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.
Speaking of Jennifer
Sympathy and Anonymity
I was in a rotten mood. I couldn’t understand how I could shiver and shake on a perfectly comfortable December night. Perhaps I should have gone home. Perhaps I should have slept. I should have thought of this one bad night as a dream I could wake up from easily, a cold shower would wash all the trivial drama away like the gunk that accumulates in your eyes when you slept.
And I would have, except I thought that Brian or Angie or someone I knew might be waiting for me when I got to my dorm room.
If I stayed in the park any longer, I was sure I would conjure up some mythical nihilist monster who would swallow me whole. So, I walked ten minutes around the campus settling for my university pool hall to just shoot around for a little bit—mope, I guess, over the shitty day I’d been having.
I couldn’t tell you exactly why I chose the pool hall. Perhaps it had something to do with the way I felt about the place. When I was a high school student, I used to sneak in there with one of my friends Sean and talk philosophy.
I find myself taking pages from unknown books in my bag. I don’t look at the title…I don’t want to. As I eat page after page, I think to myself, literature tastes just like chicken, literature tastes just like chicken.
The next thing I think is how lonely I’ve become.
At the pool hall, I watched these two punk rockers try to pick up on these three girls who spoke with what sounded like British accents. I can tell you, train wrecks in slow motion don’t look this bad — wait, no, that’s a cliche….It was like watching Gilbert Gottfried sing melody for Boys to Men (I owe you one good simile, reader).
One of the guys in particular was really awful. He had the unnerving habit of laughing for no reason whatsoever. The other guy just watched as the kid said all this outrageous stuff. He tried to get involved a little, but his partner’s outrageous comments were sort of nullifying his own attempts. I felt bad because I had the feeling that if he could be around anyone else at that moment he would’ve been, and that if he knew some way to make him stop, he would have.
It was pretty obvious that the girls with the British accents just wanted them to go away. But the one kid kept going at it. At one point, when the scene had gotten really awkward, the guy who laughed too much said: “Come on, what’s the problem? We should just go back to my place. I promise I’ll be gentle”—some crap like that. The kid was feigning being high. He wasn’t high, though, just an idiot. At that point, one of the girls flat out told him to leave.
Eventually, the other guy said to him, “Come on, we should get going,” effectively putting the three girls, and one reluctant observer, out of their misery. I had the feeling that he was pretty embarrassed by his friend. He actually seemed like he wasn’t that bad of a guy (guilty by association, of course).
When they had both left, the three girls began bad-mouthing them. They went through the obvious: their dopiness, them being young and stupid, how they were rude. Then they began making comments about Americans. They called Americans arrogant and egotistical.
Somehow, though, the conversation turned. One of the girls, the thin girl with the pale complexion, said she liked the bondage pants the quiet one was wearing. Another one of the girls said that she thought the quiet one was attractive. Then the three of them agreed that they would like to fuck the quiet one. Suddenly, the guy’s association with the laughing fool seemed to make more sense, in a disturbing sort of way.
I just kept playing pool, trying to keep my mind on the game, and sort of tuned out the conversation for a while.
Little by little, I begin to see signs of civilization. Af first, what I think are thumb-twitchers, mindless and stupid, start demonstrating signs of intelligence.
One notices me.
“Oh,” one of them says to me, “You look a bit different from the rest.”
It has been quite a while since I’ve had a conversation with anyone but myself.
“Thank you,” is all I can think to say. “Thank you for not being a thumb-twitcher.”
It wasn’t too long before one of the three girls said something to me. She introduced herself and their group and asked if I wanted to play some pool. I agreed, even though I had originally come to get away from people. I didn’t consider strangers always to be people in the negative sense of the word. I forget their names. I do remember how they looked, though: one was a little chubby, another was skinny with fair skin, and another, the most attractive of the three in my humble opinion, was redheaded with a slightly darker complexion than the other two.
I asked them where they were from.
“South Africa,” the redhead said to me. “Know anything about South Africa?”
“Sorry,” I said. “It’s all something, something apartheid in my mind.”
The redhead smiled. “Funny. You have a cute way of talking.”
