Pete O'Brien's storytelling debut. Here writer Morgan Staunch finds himself on the page of his own story: his character Henrieta Stowe rebels against him as a toxic product threatens humankind. And here Cassandra Newhart awakes to find herself turned into the heroine of a story. And here as well, an inexplicable woolly mammoth, a pickpocket cloud, and a cat that always speaks her mind.
Inside this book...
It started with a patter that kept on coming: louder, quicker, brighter, deeper. It was not something you could ignore or escape. The moment you heard it for the first time, you knew it would never go away. Like a cricket that latches on to another body and stays there. Underground in the sewers and subway tunnels, or above ground in the clay on the shoulder of the road: time rested with disturbance in the air.
Morgan Staunch straightened in his chair and slowly fastened the ten buttons of his shirt to the rhythm of the rain beating down outside his window. It was two o'clock in the still room. His head full of questions he couldn't name. Surely it would become clear what he must do and say, who he must be. In a more perfect world, the plan would be laid out, more or less clearly, like a map for him to follow. The ambiguity would be gone, he'd know what to do. He was just trying to make sense of things. How he'd like to drop into a book and be an inspector or something!
Upon this thought, there was a knock on the door.
Morgan stood, nothing was different, he shuffled to the front of the house, opened the door, and there under the lintel stood a gray-faced man in a suit, sturdy briefcase in hand. The man had a mustache. His tie was splotched. His shoes could use a shine. A look almost of surprise traced across his features as he discovered his knock had been answered, and, clearing his throat, as though he hadn't spoken in fifteen years unless it were every day in front of his mirror, he said, "No really, sir. This is an offer—a real offer, Not one to refuse." And the man delivered a broken smile through stained teeth.
Just then a pigeon flew over his head, shat, narrowly missing, or perhaps not missing, the slept-in-this-suit-again figure at the door and fluttered on over the roof. Morgan noticed a glint of something sad and terrible in the fellow's eye, and knew this was it. He had to say something. He said, "I've heard them all. You'd better lay it down." The words hung in the air like pineapples on a leaden tree.
The gray-faced man coughed and answered plainly, as one trying out an improvised skit. "That's an excellent offer. Perhaps if I explained what this is about."
Morgan stood quite still for a second, his hand on the door. He was about to make an excuse and tell the man no. He was about to speak, to say anything at all, but no words came.
The mustache quivered, another pigeon was on the porch: blue gray, they never came here. Morgan's eyes widened. Farther down the block, he spotted another pair of eyes. Another man. A nosy neighbor?
The gray-faced man ventured half a step forward and said in a hoarse whisper, "You could be an inspector, for instance."
Morgan's hand holding the door dropped on that instant and the screen door slammed shut. He fell back a step before recovering. "Absolutely," he said. "Why don't you come in and tell me about it."
The man looked completely astonished for the space of a quick mosquito bite. Then directly he grabbed his hefty briefcase, brushed the rain off his head, relieved Morgan of the screen door, and came inside the house.
"Ah," said the gray-faced man. "So it begins."
Morgan nodded and closed the door. His sense of anticipation rose, but he remained outwardly calm, and hardly knew how to get at the matter.
The gray-faced-salesman-with-the-extraordinary-offer, for his part, evidently had little to say just yet, and so there was a pause and a rest, as an extended beat of silence in a stage play or movie, during which gap it was even possible to hear the clock ticking, and tick and tock it did as working clocks habitually, religiously, obsessively, and elegantly do, except clocks aren't people. They have no habits, religion, obsessions, demons, or zeal, do they?
Morgan Staunch felt he should offer the man something, tea maybe, but the gray-faced man shook his head.
"No," he said. "More trouble than it's worth. I'm only here for a minute or two."
"Are you sure?" said Morgan.
"No, I'm not."
"Well then, that settles it. I'll put the kettle on." And so he did. "It's cold out," added Morgan, by way of conversation.
The gray-faced man rubbed his hands. "It is," he said. "When I woke up and felt how cold it was outside, I almost went back to bed. But," he said brightly, "a man's got to work, whatever the circumstances. And sometimes a little bit of weather is all it takes to wake up somebody."
