By Peter Aronson
I am a writer. Yes, I am.
By day, I write for the municipality. I write forms for every conceivable aspect of life.
My favorite last month:
Municipal Sidewalk Chewing Gum Eradication Program, Citizen’s Report:
Number of pieces removed per square foot: __________
Type of gum removed, if known: mint _____; fruit _____; bubble_____; other _____
By night, however, my writing is mostly form-free and my life, my writing life, is much different. I shed any semblance of a logical, coherent thought process and become a real writer. I sit at my well-lit desk, in my tidy studio apartment, close my eyes, take a deep breath, and disappear into a land where a large sign says “RESTRICTED ACCESS,” my very own world of make up whatever shit I want to make up, where scorpions or rats or vampires could rule, if I wanted them to, but I don’t, instead focusing on twenty-first century pseudo-psycho-snarky-jet-black realism, where I confront the demons of character development and plot twists, where I seemingly do battle every day with every word ever written or spoken in the English language.
It was six o’clock on a Friday evening. I was in a taxi on the way to the airport, heading for St. Barbaloosa in the Caribbean. I was off on my annual weekend writing excursion, an all-expenses-paid entitlement for being a municipal writer. I was thirty-eight, owned 9 goldfish, had no family I spoke to, and didn’t care much about anything except my writing. My previous 14 excursions to St. B filled me with hope but left me with bad sunburns and a lingering stench that perhaps Hemingway I was not.
But I would never give up because deep down I knew I was a writer.
Once on the plane, I took out my little black notebook, my personal holy grail of story ideas, the one I started in college and lugged with me everywhere I went. The good news was that idea #143 was a winner; I was certain of that. I planned to outline the story on the plane ride and hit the ground running in St. B, cruise towards that 5,000-word lit limit while sipping island cocktails by the all-night pool and thinking other-worldly literary thoughts like my idol Roberto Bolaño, the only one in the world who would understand me, if he was still alive.
But the flight attendant tempted me with a free ginger ale, and I popped a Xanax to relax. I fell asleep before my pen hit the paper.
Upon landing, I knew I needed to regroup.
Fresh air would help. I decided to walk to my hotel. I was eager, walking quickly. I kept repeating 143 in my head; that is, the five words that followed it in my notebook: fiction, truth, lies, honesty, bullshit.
My truth was, aside from writing municipal forms for 14-plus years, I hadn’t completed a writing project since I was six, when I wrote my mom a Mother’s Day poem in purple crayon. When I was thirteen, I wrote 29 thank you notes after my Bar Mitzvah. My dad said all the gifts, including the $579 I received in checks, would be given to charity unless I wrote thank you notes to everyone who gave me a gift. The problem was I had to write 33 notes, because 33 people gave me presents. My dad checked the list. He said, “Son, you wrote 29 notes. You have 4 more to write.” I said, “Dad, I can’t write any more notes.” I had written the same note 29 times:
Thank you for the pen or check. I love it. Sincerely, fondly, warmly, Paul.
Twenty-nine times. I could not write it again. And I could not think of anything else to write. I never wrote the last four notes. My dad gave all the gifts and the $579 to charity. In high school and college, I didn’t complete one writing assignment. My doctor diagnosed me with anxiety-induced writer’s block. I was fourteen. I was given a medical exemption from writing school essays. Because I couldn’t write may have been why I wanted to write. We all want what we don’t have, right? The more forms I wrote, the greater my urge was to become a real writer, a writer of note, or of some distinction—any distinction, really.
So at this moment, near eleven on a Friday eve, on this idyllic tropical island where people were presumably out partying, looking for romance, I was on a different mission.
While walking to my hotel, I stopped to buy a bottle of water at a drugstore, and realized I was practically out of cash. I went to a bank across the street.
I entered and inserted my bank card in the ATM. The machine spit out $100. Then the lights went out: the lights overhead, the lights on the machine, every light in the small room. Something wasn’t right. I pushed the release lever on the door. It didn’t open.
I tried my bank card again and again. I even kicked the door. Nothing.
