Winner of 2nd place in our Summer 2014 Short Fiction Contest.
& now I am quietly waiting for
the catastrophe of my personality
to seem beautiful again,
& [heroic] & modern.
~Frank O’Hara, ‘Mayakovsky’
Talk turned one night to the subject of heroism in the modern age. At one point in the conversation, somebody (Ivy probably) claimed that a world that allowed for Toddlers & Tiaras on prime time television categorically could not allow for ‘heroism’ on the scale of the ancients.
‘Ours is a century of movement & enforced travel,’ said Ivy. ‘It is a century made of high-speed sushi, & advanced microwaves, & extreme data-sharing—all things that make for terrific ulcers & snacks & extraordinarily forgettable entertainment. But not heroes, I’m afraid.’
Ivy—my sometimes editor, sometimes girlfriend—often likes to sprinkle bold, sweeping claims like this one into otherwise trivial conversations. A technique of argument that has no doubt served her well—if only because it keeps her listeners running off to the dictionary in search of some phantom word or trace of logic, which they will more than occasionally never find at all.
On the subject of the longer & longer queues at Starbucks, for instance, Ivy once cited the ‘controversial’ thesis (which turned out to be her own), that particles had been set in motion a long time ago but that it was now too late to do anything about it – except to eat lots of raw fish.
Naturally, I disagreed with Ivy. I felt that her ideas about heroism & the writer’s inability to sit still in our time had gone too far. By way of evidence, I told Ivy the story about Victor Hugo—how each time he had a deadline for one of his books, he had his valet lock him up in his boiler room for 8 days & 8 nights, so that he could (he said) ‘commune with the cosmos’ without so much as the clothes on his back to distract him.
‘Ha. The cosmos in 8 days!’ Said Ivy. ‘What nonsense! Why any day now it is going to turn out that one man’s cosmos is no more than another’s indigestion…& that what you just said to me is tantamount to saying a proper writer today is heroic if he/she can sit through an entire YouTube clip without plagiarizing it.’
‘Cosmos or no,’ I said, suddenly conscious of the extreme effort it took to sit still. ‘Anyone who makes it 8 days & 8 nights without a working wifi signal deserves my deepest sympathies, if not public admiration.’
Here I very carefully failed to mention to Ivy how Mr. Hugo faired in his so-called heroic undertakings. For all I knew, the great writer emerged from his boiler room with no more than a diary of doodles & an exhaustive report on the leaks in his pipes.
Instead, hoping to change the subject, I made the mistake of telling Ivy about a show I was invited to read at in San Francisco—a big show, in fact, for which I had nothing to say. (This last point I kept to myself, of course.)
‘I’m very sorry to hear that,’ said Ivy, scarcely listening any longer. ‘When did you say the deadline was exactly?’
I checked the calendar on my cell phone… then, stricken by what I had seen, I hesitated.
‘8 days,’ I said.
Ivy’s eyes lit up with the delight of a piranha that’s just smelled fresh blood, & the next thing I knew I was handing over to her—in keeping with the conditions of our subsequent wager—my laptop, my bus pass, my phone, the keys to my apartment, & just about anything else that might distract me from my so-called ‘inner adventure’ & communion with the cosmos.
Now I am normally shy & discriminating about what I put into print or even say aloud. But the unfortunate circumstances of my bet with Ivy prevents me from sparing you what follows: What follows, namely, is a true, uncensored, utterly un-heroic account of my 8 days—well, more or less—with the cosmos, & how it went so disastrously wrong.
Day 1, morning.
Agony. Boredom. The ineffable, inexplicable terror of being alone.
‘I am tired of the cosmos,’ I tell Ivy when she comes by to drop off supplies. ‘Give me a cell phone, & I’ll spend the rest of my life on Twitter. Anything, anything is better than this…’
‘My hero,’ says Ivy, laughing in my face, as she backs out of the driveway, my keys clasped firmly,diabolically in hand.
I am reminded of a line by the poet (a Taoist, I think) who says: ‘I don’t know how to talk to women. & therefore God does not, cannot possibly exist.’
Morning, illness. I take my temperature day in day out, hoping I’ve died of social withdrawal or at least need an ambulance. I am gratified to learn that I’ve developed a slight fever. This pleases me because it means this diary was not undertaken in vain: after all, it’s never a healthy man who creates art, but rather always, always it is an unhealthy one. Pirandello’s crooked nose, Leopardi’s broken spine, Proust—Proust! swaddled in the folds of his mother’s skirt, surrounded by medicine bottles, wheezing from asthma…
& me, you ask? & my hump, that I’ve never spoken about in public & which feels like squeezing into a constricting corset—well, how could I possibly describe it to you? You, you dear reader who no doubt comes from socially hygienic circumstances, cannot possibly imagine…the pain, the pustules, the abscesses. ‘A pin-up doll whose bones have been turned inside-out,’ as I once heard someone describe me.
To quote Victor Hugo, who put these kinds of things better than I ever could: ‘I’m sick & nobody feels sorry for me, unless it’s because I’m a hunchback, which is the least of my troubles—for it’s my soul that hurts & not my body, since the hunchback doesn’t cause any pain.’
Day 3, morning
Ivy stops by to check on me. I tell her I have decided to turn down the reading in San Francisco, that I have given up this ludicrous wager with the cosmos—this ludicrous wager over heroic ideals.
‘Ahh. So soon?’ says Ivy. ‘I wonder what led to that conclusion exactly, hmm?’
Yes, well, you know I never did care for readings all that much. All that clapping, those crowds, the contemporary museumification of everything—all of it aggravates the eardrums after a while; who am I to be museumified? Besides, all anyone would do is stare at my hump! […] I will not be bullied by ideals,’ I went on—to no one in particular. ‘Even heroic ones!’
