SQUIGGLE. A very fine novella followed by a deliciously bold short story. Read the novella EDGAR when the world needs to be reminded of your existence. Read the short story "You" before riding off road in a jeep, when you're just having a good time.
Inside this book...
Ellen Smythe flies through the door and says, "Cameron Gorman twenty-five years later, here to see you, and it's probably love."
The pronouncement rattles me.
Ellen leaves. A beat of silence, then a tap on the door. Lightning flashes out of my arms. I'm out of time! But it's my coworker Delphi Prism who enters.
Prism says, "Look sharp!"
The pickle I was planning to have for lunch comes out of the jar. It's in my hand. I stare at it with fire in my eyes. I'm in a pickle, but not in this pickle, so obviously I must figure out how to get inside the pickle I'm not in so as to be genuinely in one and then get out of it again without eating it, because that would be cheating. Surely such a well-preserved cucumber knows the answer to the riddle. Unless it just delights in destroying people like me, either for fun, or an act of self preservation. My thoughts are madness itself.
Because I love Cameron.
In a flash, motivated purely by instinct, I start doing things differently. If I have ever and always been the problem, if I have ever and always been unfit for Cameron, then I have to ditch me and become someone incredibly different. Short of that, I have to be more the way I used to be, the way I was when she knew me before. Yes, I have to be profound.
The concept of profundity prompts me to recall how one morning Ellen said to me, 'The career fiction writer is the guy who's figured out how to sell out without selling out. A best seller, in other words.'
Never mind that. Something else matters more. I know Prism told the truth when she said, 'Look sharp!', because she never tells a lie. But this time her native northern nasal came out strong in her voice, and I realize, to my astonishment and unmooring, that she has never said an honest word to me before today, everything I ever heard her say was a lie, I walked on sand wherever I went, and I am struck with the brute force of two revelations. One. I don't know Prism, she is a moon eclipsing a flame. And two, a star seeks me out and will shortly appear! When the spell breaks, one of us will rocket into space.
"Astronomy!" I cry. "The moon orbits the sun but can't touch it!"
No! Resist strangeness! Everything I say and do matters more than words have the guts to say. If I lose Cameron, my life will be a pancake flattened further by a car on the road to nowhere, a pancake so flat, so dispersed, so scattered, so crumbled, not even ants will want it. Breathe, smile. I lose myself already. Too long waiting in an empty room for Cameron?
What else has Prism said in her honest nasal north? I open my email and read what she sent: "The career fiction writer is the guy who's figured out how to sell out without selling out. A best seller, in other words." Exactly what Ellen once said! What a weaselly wallop!
Cameron Gorman twenty-five years ago. Our time together was short and intense. Nothing unfaithful for a woman in a relationship as she was. She broke my heart. It had been broken many times before. Broken and mended many times over.
The community decides some things. What will be lawful, what unlawful. Different communities adopt different codes. When the rubric between two societies stand in opposition, it's a tinderbox for war. --Hmm? How does that sound? If I talk along those lines, will I be recognized as a person of consequence and weight? Will others hear the tone oof my voice, make of it the wisdom and might of a lion, and rally around me? Intelligence is no small thing, let alone intelligence informed by experience, knowledge, common sense, confidence, command, power, and readiness to face whatever comes flying out of the shadows! Yes, such a smart, good man won't be denied!
The doorknob turns.
It's Ellen, talking as she comes in. "Something has come up. Schedules switched up, down, and sideways. No worries, it's better for everyone. Nine others will see you before Cameron. Do not despair. Between me and you, it's odd to give you these notices. Don't get used to it. Our office doesn't work like that, as you know. We're all on equal footing here. But the boss is new. She doesn't know a damn thing. I think she misheard something from somebody. She's from someplace else, somewhere I've never been, probably outer space. Smile, Edgar."
"Right," I said.
The situation was hopeless, so I was all for delay. I had nine long shot chances to launch a career that would give me love.
THE FIRST APPOINTMENT
I'd never seen the guy before. His indigo tie was loose, his suit shaggy, and himself rather unkempt. He started off saying something right away, but I forgot the words immediately. Then he just stood there, staring at me. His eyes flickered. Something was driving him, a caterpillar perhaps.
I had no idea what was going on.
He was about to leave. His hand was on the door, but he stood frozen, like ice on a log.
The lights went out.
Edgar remembers Ellen taking her shirt off and putting another one over her sports bra, the night she turned to him and said, "F. Scott Fitzgerald. The Great Gatsby. You don't seriously think the twenty year old you sang in the musical with, the one you gave bottles of spritzer to, the one who held you so tight that time by the river on a chance encounter when you hadn't seen each other in so long, the one who danced with you like no one else that time in a million, you don't seriously think she's going to pop back into your life and be yours."
"I know," he said automatically, "you can't reset the clock, people change, they're not the same. You think of them as they were. You're dreaming a dream, not a real person. When will Edgar open his eyes?"
Ellen started collecting her things, the room was lit by a single lamp. It was quiet. Always quiet nights. She said, "Guess what. I'm in love. Love at first sight with Lewis Dasque. You probably heard Prism say something about it."
"Congrats. No, no, no. It's not that. I still love her. I accept that she's not young anymore. I just feel like if I saw her again, it would be right."
Ellen stared straight out the window, though there was nothing to see. "Was it right the first time?"
"I love her! But Fitzgerald was telling a story. And I know that some people do go back and marry long ago sweethearts and live happily ever after. They do! And some try it and are miserable. If it's right! Well, I would meet her. I'd get to know her all over again. And."
