesis was about…”
“No,” the professor corrected.
“Everyone thinks his final book was The Fall of the Red Night.
It was actually a fifty-six-page novella called
The Realms of the Broken Realities.
“Huh,” I replied, thumbing through the index of his book,
“I’ve never heard of that one.”
“You won’t find it in my book,” the professor said.
“I refuse to touch it. 
I don’t write about it or teach it, and I’ve read it only once.”
“Why?” I asked, stunned.
“Harrison’s mental acuity had greatly declined by that point,
around the middle of…1972, I believe.
That book should never have been published,
and it languishes in obscurity for a reason.
It’s the work of a madman.
It’s not even particularly easy to find now,
out of print.
You might find a copy in a dusty used bookstore.”
The professor excused himself to go to the restroom,
and of course while he was gone,
I did a quick search online for a copy
with no luck.
He returned and, with a smile, he said,
“You know, people say that if you really get into
that last book, you’ll go mad too.”
“Oh, that sounds like nonsense,” I laughed.
“Like the people who hear Satanic messages
in records played backwards.”
“Nonsense, huh?  Just ask Ray Cochran.”
He grabbed his coat from the back of his chair.
“Let me give you some advice, my friend.
I have spent my entire career with my nose in books,
but there is more to life.
The people who forget that pay a price.”
I thanked him and wished him good night,
and I decided then and there
that I was tweaking the topic of my dissertation.

A week or so after the conference,
I told my advisor about this encounter
and asked her about Ray Cochran,
and she said, with a smile,
“Oh, did he tell you that Ray went mad?”
“Kind of?”
“Well, if you’re in academia long enough,
you’ll run into a Ray or two.
Brilliant but obsessive,
lives in his own head too much.
He was a rising star in lit crit.
He probably has some essays in that anthology
you’re carrying.
No one really knew what he was talking about.
He basically invented his own language
in his essays and articles.
He had some decent ideas, though,
that other people parrot now,
not even realizing they were his.
Anyway, he was studying that last novella
when he had some kind of a breakdown.
He left his tenured position,
and no one really knows what happened.
Some people say he passed away,
or that he’s homeless, or that he lives in Bolivia now.”
She wasn’t opposed to me changing my focus
to The Realms of the Broken Realities,
at least temporarily.
“I think you’ll find it’s a mess,” she said,
“But who knows, maybe you’ll make some sense of it.”

I wasn’t going to be able to make any sense of it,
if I couldn’t find a copy of it, however.
I pored through websites listing used books for sale.
The one person who claimed to have a copy
wanted $1,500.00 for it,
which was an impossibility on my budget,
but I was certainly tempted.
Our library system didn’t have it,
and my old boss at the Main Library used to say,
“If we don’t have it, it’s not worth reading.”
Taking the professor’s advice,
I haunted the aisles of a dusty used bookstore.
The books were allegedly sorted according to genre,
but certainly not alphabetized by author,
and you could often find a Jane Austen novel
shoved rudely between two math textbooks
on the opposite side of the bookstore from where she should have been.
I asked Lawrence, the owner of the bookstore,
a man with squinting eyes, a hunched back, and a permanent frown,
if he could hire me part-time over the summer,
and I could help him organize his inventory
and perhaps find my book hidden in some dim corner.
He shrugged, “Knock yourself out, kid.  Minimum wage.”
I ended that summer proud of my work
but no closer to owning my own copy of the lost novella.
I once asked Lawrence
if he liked reading Harrison.
He waved the idea away like he was shooing a fly.
“I’m not smart enough for that stuff.
I prefer mystery books, whodunnits.”
I mentioned Ray Cochran
and how he had disappeared,
and my boss just laughed.
“He’s not dead or homeless.  He runs a used bookstore
in Michigan, and I see him at book fairs
and estate sales sometimes.  He’s definitely wacko,
but not in Bolivia.”

He insisted I call him Ray,
invited me upstairs to his apartment above his bookstore
for a cup of coffee or tea.
His apartment was indistinguishable from the shop downstairs.
The walls were lined with shelves filled with books,
and there were piles of books on the couches
and TV trays and the kitchen table
and even on the countertop in the bathroom.
He laughed when I told him
that I wanted to write about
The Realms of the Broken Realities
for my dissertation.
“That is not a book you study, my young friend,”
he said.
“It is a book that you explore.
It’s a book of good and a book of evil.”
Then he laughed a little too loudly and coughed.
“Do you…have a copy I could borrow?” I asked hopefully.
“No, no, no,” he replied. 
I was afraid I had offended him.
Then he added, “I don’t have any here.
But I have a whole box of copies in a storage unit,
and I can send some to you.”
“Oh, I only need one,” I assured him.
“No, you don’t,” he said.

I received them in the mail only two weeks later.
Two slim volumes,
a faint mildew smell.
Ugly Seventies cover, cheaply made.
I opened the book to the introduction,
written by Anthony E. Harrison himself.
He wrote, “This will be no one’s favorite book,
but it is my best book.
Many will try,
but only one will truly understand.”
I read the first chapter,
and I highly doubted that I would be The One.
I didn’t understand anything I read.
There seemed to be a main character,
named Oren,
who was walking down a long path
in a dark forest,
and there were random numbers and words
written in what appeared to be Greek
interspersed with the text
and then a long political rant
and finally the word “NOWHERE”
written over and over again until the end
of the chapter, probably one hundred times.
Maybe some people would have found it fascinating,
but I was deeply disappointed.
I was hoping that I could make my name
writing about this book,
that I could discover something brand new
about an author who died forty-five years ago.
I knew that I couldn’t dedicate my life
to this unreadable little paperback.
Whatever I pursued had to have some meaning,
had to spark passion in me.
This read like something that had been
randomly generated by a computer,
and I lamented the time I had already lost to it.
I thought maybe if I gave Ray Cochran a call,
he could provide some insights,
enough to keep me going
to Chapter Two.

