Since a number of 3 Day Novel Contestants are posting their first chapters–you can check out the Iambic Admonit blog where Sørina Higgins is blogging her writing group’s first chapters–I thought I would post mine for Work-in-Progress Wednesday. You can read about my 3 Day Novel Contest experience here, or see Emily Ann Imes‘ thoughts, with links to a number of other 3DNCers and their blogs or twitter accounts.
This particular project, which began as A Myth of Sisyphus but is now Wish for a Stone, will sit aside for a few months. It needs some space to grow on its own, and some distance for me to see it as it is and begin to rewrite it. This first chapter finds Jonas, the journalism intern, falling into a writer’s desperate stereotype and haunting a local bar, looking for a story. He writes so he can change other people’s lives. Little does he know, it is his own life that will change.
Thanks for reading,
A Matter of Persisting
“Call me Ishmael,” the stranger had said. I couldn’t have known how to read his face then, how he wryly moved his jaw into place and pulled at the label on his beer bottle. I couldn’t have known that his eyes lit up like that when he told a quiet joke. But even then I knew Ishmael wasn’t his real name. If he really had a name of his own, I never heard it in all the time I knew him. So I called him Ishmael, because that’s what Marie called him.
“Call me Jonas,” I quipped back, sliding forward in the bar stool and bringing a quick smile to the stranger’s face.
“Thanks Marie,” Ishmael said, nodding to the bartender as she handed us each a fresh beer. She nodded back without smiling and moved on to another patron. Suddenly I noticed there was silence between us, as if he was waiting for me to speak. I eventually grew to understand what Ishmael’s silences meant.
“Thanks for the beer,” I said, tipping the longneck toward him before taking a drink. He lifted his chin, nodding in that way of men, and took up the conversation.
“So you’re a journalist,” he said.
“How… how did you know?” I stammered. As I think back on the moment, it is hard for me not to insert everything I know now into that conversation—everything I’ve learned about the man called Ishmael. But even then I sensed the magic in him, the mythic air he commanded.
Seeing my surprise, he chuckled.
“It’s on your tag,” he said, pointing to the plastic ID tag hanging from my belt. “‘Hillstone Media: Print: Intern’ it says.”
I grabbed the tag and looked sheepishly at the stranger.
“Yeah. Forgot to take this off at the office.”
“You a writer?” he asked.
“Trying to be,” I answered. I took a sip of the beer. Then I began telling my whole life story for a reason I could never remember. He didn’t seem to mind. “I’ve always wanted to be one of those cutting edge journalists, digging the true story out from between the lines, you know? Not just selling the public a piece, but finding the great questions lurking in the everyday, in mud and mountains and blood and around the dinner table. I went to school to be a journalist, but by the time I was done, journalism had sort of disappeared. Now we reprint corporate press releases and crowdsource the truth. Things have….”
“Shifted?” he interrupted. I nodded.
“They sure have. You would think that the potential for stories would have exploded. We have news gatherers in every city, journals and papers and online editions without end, and people willing to tell their story in every pixel of the world map. But it’s actually narrower that in used to be. And to get a job now… it’s like winning the lotto, a single chance in a thousand.” I found myself tugging at the label of the beer bottle in my hand, mimicking the reflective tick of the stranger beside me. “I guess you have to be a superstar, and I’m just….” I trailed off. I wasn’t sure what I was. I was good, but I wasn’t a superstar.
“So why are you here?” he asked after a pause.
I smiled, embarrassed.
“I came looking for inspiration.”
“To a bar?” The stranger chuckled, and I found myself laughing with him.
“Yeah, I know. Cliché isn’t it? But here I am.”
“A lot can happen in a bar,” he responded, forgiving the desperate writer’s stereotype that I had punished myself for. But that’s really why I had come to that bar that afternoon. The blank page before me was more threatening than a hundred writer’s clichés.
“Oh yeah?” I pushed back, deciding to take the risk. “And what’s your story?”
Ishmael’s beer hovered between the bar and his mouth. He looked at me, sidelong. But that quick glance, brief and guarded, was filled with a story that was just beyond my ken. I live in a city where the oldest houses are a hundred years old, in a country that has spilt all its blood in the age of gunpowder. But that sideways glance… I know now it was filled with age, weighty with time.
With a sigh, and without taking a sip, he set his bottle down. He slumped his shoulders forward wearily, and leaned toward me, as one sharing a dark secret.
“I can grant you the deepest desire of your heart,” he said, simply, each word like the thud of stone falling on stone. He sighed again, then straightened himself in his chair and took a sip of beer.
