He had been hidden in his hillside retreat for the last two weeks working on his latest novel. The first two had come so easy. He had something to say, something to offer, but since the latest publications the muses had failed to grace his pen with the agility of a blinded Milton.
It was two in the morning, his laptop light flickered on his spectacles, while his eyes glazed over from a caffeine-extended twenty six-hour bender. Nearing the completion of the first chapter of the first draft, his arms gave way, his eyes slowly closed, and he fell out of his chair into a curled up ball, thumb resting by his chapped lips, and listed off into an overdue slumber.
“Sid . . . Sid . . . Sidney, wake up. I know you’re there . . . anyway there’s a party tonight, with some very big contributors and authors, I expect you there by eight o’ clock. It’s at the Dashwoods’ mansion: 1941 Drury Lane.”
The recording of this message woke Sidney up. Sidney wished it hadn’t – he wished he didn’t even have a phone. He hated contact with the supposed real world. Half the reason he became a writer was because it gave him a reprieve from the trials and tribulations of “reality.”
Sidney saw that it was 4:30. He started getting ready – it would take two hours to get to town. He went to the bathroom and began to run the water. As he waited for it to warm to a pleasing temperature, he slowly undressed himself. Each article of clothing removed uncovered bodily blemishes. Like the scar that ran from the top of the left side of his chest down just passed his belly-button. When his jeans fell to the floor, the etchings of a bullet wound taken in his right leg glistened in the bathroom light. Sidney finished disrobing and crawled into the shower. The first few drops fell upon his face.
The warm rain pitter-pattered playfully off his helmet, but there was nothing playful about this situation. He had only been on the frontlines for a few weeks, but the weight of the war already showed on his face. His normally bright eyes had dimmed to a dark, plutonic blue devoid of life; his lips rested in a straight line of ambivalence, and now his shoulders always seemed to be slowly turning inwards, as if he was turning more into himself.
He stepped out of his tent to go to the bathroom in the evening rain. His pissing stupor was interpreted by a yell, “Ambush!” Quickly, he ran back into his tent to grab his rifle and holster his pistol. He came out recklessly firing in all directions. Bodies were falling, but in the dark rain there was no telling who was who. He shot a man running into the Captain’s tent, dropping him right in front of the entrance. He crept over to the tent, looking on all sides he noticed that the ambush had been quelled. As he stood over the body, he looked into the eyes – they seemed to still have a lifelike glow to them. He heard someone say “Solace, you ok?” As he turned to answer, the insurgent in front of him rose and dug his knife into his left shoulder and ran it down his chest to his stomach. The wound was deep, and the blood poured.
He fell over withering in pain. The others came over and finished off the stabber, and carried him to the medical tent for treatment.
Sidney turned off the water, grabbed a fresh towel, and started to dry himself. With the towel wrapped around his waist, Sidney walked from the bathroom down the hall to his room and entered his closest to get dressed for the evening. Although most of his clothes were dirty and smelled of unproductive sweat, his dress clothes were clean and still smelled of Tide Mountain Spring. His leg, which lacked strength since the violent episodes, always made putting on pants difficult. He sat on the bed and with great effort put his black pants on leg by leg. Before he put on his undershirt, he gently fingered his scar and wondered how he survived not only the slashing, but the recovery in the infirmary. After all, hospitals are home to more infections than any other place, and he had been there for a long time.
Sidney shook his head at the remembrance and finished getting dressed. He got in his ’68 Chevy and drove into town. A couple of miles into the drive, rain gathered on his windshield. He turned on the wipers and watched the rain appear and disappear while he drove.
Sidney had been in the infirmary for two weeks and was making a rapid recovery; at least he was on the outside. One day when he was walking to the bathroom, he heard a voice from over his shoulder, “sir . . . could, could . . . you please . . . get me . . . some wa-wa-water?”
When Sidney realized where the request was coming from he acquiesced and brought some over. The man sipped slowly, and once he had had enough to moisten his throat, he spoke. “Thank you, I was really thirsty. My name is Jesus Gonzalez.”
“Sidney Solace, nice to meet you.”
“Why are you in here Sidney?”
“I was stabbed, and I’m still in recovery, you?”
