Project Summary: The following is a chapter 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.
If you are interested in reading the eventual completed revised edition of “The Sage and the Scarecrow”, please email me at ghostsofnagasaki [at] gmail [dot] com
The Novel in Short: Six months after his father has died from cancer, Pierce finds himself in a state of anxiety and crisis. In his mind, there are two worlds. In one world he is a second-year college student trying to finish the semester; in another world, he roams an apocalyptic landscape searching for scraps of wisdom that will lead him to the perfect society. In both worlds, he is on a quest to find a girl named Jennifer, his best friend, true love, and the only person he believes can cure him.
As we sat on the beach, I told her all about my trip, about meeting Sean and meeting the homeless man with the doctorate. She looked at me almost as if I were kidding.
“I think it’s very attractive that you’re having a nervous breakdown.”
“What are you talking about?” I said. “I’m not having a nervous breakdown.”
“Well,” she said. “For you, this is a nervous breakdown. I’ve never seen you this upset. It’s you at your most irrational. It’s a very beautiful thing to see.”
“I guess nervous breakdowns are a relative thing then. I have to admit, I really miss my dad. But more than that, I think I miss dealing with someone else’s problems, if that makes any sense. He died last summer. And then when I went back to school again, it was like nothing seemed to matter the way it did before. And all the people I go to school with, most of them are just focused on their own problems. They only listen to you when they want something from you. It’s kind of disgusting.”
“Oh, poor Pierce,” she said as she rubbed my neck. “I know how you feel sometimes. But, you know, I have to be the adult here. This is how the world works: give and take, superficial rituals, acting and playing roles — it’s all part of life in the real world. You’re lucky if you ever really get to know anyone. Most of the time you can’t do anything about it. So, what you do is…you make a little space for yourself, I guess. Just enough for you to enjoy your life without hurting anyone else. Something like that,” she said. “I don’t know. Maybe I don’t have any answers for you. Anyway, that’s about as much adult wisdom as I can muster up right now.”
I told her that I appreciated the effort, and I did.
Then I told her about my dad’s funeral, how I didn’t go and the family was angry. This seemed to worry her.
“See the thing is, I don’t even think that my dad wanted me to go to his funeral. We always talked about what a miserable experience my mom’s funeral was.”
“I remember you talking about it,” Jennifer said.
“I just didn’t see any real reason to go to my father’s funeral.”
She gave me that classical Jennifer look of hers (very hard to describe). “You didn’t want to mourn your father’s death?”
“It wasn’t exactly mourning.” I shrugged. “I don’t know what you would call it. I wouldn’t call it mourning, though. That would suggest that I was sad that he was dead, which I wasn’t. I was actually kind of happy, because I know he’d been suffering for a long time. When you put it in those terms, mourning his death would be kind of a selfish thing. It’s the whole Socrates dilemma — not really knowing what death is, the undiscovered country and all that Hamlet crap: whether it’s better to exist or not to exist? How bad could death be? I mean really. Maybe the whole nothingness thing could bother some people. I don’t think it ever bothered my dad the way it did most people. And besides, isn’t death like the end of something? Why do we always mourn the end? Why not celebrate the end of something if it’s great?”
“Did your dad ever talk to you about it? Did he ever say anything?”
“Not really. There was really just that last summer. And he didn’t talk about it at all. We spent most of the time talking about what we would do when he got better. Nice things to talk about — fishing and the next time we’d go for lobsters. We always caught lobsters in the summer, but that summer all we could do is talk about it. We’d sit around and make plans where we were going to go, and he would show me on the charts. I don’t think he ever thought he really was going to get better, though. But still, it was nice to talk about.” I suddenly felt sorry for not being in touch with her. “I’m sorry that I haven’t written,” I said.
“It’s okay,” she said. “I think I kind of understand.”
I didn’t say anything, but I think you can imagine how bad I felt, even though I’d convinced myself that not writing was absolutely the best thing I could’ve done. Sitting on the beach, talking to her, I was becoming more convinced. I felt sorry for not writing her, but mostly I felt sorry for myself.
“Can I ask you something?” I said.
“It depends. Usually when people ask whether it’s okay to ask a question it’s because they either think it’s a dumb question or because they think that the question is inappropriate. Which is it?”
I thought about it. “Probably both, but more of the second I think.”
“Go ahead and ask,” she said.
“No…never mind,” I said. “Forget it.”
“You have to tell me now,” she said. “You can’t ask my permission to ask a question and then not ask it. That’s even more inappropriate.” I was going to ask her whether she thought it was a bother to have people talk about their problems like I was doing. It was a dumb and inappropriate question. She was right.
I thought for a second, making up a different question. “Do you think I should have gone to my dad’s funeral? Would it have been the right thing to do?”