It took a moment for each of Ishmael’s words to register. If I gave myself another moment before speaking, I know now that I would have understood him, and I would have believed him immediately. As much as he lied with his eyes, as much as the many years hid secretly within the few lines on his face, I never once heard Ishmael speak untruth.
“Come again?” I finally managed.
“I can grant you the deepest desire of your heart,” he said again, more quickly this time.
“Like a wish?” I asked. He shook his head slightly.
“Not a wish. The wish. The one thing you want most in the whole world. The dream that haunts your days long after you’ve shaken off your sleepy mind. That terrifying idea that suggests itself when all your mental noise has been silenced for the space of evening. The thing you’ve never told anyone, son, and only dare to let yourself believe is possible on the darkest of nights or brightest of afternoons. I can grant you that one wish, and one wish only: the deepest desire of your heart.”
Ishmael only shrugged, a lazy sideways head tilt, then rolled the bottom of his empty beer bottle slowly along the top of the bar. The brown bottle ridges sounded like knuckles rolling on a desk. I knew then that I could disregard the mysterious stranger who had three or four beer labels stacked at his left hand on the bar and walk away forever. But if I was to stay, I was to believe him. Later, when I was alone in my apartment, thinking through this strange conversation, I would find a hundred reasons to write Ishmael off as a conman, or a lunatic, or worse of all, someone who lied because he could. But there, in that dingy bar, in the hour before work should have ended, I believed him implicitly.
I was almost afraid, then, to ask a question. I was afraid that he would withdraw the offer and disappear forever. I was afraid that I would miss my chance to have that dream come to life. And—more perhaps—I was terrified that he would follow through with his offer. It wasn’t just that Ishmael offered before me a great leap of faith over an unknown chasm. He also cut off my retreat. To go back, if I could go back, was also a leap into the darkness.
“What’s the catch?” I asked, struggling to find lines beside which to lay my confused ideas.
“No catch,” he said, not looking up from the bottle rolling around in his hands. “You can say no and walk away. This day will become just one of those days where you went to work, had a drink, and then watched TV until sleep came. You can walk away.”
He paused, looking at me. There was dark humour in his face, I think.
“I take no payment for this service,” he continued. “You’ll see soon enough that no payment could be given. There’s no catch, but there are a couple of things you should know.”
“Oh yeah?” I asked, raising my eyebrows. My stomach lurched as I suspected the con for the first time. In that microsecond from speaking to waiting for him to speak the disappointment was bitter. I thought of every wig-laden TV preacher and ill-suited politician and burnt-out teacher. I thought of truth half-told as lies. I thought of advertising. And porn.
“First,” he said. “It must be your greatest desire, not just any old wish.”
“So I can’t ask for gobs of money?”
“You can’t,” Ishmael answered. “But others could. That’s not your deepest desire.”
“How do you know?” I pressed. He did not answer. Only that lazy shrug of his that ended all questions.
“What about true love?” I asked, not deterred by his silence.
“Again, that’s not your wish. But it might be someone else’s.”
“What about wishing for more wishes?”
“Ah, yes, the Aladdin clause,” he answered wryly, making me smile. “In this case,” he continued, “it wouldn’t matter. I don’t even have to resort to Disney. No one’s deepest desire is to have more wishes. Their deepest desire is to have this or that wish fulfilled—or maybe all and every wish fulfilled at once. But the desire isn’t the wishes, you see? The ‘more wishes’ wish doesn’t ring true in this tavern.”
I nodded. I think, now, that I was enjoying the conversation, forgetting momentarily the offer that was before me. It was at that point purely philosophical, another mental game with friends.
“Second,” he continued with my silent assent. “You will return to visit me here each year on the anniversary of your wish.”
“Follow up, you mean?”
“What if I don’t come?” I asked.
“You will come,” Ishmael answered with that solidity I came to recognize as truth. It was the most disconcerting thing about Ishmael: his knowledge of what might be truth. It was as immovable as mountains.
“Is there a third rule?” I asked, shaken just a little.
“There is. Jonas, if you accept this offer—if you offer up your deepest desire to the universe to be granted—it is absolutely irrevocable. It will come true. Completely, for good or ill. And forever—at least all your ever here on earth. The wish will happen immediately, but it is spread out over the whole length of a life. It will come true.”
My first reaction was benign bemusement. Of course when a wish comes true it comes true. But the significance of that idea began to descend upon me. And I truly felt it like a weight on my shoulders, the idea of what it meant for a wish to come true, for the improbable to become absolute in the passing of an hour. I do not know how long I was silent, but when I looked up again we each had a new, untouched beer before us.
