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  • Writer's picturePete O'Brien

Let Me Explain

Updated: Aug 23, 2023

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Let Me Explain

by Pete O'Brien

There is a sort of underwater predicament the day you accept a glass of beer from a stranger, when you have come to a restaurant alone and are the sole customer seated at a table. There are sounds you don't want to hear. Please forgive me! I know it sounds strange. I haven't been out of the coffin long. The blood in the beer I don't understand? The meat in the dumpling I don't want! Too much meat, ground beef of some kind. The heavy meal (half of it heavy, the other half nutritious—but then again no, only a small fraction of it was good for me!) But no! Wait! Leave the rumination be! I can't stand the sight of myself in the mirror! I haven't done the thing I promised to do! I, Leopold! I haven't written my two pages, or my one page. I haven't forgotten anything, but I overheard a voice or two carried in from the street that gumstuck me to put on a soundtrack of the river so I could work in peace! What comes next is anything other than what I expect, as I drop into a rhythm I don't understand. There are lines to follow, people to name, cousins to drop off hundreds of miles away if the game is to be played? Is it played? What do I mean? I am lost, and so much of my day is given over to something I can't fathom. There must be something else, something wholesome! The life I might have lived. But you know what it is, it's the same for everyone. The further along we go on the road, the less love we find? The places that used to contain people chatting with one another and having a good time turned into dead zones, like oceans without phytoplankton. I wonder what might become of the sky. Except I mean something else. And not even that. I would go to the bookstore to browse the poetry of a poet I love. But if I go, and when I do, I am destined to find little there to mend my condition. The stores have become deserts? Or I? No! What do I mean! What do I say! It isn't what I wish! But the restaurant was awful, I don't want to go back to that place. I came home, and had to go out again to work off the meal. The basketball courts at the gym were available. The teams that usually owned the courts had finished their sessions. There was room where before the staff had stowed a freezer full of bait. But how is it that I say that? I must have confused the memory! And wait! No one seems to know what to do, or what to say! And I complain on and on, my bones tire. The crackers of the generic brand have a pasty taste. The real ones remain at the store. I need to go buy a box of them. The glass comes up empty of something good!

What a waste! I can't seem to find myself in these four walls! I'm back in the coffin again.

And then it ends. The surprises crumble away. I am not a vampire, corpse, or mummy. I am a detective with a huge magnifying glass that nobody likes to see. It's yellow. I am very strong. I'm the only one who can move it. Wherever I go with this object, people shade their eyes and say, "Nacht, nacht, nacht." It disrupts their lives. It breaks their chain of thought. It makes them feel uneasy. The object is unsightly. It disgusts them! I know my magnifier has this effect on others. Everyone complains to me about the magnifier; they don't name the thing, but it's obvious what they mean.

And I take a look around.

I know it may sound silly, but when in doubt the best thing is not to doubt. I mean really. Do you doubt it?

You put a hand on my shoulder. You say, "There can be no question that you are on to something fishy, and I'm not about to prove or disprove the eloquence of a fish or a honeybee if they are floating just above the ground unaided by anything even a house."

See what I mean? The words you say come out wrong too! I have fallen off the edge of my edges, into an abyss of fathomless scales and fisheries! Be that as it may, let us go, and leave the wattles for others.

You open your mouth, then close it again.

"Yes, that's what I said," I said. "Precisely that! You needn't say anything more!" And I have to believe that I meant what I said with every fiber of my being. These things will make sense in time, but in the meantime we have no cents, and no one will give us any. I'm not inclined to think through the matter in any serious way, or in a duplicitous or malicious way, or even in a casual, nonchalant sort of way. I mean I'm inclined to bluff my way out of every dark corner with the idea that once I reach the end of time none of it will matter: not the pins or the cushions, or the confusions, or the arbitrations, or the arbiters of the arbitrations, or the cookies left on the counter.

(One of which you're munching on now.)

(And one of which I'm sampling, just to be sure. One never knows a cookie is a cookie until one experiences the cookie, and that I have done. It's not very good. I wasn't the one who baked it, you know.)

Well, cookies aside.

Right. Now let me see, the secret code. It must be here somewhere. I mean hidden somewhere inside the most secure office in the world there is bound to be an answer that I can figure out the question to. Are you ready?

"Ready to leave, you mean?" you say.

"Come!" I urge, and then drop the quotes. We haven't got any time for nodding and waffling. I believe, for one, that my doubt has, for the moment, taken another course, and that my confidence, for the moment, has returned wearing multiple hats and coats. Could it be then that somebody knows the answer to my question? Let me rephrase that, since I haven't yet formed the question. Or rather, No, we don't have time for that. We have to find the synapse.

But the sky hadn't moved. And I, Leopold, entered the scene fully myself for the first time that day, folding my umbrella into thirds, astonished at what I did, and quite certain I'd never see that umbrella again, let alone be able to open it again. It was cold and wet outside. I fled into the back of some dark room, and sat down in the corner. It was there that the answer to an unformed question caught my eye, as it hovered about a question mark, the latter also a thing only but half formed. And I desired something much more tangible and comprehensible. I needed to know who I was. And yesterday what had happened? The sky? Well, it couldn't have been orange. And yet?