I thanked him profusely for sending me the books,
and he said, “I’m sure now you understand
why you had to have more than one copy.”
“I…I don’t understand,” I confessed,
and he sighed.
“You haven’t taken the time to compare them?”
“Well, no…I only just started reading it.”
“Look at page twenty-six,” he commanded.
“Page twenty-six in both books.”
I scanned both pages, but they looked identical to me.
He sighed again.
“Look CLOSER.”
“I’m sorry…I just don’t see the difference between them.
Of course I’m just skimming quickly.”
“Don’t call me back until you find it,” he gruffly replied
before hanging up the phone.

I poured myself a large glass of red wine
and looked at page twenty-six in both books,
comparing line by line, word by word.
I did this about five times but couldn’t find any differences.
I tossed the books aside with annoyance.
Well, they did say he was nuts, I thought.
Then I opened the books one more time.
I noticed that in one copy, there was an extra space
between two words on the fifteenth line.
“downward  motion” instead of “downward motion.”
That couldn’t be IT, could it?
A simple typographical error?
I called Ray Cochran back,
slightly drunk at this point.
“The REAL book is written in the spaces,” he announced,
“every page of each copy is different,
and the line numbers where the differences occur
correspond to letters of the Greek alphabet,
and of course I don’t have every copy,
but the more I can find, the more I can decipher…”
“Ray, Ray, Ray,” I interrupted,
“I’m not a code-breaker.  I can’t count line numbers
and spaces and figure out coordinates
for some kind of treasure map.
I study Harrison’s books for the beautiful language
and the classical allusions
and the depth of characterization.”
“Fine,” he said quietly.
“Then write your dissertation on
The Fall of the Red Night or
The Dawn of the Aegis.
Just like everyone else.”
This gave me pause.
For a moment, I tried to imagine
repeating any of this to my advisor
or the dissertation committee
or even my fellow doctoral students
over a few beers at Nick’s English Pub.
An impossibility.
And yet…

“This is just a cheaply produced,
mass-market paperback,” I argued.
“How could each page of each copy be unique?”
“You don’t believe me,” Ray stated flatly.
“No, it’s not that I don’t believe…”
“You don’t have to humor me,” he said.
“I lost a job—with tenure—over this, lost a girlfriend over this
(and I was going to marry her too),
lost friends, lost respect.  I know the sound of someone
not believing me.
Before you showed up, I had put all those books away.
Because I know that I’m not The One.
The One Harrison said would understand the book.
I gave it my all, but I could never get to the heart of the thing.
For a second, I thought maybe you were The One,
and it was pretty damn exciting
to think I could give you a bit of a head start.
And maybe you are.
Maybe you just need some time.
But you’ll go to hell and back first.
And what do you think happens to the only person
who can understand the Master’s greatest work?
Do you think you’ll get accolades and awards?
The rest of the world still won’t understand it,
no matter how you explain it.”
He dramatically hung up then,
and that was the last time I spoke to him.

I stopped in Lawrence’s shop one afternoon,
No particular reason but to say hi.
I brought him a coffee and a chocolate donut,
which he acknowledged with a nod.
That was as effusive as he got, generally.
“You hear about Ray Cochran?” he asked.
“No, what?”
“Killed himself last weekend.”
The floor dropped out from under me a bit,
until I recovered myself.
“Wow, I just talked to him maybe a few weeks ago,” I said.
“What happened?”
“I dunno.  Killed himself.”  Lawrence licked chocolate frosting
off his thumb and index finger.
And just like that, the only human connection
I had to that badly written little book
from one of the world’s greatest authors
was gone.

Several weeks later, I received a large box.
Had to pick it up from the post office.
Inside were forty-three copies of
The Realms of the Broken Realities
and several notebooks written in
Ray’s cramped, shaky handwriting.
A letter was addressed to me from
a Mr. Jeff Barlow,
who described himself as
“Ray’s lawyer and best friend.”
Mr. Barlow wrote that Ray,
before taking his own life,
had left a note,
listing directions regarding
certain possessions that were
not described in his will.
That note indicated that these materials
(the books and the notebooks)
were to be sent to me.
Feeling the weight of a moral responsibility,
I opened the book again with a new purpose.
Studying Ray’s notes, I slowly began to understand.
The thrill of discovery proved to be so meaningful
that I devoted my life
for the next seven years
to unlocking the book’s secrets.

Ray was not wrong.
I’ve been to hell and back.
And I’ve concluded that I’m not The One,
the Only One who will understand that book.
I’ve been laughed out of symposiums,
called a “raving lunatic”
by the very professor I met
at the beginning of this tale.
I’ve been kicked out of my doctoral program,
and my advisor ordered me in writing
to “stop harassing her,” or she would
report me to campus police.
She was being nice, really.
She could easily have called the city’s police
when I got into her apartment.
I had only wanted to talk!
And the door was unlocked.
I could see in her eyes that she pitied me
and knew that I meant her no harm.
I only wanted to explain and to share
the new discoveries I found.
887543, NOT 887543!
My family staged an intervention
and asked me to seek treatment
at a psychiatric facility.
So I had to go off the grid for a while.
It was a little lonely, sure.
Holed up in some crap trailer
outside of Fairfield, Iowa,
with only The Book for company.
But I made some interesting discoveries,
which will be detailed in the following chapters.
They are simply waiting for the One to find them.