“Do you understand, Jonas?”
“I do. I mean, I think I do. I’m just having trouble believing it.” I looked up at Ishmael quickly. “Not that I disbelieve you,” I added hastily. “It’s just….” I searched for the words. All I got was images: A lost child returning home to her parents’ arms after years. A desperate man at the altar hearing of God’s forgiveness. A jilted lover lip locked with the one she always longed for. It was that kind of disbelief. I never finished the sentence for Ishmael, but I trust he knew what I was thinking. I sensed then Ishmael’s own hesitation. He stolidly looked forward to the pyramid of spirits in front of him, past the bouquet of brightly coloured bottles to the mirror that showed his tired face. I was about to answer his offer—to this day I do not know what I was going to say—when we were interrupted by a shout behind us.
“Ishmael!” the angry voice cried from across the bar. “Ishmael! You asshole.”
While everything then moved quickly, the man beside me was in complete control. He put a hand out to Marie the barkeep, who was about to turn the man out. Then he turned toward his assailant, winking lightly at me as he did.
“Donny,” he said warmly. “Great to see ya! Let me buy you a beer, buddy.”
Donny did not seem as pleased to see his buddy Ishmael. He rushed toward the wishmaker with fire in his eyes. Then, fluidly, Ishmael got to his feet. He was a tall man, and thick. The solid confidence and significant stature had its effect on the furious Donny. As Ishmael placed a ball cap squarely on his head, Donny seemed to give up altogether. My drinking partner, the mythical wishmaker, put his hand on his assailant’s shoulder and led him to a quiet booth in the corner, leaving me to a thousand questions threatening to stir up into my imagination. I was kept from the consequence of silence by Ishmael’s faithful bartender, Marie.
“How about you join me for a smoke?” she asked. I looked at her for the first time. She looked like she might have been in her early sixties, but her dark, sallow skin and tight white-tinged curls made her look older.
“That’s okay,” I answered politely. “I don’t smoke.”
“All right then,” she answered. “Why don’t you join me while I smoke.”
I suspected that I was truly unable to say no, so I slipped off the stool with my beer in hand and followed the waitress through a small door beside the bar. The sun was painfully bright, and surprising. My conversation with Ishmael felt like it was hours long. It felt like an age passed on that bar stool, and I expected darkness in the world outside the bar. The very fact that the back alley was filled with life—delivery vans, restaurant staff smoking next door, a feral cat walking along a ridgepole, an old man mowing his lawn—made me wince with false expectation. How could all continue normally in the world when my whole world had shifted so quickly?
Marie offered me a milk crate, which I took gladly. She lit her cigarette and inhaled deeply, closing her eyes with pleasure as she leaned against the brick wall with one knee in the air. Then she handed me a cigarette and lighter.
“You can’t talk proper without a smoke,” she said. I set my beer bottle on the asphalt and obediently lit my cigarette. I hadn’t smoked since I was a kid, but managed to keep from descending into a fit of adolescent coughing. And though I was expecting a talk to go with our cigarettes, Marie smoked in silence. I saw now in the sunlight the hint of an ancient Mediterranean life in her features: the high cheek bones, the dark eyes, the DNA of sun-darkened skin and what was once ebony hair. I could see now that she was once quite beautiful.
It wasn’t until she lit her second cigarette that she spoke.
“So, you’ve met Ishmael, then.”
It wasn’t a question, but I nodded anyhow.
“Have you decided to wager?”
“Wager?” I asked.
“You know. His little lottery.”
“Oh, yes. You mean the wish.”
“Call it what ye will, lad,” she answered, her lips tight in worry. “Have you gone all in?”
I shook my head.
“We got interrupted by the angry guy.”
“Oh yes,” she smiled with an air of remembrance. “We get a few of them. But it’s probably best that you got yourself a breath of air.”
I smiled at the cigarette resting lamely between the fingers of my right hand. The smoke was stinging my eyes. Marie hesitated.
“Look,” she said as she snubbed out her second smoke. “I don’t interfere, you see?” I didn’t really see, but Marie seemed anxious to try to say something. Then she pulled her order pad out of her apron pocket and sketched something on it. She ripped off the page and handed it to me. In blue ink on green page with “Guest Check” in script at the top Marie had written:
Monica Shermin, 92 Tricycle Lane, Apt. 403.
I looked at the waitress, leaning against the back of the bar. She shrugged, turned around, and pulled open the door, leaving me alone in the alley with a warm beer and an ill-used cigarette burning at the edge of my fingers.