Project Summary: The following is Chapter 1 from my 2004 novel The Sage and the Scarecrow.
At the moment, I am revising the chapters from this book into 3-4 page short stories for posting on my blogs and in literary magazines.
The Novel in Short: Six months after his father has died from cancer, Pierce finds himself in a state of anxiety and crisis. The book follows Pierce through a journey to find his best friend and the only person he thinks can “cure” him.
Chapter 1 – Parables of Straw and Bamboo or Hollowing Out in the Apocalypse
People often ask me about my beliefs: whether I believe in God, whether I’ve read the good book, and the like. I tell them I’m an English major and that I have a horrible propensity for reading too many books and having too much free time on my hands. And, although I haven’t read the Bible, I have read Nietzsche’s The Anti-Christ, and numerous amounts of Greek and Roman literature involving divine intervention. Religious fanatics always give me a strange look when I jokingly tell them that I’m currently forming a religion based on the revival of polytheism, the idea being that quantity over quality is the new direction in popular religion in this modern day of capitalist production.
This was the line of questioning Angie brought to me the Friday afternoon before I left school. It started innocently enough. She had called me an hour before to ask me if she could study with me at my dorm for our psychology test. I told her yes, hoping that helping her could somehow relieve some of the tension I’d been feeling over my upcoming exams. Lighten the mood, so to speak. I should have known, though. Angie never came over to study. She did what she always did — she came over to talk about her abusive boyfriend and chastise me for not being a Christian.
There is a place far from the reality you know. This place is a place like many in the world you know: people are hungry, people are sad, people spend more time in fear than in love. In this place, I sit alone on the beach and watch them. They look like giant mushrooms. I didn’t know they would actually look like that, but they do. Little mushrooms start to sprout everywhere in the distance.
We were alone together in my dorm.
“Are you listening to me?” Angie asked.
“Are you listening to me?”
“Yeah, I’m listening. You were going to tell me about your boyfriend. You were reading him scripture and he said something like, ‘Don’t you have something better to do than read me scripture?’”
“Sorry, perhaps you’d better explain it again.”
And on she explained, about whatever his name was and his abuses to her faith or her.
While she was talking I began having this conversation with myself. I found myself in some strange apocalyptic landscape. It was South Beach, but I was alone on the beach by myself and I felt myself slowly hollowing out. I found this voice in the wind whispering to me. I didn’t know what or who it was, but I began thinking about the new order and how we would build it on a world of readers, worldly philosophers who were ideologically opposed to a single book, but rather, embraced a manifold of books.
Books upon books.
Would such a religion hollow me out and make me into a straw man so light a strong winter wind would blow me away?
“Are you even listening to me?” she asked.
“To be listened to is to be loved,” I said to her. “Isn’t it?”
She smiled at me as if I had found the answer to every question known to the universe. If to listen is to be loved, then to whisper in the dark by yourself is to be the most wretched creature in the universe.
“I try Angie. I really do.”
Moments before she had arrived, I had been reading Philip K. Dick’s VALIS in my dorm avoiding any work that would have taken me to a productive finale to the end of my semester. Why was I studying English? Where was my life headed? How would I eat once I graduated? You’d think these were the questions preoccupying me as I sat with my book.
My maturity at the moment prior to Angie’s arrival, unfortunately, didn’t reach to these questions. Intuitively, I understood that I would need to read books for more basic reasons — just to be able to go on. And then in the back of my mind came a sense of dread. A dread that Angie would arrive and I wouldn’t be able to go on in any spiritually significant way.
To see her for just a brief moment, you’d think she was sunshine. In five minute stretches she was the kind of tall athletic brunette you’d fantasize running off to Greece with. And in the first moment, when she stepped in and smiled, hugged me and kissed me on the cheek, it seemed fairly obvious that we would do just that: Abscond from finals to some romantic destination in Europe to make passionate love.
The problem was, she didn’t have her psychology book. And she never had any intention of studying psychology with me.
She asked me how I’d been, and then, without further prologue, asked me straight away whether I was a spiritual being or not, whether I believed in God, if I thought that there was such a thing as an afterlife. Then she asked me whether I was mad at her.
I told her that I wasn’t mad at her, and that I could have no good reason since I hadn’t seen her in almost a week. She didn’t seem satisfied by this, but dropped the subject and returned to her earlier line of questioning.
“God. I feel like I need Him more than ever. I need His love. Do you ever feel sometimes that you need to be loved so much that it hurts deep inside of you?”
It was sometime later. How long? I’m not sure. I had abandoned my books, and I found myself lying on the floor staring up at the ceiling.
“What do you believe in?” she asked me.
“I don’t know how to put my beliefs in words. I guess it would involve explaining to you the ideas of a long list of people with German names. Don’t worry, none were involved with the Third Reich.”
Her eyes were irritated from crying now. When had she been crying? After a moment she let out a small laugh. I didn’t know where the laugh came from or what it meant. Perhaps she’d done it out of politeness.
