NOTE: You may just want to skip to the story below the horizontal line.
When people ask me what it is I write, the best answer I can give is that I don’t know. “I’m just starting,” I tell them, “I’ve just come out of a very intensive course of study and I’m changing career tracks.” “Did you study writing?” they ask. “No,” I tell them, “physics.” “Oh, but you’re a writer now?” “Well, I’m applying to wash dishes at a Mexican restaurant.” “Ah,” they say, “I understand,” and I wish they would explain it to me.
The goal of my writing up till now has always been exemplified by the quote from On Keeping a Notebook that I’ve repeated so many times: to remember what it was like to be me. But the world (in the narrowest possible sense) is changing, and it is not just Didion I must live by, but also Rilke:
Find out the reason that commands you to write; see whether it has spread its roots into the very depths of your heart; confess to yourself whether you would have to die if you were forbidden to write. This most of all: ask yourself in the most silent hour of your night: must I write? Dig into yourself for a deep answer. And if this answer rings out in assent, if you meet this solemn question with a strong, simple “I must”, then build your life in accordance with this necessity; your whole life, even into its humblest and most indifferent hour, must become a sign and witness to this impulse.
Maybe Rilke is being too exclusive; surely there is such a thing as the hobbyist writer, for whom writing is not quite as important as water and air, but nonetheless more important than (say) sex or automobiles? I don’t think I would have to die if I were forbidden to write; I have gone long periods without writing. But then, there are those who fast.
Though I naturally have some private journals, an inappropriately large fraction (it seems at a first estimate to be around half) of my writing in the last few years has been on this blog. It’s been primarily nonfiction, first-person, like a diary (which the prankster in me would like to call diaretic, but which is actually diarial). I have sparingly but unapologetically sprinkled in fictitious elements where they made the story better; but from now on, my focus will be on using this as a platform to publish more polished short stories, essays and other literary efforts. My last post (from April!) was my first effort at this; expect more like it to come.
Eventually my hope is to submit writing to magazines, but I’m not there yet. If you are reading this, the odds are that you know me personally; if you take the time to read a whole story, I sincerely appreciate constructive (interpret broadly) feedback in the comments section.
Today I offer you a piece of fiction largely inspired by real events. Its working title is “About the Dog.”
Michael carried the dish across the kitchen. It was still replete with the old dog’s lamentably uneaten breakfast: a cup of crunchy, dry, almost unscented kibble, with a spoonful of leftovers for palatability, garnished liberally with ketchup in a crosshatch pattern. The plate was crawling with a mass of six-legged scavengers, seeking to capitalize on the sick old dog’s lost appetite. He turned on the sink. As the scalding, steaming water washed the food and its formicid inhabitants, incapable of protestation, into the gently whirring garbage disposal, he was reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita: Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.
He let fall a single drop of soap, massaged it with his thumbs into the old, decaying sponge. “This sponge,” he said aloud, “has seen better days,” and it was true; but he kept using it, nonetheless, because he had no other. Having worked the soap into a lather, he vigorously scrubbed the bottom of the dish, intent on removing every last invisible ant-germ. On some level he knew that ants carried no significant diseases, and that the old dog had, in his day, eaten enough of them to get an exterminator’s license; but it seemed important to get it right this time, to give the dog a dinner to remember, one not… Outside, there was the faraway grumble of a motorcycle.
Speak of the devil— when he turned around to replace the empty bowl, the old dog had dragged himself into the room, looking forlornly up at Michael, his master. Thick front paws supported his entire weight; neurodegenerative myelopathy (Michael remembered the name without a clue about the underlying causes it signified) was now several months advanced, paralyzing, atrophying muscle, working its way from the hind paws forward, until it would eventually reach… The two held eye contact for what seemed to him like a long time, until finally the dog’s rear legs gave way and his hindquarters fell into an unenthusiastic intercourse with the lacquered wood floor. “What do you want,” Michael asked, “old boy?” The dog, unaware of his slippage, did not change expression: waterfallen, cloudy eyes fixated as best they could on his master; bent and patch-haired tail, splayed out behind the bony, fragile legs, vibrated, feebly, once.
He sighed and went to go refill the dish. It bothered him, the amount of food he discarded every day. After all, each dry brown nugget represented a portion of the life of (he read the side of the bag) a chicken, a pig, or a lamb. Some animal somewhere had suffered and died, to be fed to the old dog, to be fed to the ants; to be washed down the garbage disposal. But dutifully he poured the chicken-pig-lamb-bits into the dish, and dutifully he opened the refrigerator and reached for the Tupperware of last night’s vegetables. It was empty. “Sorry, old boy,” he said softly, “nothing special for round two,” and satisfied the both of them with extra ketchup.
He returned the bowl to its spot on the low table. The old dog was now lying on his side, not looking at anything in particular; the squeal of the mailman’s cart outside did not even disturb him. “Come on,” Michael said resignedly, “come on.” The dog made a halfhearted attempt to lift his head, but gave up, waiting for what always came next. Michael knew. He slid his arm under the visible ribcage, feeling the tumor that was growing larger every day, and his other hand around the veiny neck. He gently picked the old dog up and righted him; he uncrossed the dying legs by hand, straightened them, and left one hand in contact with the old dog’s buttocks, to push him in the right direction should he slip.
Now they stood there, the two of them, in silence for a while. The old dog watched his food continue to exist; time did not seem to pass, the ticking of the clock above the shelf drowned out by the neighbor’s comically overpowered lawnmower. It may have been five minutes, it may have been fifteen; but nobody moved until the first ant had made its way up the leg of the table and into the dish. The first ant was followed by a second, and by a third, and before long the whole colony was back in force, consuming the sustenance that had so generously been proffered it. As the neighbor finished mowing and the engine sputtered to a halt, the old dog turned his head back towards Michael, who removed his hand. Ignobly, predictably, and slowly, the dog’s hindquarters slid backwards; he lost his balance; he fell sideways. Michael did not take his eyes off the ever-growing, squirming mass of ants, the ever-diminishing pile of ketchup. He was once again reminded of the line from the Bhagavad-Gita, and softly he began to cry.