"Now I don't want to trouble you," said the salesman, adopting a salesman-like tone, "but I do believe what you're about to hear will make your day in a big way. I mean this bit of knowledge I'm about to present to you could potentially change you forever."
"I know," said Morgan.
The fellow went on as if his potential customer had not spoken, as if he had more lines to recite and had to get through them. The kettle ticked as it warmed, as he spoke.
"First," he said, "it's no secret that most people lead lives that could stand to see some major improvements. Now, before you stop me and say, Huh, I'm not one of those and don't need any self-help or miracle cure, I'm doing just fine, well, let me just say, that's exactly what I thought and said when I first heard of Pluff. Now, I'm not a psychologist, no. And I'm not saying Pluff can solve all your problems for you, but I will say this. It will solve the problem. And that's what I'm here to tell you.
"Rock solid," said Morgan.
"Thank you," said the man. "Name's Nigel Corles. Thank you for inviting me in today to tell you about the amaaaaaazing Pluff. Nice place you've got here. Hmmm." He scanned the room with his eyes.
Morgan shifted his weight and smiled. After he had shown the man the mugs they would be drinking from and told him the story about finding them and bringing them home from a place he never knew existed and only stumbled on by chance, and a bit about his family, the water had heated, and after the gray-faced man had poked around the kitchen a bit and studied his toaster with great interest, supposing it had been designed by Andrew Lloyd Wright, the tea was ready and Staunch handed Nigel his cup.
"Uh huh," said Nigel. "This is going all too smoothly. I have a feeling you're the man."
Morgan formed his mouth into a straight line. "A sale doesn't generally come this easy," he agreed. "Usually, they don't happen at all. It's after a couple thousand tries, I believe."
Nigel was taken aback. "Wait a minute," he said.
But Morgan pressed. "Pluff," he said, "is another matter. It's something one might call, well, extraordinary."
"And no matter what the weather, it's liable to brighten your day for good."
Nigel stepped back. "It's you!" he gasped. "The one they told me about."
Staunch allowed himself a small smile, in acknowledgement of his fame. "Ah," he said. "And who am I then? The steward of Pluff? It's a good thing you know what's going on, because I'm sure I don't."
Nigel Corles shook his head. "It's no good," he said. "I should have known," he moaned. "And to think I took you for an inspector."
"If it's an inspector I'm taken for," said Staunch quietly, "then perhaps I am."
"Right," said Corles.
"What's the matter with you? Have you no guts! Can't you see the world is opening under your feet, and you have naught but to take the first step, to descend into that pit and find yourself in a place beyond the wilds of the known world! Have you no confidence in Pluff, the product you peddle, and in the creatures and things that exist just around the corner, and just over there in the beyond! No. Just over there in the closet." He pointed at the refrigerator.
Corles looked hard at Staunch, then swiftly ran to the fridge and threw open the door, to reveal, as Staunch had intimated, no depository of foodstuffs, but a closet containing a small silver box.
"And into that box we will go!" shouted Morgan, his head full of Pluff.
The box was already in Nigel's hands.
"Damn!" cried Staunch.
The box opened, and at once the two men who before had simply been men trying to get by in a world they couldn't master, were now two paper doll men walking angularly and angrily along the floor, up the refrigerator, and in less than a minute later, tumbled one after the other into the box.
"Now see what you've done!" cried Nigel.
"Another story that might have gone normally ends up not going normally?"
"Why a reference to literature?"
"Did you open the door?" countered Morgan.
"We don't know each other!"
"And yet something about us introduced this impossible scenario in which nobody knows what's going on," said Morgan.
"Pretty soon you'll find out nobody cares."
"Our only hope is to get normal as soon as possible."
"Absolutely," agreed Nigel. "Which is why I'm going to open a bank account. A very normal thing to do. As soon as I get out of this box."