She then went on to tell me all about her boyfriend, and how he didn’t believe in God and how he never listened to her. The subject matter wasn’t new. Every conversation I had with Angie usually cast a man as the object of some morality tale: whether it be her father, her brother, her old boyfriend, her new boyfriend, or another guy.
Eventually, the man became the villain. Such was the fate of all men in Angie’s world.
The Way and its Virtue has no advice that I can discern for how to deal with Angie. I whisper in Lao Tzu’s ear: “Sometimes people come to you not as people but as forces of nature that must endured. When these people enter your life, make yourself into deep-rooted bamboo and endure what must be endured.”
“What did you say?” she asked.
I hadn’t realized I’d been talking aloud.
I couldn’t think of anything to say that would make sense to her, so I just stared at the ceiling in silence.
She leaned over me the way an intimate friend or girlfriend would do. Her eyes were still red from crying, but in this intimate position, I almost felt like I could fall in love. It made me feel horrible and sick and completely inadequate for the quest ahead of me.
What was the quest ahead of me? I can’t tell you, reader. Not yet.
Was it in this world or another?
On the beach, I’m alone but comfortable. Instinctively, I reach my hand out to grab something. Another hand? A bottle in the ocean with a message?
Things had changed, but I still don’t know where this other me is.
I don’t know if I am straw or bamboo yet.
“You’re so great, Pierce. Do you know that? You’re so smart, too. I wish my boyfriend would listen to me the way you do.”
She began to stroke my hair as she said this. She did this for awhile. And I tried to suppress the discomfort I was feeling. We just sat in silence and she kept stroking my hair. Somewhere along the line, while she was doing this, I sort of shuddered.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“Nothing,” I said. I hesitated for an instant, thinking about how long I could stay in this awkward position.
I felt if I listened anymore, I might cease to exist. I would blow away and scatter.
“He called me stupid and said that if I mentioned it one more time he would leave me. You should have seen his eyes. They practically screamed disgust and contempt. I thought I was done with that…”
Her head was on my chest now, and I couldn’t move. Something felt so good and right about this. I felt like a could nurture someone again. Suddenly, I wanted to listen. To make her exist in a way I never could. And she would exist and exist and exist until there was nothing left but mushrooms in a background.
“You’re strange, Pierce. You’re strange and wonderful, and sometimes I wish Scott would be just like you.”
She hugged me tightly with her head on my chest. I looked up at my ceiling and thought back to my bedroom in high school. I thought back to a short girl with blonde hair who had spent an afternoon putting glow-in-the-dark stars on my ceiling.
“Hug me, Pierce,” she said. Who had said that? Where was I?
Her name is Jennifer.
In the moment, right before the apocalypse, I’m sitting with her. She holds my hand as I see these explosive clouds in the distance. She leans in to whisper something, but I don’t know what it is.
It could be a perfect sentence that will make everything okay. Or it could be an imperfect sentence spoken perfectly that will make everything okay. It could turn me into bamboo or my strawman-self could persist somewhere safe.
I don’t know because I can’t hear her. I don’t know how to listen to her yet.
I had managed to get myself into a sitting position. I think I’d been gentle. I think I’d moved her head off me in the most gentle way possible. Is it possible to be gentle and cruel?
She looked like she was ready to hit me, and then rage turned to tears.
“I’m sorry, I can’t hug you right now,” I said in something that must have sounded like an apology.
I felt things I couldn’t explain: Shame? A diminishing sense of being? A scattering of the soul?
She just looked at me with her eyes swollen red. I just stared at her like a dumb mute. I felt like I was staring into an abyss. Everything ended here and everything began.
“Say something,” Angie said. “Anything. I just need you to say something right now.”
She looked at me and her face seemed impossibly convex. It was almost as if there were two or three Angies struggling to gain control. Her eyes darted in various directions before finally settling on my face. Now she was smiling.
It would have been easy to give in.
“I can’t hug you,” I said again. I was surprised at how angry my words sounded. The tone of my words was so surprising that I gave out a small, crazy laugh, something that the other me who existed far away might think of as normal.
Perhaps in her mind, all she could see was another man demeaning her. Her eyes turned deep as if she were staring at something horrible in the distance. Not me, but something beyond me. I wanted to see it too. For a moment, I wanted to listen, not to her but the shadow voices that existed in her mind.
She reached out to touch me one last time, and before her hand even reached me, I was walking out the door with a room key, my wallet, and my backpack.
In this other place, I lose the hand and the words attached to them. I am alone again watching mushrooms blossom in the distance. My memory of her touch gives me hope, but little else.
I am alone with no way to love her.
In the world you know as your own, Angie was behind me, in all likelihood still crying in my dorm. I was walking away to be someplace else to find quiet and comfort. She was still crying, but I couldn’t be sure she or I existed at all.