Their voices carried. They traveled through the bar on wisps of smoke from the table by the fireplace straight to my ear, like a playground tube little girls whisper secrets into that can be heard only by the person on the other end.
It was late. My whole body was telling me it was late—the knot at the base of my neck, the ache pulsing through my temples, the tension in my wrist. I wanted to crawl into bed, but I wasn’t quite finished yet.
“But of course there is no such thing as fiction,” the white-haired one insisted, reaching into his vest for a pack of pipe tobacco.
(Yes, I’m sure now that he wears a vest and smokes a pipe. The younger one, the one with the distinguished touch of silver in his hair and the wire rim glasses, wears tweed.)
“Every artist writes himself—or herself as the case may be—into his work,” the old one continued. “It’s all autobiographical, it’s just a matter of degree, that’s all.”
He stopped for a moment to light his pipe. The smell of spent match followed the same path as the words. I slowed down as I gathered the salt shakers on the tables next to the wall, listening, watching, trying to get it down right.
“Take Hawthorne, for example,” he continued in his professorial voice. “There’s a passage in his journal about a search he took part in, a search for a young woman who’d disappeared. Her body was found in a pond. Suicide. The same exact words appear in Blithedale Romance. Same thing with Virginia Woolf—you’ll find passages from her journal throughout her works. The whole notion of fiction is a construct.”
Smoke had filled the whole room at this point, prompting some of the students to leave, putting their pitiful tips on the table. Only three tables were left. I looked at Ted behind the bar, shining the rim of a glass. He went to the door and flipped the sign to "closed."
"Miss . . . Miss," the younger one said, his hand raised, looking my way. I wondered how long he'd been trying to get my attention.
"Another round for us both," he said when I walked over. I considered him again. He was good looking, I suppose. I imagine some of the women students whispered stories about him. He never noticed me, though.
(Is it possible he is gay?)
"Thank you, George," the old man said as I placed their ales on the table and refilled the bar mix. They lifted their glasses together, then drank.
"But I would argue the opposite," the younger one said." There is no such thing as non-fiction."
A bit of smile crept across the old man's face. "Why whatever do you mean?"
The younger one grabbed the newspaper and began flipping through. "Let’s see now—take a look at this headline—people are dying because they believe this, yet you and I know it’s not true. It’s a total fabrication. In fact, it is nothing other than a fiction."
The old man was animated now. His tobacco had a cherry scent. "But of course you don't equate fiction with lies, you're not so simple as that."
"And how is that different from what you are arguing?"
"What I'm saying is that fiction is life . . . it is the reality that happens every day. It can't be separated as some sort of noble ideal."
(I’m not sure about this.)
"And what I'm saying,” the younger one said, “is that the reality doesn't exist any more than the ideal. What if I were to phrase it another way? What if I were to propose that there is only non-fiction? The notion is completely absurd of course."
I set the tray of salt shakers on the bar, gleaming in the lamplight. Ted stood behind it, tall, quiet, surveying the tables, towel over his shoulder. He looked at the clock. "Gentlemen," he began. "I'm sorry, but it is indeed time."
The old one chuckled. “HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME. HURRY UP PLEASE IT’S TIME.”
Ted smiled indulgently. “The Wasteland, yes, I know.”
They both got up, put an overly generous tip on the table.
“Well, you tell us, Ted,” the old one said as he retrieved his cane. “Is there such a thing as fiction?” He turned to his friend. “Or, for that matter, is there such a thing as non-fiction?”
Ted’s face was unreadable. (Or is it bemused?) “I’ll leave that to you,” he said with the slightest bow.
The old one turned toward me. “How about you young lady?” he said as he buttoned his coat. “What do you think?”
Of course they didn’t care what I thought. I knew that. They didn’t even know I existed. I started to shrug in silence, but the words spilled out unbidden, violating my rule of never talking with them.
“I prefer Prufrock myself,” I heard my voice say breezily as I grabbed the towel and began rubbing the bar. “It is impossible to say just what I mean.”
The men were silent for a moment but soon recovered.
“But as if a magic lantern threw the nerves in patterns on a screen,” the younger one quoted.
The old one rapped his cane against the bar. “Ah . . . but that isn’t fair at all,” he said, raising his voice in protest. “That’s poetry. Quite a different thing altogether.”
“Still, well done I’d say,” the younger one said quietly. I imagined he was looking at me, but I kept my eyes on the puddle of lamplight reflected on the bar. Incredibly, I felt my face burn a bright red.
(This isn’t going the way I’d planned.)
I heard the door open, felt the cold rush in. “Let us go then, you and I,” the old one said laughing. They hooked arms, then disappeared in the blowing snow even before the door shut.