I had done these weekend trips to St. Barbaloosa for so many years that I needed to justify them to the very few friends I had. Writing excursions, I called them.
Yes, my writing project was going just fine, I would say—you know, the secret, off-limits project, so secret that I couldn’t even discuss one word of The Project (the word “project” intentionally chosen to conceal the very nature of what I might be but clearly was not working on: short story, novel, screenplay, etc., etc.).
Actually, I was never quite sure if anyone believed me, or if I was deceiving myself, my mind so stuck-up and constipated with ideas that I had become a plot point in my own unending quest for a story. Was I living my non-story instead of writing it? I had no clue.
I pulled out my cell phone, dialed 9-1-1.
“Buenas noches,” the operator said.
“Yeah, buenas noches. I’m locked in an ATM on Comercia. Can you get me out?”
“Señor, are you aware of the new law?”
“What new law? I just got to the island a half hour ago.”
“Señor, at eleven p.m. sharp, ATMs close for the night.”
“Oh, jeez. I didn’t know that. But I still need to get out.”
“What’s so funny?”
“You don’t understand. Everyone on the island has gone a little cuckoo, me included. All anyone wants to do now is write.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I mean, everybody on the island has become crazed with writing. It’s all anybody wants to do. I was writing a poem to my beloved when you called. Want to hear it?”
“Is this some sort of joke?” I looked outside the ATM and saw no cars, no people, no nothing.
“Where is everybody?”
“Like I said, everybody is home writing—a story, a novel, a memoir, something. All the police and security guards are home writing noir or police procedurals. That’s all they do. They won’t be able to unlock the ATM until tomorrow morning.”
“You’re kidding, right? This must be one of those hidden-camera shows where it’s a big fucking practical joke on someone like me, right?”
I looked around for a concealed camera, perhaps embedded in the ATM, or peering through a crack in the wall.
“Señor, this is not a joke.”
“I don’t believe you. You’re making fun of me, because I . . . I . . . struggle a little . . . Okay, maybe a lot. Someone tipped you off, right? Let’s make fun of this pathetic, failed, wannabe writer. You’re messing with me. I don’t like it.”
“Señor, I swear on the poem for my beloved, on every line of verse, that I am not making fun of you. What I told you is the truth. But I can help you, I promise.”
Then my phone went silent. The 9-1-1 lady had hung up.
I looked out the window at the dark, still night. This was not real. Perhaps I had overdosed on the plane and died, and now I was having an out-of-soul experience—the kind I could write about after being miraculously resuscitated and coming out of a 12-year coma.
Then the phone rang. Not my cell phone, but the phone on the wall between two ATM machines. The bank phone. I didn’t know those phones could ring. I grabbed it.
“Hello,” I said.
“Hello,” a woman said. “Your name is Paul, right?”
“How do you know my name?”
“Well, you don’t sound like a Peter, and I’m pretty certain your name is not Bucko, so I guessed Paul. Bingo.”
“Who the hell are you?”
“My name is Alice and I’m here to help you.”
“You are? You’re gonna get me out of this place?”
“No. I was informed you’re a frustrated writer. So I enrolled you, free of charge, in St. B’s nightly writing contest. You know everyone here loves to write, right? This contest is for our island guests, to encourage them to get in the groove. You’ll have until six a.m., with my help, to write a story and win an all-expenses paid cruise with Jerzy Kosiński’s son.”
“Huh?” I said, starting to lose my ability to think clearly. “Now I know I’m being pranked.”
“No, señor, this is not a prank. This is real life, I promise.”
“Real life, my ass. This is like telling me I can write, and that I’ll win the Nobel. One absurdity after another.”
“Yes, Alice. I know all about Jerzy and his son, Fredo, trying to continue his father’s myth. Their story is farce to the nth degree, like what is happening to me now. Perhaps our little tête-à-tête is being live streamed to a worldwide audience—a wannabe writer stuck in an ATM compelled to write fiction by fake fiction interlopers claiming fiction falls flat unless it’s true.”
“Wow, Paul, that’s so . . . interesting. You know about Jerzy Kosiński.”