Ellen went to the door and stood there. "And what. Women don't wait around to marry, and men don't either. What are you, Edgar, that you're single, never married in midlife? No, I wouldn't ask that. I know! It's the economy, stupid! It's the environment, stupid! It's the pandemic, stupid! Nonetheless, where do you fit into the story of life? You're not a priest, you're not dead. Many a prisoner marries or has a girlfriend. Gay men see gay men. But you. You're like someone who believes people shouldn't have children. The story is they don't last to the next generation. It's not exactly a philosophy or theology built to last."
"That's," said Edgar, "either here nor there. I've got a mental condition. It's a predisposition for being alone or living with whoever'll have me."
"Yeah, well you're on medication and doing all right. Why not meet people in the same boat?"
"Can't a disabled person marry someone not disabled? Can't a man meet a woman without the internet?"
"Stop. People fear you. I mean what the hell. The truth is, you don't know your own self, so nobody knows you. You have no identity, so nobody can have you. You're a ghost. You don't walk around town, you go to the woods and walk. You're a hermit. You'll end up on the street. But I love it that you walk the thin line and are still at large. Cameron married someone else."
"I thought you said her husband left her. Did they have children?"
Ellen was a little taken aback. "No children. And they lived apart from day one. It was hard on her, but she loved her independence. Then. Not anymore. But that's not the relevant question."
"No. I still believe in Cameron. Or if it doesn't work out, someone else."
"It's too late. After 29, it's no good. And 29 is late."
"Then I'll write!" said Edgar. "I'll publish! Books will be my children! Stories will make me not a ghost. I'll be somebody! And then a woman will show up, someone lost at sea like me, we'll meet, I say, and it won't be too late for us. If she was a nun all her life up to then, but couldn't take it any longer and we met? It is possible. It is! I believe in miracles. If F. Scott had had the benefit of today's medications, he might have persevered and lived! But in any case, I am not him! I am not you! My faith says the Lord works in mysterious ways, anything is possible, and if my wife is younger, we could have children, or if older and we couldn't, then yet our love would bear fruit some way. We might adopt! We might not have children. To continue the blood line, is that all this life is? If so, then what do you say to the priests and nuns? Noooo, noooo, I know there is something more. My heart tells me. A marriage can happen late, late, late."
"Do you want marriage? Have you ever wanted it? she said.
"No. I don't know. Maybe. I'm open to the idea. Yes. Yes, I do. I want to marry a nymph. And by nymph, I mean a beautiful woman, that is all."
"It was only ever an idea to you. Cameron won't be yours. She never was. You have no story. And you're too afraid to live, too afraid to die. We all see it."
It was a cruel thing to say. When next Edgar spoke, his voice seemed to separate from his face. The night disembodied him. He said, "it's true what you say. I have no hope. My life is meaningless. But there's a woman whose family fled home during the pogroms of the 1930s and barely made it out alive. They came to South America. She overcame poverty, the prevailing bias against women, and more. She despaired, she suffered, but she lived. She said that no matter how bad it gets, human beings are obligated to bear it."
Ellen wrote in her notebook.
Life is meaningless and becomes more and more so each day. In the past, life had a resonance and purpose, because when there were fewer people, the cycle of life from generation to generation kept them going. But now it's obvious that the planet has billions more people than she should ever be asked to manage, so everybody suffers, and life is one calamity after another. The real game is to stop having babies, dismantle the cities, and bury the concrete under a forest of trees. Be environmentally conscience. Oceanearth is a beautiful place worth fighting for together.
She was sitting at her desk. She said, "Nobody has relevance anymore."
Edgar was standing in the doorway. "I have love," he said.
Ellen froze. "Oh. If you have love, why didn't you say so? Yes, if you have love, that is something. We live in a world where love is hard to come by. Some have suggested putting it on the market as the new standard, in place of gold. It's quite precious and worth as much as gold. An ounce of love, twenty ounces of love, one hundred and fifty pounds of love! Just imagine the riches! It's so rare." She paused, took a deep breath, and continued, "It's a liberating thing, not having to write, not having to be a writer. You can sit at a table by a window, open the window, and not have to do anything but be. The phone rings, a power tool runs, birds chirp, cicadas make their sound that forms an overwhelming chorus of billions reveling in one note that emanates from high in the canopy of trees. The sound never ceases. They pause for breath, but the others keep up the noise. A vehicle pulses a tone as it goes in reverse somewhere unseen. It's okay if life is meaningless and made for billionaires. It's okay not to care? People talk about you."
Edgar dropped his bag on the desk. He said, "I fell in love. I never knew her well enough to begin with, so if she's changed for the worse, I'll be none the wiser. People don't change that much."
Ellen shook her head. "That's not true. People have pivotal moments where they enact a change. Some improve. Some falter. And don't forget all the little changes over time that completely transfigure a person. When you meet again, she will be unrecognizable to thee."
Edgar frowned back at her.
She continued, "You dream a good dream. You try to keep it going, but the girl is gone. Bad things happen. There's no life, story, meaning, or positive emotion anymore. It's all thin and unnatural. Before things happened on their own. Now the whole is gone and all is in vain. Like the stage play that once was. The theater stands empty."
Edgar said nothing. He thought, "I'm prepared to write if necessary, but I'm completely neutral to it. And another verb may be substituted for 'to write,' such as 'to row.'
An excerpt from SQUIGGLE.
Copyright 2021 by Pete O'Brien. All Rights Reserved.