The exchange of idle quarreling went on until gradually both paper doll men became men of some sort again, and Corles ambled to the door, determined to leave, put the visit behind him, and become just another passerby on the road. Whereas Staunch, after closing the plain old refrigerator door and losing track of Nigel, lay down, and slipped in and out of sleep on his bed, quietly despairing of something he couldn't name, and wondering what it would be like to be a character surrounded by flames and other characters.
The following morning over tea and biscuits, Morgan decided there was only one thing to do: write the steward's book of Pluff. He would start with an outline, and little by little, he'd fill in the pages. He'd create a life worth living. And so long as he himself lived a life that contained some measure of inspiration, he would succeed in the task. His life and the depicted one would both be worth it: two beautiful lives woven together in story.
The unexamined life is not worth living. Whose life, then, would he examine? He hardly felt his own life merited a look. It was chock full of the banal. He needed a subject for his story. He'd have to fish and farm out for it.
What story did he know best? What story could he tell? So many good stories were simply retellings of old ones. The historical fiction of War and Peace followed the lives of an ensemble cast of characters, some made up and some, like Napoleon, known. Tolstoy's feat was not one to surpass.
And then there was Hamlet, a long play about an unfortunate prince. A famous folly.
But when Morgan searched his mind for something he'd read that was flawed, something he could use, twist, and rework into something other, something great, nothing sprang to mind. Legends wanted no artistic reconstruction. He had no idea for a hybrid of styles, and besides he hardly knew that that was the way to go in any case: why didn't he just be himself and say what he had to say and let the synthesis of others naturally occur in his own work?
This was weakness.
So many great writers made their fame elsewhere: Tolstoy's school, Victor Hugo's statesmanship. Or they were ordinary people making a living doing something else. The physician William Carlos Williams scrawled poems on blank prescription slips between patients. Franz Kafka was a law office clerk. Eventually Charles Dickens did very well on book sales alone.
Confidence was wanted. Morgan couldn't suppress the sense that his own life and achievements paled by far in comparison to the giants whose writings were famous long before they died and long after they passed, though history is fickle.
Not all writers could claim superlatives or expertise in another field. Edgar Allan Poe, a man of letters, lived his whole life in poverty.
So what then? Morgan wanted his slice of the pie. His book, the mysteries of Pluff that he couldn't understand, eluded him still.
Since leaving his full time job at the university, a position he had secured in light of his educational background and a family connection, he had not found work. To be a Dickens, he was going to have to do more than write constantly. Now he had time, but more and more he struggled. Nothing was happening. The words stall and impasse came to mind. Why did he want to write?
People write because they have something to say. People write because they have something to give. People write because they have ideas, questions, and stuff they don't understand and they want to get it out and distilled on the page. Words move from one thing to another, and make sense of things. Doing that feels super. Writing colors life with meaning because words can fathom and name life's wonderful, intangible roots. Hell! To write is to move the world and be the world. People write to be kings and queens and because they have no choice. People write to be in paradise. Some people write because the act of not writing sends them off base. Whatever words he says, they are his words. Whatever truth he tells is his truth. Whatever life he has is his life. To share ideas is the point. To deny thought is the wrong choice. But did you have to be an artist to think these things? Did you have to be Morgan Staunch?
Questions lead to more questions. The words reveal the journey. A Pluff steward will march deeper into the cause of his suffering in order to reach the wellspring of happiness. The greater the risk the greater the reward. The farther the trek, the more glorious the experience.
You don't have to write to know these things. Scribbling is but one path, but if you don't choose a path, if you are not a yogi practicing yoga or a dancer dancing dancing dancing you should seriously consider making a conscious decision and commitment to be someone doing something even if it's someone purposely not doing something because.
Staunch scratched his head. How would he get on the bestseller list? He was looking for pain, agony, beauty, and a good story.
Supposing, thought Staunch, I met an orphan runaway in my kitchen and the two of us were transformed by inexplicable means into paper cut-outs and climbed hand over foot into the cookie jar?
Or a man barged into my house throwing a bleeding corpse before him, crying, "Look out! Look out! Look out!"