As if the day wasn’t sideways enough.
“I studied Kosiński. He was the grand funkster of illusionary fiction, the writer who stole the truth from fiction. What you thought was fiction may have been true and what you thought was true may have been fiction.”
“Oh, Paul, I love it. Are you confirming, then, that fiction is definitely stranger than truth? Is that what you’re saying?”
“No, I’m saying the opposite.”
I had somehow forgotten about my dilemma. I was sitting on the floor of a dark ATM, staring at the cheap tile ceiling, and talking highbrow lit shit, blabbing like I knew what I was talking about.
“So tell me, Alice, what’s more intriguing, the fictional fraudulent creation of the fiction, or today, my farcical pseudo-nonfictional imprisonment, where I may be compelled to write fiction for fiction’s sake, to cruise with an heir to history’s greatest fraudulent fiction funkster?”
“Well, Paul, I am not sure what to say other than if you believe what you just said, you certainly have a crocodile stuck so far up your butt you have no idea what you’re talking about,” Alice said, chuckling. “It’s clear to me: what we have here is tricktion—trick-tion—our minds are hijacked by a bombardment of ideas, words and letters laid out on a page, all derived from caveman drawings, hieroglyphics, or scripture, created/presented by the so-called writer, who may or may not have existed, who may or may not have written what he/she says may or may not have happened, which may or may not be truth or fiction, or a combination thereof, read/interpreted/filtered/understood differently by each and every one of the 8 billion brains currently on earth.”
And then I stood up and thought, Oh, God, how clever. Tricktion. I did have goose bumps. They percolated across my body. I now so wanted to meet Fredo. For a second. Then I realized I had no idea what she was talking about. No idea what I had been talking about. I was so far over my head, so submerged in writerly-wannabe puke that I was pretending to talk like a writer while pretending to know something about people pretending to be writers. Whatever I was living, experiencing at this moment, somehow, was some sort of punishment imposed on me by all the writers of the world—living and dead (Kosiński and possibly Bolaño too!)—anyone who had ever published a single word. They collectively, after little debate and a unanimous vote, decided: Let’s torment this guy, this fake, could-have, should-have, ain’t-doing-nothing-no-shit writer. Rip his could-have, should-have, ain’t-doing-jack writerly heart and guts out so he never, ever, wants to, or pretends to want to, or tells anyone on this planet earth that he wants to, write again. Was I the first fraud they had gone after? Then I shouted, “No. No! I’m not a fraud!”
“Paul, Paul, please calm down. Of course, you’re not a fraud,” Alice said. “Well, at least no more a fraud than the average person, because we all have a little writerly fraud in us, a little wishful, creative thinking that is just that—a load of crap.”
“What are you talking about?” I said.
“All I’m saying is you can write,” Alice said softly, calmly, with a therapist’s tone. “Everyone on the island is doing it. So can you.”
I then gulped so hard I almost swallowed my Adam’s apple. “I can?”
“Yes. All you have to do is pick up one of those bank pens on the counter—see them, the green ones with the raised letters that spell “Banco Barbaloosa”—then grab a stack of deposit envelopes, get comfortable on the floor, and touch the tip of the pen to the paper and write one word, then a second word, which should flow from the first word, then repeat that process to create a complete and coherent sentence, which is designed to intrigue one person in the world; just focus on one person. Then repeat what you did, a few times, then a few dozen times, then keep going, each sentence building on the last, creating a coherent flow of ideas, words, phrases, cleverly drawn, making sense, making that one reader laugh, cry, be intrigued—yeah, be intrigued—in whatever the heck you wrote.”
“Wow,” I said.
“Yeah, wow, Paul. So start writing your story. Talk as you write; tell me the whole story so I can help you if you get stuck. Press the speakerphone button and speak loudly so I can hear every word.”
I took a deep breath, looked at the bank envelope, and began to write:
This is the story of Tallulah Beware, who was a high school senior.
I paused and stared at those words. I had actually written and spoken a full sentence of fiction. Thirteen more words of fiction than I had ever written. I touched my little black book in my left front pocket. I thought I felt a heartbeat. I resumed writing.
