Saturday, November 30, 2013

An Ineluctable Modality: Chapter 30

An Ineluctable Modality is a novel I wrote for NaNoWriMo's 2013 Challenge where the goal was to write 50,000 words of a novel during the month of November. This year, I wrote a novel-in-blog-posts: this is its final chapter. You can read the previous chapter, here.

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Though I knew he was in the area visiting family, Ferdinand's call was still a surprise when it came in Friday afternoon, asking if he could stop by. I figured Stephen wouldn't mind the distraction of a handsome young man – at least one who could hold a conversation beyond just talking about modern music – and the change in tone would undoubtedly be beneficial for both of us. A serious conversation stretching over the morning had led us nowhere but to more tenuous ground. If nothing else, I would be happy to find out more about Ferdinand, what he's gotten into after he left the university and I'd moved into the southlands.

A few, rarely detailed letters and barely more informative phone calls aside, I hadn't seen Ferdinand for years and I figured he would be much less dramatic than having Sybil stop by, depending on the baggage he might bring with him. Even if he stayed only a few hours, it would be a few less hours Stephen and I would need to dance around those issues still standing between us and could, with any luck, wear away at the barriers.

Stephen realized, only because I practically battered him over the head with it, he was at that stage I had been when Evan sounded the sirens' call of Paris – or at least of nouvelle aventure, wherever it might have taken me. Without family responsibilities, now, he was a younger me contemplating terra subdeorsa incognita, researching the possibilities of discovery, for whatever reasons then I decided instead to stay in port. He, I neglected to point out, had no port to stay in.

The opportunity for discovery was the option, here, not that it had to be a different country, just a different place beyond the boundary of his traditional comfort zone. It was the incognita part he had the chance to explore, to contemplate, at least to consider, the actual journey aside.

Was it a question of finding the same job in another company? Is that really what he wanted to do? He had walked into it, half-unexpectedly, in the first place, a chance to practice taking interviews, an opportunity to not get the job but not be disappointed because it seemed so unlikely. And yet they offered it to him. Should he have said "no"? Should he have decided to leave after a few years because as a temporary gig it had run its course? But it became easy and he felt comfortable there, not to mention he got to do a lot of traveling in the process.

But the traveling became repetitive, the work predictable, the excitement about the job eventually flat-lining. His own lack of enthusiasm may have done more to lose him his job than he thought, complicated by a boss who thought it better to find someone new to burn up rather than recycle an old success. Did he really like what he was doing? That was the question. No?

Perhaps it should have happened sooner, years earlier. Thank God it hadn't happened twenty years later. Fate was kinder than it might have been, then; one could always look at it that way. And given the economy, there were worse things that could have happened, if you could ignore the fact whatever happened to you was always worse than the merely theoretical.

"If you could pick a job – any job, something out of the blue – what could you see yourself doing?" Speaking, of course, of the purely hypothetical, I asked him. "What would you want to be doing, if you had the chance?"

He was silent a long time but pensive if not exactly resistant to expressing himself. "Is this going to be one of those 'fireman/Indian chief' exercises?" he was probably thinking. By this time, we had moved into the den, watching the shadows journeying slowly across the yard.

"I don't know," he said after several minutes. "That may be part of the problem. I'm so used to doing what I've been doing, I'm not aware of anything I'd rather do."

It wasn't of course just his job that affected him: he had lost his relationship, too, and whether or not he'd want his old job back (as if, through some oversight, a mistake had been made), one of the things I suspect he hoped to find in his frequent e-mail checking, old habits aside, was an apology from Leo that might signal some reconciliation.

For myself, I chose to tackle one issue at a time. Whether Leo was off on a new journey of his own was for the moment immaterial. It felt logical to me for Stephen to find a job (or better, a career) and then, after relocating himself, seek out a new partner to share it with.

I nearly jumped out of my seat when the doorbell rang, an unwanted flashback to Sybil's frequently unannounced arrivals or the appearance of Monday's doddering proselytes. Stephen, for his part, was more surprised at my reaction than the interruption of the bell – a welcome eruption in an otherwise too quiescent day. Dringadring. But I was already up and went to answer it.

"It's that student of yours, isn't it? Former student, Ferdinand, is it? You said he might stop by." You could understand the unstated 'what's the fuss?' behind his tone. Dringadring Dring.

"I'll be right back – he's just stopping to say hello."

Why was I nervous? Having Sybil join us – what were the odds of keeping that from happening once she'd showed up beside our table? – had proven uncomfortable, as if Stephen was swept away by the sheer force of her juggernauts.