“They tell me I’m not mentally stable. Maybe they’re right, I dunno. I really miss being outside though.”
“Well, if it makes you feel better you’re not missing anything: just rain.”
“Are you kidding me? The air always smells freshest when it’s raining. When I was a kid, I used to love to play in the rain. I would play basketball in the rain. I don’t know why, it rained so hard that the hoop would disappear, and the ball would slide off the backboard every time it touched, but there was always something about those rainy days – it’d put me in a different place.”
“You say when you were a kid, but you look so young, how old are you?”
“Nineteen . . . I think. I dunno, I’ve lost track of time in here. You know all the white walls, kind of makes you a little dead inside.”
“You seem to be doing pretty good though, you probably won’t be here much longer. What are you going to do when you get out?”
“Get a job and fall in love, of course . . . Why do you laugh?”
“You make it sound so easy.”
“Oh, but it is. You see, I have it all planned out. When I get back, I’m goin’ get a job writin’ for the newspaper. You know get started there like Hemingway, and then my writings are goin’ become really famous, and then I’ll run with all the big shots, and that’s where I’ll meet her and win her heart.”
“Jessica, of course.”
“For me, she’s blonde with baby blue eyes that are so soft . . . I know the first time she looks at me . . . my heart won’t hurt anymore.”
“Mr. Dashwood, sir, thank you for throwing this little soiree.”
“Happy to do it, Mr. Bloom, but I must be frank with you. I have a reputation in the literary community – a reputation predicated on my intimacy with all the great authors, but your author Mr. Solace seems to evade my company. I do hope he is coming?”
Mr. Bloom wasn’t so sure. He always had doubts about where Sidney was – both mentally and physically. Ever since he had taken Sidney out of the hospital he wasn’t as reliable. However, since being off the medication, he had begun writing again. Anyway, it seemed to be easier to keep things cordial if he replied in the affirmative, “yes sir, he’s on his way. He told me he would arrive around 8:30, but you know artists are always arriving ‘fashionably’ late. You should expect him within the hour.”
“What’s his story anyway?”
“Well, it’s supposed to be a novel about a soldier coming home, and . . .”
“No, no I mean his personal story, background.”
“Well, sir, with all due respect, I don’t know if he would like me to tell you. You see . . .”
“Mr. Bloom, I hope you don’t presume that my inquiry is anything more than the fascination of artistic genius and mastery of imagination. And, do understand, this publishing house needs the support not only of the Dashwood family but its friends.”
Mr. Bloom couldn’t deny the cultural and monetary backing that the Dashwoods provided. People weren’t buying books like they used to, especially those considered to be ‘literary’ masterpieces, whatever that meant. Sidney was a constant reminder of this. Regardless of how hard he was to manage, he produced literature that was devoured by the masses, and his writings along with the Dashwoods’ influence were the only thing keeping them afloat.
The struggle between protecting Sidney’s past and pleasing Mr. Dashwood stricken his face with grief, and his eyes darted around the mansion as if somewhere on the wall an answer would provide itself. Luckily for Mr. Bloom, Sidney entered. “Sidney,” he called out, “over here please, I’d love for you to meet Mr. Dashwood. He is your host this evening.”
“And a big fan,” he quipped.
“Nice to see you Ronald. Mr. Dashwood, a pleasure and thank you for the invitation.” Sidney wasn’t sure if his thank-you was sincere, or just a custom. He often found these parties to be weird in that way. People always knew what to do, but he could never figure out if it was coded in DNA, or if everyone had been indoctrinated into states of respectability.
Ronald was looking at Sidney in a weird way – a way that made Sidney’s face burn like it did when Sidney was lying, while simultaneously sending goosebumps of uncomfortability down his back. Ever since Mr. Bloom had taken him home from the hospital, he always seem to be eyeing Sidney like a five-year old eyes his first piggybank; afraid if he looks away the money will disappear.
Sidney had never met Mr. Dashwood, but he felt like he knew the man before he even spoke. His charcoal suit, accentuated by a dark black tie, screamed respectability and power. There was something to be said for understated colors worn correctly: they reflect a staunch, Churchillian power. Sidney could see the inner struggle of Mr. Dashwood – a man who so desires to be an artist that he constantly surrounds himself with them, probes them, and buys them; he wants to subsume their creations under his “creations.” These people never care about books, just clout and reverence.