Tallulah Beware began to write and write. She wrote a 52-page essay about grass growing that got her into Harvard, and then she disappeared . . . vanished. Her parents called the police, the townspeople combed the woods in desperation, and then, voila, she was found days later in an old, abandoned barn in her hometown of Sweptup, Connecticut, filthy, dehydrated, yet sitting at a desk. She had written a 334-page novel titled Shut Me Up, Bitch! which her parents confiscated. They then sent her to a psychiatric hospital.
“Oh, God, Paul,” Alice interrupted, rather hysterical. “When I was sixteen, I went to my grandmother’s house for Thanksgiving, and I locked myself in the bathroom. For 11 hours, I wrote and wrote. I wrote an entire novel. Except the novel consisted of one sentence written 539 times:
I am writing a novel—yippee—about a boy who fell headfirst into a shallow creek and saw a minnow reading Moby-Dick.
After the fire department smashed down the door, my parents had me institutionalized.”
Oh, gosh, I thought. “Tricktion. It’s in the air. It’s in the water. It’s in our blood. It’s everywhere,” I said. I took a breath, shook my head, then resumed writing.
After being examined by a team of psychiatrists, Tallulah Beware was finally released from the hospital and allowed to enter Harvard. Because of her obsessive-compulsive writerly behavior, her parents, the doctors, and the Harvard dean of student welfare agreed that Tallulah should stay away from the literary arts and focus on science. She enrolled as a biology major, and on a freshman intake sheet under “Goals,” she wrote, “medical school.” But this was a lark.
Two days after arriving at Harvard, Tallulah met with professor Louis Krumpton.
Professor Krumpton was a man of about seventy-five, bald on top with long gray hair beyond his collar. For a distinguished professor, he had an unusually short bio on the Harvard faculty website:
Government service, 1969–2002.
Harvard professor of linguistics, 2003–present.
They met in professor Krumpton’s book-lined office, sitting opposite each other on worn, cushioned chairs. He held an unlit pipe in one hand.
“You want me to do what?” Tallulah asked, rather incredulous.
“Well, you don’t think so-called authors were smart enough to write all those books, do you?”
“Is this some sort of ridiculous, secret government project?”
“Of course. Is there another kind? The year was 1950, the Cold War, the Berlin Blockade, the coming space race—and McCarthyism. An obscure professor from Montana delivers a paper at an academic literary conference, declaring: ‘The United States must maintain artistic supremacy at all costs.’ A literary wildfire broke out. The top secret Writers Society of America was launched. Over the years, a handful of writers who had shown promise were paid six-figure sums never to write again, and handpicked teams took over. This may come as a shock, but it shouldn’t if you know how difficult it is to write: Joseph Heller did not write Catch-22; a team of 17 writers working for 18 months in a secret location on Martha’s Vineyard did. Truman Capote did not write In Cold Blood. In fact, Perry Smith and Dick Hickock and the Clutter family never existed. The news stories about the killings were fabricated by the Capote team, which wrote the book after they wrote Breakfast at Tiffany’s, which was inspired by a member of the writing team who received an engagement ring from Tiffany’s and, apparently, as the story goes, had a spontaneous orgasm.”
My hand was killing me. I had filled a dozen bank envelopes. I grabbed a pile more.
“Am I supposed to believe this?” Tallulah Beware asked.
“Well, Tallulah, the truth is, truth is stranger than fiction.”
“What about J.D. Salinger?”
“Why do you think he lived in the woods for most of his adult life, afraid to talk to anyone? His behavior makes sense if you understand the context.”
“Don’t tell me . . .”
“Well, I’m afraid Holden Caulfield was the product of 15 Princeton graduates—10 men, 5 women—living in the mountains of West Virginia, consuming ungodly amounts of beer and government-sanctioned psychedelic drugs, guarded by FBI agents. President Truman, so overwhelmed by the ongoing McCarthyism, the Korean War, and an assassination attempt, relished his time analyzing and signing off on Caulfield. In fact, he edited in a horny Caulfield trying to make a late-night date with Faith Cavendish. That was the president’s idea.”