I haven't seen Stephen in a few years and it's been years since I've seen Ferdinand who had done so much for me, back then. Of course they would both show up for a visit at the same time. Rains, pours. I shrugged my shoulders and heaved open the door.

Ferdinand had hardly changed. He swept past me, hoisting up some plastic grocery bags full of containers and without saying hello, sailed in with the familiarity of old times only briefly interrupted.

"I brought along some leftovers. Hope you don't mind – after you said you'd be eating at a restaurant yesterday, and my sister had made way too much food for the six of us!" He looked expectantly for me to lead him into the kitchen.

This is apparently how young people – or, like Sybil, how people who wanted to appear young – acted today. Whoosh, bang, zap! No need for small talk – "How are you? I haven't seen you in ages: you're looking good!" That sort of thing.

I led the way into the kitchen and Ferdinand dutifully placed the bags on the countertop.

"How are you," I asked, "it's been ages – you're looking good," I added, helping move some cups that were in the way.

He ignored these comments artfully. To consider it rude would have been to ignore the fact he had brought us lunch.

"Here's some homemade stuffing made with black walnuts and dates" – he held up one plastic container – "and some red potato salad with chives and sour cream (very decadent) and" – flourishing a tall cylindrical container – "some cranberry relish that's actually made with horseradish and onions – I don't know how it works, but it's fabulous – and here's a plate with slices of white and dark meat – no gravy, I remember you didn't like gravy (not good for the heart, anyway) – and some steamed vegetables, mostly cauliflower with turmeric and broccoli with shiitake mushrooms. Oh, shit!" He looked about as if he'd left a bag in the car. "I forgot the hummus!"

"I hadn't been aware the pilgrims offered Squanto any hummus: are you sure you've got the right Indians, here?"

Stephen appeared in the doorway with his coffee cup.

"Stephen, hello – Proteus said you'd be here: good to see you again."

"Wait, you two had met before?"

It sounded like news to me and Stephen, who started looking through the containers with the curiosity of a child, said "Yes, Dad, you'd spent a lot of the time unconscious when I was here after your heart attack."

"Well, or sleeping," Ferdinand said. "We just sat there and talked for hours."

Neither of them had ever mentioned this before.

"I hope you don't mind my bringing all this stuff. Sis practically forced it on me, you know. Greeks bearing gifts and all that."

"But you're not Greek and you're supposed to be afraid of Greeks bearing gifts," I said.

"Oh, right. Do you have any crackers? I need to get some hummus."

I knew what hummus was but had never tried it. If he forgot to bring it, why does he need to go get some?

"The only thing I have are some oyster crackers and saltines, I'm afraid."

Ferdinand looked at me as if I'd just come up with the most completely wrong answer imaginable.

"I'm guessing that probably won't do, will it?"

Ferdinand took a quick look in the refrigerator as if he'd always lived here, mentioned a few things he didn't find and announced there was this "really cool little store" down in Cape Edmund where he knew he could get a few things.

Before I could say it wasn't really necessary, Stephen invited himself to go along and before I was even aware of it, they were gone.

Not long after I watched Ferdinand's car glide out the driveway, the phone rang.

"The more things change, the more they stay the same," Sybil said without bothering to say hello. "Does that mean it's also true the more things stay the same, they're really changing? I never understood that."

"Hello, Sybil," I said, adamantly sticking to the old rituals. Perhaps forced into it, I felt more strongly the need to resist changing certain things. "Are you referring to a bargain you thought you got while shopping yesterday?"

She laughed. "No, silly. Just, you know, stuff in general? If things are constantly changing, how do they also stay the same?"

"You probably didn't call to banter away the morning discussing the finer points of philosophy, even of cliches. What's prompted this?"

This was a loaded question aimed directly at my brain.

"All I can remember is it's originally French and sounds like something Voltaire might have said but I think it's later than that. Or maybe an old proverb."

"Oh, French, well," she said. I could see the dismissive wave of a free hand. "I never could understand French."

We discussed the finer points of chaos and how, given events in her life, chaos (at least in her relationships) seemed to be a bit of the norm. For all the men in her life, the faces on the surface may change but the underlying current has a familiar consistency about it: she couldn't deny that.

As for how to break the change, as if her life really needed "shaking up," as she put it, the idea of meeting someone she could settle into a more long-term relationship with would be something new.

"Startling, in fact," she added, "not to mention welcome."

