The Story Is
One night, after everyone else in the Thursday night Writer’s Workshop left, Jack and Tessa were threatening to close the bar again, and he told her his wife hadn’t read a word he’d written in the last ten years. Tessa (he had never seen her have six beers before) said that was like not looking a man straight in the eye when you came. The next time they each got up to go to the bathroom, they wrote that down. Him in all CAPS.
Tessa and Jack had a relationship of sorts some years before. He had been her teacher in one of the first writing courses she took as an undergraduate and one of the last literature ones. The course was called Love in the Western World –something palliative he had come up with as a project shortly after his first divorce. Her appearance in these classes seemed unlikely to him after he looked her up in the system and discovered her major was Nutrition & Health.
And then they each wandered off, though neither very far, to marry too young—him for the second time. Then they got pregnant—she concurrently with her marriage, him quickly thereafter, and three times. Then they either grew to refuse to settle for the less it seemed they had ended up with, or they couldn’t make the cut—depending on who was telling the story.
Tessa was writing poems when she enrolled in Jack’s class. He told her she had a smartly tuned ear and eye, which was mostly true. He knew even then she would be worth the effort, but didn’t have that much effort, at that time, left in him.
She showed up at the writer’s group writing short stories whose characters were always, unknown even to them, seeking at least redemption if not grace, prowling the local working class bars, the outlet strip mall parking lots, the edges of the church bazaar. Women whose brains and balls their families and neighbors were sure if they kept all this up would render them unfit for anything but hard drinking, Jenny Craig, and fucking around with the kinds of guys you’d imagine would hone in on such circumstances .
For years Jack’s specialty had been small, though he liked to think, perfectly wrought, tortured if not tortuous lyric poems about his getting laid or not getting laid, seeing God or not. Or so he joked as people do when they fear something’s true. He actually produced little and not very often, like in the old joke, not only is the food in this restaurant terrible, but they serve such small portions. He attributed what he liked to think of as his fallow periods to the demands of the craft and his irresolute integrity. It was either that, or a waning inspiration and a brain increasingly addled by envy, irony, and too much Jack Daniels.
“Words,” he wrote in '76, “are the animal we have evolved ourselves to.” In '87 he said, in a review of somebody else’s work, “there are two kinds of words; those that are about reality and those that are, or aspire to be, reality itself.” In '92 he realized he hadn’t really written anything in nearly two years.
The first time Tessa brought to the group a story where her main character, Patsy, implied she had a ‘lover,’ Jack nearly swooned, not knowing even then if it was that he thought she had one, or because she might be open to one. Patsy was more than restless, beyond bored, struggling not to admit how unhappy she might be or why. The shadow lover seemed to be a student enrolled in her ongoing “Healthy Eating After your Heart Attack” class. He was a very bad student.
The next week Jack brought something that he did not show to the rest of the group, but read later only to Tessa in a back booth so dimly lit she realized right away he must have the whole thing memorized. He, or least his character, John, seemed to be that very same bad student who, though satisfactorily married and with children, after his last attack decided that the only thing that mattered was mad passionate love, even if it went, as it did in all the grand old stories, unrequited. He laid the whole matter at the feet of Patricia, his beautiful instructress.
Soon after this they splintered off and formed their own group of two, or four, depending on how you counted, meeting in a back booth at a different bar a little way down the street. They read each other what they had written because they knew the other would be there to listen to it. Early on one night, when she was half as drunk as he usually got, he went for it. Badly, he realized later, awkwardly, either too soon or too late.
She only had to say no once, at least that’s what he swore to her and himself. “Don’t you understand,” she said later and levelly, “as long as we don’t fuck, there’s not a thing they can do to us.” He knew immediately what and whom she meant. He also immediately recognized the idea as brilliant—nearly Postmodern in its possible levels of valance and, at a minimum, duplicity.
But in their stories anything could happen and did. The harder he came at her the two times harder she came back. He had them doing it in an abandoned Vegas Hotel Ballroom, the edge of the moon, and a host of cheap motels along the interstate. If there were an Olympics for adulterous lovers, they would have gotten points for both style and execution.
In her versions they mostly talked, though how they talked. They didn’t finish each other’s sentences; they didn’t need to. But they did speak while they kissed, because there was never time enough.
In her stories the lover remained a shadow, though a substantial one. He was a force of possibilities, a distant pong to her ping, sometimes an excuse, more often a reason, at least that’s what Jack thought John would think.
Jack suspected he, or someone very like him, was the lover. In her stories the lover was always present and always absent. He was there when she went to the side yard in the morning to feed her birds the days old bread and popcorn scraps, there also out motionless on the redwood glider in the backyard at twilight with her first beer of the evening.
The lover in Jack’s stories, that Tessa knew to be her, or at least the way she was aware even then he wanted to see her, was your usual muse on the loose, sort of a Tonto with breasts. The kind of a girl you couldn’t bring home to Mamma because you knew you couldn’t trust your Dad. The kind of a woman other men could never forgive you for having. Tessa wondered what Patsy would make of all that.
One night at the bar Jack showed Tessa a story in which Patricia agreed to leave her husband. She would never do that, Tessa said, at least not at this point, and certainly not just because she wanted to.
He was particularly proud in that story of an image he had come up with involving a woman in a car stuck in the snow and two men, one in front, one in back, both trying to help her rock her way out, each shouting something she couldn’t hear over the whirr of the tires going nowhere. There was, he hoped, a subtle motif of misdirection and indecision – the wind howled this way and that, all the streetlights blinked caution and caution again.
The next week in her story the character that was him gave it all up and went back to trying to woo his wife in ways predictable and obtuse. There was one scene, the final one maybe, where the man, the poet, was in his big windowed garret watching his wife at twilight downstairs in his garden amidst swallows and bats, reading yet another book her recently widowed mother had recommended. And how he left his blank page and descended the seventeen steps to her out the raggedy storm door he let go slat and bang behind him. And how he kneeled in front of her sitting in the plastic green fake Adirondack chair, and held her and was silent.
Unlikely was all that was left for Jack to say, so he couldn’t say it. Instead he said he thought the story less complex than most of her recent stuff, the situations predictable, the motivations for the main characters single-minded and not really believable. The next week neither of them brought anything with them, so they left the bar and wandered wordlessly the stony banks of the river two blocks away. The water, perhaps, low, the weather maybe temperate and inviting, the sky some particularly untold blue.
©2006 by Bruce Taylor