Who were Dickens and Márquez if not writers who let go of what or who they had to write about and just sat there and got the job done with the words rushing so fast no one in their right mind would catch the pen, no one would catch them as they ran, and they let the ideas and magic flow without trying to make sense or explain or preach or teach and life in its glorious mess of confusions and pain and passions and moods danced and swaggered and loomed and kicked and sang over the page like a person who was never the same person twice.
And when after the end of a lifetime of standing at that waterfall and letting the waterfall go, revealing it daily, and never once leaving that place, they were finally extinguished. The left behind the books and the stories so the next kid who came along could pick up his pen at the waterfall and write and write and write, faster and faster, farther and farther, and the waterfall would continue to be known because folks were continuing the story of story, and still this is not a story, and still we find that at the end of the thought it stops with a single black dot.
But it would do no good to rush or talk about anything else if nothing else was forthcoming. No, better to stand under the waterfall and get wet again and see what you can: nothing! A wall of water gets in your eyes and knocks you down until you stand up and move to where the shelter of the rock overhang keeps you out of the flow, as the hair of water that wants to be forever hair keeps flowing down and down like Rapunzel, whose hair was the release and the way to freedom, the ladder for a lover to climb, but the difference being a ladder of water can't be ascended, and so this quicksilver hair flows like tears without salt (or the salt would have been carted in from the sea, turning the latter to fresh water and then nothing would be the same anymore) and this is how Márquez writes, and Dickens too if you adjust your lens, and Dickens preferred tables with full course meals even though it was Britain and the cuisine was inferior, though a good scone with all its butter alongside a cup of hot breakfast tea is hard to beat. Then go to Germany and sit down to a meal with great taste but nothing fancy and then go to France and never leave, or so they say, but a croissant costs more than a lot for mostly air, but then the air may be what you want since you're not in London.
But writing like this goes nowhere, tells no story, and there must be a point or else, why. And at such times it's best to pause.
Morgan scratched his head, crumpled the paper, and moved from the couch to his chair and from his chair upon the telephone, and from the telephone to the front door, and so forth, until he was simply walking idly about the house, striving with all his being to recover the world of story, which he supposed and feared had gone missing somewhere via the closed box of a t.v. set, eighty-five alpha-numeric characters on twitter, and millions of flesh-burning tattoos.
Ugh. He could use some coffee and opera.
"No!" he said, "I will not let Pluff fail!" In truth, he knew that if ever the opposition did strike full force he would have no say in the matter. And the hospital would either have a bed for him or his days at home or on the street would be numbered.
As a steward, he had product. That was good. It was like a hole that was growing larger and larger. Or it was himself growing smaller and smaller. He tasted just a hint of Pluff in the air, and it was enough. Lewis Carroll winked from the book shelf and flung an elf at him.
There was a story for boys and girls called "Nils Karlsson, the Elf" and it was a marvelous story, but that story had nothing to do with this event. The hole in the wall had almost certainly not been there before, which is why Morgan had bent over to look at it in the first place, but the further over he bent, the smaller he became and the more quickly he became small, leading him to suspect that he was a boy in a children's story after all.
The man lives in the boy, the boy lives in the man. Nor was this a fiction of madness or drugs. It was the sensory real world, it was Pluff. He had swallowed a single Pluff pea with a crust of bread, the only food in the house, and he was well on his way to going nowhere, because stories don't simply begin or continue because a man takes a pea and gets smaller or bigger! Unless.
Unless that is what happened and it's part of the story. Which it was. So he had some hope for himself and the story, though it troubled him that he was on his own. He was drifting into the hole, he could feel it. He was moving from his house to his house in an altered state on the other side of the wall. A man, a giant, for he was now so small, plucked him up by the collar (his clothes were smaller too but not as small as he was, they hadn't shrunk as fast or as far) and held him up to the light and the dark, and said, "HA! I have you now. Finally. My slave." And he tossed him onto a shelf.
An excerpt from THE LOOSE PURPLE TIE: 3 NOVELLAS.
Copyright 2020 by Pete O'Brien. All Rights Reserved.
Oct. 6, 2019
Sept. 30, 2019
278 Pages, 5.25x8