Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Writer's Evening by Lio Mangubat

A psychological story about a troubled writer by Lio Mangubat

Every day, invariably, with no change in routine since I became his tenant, the landlord visited at 6 o' clock on the dot. Before the old cuckoo down the hall could finish its six chimes, the knock would come and the door open, and he would be there, in all his senile glory. Liver spots, crumpled skin, old, unwashed clothes and the stale smell that I imagine Egyptologists are used to when unearthing mummies; it would all be there.

Or I visited him, which occurred quite frequently during my first years as his tenant. There, in his room, the Egypt smell would multiply till I could stand it no more. If I visited him, he'd be waiting for me in his unmade bed, his eternally unmade bed, if I might add. He always seemed to know when I would visit him and when he would visit me, don't ask me how, but he just did. But he'd smile, a yellow toothed smile that showed perfect sets of artificial teeth, and gesture weakly for me to sit down. Sit down on the bed, that meant, and so I would. The mattress would creak and maybe I worried a lot of times that the whole bed would fall down.

The conversation usually went in these general lines:

"How was your day?" The perfect opener, now made stale by countless days of the same conversation. Stale as his room, stale as his dried breath, stale as his old clothes.

And I would tell him. If I wasn't working on a manuscript, then I was waiting the whole day, or maybe downtown, shopping.

I'm a writer, or maybe someone who thinks he's one. No. Correction. I don't think I'm a writer. Maybe fourteen years ago I did, when I submitted an award-winning short story for a local competition. First place, quite a lot of money won, at least in a teen's eye view. I still kept the original; it's somewhere in my messy room. Then a couple of poems when I was in college. In fact, lots of poems that got printed in a nice paperback anthology. Very well received. Very good cover. Very good everything. The culture section in the daily called it "an evocative collection that reminisces on lost innocence and childhood." I laughed my head off when I read that. I just wrote, for Christ's sake! I don't make evocative anythings! It was obvious that they didn't know what they were talking about, and neither did I, to tell the cold truth, when I wrote the poems. I just wrote what came to my head. What really sickens me is that, twenty years from now someone will make it a school Literature textbook and force poor unfortunates to look for hidden meanings, or for moral lessons, or to read between the lines. That would be the laugh of the century.

Then I turned to mystery. My first novel, Upper Echelons, a conspiracy theory type of story with a lawyer as a protagonist. Twelve rejection slips until I finally got some small-town bookie to put it into hardcover. It was shameful opening the mail and finding that only a desperate publisher would want Upper Echelons, but I swallowed my pride. It isn't a good meal, but you have to learn to do that in this profession. Due to my reputation from the anthology of poems, the reviewers quickly grabbed themselves a copy. Boy did they bomb me. "A novel which gives you the impression that it was pasted together from house glue and drying saliva." "Improbable plot twists are the norm in Upper Echelons." "Makes Mission: Impossible the movie look like something Beatrix Potter did." Many more things like that. But I didn't care. All the publicity made me rich. Temporarily.

By this time, around two years after the Upper Echelons, I was in what seemed like permanent writer's block. I've been subsisting on short stories for some back-alley, run-of-the-mill magazine. So two years I crank out short stories, and in the meantime, working on the Great Novel while drinking from cheap gin that burned through your throat. It's a hard life, but I'm been through that self-pity phase; I don't want to go through another year of fruitless job-hunting.

To get inspiration for the Great Novel, I go book-shopping. Uptown, downtown, westtown, fleatown, ghost-town, I plumbed their bookstores, squandering my money in second-hand books, ready-to-eat meals and cheap booze. And when I got home, I opened the gin, drank till my stomach turns into a pit of pain, then read. From "The House of Seven Gables" to "The Dragonlance Rulebook". From Boba Fett to Nero Wolfe. From John Grisham to Tom Clancy and back around the circuit to Thomas Hardy. I even reread that piece of junk they force-fed to high-schoolers, "The Catcher in the Rye." I intoxicated myself with books, even more than with the gin.

And that's I usually talked with my landlord about. Books. There was nothing else to talk about, unless you count tapping aimless sentences in my electronic typewriter or waiting in the telephone for a writer's miracle. And he would comment on the books with his forced intellectuality.

"Oh, yeah, Jane Austen. Didn't she make 'The Scarlet Pumpernickel'?"

He said stuff like that quite often. At first it was funny, then, like everything else, it became stale.

Then he'd lend me some of his books. Yellow and dusty hardcovers, mostly things like old medical textbooks or "Tom Sawyer." I never failed to thank him. I never read them. He never asked for them.

Every night, I'd go back into my room for more boozing and more tasteless ready-to-eats, my mind still recoiling from that cadaverous vision. It was horrible. Not only uncomfortably horrible but plain horrible. A weird kind of horrible that was depressing at the same time. That, I think, was the worst kind.

When he visited me, he would walk to my door and knock so softly you can't hear him, and it wasn't my fault that he got irritated because he thought I was ignoring him. Then, when I opened the door, he'd almost fall in, tottering to my mother's donated chair. He'd smile weakly, very weakly, and ask for gin. I'd gladly give it to him, but lately, he'd get so weak that I'd have to hold the glass for him. It was depressing, squirmingly uncomfortable. Maybe the whole ordeal would have been easier if I had a kinder heart. Maybe.

But despite all his weakness, he'd find time to chat two hours away. Chat about nothing, really. We were silent most of the time, with me smiling and him smiling, holding our gin, while I was mentally screaming at him to get out. I dropped him several hints, but he never took them. Never. So we'd sit there, and when he finally left, I'd sigh in relief and get back to work on the Great Novel.