The man in the purple suit found me first. He assure me everything was as it was last week, and that therefore there was no reason to be alarmed by anything ever. From the moment he saw me, he said he knew there could be no doubt.

Yes, he said so. He said, From this day forward. Yes, he did. And I knew that he was correct part way. But I wanted to exit the frame in which I found myself. I needed to assure myself of the principles of the ancients, had to know that everythin' was rockin' the way they say it would in the letters to the infamous peddler.

The infamous peddler turned up next. His appearance was by far the most astonishing thing I had ever witnessed before or since. He had eighteen tongues and was willing to part with all but one of them. I said I needed no tongues, unless perhaps they were delicious when cooked in a slow cooked stew. I had need of a stew. The goats had to be mollified, they were incredibly smart animals, and with the implants the man in the purple suit had given them, were quite capable of most anything, and were therefore a concern, since they might try at any moment to dominate the landscape with themselves and their kingdoms. The goats would slurp down the stew, methought. So you see, I was quite off!

But no longer did I wish to be led and misled. I had only to bluff my way out of the area. I had only to suit up as a suit-wearing human, be agreeable to ten fingers and ten toes, two legs and two arms, one head and one heart, and then be off! To what sky would I travel then! But I awoke to find that I had never been anything but human, and the discovery cut short my conjectures.

Nevertheless, I couldn't explain how then I had achieved what I had achieved. Until person number three arrived with the memo that stated that I hadn't managed those things. I was stunned. I was cut to the bone. I was thrown off the edge of the pinnacle of a building, only to land on the roof of the balcony, where twenty other bodies had preceded mine: the fellows were dead. They were piled so high though that this time they had succeeded for the first time, it appeared, to cushion the body of the one who fell, and so prevent him from dying such a rigorous death as they had suffered.

I kept the matter a secret. I had to! Let me explain! I escaped from the tower that very night. There was no moon in the sky, the clouds were thick, it was as dark as a barrel closed around a rock buried in dirt. An impetuous rain fell. The wetness worked into every fold of my suit; the colors bled, it flattened my hair. My new look was nothing like the old one. The watchful eyes of the city failed to recognize me as I stole away. And I sat down five miles away or so, in a recessed doorway of an abandoned building, and there I remained for many a day, begging each day for a crust of bread or so, and not every day did I get one. I grew quite thin. I forgot the problems I had sworn to resolve. I listened intently to the rain that fell nearly every day. I knew by the color of the grit and buildings, and the manner of the passersby even without their speaking, that I had found Oxford, and Oxford had found me. I would be one of the unfortunate ones who would say, "Please," or growl, or run in a panic, my arms flying like the sails of a windmill in crazyspin. I would know whatever I needed to know.

A boy stopped one day before me, and said, "What?" I had no idea what to say. His message was perfectly clear to him, that was clear. And then he was gone.

The rain I began to analyse, even as the British s replaced the usual z in analyze, before I shuffled it back. The drops were large and slanted. The water was wet and complicated. The smog and pollution that flavored it had but one smell. And it was the smell of the gutter that was the smell of every English gutter I had ever known. The gutters back home were much more diverse in their odors. But here everything had but one definition.

I could tell the businesspeople who occasionally dodged by had had their tea and toast. I sensed the men were accustomed to speaking with women, I could tell they lived with them. I recognized the students, also: the young heads who lived in close quarters, who mixed with many, or a few, or who were quite alone. And I thought about it. There were days when it seemed nobody knew this street. I listened for the sound of steps; many times I thought sure they were drawing near; that some feet would trod over me; or some hard hands had come for me, to punish me for the space I took up on the stones.

I listened. There was seldom any music, there was seldom any sun. There were long days when nothing seemed to happen. There were long, cold nights, with the occasional scream of a woman or the shouting of a man. There was the one who would wander through, drunk or out of his head, yelling and cursing the day and the night, his clothes twisted and ugly, his face unshaven and dirty, his movements sudden. He saw everything and nothing. He was present far too long.

And then that day dawned possessed of some kind spirit of grace that did but glow at the far edge of what I could see, or just around the corner of a structure there, as shafts of light cut through the sky and spread upon the stones and mortar, curbs, feet, and even children, or bicycles and bags, and I could see things as they were in beauty, and as they might have been, and as the good spirit wished them to be, imperfect and human, wise and glorious, small and humble, simple and unfeigned. A hand reached out to me, but then the hand and the woman were gone. The light remained, the people had left. I listened to the sounds of so many not far off, and I wished I could do something to keep this day intact for other days; it was a dream of the forest, it was a faery thing even in an olde university place.

If I stayed in this recess of the sidewalk much longer, I would cease to be, even more than I had already ceased to be. A person in a story who does nothing, like the person in real life who never does anything of importance, is not one whom the world will entrust with their time when they sit down to drop into a story.