“You’re telling me that the man who dropped the bomb sanctioned and edited The Catcher in the Rye?”
“So what do you want from me?”
“Philip Roth. We need a new woman on the Philip Roth team.”
“Yeah, so what? Ever hear of posthumously discovered manuscripts?”
“He was also known as a sexist pig, reason he never won the Nobel.”
“No one’s perfect. And anyway, Roth was just a proxy, or shill, for what the powers that be believe.”
“I refuse to participate in this fraud.”
“So judgmental. Fiction is pseudo-fraud, but far more truthful than the truth because there is no huckster trying to pawn off fiction as fact. Every author deceives in his or her own uniquely untruthful way.”
“Professor, you are just piling bullshit on top of bullshit. No one will ever know what to believe. The question of who wrote what, when, and how creates perpetual and infinite uncertainty, like looking into a hall of mirrors; the image never ends, like the story that may or may not be true, or the fiction that may or may not be fiction, written by a writer who may or may not exist. Perpetual deception, perpetually.”
With that, Tallulah got up and walked out.
“It’s rare, very rare indeed, when someone refuses to participate in our program. It’s fair to say America needs you,” the professor said as he followed Tallulah into the hallway. “Your writing has terrific cache. And the world is waiting for a new Philip Roth novel. You could play a major role.”
Tallulah kept walking.
He shouted after her: “You’ll regret this. You’ll regret this the rest of your life.”
The next day, Tallulah dropped out of Harvard, rented a car, and drove straight to that barn in Sweptup, nailed the windows and doors shut and began to write. She spoke the words out loud to make sure they made sense.
“She was a writer. Yes, she was.”
Then there was silence.
“Paul, Paul, are you still there?”
Alice waited a moment longer, then shrugged. She loved the ending, totally got it. She clicked the off button on her mini recorder. She had taped Paul’s entire story. She planned to transcribe it and then submit it to a literary magazine under her own name. She felt relieved. She had been unable to write since that episode in her grandmother’s bathroom. She felt that Paul’s story was partly hers—no, all hers. If not for her, Paul never would have written and said those words, never would have created Tallulah Beware and crafted those sentences that flowed like smooth water on a sunny day. Never.
Somehow, the concocted story about cruising with Fredo Kosiński had worked. It had pushed Paul to great literary heights. Thank God for Alice’s engineer-genius boyfriend. He rigged the ATM. Thank God for Alice’s creative friend at 9-1-1, who had hooked her up with Paul, who worked the phones by night and wrote during the day, and whose latest nonfiction story, “Why I Think, Why I Know, Why I Am Positive that I Wrote Macbeth,” was recently published in Iowa Writers Monthly.
Alice did not feel bad. She got what she wanted, and Paul got what he wanted. He finally had started and finished a story.
At nine a.m., a bank security guard unlocked the door to find Paul sprawled on the bank floor, still lying among the bank envelopes. The guard, at first, thought Paul was dead, but then he heard a little breathing and shook Paul awake.
“Hey, pal, time to get going.” Paul woke up, groggy from his effort and too short nap.
“What’s all this mess, man?” the guard asked.
Paul got up from the floor and looked down at all the bank envelopes strewn about, dozens of them with unintelligible scrawl.
“Beats me,” Paul said, shaking his head to clear the fog. He walked out the door, then down the street, past newspaper boxes. He never read the papers, hated the news. The headline blared:
“New NSA Leak—Who Creates America’s Fiction Is Actually America’s Greatest Untold Truth”
Paul headed for his hotel. A word popped into his head. Tricktion. What did that mean? he wondered.
Paul wasn’t sure what the day would bring. He felt a little light on his feet, a little giddy. He saw a bird soar overhead. For a second, he thought he could do the same.
Peter Aronson is a former journalist and attorney and now he writes short stories, children’s books and essays. His most recent book, Mandalay Hawk’s Dilemma, about kids fighting global warming, was published in December 2021. His short fiction has been published by Shark Reef, Potato Soup Journal and Bright Flash Literary Review.