“Please, Mr. Solace will you and Mr. Bloom join me in the library. I hear you are a great admirer of books, and I think it would be most beneficial to go somewhere a little quieter for a private talk.”
Mr. Bloom nodded in agreement and ushered Sidney behind Mr. Dashwood into the library. The library was beautiful, a mausoleum of fiction composed of not just authors like Kafka, Melville, and Shakespeare, but also the fictive voices of lesser known authors like Thomas Nashe and collections of works with anonymous authors. Each book’s binding exemplified the effort put into each literary production, which made each book an art artifact beyond the text that filled the pages. Sidney second-guessed himself, maybe this man cared about something more, maybe he actually appreciated books.
While Mr. Bloom and Mr. Dashwood sat by the fireplace in front of the back wall, Sidney walked around identifying all the different books. There was a first-edition Moby-Dick, even the British version without the epilogue. He fingered the binding of James’ Portrait of a Lady, and he eyed all the various translations of Homer’s epics lining the shelves.
“Mr. Solace, come join us, please.”
Sidney walked over. Although he normally despised these events, Mr. Dashwood’s clear appreciation for books as something more than words intrigued him. “This is quite a collection you have here.”
“Thank you, Mr. Solace, and when can I expect to add your latest novel to it.”
“When the right story comes along.”
“Ah, I see. Now, if you don’t mind me asking how does that ‘right story’ come along? Your first two novels seemed so real. The characters seemed so vivid.”
Sidney let the faintest smile cross his lips, “well it is real. I mean believing a text is real only makes it true, and how can one deny the existence of the text when he or she is reading it?”
Clearly puzzled, Mr. Dashwood replied, “I’m not quite sure I understand.”
“What I mean is that fiction, which claims to be false, becomes reality as soon as a reader gives the letters on the page significance. In fact, the reality created by fiction is far more real than any other so called ‘reality.’”
“Please go on,” replied Mr. Dashwood clearly interested.
“When you read a novel, the story begins to hold truth in your mind, a truth that you are in control of. Think for a moment of Melville’s Moby-Dick. He went over to the shelf and grabbed the first edition printed handing it to Mr. Dashwood, who delicately accepted the work. Is the white whale evil? Or, is he a manifestation of nature that is retaliating against the evil nature of man? Whichever choice you make is for you the truth. The intentionality of the author carries no significance.”
“How can you, an author, believe that?”
“Simple, each book is a personal connection with each individual reader – a story for that person: a reality for that person. Now, on the other hand, say we are drinking tea, and you tell me it is green tea, yet when it touches my lips it tastes nothing like green tea, and I say to you ‘this is not green tea,’ to which you respond ‘indeed it is.’ Maybe you are right, maybe I am right; however, for this discussion that is irrelevant. The fact of the matter is that I have no way of knowing whether or not it really is green tea because I was not in control of the tea or its serving. Even if I watched the tea be made, there is still an uncertainty of the tangible world. Do you and I define green tea as the same thing? If we don’t, then there is a break in reality because of our inability to come to a common understanding. Do you follow?”
“I think so.” Mr. Dashwood was drawing a connection to his own understanding of literature, yet it struggled to fit. The young author interested him. “That is fascinating, how did you come to view fiction this way?” asked Mr. Dashwood.
This question sparked a nervous glance from Mr. Bloom, and before Sidney could respond, he spoke up, “oh, I just remembered Sidney, sorry Mr. Dashwood, I forgot to notify the chef which of the desserts you wanted, you must go and let him know.”
Both Mr. Dashwood and Sidney were off put by this interruption, but Mr. Dashwood, out of gentlemanly manners, and Sidney, out of shock, carried out Mr. Bloom’s wish. As soon as Sidney had exited, Mr. Bloom explained himself. “I’m sure you think my conduct strange, but I have to be honest with you about Sidney’s past. You have read his first novel, yes?” Mr. Dashwood nodded in the affirmative. Mr. Bloom continued, “well the soldier who was stabbed that . . .”
“Was him?” Mr. Dashwood raised an eyebrow.