I recalled then, that while I had thought my life had no purpose, I was wrong about that. I realized I was someone who would never search for the meaning of life or his life's purpose, because I was a person who lived life on purpose. There were people who needed me and what I had to offer. I was not a lost soul.

And further I remembered I had a pen, and that a man by the name of Hoggsfeldt, or Shmiggentok, or Cogotrinko (I was quite certain he went by one of those three names), had enlisted me on an important directive for a major company in Paris, to be the one to, as a matter of course, write two pages, one one day, and one by two weeks hence, or perhaps sooner and both of them at once, and he certainly knew my name, he called me Leopold, he said it was up to me to satisfy a certain businessman with a hundred cats, and to just do it. As soon as I agreed never to fail him in the execution of this wordcraft (it seemed like a great idea to me!), he collapsed in a heap before me and died on the spot.

The shock of the man's demise caused me, first, to begin writing some tales directly, and second, to climb to the pinnacle of greatness, which I interpreted quite literally in my mind to be the pinnacle of the Zaffoquantoborum Building (the day I did so I had just stepped off a plane, unclear in my head as to which city I had been redirected to for my canceled flight, stumbled through a mist, and saw the building which inspired me to climb it, because it was there, and only later did I learn it was the Zaffoquantoborum Building, and that it had a thing or two in common with the tower by the same name in New York City, and I had to ask myself if I had scaled it before, and if time was only playing tricks on me), and so did I climb the structure, and so did I learn where the bodies were ensconced, and so forth, as well as I did bestir the forces who were on the lookout for the man in purple who had vowed to linger by the Zaffoquantoborum Building and play cat and mouse with the forces pitted against him, as he engaged in various elaborate schemes which inevitably had something to do with fooling and embarrassing many a wealthy and important personage in front of the Bodleian Libraries on Tuesdays.

I had left the Zaffoquantoborum Building spires only to be, for a time, considered a suspect connected with the practical jokes occurring in front of the Bodleian from time to time, because someone had reported to the police that he had seen me chatting with the man in the purple suit; and as I had only encountered the man in the purple suit once, the informant could have only have been the petty clerk in coattails who had been sitting at a desk just outside and around the corner from the reserved room I occupied the day the man in the purple suit came to see me rather dramatically, as he had stepped in the room to the blast of trumpets. (Both trumpets were blown by the man in the purple suit himself, a detail I failed to mention before, it hardly seemed important, and it still isn't, other than doubtless his horn blasts had awoken the clerk in coattails who I had heard snoring away until then, and filled him with large thoughts, such as how important he might get to be one day; and when he learned the authorities were after a man in a purple suit, why, it was clear, wasn't it?, what he needed to do! He needed to become rather important himself, and implicate me, as a colleague of the man in the purple suit, which, however, was a gross exaggeration, as I myself had never set eyes on the man in the purple suit before he popped in that day; but excuse me, I already said that!)

And so I had at first lain low in the gutter, but then found I lacked any great motivation to move forward with my life. I had forgotten, for the moment, the pages I must write for the man who had dropped dead. I felt he deserved a book as much as I deserved to be the one to write it. My motivation to write the book was as powerful a motivator as chocolate, in my view.

And I was determined not to slip back into the mold of a person who ascribed to the world certain qualities, as a place where forces acted on him, and not as a place where he had some command over his own destiny and legacy.

So I stepped out of the gutter, proceeded to the Bodleian on a Tuesday, and kept walking. I was hard up, which inspired mercy in a few, including, I shouldn't wonder, the one who hired me to drive the night coach. During the day I slept on benches, sitting up, until I had made enough quid to rent a room with some students whose looks and behaviors were most quizzical on Iffley Road. But everything was gray, and before a year was up, the sky started to fizz.

I understood what was happening. I stepped out of Oxford and into a dark corner that opened and then sucked me into a place just as peculiar but altogether fantastical, and the first person I met there was Xia Torgottles. And Xia said to me, "Remember Triveterzooettle? Come with me."

I was greatly surprised to receive her kiss then, and it was a long one that took me quite a while to recognize. But it gave me courage. My memory of Gnorg was so old and so young! I mean Xia could have been my wife! And perhaps she was. But she shook her head when I asked her about it.

What then was there to do? I needed to wake up!

Well, it was a good place. And one I understood. There was such simplicity and such grace. The people were frank and sometimes quite surprising. I rented a room in a house on the edge of town and taught an Imagined Philology of Language course at the university.

Xia and I grew quite close; she encouraged me to write stories in the same format as those I had already done. The country was Cornith. And in Cornith people read widely. They appreciated what I had to say; I published a book and sold copies with considerable success.

A year later I married Xia, and later the same year I was awarded the prestigious Tanglee Flokata Award for my book. There was so much to be grateful for, and so much more left for me to do.


"Let Me Explain" © August 21, 2023 by Pete O'Brien. Illustrated by the Author. All Rights Reserved. "Let Me Explain" is a work of fiction. All characters and incidents herein are of the imagination and not of real life. Any seeming match of imagined persons to real life persons or imagined events to actual events is coincidental.

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