Then she asked me what would "change" my life, at this point?

"My life," I explained to her, "is one of unmitigated sameness, it seems – habit, routine, frustration at not being able to compose any more." Depressing, I felt like adding but didn't want to rain on her own parade.

"Sounds like you could use some 'shaking up,' too."

Fortunately she couldn't see the involuntary frown that passed across my face, wondering what exactly she might have had in mind.

Initially, she had been the one not interested in moving our friendship any further along and it wasn't much later before I discovered she had been right. A matter of convenience, seeking company, was different than finding what we might consider love.

It had happened so effortlessly with Madeleine, I figured it could happen again. But perhaps that very ease got in the way. Not that there weren't other warning signs when it came to Sybil.

Friends, yes, I could see that – but sharing our lives together on a daily basis, not very likely. The chaos that was not just in her relationships was more than enough turmoil for my daily life, one constant I did not need. Perhaps this would change over time but somehow I didn't think it possible.

Finding myself exhausted after a few hours in her presence, imagine what it would be at the end of a full day of it? And she clearly had no comprehension of what I needed in order to work, a stability that Madeleine not only understood but nurtured.

Is what's lacking – and what is likely to remain lacking – the word known to all men? The word that touches us, the lonely us – wasn't it a precondition for artistic creativity? (Was it Shakespeare who said that? Probably, Shakespeare said almost everything – except "the more things change...")

And what of that, I wondered: did my creativity (my ability to create) die with Madeleine or was it more with the loss of her love? No, there were problems with my composing before that. A new meaning to a "dying art."Ars paralitica.

"Well," she said after a pause, weighing her words, "I've applied for this job in Boston. A friend of mine told me about it – she said I'd be perfect for it though it's a little out of my line."

"But it's good to change things up, move outside your comfort level," (there it was, again) "if you can take the risk." She also had no responsibilities, no family here.

"That's a big 'if,' coming from you." She laughed.

She told me a little about the company – it would be a "lower mid-level management" position – but I think mostly she liked the idea of moving back to a big city where she could be around more people.

"I was going to take a couple days off, go down to Boston, check it out," she said, leaving it curiously open-ended.

I wished her well but said that I had guests just pulling in the drive and had to go.

"But keep me posted – let me know what you think, when you get back."

Lunch was prepared and quickly dispatched, the three of us sitting around the table, Stephen, Ferdinand and I, on this cold, clear, not-yet-winter afternoon. It had been a while, I thought, since I'd had guests here and it was pleasant just to hear this conversation, their easy laughter. Relaxed, I basked in the warmth of food too good for my system, these days, but pleasurable for a change, a different modality of senses to enjoy. I observed before being drawn back into the banter and told Ferdinand old stories of Stephen as a boy (this time, he laughs rather than acts annoyed, embarrassed), how once he told us the story of Alice through the Lurking Glass, how we shall come rejoicing, singing in the trees. A seachange this, after skating on the peripheries: we're enjoying ourselves immensely, thanks.

Ferdinand, not quite settled into a career yet, is looking for a job – New York, perhaps – no marketable skills, he says, just a degree in music, a masters (che sanno): a composer (che sente) – how does one make a living with that? He does not blame me nor does he look at his studies as a waste – an experience, yes, the learning of a skill – yes, and the emptying out of a tide's worth of talent, flowing out, flowing in, five fathoms, there. Claritas – quidditas. But practical?

Putting away the dishes and clearing out the sink, Ferdinand and Stephen packed up the left-overs of the left-overs into their various containers and slid them into the refrigerator. A simple act of domesticity, long unfamiliar in this house, this camaraderie of souls: how is it said – "The soul is always searching for itself and takes pleasure in finding itself mirrored in the world." I'm not sure where I read that, perhaps Plato's Symposium or maybe not.

It was Ferdinand who suggested we go out to see a movie before dinner, a late-afternoon show at the Langley mega-plex. Not one for movies, I declined but mostly to give them a chance to be by themselves. My half-hearted excuse of back trouble made Stephen smile. They decided to go see The Book Thief, too serious a film for me for a holiday's entertainment, but thought-provoking, an intelligent choice (I approved, quietly).

An hour passed and the phone rang again, startling me out of some new, unexpected reverie – piano music in the back of my awareness, nothing recognizable, perhaps something of my own beginning to percolate.

"I've finished it," Henry said with considerable enthusiasm, interrupting my congratulations to confess it wasn't actually complete, but he'd passed his 50,000-word goal on this, the last day of the challenge.