It occurs to me I have been speaking now for several minutes to myself, & that Ivy has left. I check whether she has locked the door on her way out. She has.
Day 4, morning
I’ve just found my old iPod in a sock drawer; I’m officially back online by way of my neighbor’s unprotected wifi signal!
Mercy, mercy…today I feel as healthy as ever! Nothing further to report.
Day 4.5, evening
I’ve just accidentally dropped my iPod in the toilet. I take back all that I said before: There is a God, She just hates me.
Day 5, morning
A moral vertigo—a whirling of the interior world—has descended upon me suddenly. No lines to show for myself, not for me or for Ivy. I miss Ivy.
Day 5.5, evening
Ivy arrives at last; she whispers from outside my window (perhaps mocking me), ‘Helloooo darling….did you commune with yourself today, darling?’
I don’t answer, pretending to be asleep. Ivy knows better. ‘How many lines have we written today, darling?’
So I spring up to the gate & I tell Ivy from my blue pajamas the story of Socrates—how someone once asked Socrates what a man under thirty should do with his time…& Socrates replied: ‘Nothing, in excess.’ Which is true, of course.
Ivy says: ‘& how many lines did Socrates write…darling?’
Day 6, morning
I confirm a crisis of universalism in myself. This diary is pointless, the cosmos are pointless. I am sick of people who tell me to concern myself with the cosmos—I haven’t seen the cosmos, I don’t know the cosmos, I haven’t even been there!
As someone wiser than me once said (the Taoists, I think), regarding the cosmos:
‘You have to learn when to wash your nets & when to leave them out to dry.’
In short, I am ready to leap through the open window & not look back—to ride my bike to the sea.
Day 7, morning
The sea! I’ve escaped to the sea! As the Taoists (I think) said: ‘You must now declare a love for all that is wet & that is not indoors.’
& also, regarding diaries: ‘Abandon all diaries, especially this one.’
(If the Taoists never said that, they should have.)
Day 7.5, dusk
From the hilltop where I sit now, the splendor & beauty of the sun is almost chemical, toxic. I wonder what percentage of us watches the sunset with this kind of intensity.
There is a group of children on the embankment opposite me. One child in particular catches my eye: He’s a fearful, reflective creature with a notebook—& a smile that consists of all the inanimate things, which we consider ‘poetic’ because they please us—blooming flowers, sprawling fields, sunlit waters.
The child dozes off &/or absentmindedly sketches something down in his Moleskin notebook—it’s an unlined Moleskin that can only mean one thing: he is not a proper writer. O Children, glorious children! The pure rays of the sun on the vast dung-heap of the world.
I watch as the child gets up from his lawn-chair—to escape?—& he wades far far out into the ocean, with all of his clothes still on his back.
As I get ready to leave, I hover over his open Moleskin, & begin to read:
‘Dear diary, I keep waiting for the sea, as the poet says, to become interesting again & beautiful & modern. But it doesn’t. Not for me anyway. If it’s true that there is poetry in everything—in land & in sea, field & riverside, why is it that all I see around me is filth—& malformation? There is a funny-looking ‘indie’ kid with some kind of odd physical defect—a hump? a back-pack?—who sits nearby. He mumbles to himself like an imbecile & tries & fails to feed the turtles when he thinks no one is looking. He looks like an old man with that ridiculous legal pad under his arm—like a pinup doll whose bones were turned inside out. If he didn’t keep looking over here, I might actually be moved to feel sorry for him… His legal pad looks empty. He is not a proper writer.’
Day 8, epilogue
At home, evening. I tell Ivy I’ve confirmed that heroism is in fact NOT possible in our age, & that ‘whatever heroic activity occurs does not occur in people but between people.
‘You see, over these past 8 days or so—,’ I say.
‘7 days,’ says Ivy.
‘Over these past 7…to 7 & a half days or so, I cannot express the pains that ate into my heart. I can’t count the sobs that shook me to the floor. But I have seen other things also which have brought tears to my eyes & shaken me like a stirred leaf. I have seen, for instance, that there is poetry in everything—in land & in sea, field & riverside. There is poetry in this table, in this paper, in this ink stand; there is poetry in the rattling of the street cars outside, in each common, ridiculous gesture of a child who is, right now, sitting on an embankment somewhere overlooking the ocean, & sketching out perhaps a few primitive lines about the sun, or maybe even about his future hero, who may or may not be deformed…
‘& so it is for this reason & this reason alone,’ I say, ‘that I have decided to do the show in San Francisco.’
After a profound silence, Ivy says at last—apropos of I don’t know what:
‘All hail the proper writer of sang froid, the citizen of the world, the poet degenere superior. Let all the tiaras reign supreme on the heads of state & of toddlers…’ etc. etc. (in order to spare the reader further pains).
Then, says Ivy, to drive things home in the plainest possible terms she could imagine:
‘Just make sure you don’t hog the stage too long. Don’t ham things up too much.’
I nodded sagely—grateful for such advice & such wisdom—before rushing off to the dictionary to make sense out of what she had said, & to decide, also, how to begin.
 The rest of this long & rather verbose entry of the diary ‘against poetry readings’ has been excised for the sake of the author’s potential career & future livelihood. ~Editor’s note.
Moneta Goldsmith was the 2013 winner of Spark Anthology’s poetry contest & a Finalist for a 2014 Gover Prize in flash fiction. His work can be found in such places as sParkle & bLink, Iron Horse Review, & Best New Writing 2015. A version of the story above was first performed & duly mangled for Quiet Lightning: "Neighborhood Heroes" in San Francisco.