She shrugged. “Other people were offended and hurt, right? But who cares. Yeah, it was probably irresponsible, but you’re always responsible, Pierce, and I think that’s part of the problem. You’re one of the few responsible people left on this earth, and it’s causing you a slow and painful death. All this responsibility builds and builds until you have to do something really irresponsible. Everyone else is wrapped up in small dramas and you’re thinking about things on a larger scale. You always are. You’re obsessed with the injustices of the world and the grand flaws in human behavior. It’s what I loved about you. You have this big heart that you try to keep shielded from the world with your big convoluted logic. I know why you do it too?”
You do? I thought to myself.
“You do it because if you ever exposed that big heart to the world, it would break every day.” She rubbed my neck again. And what did I do? Try to hide my heart, maybe? Look off into the distance?
She continued, “Do you feel bad about not going to your dad’s funeral?”
I thought about it. “No, not really. But I think I should do something…not for any of my other relatives. I don’t even really know them all that well. But I should do something for my dad.” I smiled. “I just kind of want to throw the funeral he would have wanted.”
She went into one of her thinking moods. She paced and kicked sand. Then she turned to me with this part smug, part felicitous smile — the kind of look that told me she had struck conceptual gold.
“So that’s it. We’ll have a ceremony for him,” she said. “Not a funeral. No organ music or dumb religious ceremonies. No caskets. No corpses. Just you and me, and…well, I don’t know.”
“The dead body really does ruin the entire event, especially if his eyes and mouth are open. You think they could wire a dead guy’s mouth shut. Really,” I said, and that got her laughing. “Will there be food?” I asked.
“It’s okay. It’ll be fun. A ceremony to celebrate the end of something special, no?”
I nodded in agreement. “That sounds about right.”
I looked over at her. “You know my dad always liked the ocean. I think he would like it if we…ummm, somehow returned part of him to the sea.”
“You don’t have his ashes in the trunk of your car or something, do you?”
“No, of course not, but I do have some pictures in my wallet that we can tear and throw into the ocean. That’s symbolic, right?”
“Drama! I love it. I can also draw a picture of him,” she said.
“That’s good,” I said.
I was starting to feel a lot better, and, of course, I was happy just to be near Jennifer. And so it was settled. We both went to my car. We searched around for something nice I could wear. I was already dressed up in nice pants from the night before. They weren’t too dirty. Jennifer found a nice shirt for me to wear (one without sweat stains and sand). I had to look nice because Jennifer said this was a respectable event. Then she made me wear underwear on top of my head because she said I shouldn’t look too respectable. I took it off and told her that only superheroes could wear underwear in inappropriate ways. She told me that I shouldn’t because I looked sexy in an utterly imbecilic way. (Jennifer calling me sexy always made me feel uncomfortable, but I knew it wasn’t merely in a sex object kind of way [I think]).
She put the underwear back on my head and told me that anyone who let someone dress them up like that ought to be put to death by a firing squad whose guns matched the color of their beret, or something like that.
Jennifer also said that I should give a eulogy.
“What would I say?” I asked.
“Anything,” she said.
I said, “Okay, but only if I get to take the underwear off my head.”
She agreed, and we both walked out toward the ocean. It was beginning to get dark. I looked to Jennifer for guidance. “Is this the direction I should face?” I asked, motioning toward the ocean.
She shrugged. “It’s your eulogy…ummm, just don’t face in my direction. That’s kind of creepy.”
I faced toward the ocean and said my eulogy, which I don’t really want to repeat (honestly it was kind of cheesy, but nonetheless personal). But basically I thanked my dad for the best advice he ever gave me, which was: That while a quick tongue could get you momentary fame, a compassionate ear would make you friends for life (good stuff). Then I said some really generic things about him being a great guy and a good father, a hard worker. All the cheesy things you’d expect someone to say at a funeral.
It was fitting, I guess. In the end I created the very thing I had hoped to avoid. It’s sad and ironic, but that’s the way it happened. The funny thing was I couldn’t feel too bad at the time. I felt more relieved than anything else. It was Jennifer really that made the difference.
Jennifer nodded in my direction. “Good job.”
Jennifer drew a portrait of my dad, then we started drawing mustaches and warts on him, a unibrow and the like, because that’s the way he would’ve wanted to be remembered. Then we crumpled it up and threw it into the ocean.
“Isn’t that littering?” I asked Jennifer.
“Yeah, but it’s also sentimental,” she replied.
We watched it for a moment as the waves just washed it back onto the shore.
“Some seagull is probably going to choke on it,” I said.
She looked at me, shrugged, and said, “It happens. I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. Eventually, after the nuclear war, there’ll be nothing left but the cockroaches and some species of microorganisms…oh, and people like me who have cockroach DNA mixed in. Us too. We’ll rule the world.”
What could I say to that? She was absolutely right about the cockroaches.
Jennifer watched as I picked up the crumpled-up portrait and soaked it in water. I took the pictures of my dad that were in my wallet and began tearing them into little pieces. I spread them around in the moist sand so that the tide would eventually wash over them.
“Okay, now I’m done.”