Ted locked up behind them. Then, mercifully, he clicked the light off.
Morning sun streams in the window, surrounding my bed, destroying the fragile words and images of the night before, burning them into nothingness. And yet the faintest memory remains, the weakest whisper of what I meant to say.
The sun streams in. I feel its warmth and cannot move. There is a soft thump as the dark cat jumps on the bed, silently walks to the crook behind my knees and begins kneading. Another thump and the light cat jumps on the other side. Their purring weaves a song, sending glittering bits of dust spiraling slowly upward. They curl up in circles, Yin and Yang, a tangible magic.
I can almost touch it.
What, I don’t know. Eternity maybe. Or maybe time.
There will be time. There will be time.
An hour passes, but I come no closer, in fact shrink farther away. The cats yawn and tackle one another, their ritual forgotten, the magic gone. I boot them off and make the bed.
At my desk, my fingers caress the cover of a book: The Canterbury Tales. Its worn leather settles me, the illumination is my talisman. Yet it is a book completed not by sewing the tales together, making them whole, but by writing a retraction. My two scholars in the bar could argue why Chaucer did this. “He was employing a convention--a palinodes,” the older one might say. “No, no,” the younger one would counter. “He was creating a device to give a secret nod to the canon of his work.”
Time yet for a hundred indecisions.
For me, there is no question. The retraction was neither convention nor device. He meant it. Does one of us exist who would not do the same? Who would not call after their work, like a forlorn child, I take it back, I’m sorry, I take it back, please God, I take it all back. . . .
Time to turn back and descend the stair.
We are close kin of Anne Bradstreet, our words our ill-formed offspring. Ill-formed offspring. Yes. A dim reflection, even a mistake, but still, I think, perhaps, that something is there deep inside, something that needs just a little more work, just a little more time.
There will be time to murder and create.
One day my muse may visit. I might have a dream. Maybe I’ll wake with images spewing from my pen like a child’s sparkler on a summer night—magical, exquisite, inspired.
Or, more likely, I will be the mute sister, riding in the back of a horse-drawn cart, heading for the pyre, still frantically knitting the stinging nettles. It is painful. The mob would tear my work to bits and the archbishop sneers. I will not finish, but perhaps it will be enough.
So then how do I presume?
Coffee in hand, I look out the window at a blue, blue sky. I remember the tower. High above the city, the people looked at the sky and saw something I cannot—the sweet hereafter . . . infinity . . . the outstretched arms of God. . . .
I don’t know, but they opened the windows, held hands and jumped. I wonder, though, when they pushed the glass aside, if they whispered courage to one another.
And how should I begin?
Now, on the ground, alone. The time has come again. My lands are not in order, but I sit at the desk and watch the screen flicker to life.
There was something I was trying to say, something about voices.
Elizabeth Jennings’ first book, The Button Collector, will be published by PageSpring Publishing in early 2013. Her short fiction has appeared in a variety of publications, including the literary journal Apalachee Review, the e-zine Rose & Thorn, and the children’s magazine Ladybug. Her non-fiction has won several awards, including first place for special articles/health in the 2006 NC Press Club Contest. A native of Clemson, SC, she earned degrees in English from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the University of Delaware. For more information, visit www.elizabethjennings.com.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: The original seed for this story was the image of two professors debating the nature of fiction. I soon realized they were phantom members of the Oxford literary group, The Inklings, which was active in the early twentieth century. The story then veered into an exploration of the writing process before firmly landing as a reading of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock. I don’t view the poem as a social commentary; I read it as a painful delving into the creative process, especially the “hundred visions and revisions” that any writer knows too well.
Q: What writers do you consider to be your primary influences?
A: Most of my writing is heavily influenced by authors such as Anne Tyler and Alison McGhee, who examine the details of everyday humanity. Occasionally, however, a story floats to the surface with an obviously different ancestry—Ray Bradbury, Alice Hoffman, Truman Capote, the Brothers Grimm. This always surprises me and I blame my eclectic reading habits.
Q: What’s your ideal place to write?
A: I am quite boring in this regard. I write best in my study. The only interesting thing about it is that a white squirrel sometimes climbs up to my window and peers in at me.
Q: When did you know you would be a writer?
A: I pulled together a newspaper for day camp when I was in elementary school and an extremely tolerant counselor printed it off for us. To be honest, however, I view myself as a reader more than a writer. I just haven’t found one of those jobs where people pay you to read all day.
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I am doing final edits for my first book, The Button Collector, which is a novel in stories based on a family’s collection of old buttons. It will be published by a brand new e-book publisher and I am excited about that. I am also working on a revision of a novel about two friends and how they deal with the Fates.