“Yes and no. A knife was inserted into his shoulder and carved through his stomach; however, it wasn’t by an enemy solider.”
Sidney didn’t feel like having dessert, but he knew that Mr. Bloom had probably sent him from the room on purpose, so instead of heading to the kitchen, he went to look out the window. It was still raining, but the rain had turned gentle and barely made a noise as each drop tapped on the windows of the mansion. Looking out across the lawn, he noticed what looked like someone standing outside in the rain. Intrigued, he walked out.
Closing in on the figure, he began to make out a woman’s physique. He called out to her, and she slowly turned around, or at least it seemed to him that her turn was in slow motion. Her dampened hair was clinging to her shoulders; her wet clothes accentuated her slim figure, fusing them to her body. Her pale blue eyes lighted up the otherwise darkened night, and her lips pursed together, before she even spoke, coaxing him to approach her.
“What are you doing out in the rain?”
“I could ask you the same question,” she replied.
“I’m Sidney, and you are?”
“You know if this was a movie, you’d be a long lost lover. This rain would be warm, and I would take you in my arms, bring you into my chest, and fill fifteen years of passion into one kiss.”
“Who says I’m not?”
Sidney stepped closer, grabbed her by the waist, and slowly pulled her slender form into his chest. He gently stroked her right cheek and pushed back the stray hairs covering her right eye, and, as he leaned in to place his lips upon hers, it hit him. All of sudden, his next novel flew through his mind – the plot, the twist, the underlying currents, the desires, the suicide.
He dashed off without a word.
Mr. Bloom sat down and followed a deep breath with a long draught of brandy. “Seven years ago, two before Sidney published his first novel, he was committed to an insane asylum.”
“What, you allowed an insane man into my home?” Mr. Dashwood replied in an authoritatively angry manner.
“You asked specifically for him. Anyway, medical experts have cleared him, and he is off his medication again. It’s better that way. But, back to my story, he had enlisted in the army, but he did not last very long. After numerous reports from his fellow soldiers about his night terrors and disturbances, he was taken into the infirmary to be looked at by the psychologist on site. The night terrors continued, and apparently one night, he imagined he was in the war – and what he imagined he recreated on himself. The other soldiers had to pull the knife from his body and call the medical team. Assistance got there just in time. With the amount of blood he was losing, it would have been certain death. Once the doctors explained to him what happened, he began writing what he envisioned in order to keep his dreams out of his head. He put them on paper. Anyway, the novel he is setting out to write now is the first novel he is writing outside of asylum.”
“Do you mean to tell me that his genius is insanity?”
“I don’t intend to tell you anything other than the truth. After all, what does an artist’s background matter to his work? You heard Sidney yourself say the author, as such, does not matter. Does it matter that Joyce and Faulkner were alcoholics? That Truman Capote was a homosexual? No. They produced.”
“In those cases were not talking about a man’s life. I mean his last publication was a year and a half ago. If he is still writing, then he’s clearly still having the hallucinations or whatever they are. At the very least, can you tell me how come he is off medication? How come he lives alone?”
As Mr. Dashwood speculated on answers to this question, his eyes met the shameful face of Mr. Bloom buried in his hands.
Since the party, Mr. Dashwood had tried to find where Sidney’s retreat was. Mr. Bloom’s confession had made him worried for Sidney’s well-being. Unfortunately, for legal reasons, he had not been able to ascertain his address, so he had to follow a paper trail of purchases to find the landlord who had rented out the cabin to Sidney.
On the drive out to the cabin, Mr. Dashwood couldn’t help but think back on his conversation with Sidney about the reality of fiction. It was insane: Moby-Dick isn’t a real whale, Achilles was never dipped in liquid of invincibility. It was fiction. But why was he so compelled by the argument? How come he could not define what was real in better terms than Sidney, a man who is supposedly crazy.
Rain started to angrily thump on his car’s windshield, and he turned on his wipers to clear his path. When Mr. Dashwood finally arrived at Sidney’s retreat, there was no answer at the door, so he walked in. Sidney’s laptop screen lightly shimmered and illuminated Sidney’s hanging feet. He went over and felt Sidney’s feet. They were still warm, but there was no pulse. He glanced over and on the laptop was a novel, typed in full, – Love: The Final Frontier.