"That's excellent! When do you think the novel will actually be done?"

"Oh, I don't know if it will ever be done. I think I just wanted to prove to myself I could do it – you know, the 50,000-word thing."

"But it seems a shame to put all that time into it and then not do anything with it. I couldn't imagine writing 50,000 words in a month!"

However, I also understand the desire to never 'finish' something, either. There is a different kind of creative thrill to go back over something, polish a bit here, change a little something there. For some, there's an endless joy in the planning, the preparation, the contemplation of the finished product. But there is, for some of us, no need to produce a finished product. We do not work on an hourly wage, judged for our efficiency, tallying up successes and failures.

I promise Henry we will go out for a celebratory dinner as soon as he feels it is time – another week, perhaps, to put "The End" on the final page, not to mention the endless editing, an entirely different blood-letting exercise (save that for latter: rest now, recuperate first). He promises he will call me, then.

"Fifty thousand words!" The idea staggers me but he did it, whatever the quality of that eventual product will be. That's not the point. He's done something he hadn't thought possible and by applying discipline, he's managed to accomplish a goal – some new adventure in his life. Finishing the novel would be another goal and like Achilles and the Tortoise, it may still prove elusive, receding into the horizon.

My birthday is next month – hard to believe that tomorrow will be December, already – and as I prepare to say good-bye to the Old Year, I will already be beginning a new year (new era) in my life, one nacheinander after another. But this is always a curious time of overlap for me and I have been glad, at this stage, to be so long past the concern about gifts and festivities. No one has mentioned it, the inevitable if uncomfortable acknowledgment of age – 65, if that's so hard to imagine (it is, thinking back on it, viewing it from the past). I do not look forward to its celebration but yet I would be disappointed to find it forgotten, overlooked. I do that with others, often enough: I would deserve the same.

It is time to pin this down, to grapple with the inner chameleon, karma or not, and face the age-old challenge if I am to start anew – a new composition, a new age, the acceptance of becoming old (preferring it to the alternative), not enough to say "I will do this thing" but do it. Yes, easier said, I know, as if I haven't told myself this before. The chameleon sheds its skin, is resurrected, new and shiny. It makes me laugh, this image: in the past, I have thought too much of the skin, of the painful process, this sloughing away of the past. Pentimento.

That October visit when I was a child and spent the day in the Eckleses' yard, that visit when Grandmother Hemon died, I remember when my father said it was time to let the box turtle return to the forest. His leg had healed and he would find someplace there to spend the winter – perhaps he would come back in the spring.

"I'm sure Homer will let us know if he sees him again." The old man promised me he would. They took a photograph of me, petting the turtle held out to me, a photograph I remember but have not yet found again. (Perhaps it lies hidden in some book, somewhere.)

"He'll be happier there – it's his home, you know," Dad said. "Everyone's happier in his own home."

I barely understood the fact he was losing his mother, day by day, fading away to disease. I wondered why the turtle at least couldn't stay here longer if Grandma was going to be going away, when the ship came in for her, leaving her home behind.

The turtle shuffled off through the leaves as I watched, his stump of a leg hardly slowing him down. I'm sure he did not turn to look back, to say good-bye, but I imagine it still as I waved to him.

We grow up – "growing" older, eventually old, slipping like the summer months into the gradual decay toward winter, discovering new things about us unnoticed before. The soul, still present, is not without its contaminating matter accumulated over the intervening years, hylomorphs of our existence – letters become words become sentences and soon a novel is almost complete; notes become chords become a progression of sounds that move from beginning to end and a symphony is almost complete, a span of time filled in by sounds my soul brings into being. One experience becomes another and a life is formed, is almost complete. Is that how it works? It sounds so simple.

I sit in my chair with my coffee and my cats, a forgotten book falling from my grasp. I watch the clouds come in from the east – the sign of a storm: snow, maybe – still. Home. Stay a moment.

Creation here from nothing, the past (historic, personal – the same), pentimento of the future – visible, audible, ineluctably forging the cloud as others see it, hear it, over the living and the dead.

Old man, old creator, stand me now in good stead evermore. The ship comes in, homeward, silent, a way, a lone, and yes, I will say – yes –

* * ** *** ***** ******** ***** *** ** * *

Harrisburg PA
Friday, November 1st, 2013 to
Monday, December 9th, 2013

You can eventually read more about the novel, An Ineluctable Modality, here.

Dick Strawser

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