The Great Novel was a fricking set of mindless sentences. Absolutely fricking. It was made up of one sheet of paper in the electric typewriter and maybe a hundred sheets in the trashcan or nearby landfill. It wasn't progressing, which was really irritating. I had the potential to be a good author, I distinctly remember myself thinking. That was twelve years ago, when I was still idealistic and still confident that my first novel would turn into a bestseller, not only on paper, but on the big screen. Would that that sixteen year old would look at himself twelve years into the future.

My pride was really hurt. Not living up to my potential or anything. A common problem in life, and I was rapidly entering the age of disillusionment. F. Scott Fitzgerald, e.e. cummings, a new disillusioned author is about to join your innumerable ranks!

But, as I said, my self-pity phase was over.

So a typical evening would begin with a chat. The thing I remembered most about his chats was the smell. It was a dead smell, really. I distinctly remember such a smell was when my grandfather and my mother died. The whole wake, the smell was the same, no matter how much you rationalized. It was such a palpable, that's it, palpable smell. It made you want to vomit. It also made you a bit scared.

And then the face. Oh, that face. It was a skeleton. Emaciated. Wrinkled. He was Lady Death in the male. I keep expecting him to come up with a black cloak and a big sickle. Maybe the fact that he was going to die, soon, emphasized that impression.

That skull-like face would haunt me. Yeah, whenever I would begin typing, whenever I had some flash of inspiration, I saw that face floating in front of me. Scares the hell out of me. I'd get up, walk around, maybe drink some more gin, maybe give myself an ulcer or go to the john, but the face wouldn't go away. It was horrible. Like I said, it was horrible with fear and despair mixed into it.

I couldn't write at all. The smell and that face would fill my head. Egypt and fear and the Red Death and old tombs and dead relatives and stormtrooper helmets and Vicks Vaporub all combined to make me vomit and quake. And I couldn't write, and I'd return to the typewriter and just stare at the painful whiteness of the bond paper. I swear it would burn through my eyes if I keep looking at it. But it didn't. What burned through my eyes --- what burned through my whole darned head! --- was the image of his face. Oh, yeah, and the smell, too.

So, one day, one perfectly normal day, one perfectly fine dandy I'm-great-how-are-you day, I walked out of his room and decided that I hated him.

It was just a cold, rational thought. No emotion whatsover. Instead of making me mad or guilty or what, I just rationalized. I said to myself, I don't hate him per se, but, well, I just hate him.

Just like that, huh? It was a perfectly normal thought, though, and I closed his door calmly behind me.

Later that night, I did something unexpected.

I visited him.

So he said to me, "Come right in. I didn't expect to see you at this time. A good professional like you should be sleeping!"

And I nodded and laughed sheepishly and I took a seat in that hard, creaky mattress. I continued giggling crazily for a while, and he was just staring at me, amused. I guess he got a lot of that. So I looked up and began to talk.

Maybe things would have turned out different if I hadn't looked at his face.

I looked straight in his eye cavities, and his grinning rictus. It looked exactly like a skull. Suddenly, I became acutely aware of the smell. It was a really dead smell, not dead as in rotting, but dead as in not alive. This thought began running over on my head, and I started thinking that I hated him, I hated him, I hated his head, I wanted to crush it in with this lamp beside me. Rational. Cool. Unemotional.

So I did it.

I picked up the lamp. The whole room suddenly goes dark because I jerked the lamp too hard and the plug gets off the socket. But the night's pretty bright in the city, and the lights come in through the windows and illuminate the old man lying on the bed. He gave this shriek or something, and his horrible skull face suddenly contorted. It really scared hell out of me. Really. So I put the lamp down on his head, hard. There's a dull thud, and suddenly he's screaming like crazy and there's red stuff going down his head. So I go at it again, and again, and maybe around ten times, until he's still. Dead as a doornail, you can say.

I sat down on the bed again, breathing hard. It was really weird. I expected, maybe even wished for, a kind of feeling to come to me. Maybe anger. Or better yet, remorse. Or even guilt. But nothing happened. I just felt tired or something. I felt like sleeping, actually. It was so depressing waiting for all the emotion to pour out, but it's not there. So I just sit on the creaking mattress, and yawned.

Looking at his body again, I felt a dull satisfaction looking at all his blood. It was really shining and interesting. I'm not like a vampire or anything, but it was fascinating. Some of it was drying, and maybe it really smelled bad, but I didn't mind. Suddenly I noticed that the room didn't have the smell of death anymore.

And maybe after five minutes of looking at his nice and shiny blood, I got out and get some much needed sleep.



So here I am today, in the mental jail. Me and my lawyer pleaded insanity, and I got it. When I get out, maybe I'd like to become an actor. I really had a good time convincing everyone I was crazy as Bugs Bunny.

But I'm not crazy. Nope. Not at all. I'm actually pretty rational sometimes. Anyway, I don't have screwy nightmares of flying skulls anymore.

The thing I love doing here in the chicken farm is smelling the air. The smell of crazy lunatics, of cement walls, of the rusted iron and sterile psychoanalysts. It smells so nice. So alive. Nothing smells bad anymore. Then I start typing in the borrowed antique typewriter from the library. And after maybe like fifteen minutes I take a piece of paper from the typewriter and lay it on top of a big heap of paper beside me.

The Great Novel's really going great.

1 comment:

  1. very true to life, i can see him, the writer, i can almost, but not quite, smell the old man.the old man seems to reflect the writer´s view of his own career, a curse.
    very good.

    michael mccarthy

    ReplyDelete