They informed me that while English was their main language, South Africa also had a heterogeneous mix of tribal languages as well.
We played pool. I was teamed up with the redhead. They explained to me how they were on a study abroad program and how they found America different from South Africa.
“One,” the redhead said, “Americans are a lot ruder than people from our homeland. People in our homeland are raised with better manners: they always say ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’ And another thing, in South Africa, you don’t have to be twenty-one to drink. People spend a lot more time in the pubs in South Africa. And three, we have an early curfew because we have to watch out for rhinos and lions and things.”
I was pretty sure she was kidding about the last part, but you can never be too certain…
They were surprised I didn’t know too much about their country. I told them that the American public school system was very poor and that I didn’t know much about any other countries besides my own, except the names of three of them: Britain, Germany, and Russia, but only because America had beaten them in major wars—and, also, that it was my job to kill all communists (a joke of course). They suggested that I should travel one day. I said that I planned to once I had the money.
“Your country seems awfully self-absorbed,” the skinny one said.
I nodded my head in agreement.
I don’t realize it, but the woman has been talking to me for a while. She looks so different that at first I don’t know what to make of her. I spend a great deal of time not listening to her speech, but instead just looking at her face.
Finally, I blurt out, “That’s what’s different! You don’t have shit all over you.”
“Well, yeah, that’s because I wash myself occasionally.”
The redhead and I won our first game and we gave the other two girls a rematch. We talked for a while about nothing in particular. We talked about our various subjects of study. Then we tried to think of common books that we had read. We actually shared quite a few.
The redhead asked me if I had a girlfriend, and I told her that sadly I didn’t have time for one, but that even if I did, most of the girls I knew were kind of shallow, even if they were smart. Funny how that works at university.
“I’m curious. Do you have any pictures in your wallet,” the redhead asked me.
“I’ll show you mine, if you show me yours,” I said.
I looked at her pictures and saw that she had a picture of herself with a guy by her side—I guessed that this was her boyfriend. “Boyfriend?” I asked.
She responded that it was.
“Tell me about him,” I said.
The other two girls had sort of stopped paying attention to us and were shooting around by themselves.
“I’d rather not,” she said. “We got into a bit of a fight before we left. I still feel kind of bad about it, actually. He’s going to London to continue his studies, and I’m probably not going to see him for a while.”
I asked her whether she thought the time and distance apart would help or hurt their relationship.
“The way I see it,” she said, “if the relationship is strong enough, two people will either come out of it loving each other even more or….”
“Or, I’ll never want to see his fucking face again!”
I chuckled involuntarily at the second part. It was actually a very rude thing to do, but she didn’t seem too mad.
“It’s an ugly thing to go through or watch. I’ve known a couple of people who’ve gone through breakups because of the distance,” I said. “I think the reason so many long-distance relationships fall apart, well…I guess people have needs. They want things from relationships…I think an individual’s needs are stronger than abstract concepts like love and duty.”
“You’re way to polite. Are you sure you’re American?” she said. “You should just say that people are animals, and just like animals we want to fuck!”
“Fair enough,” I said with a smile.
She rummaged through my wallet and showed me her picture of choice. “Who’s this?” I’d kept a small picture of Jennifer in my wallet since high school. The two of us were standing on Miami Beach.
“That’s Jennifer,” I said. “She was a friend of mine back in high school.”
“Not a love interest?” she asked.
I had to think about that one. “Yeah, maybe for a little while, but it wasn’t really like that. It was strange. I couldn’t really describe to you what we were.”
“Did you sleep with her?” she asked.
“Ummmm,” was all I could say. I was taken aback by the straightforward nature of her question.
“Then she was your girlfriend.” I hadn’t responded in the affirmative, but she assumed I had.
“No,” I said. “We never really did any relationship stuff. We never celebrated anniversaries or went on formal dates. Sometimes we were physically involved and sometimes not, but we never stopped being friends…and we never got into any fights or anything. Not any real fights anyway. We got into arguments often, but they were always pretty civilized. And they were always about abstract subjects like art history or ethics or something–she was probably the single smartest person I’d ever met, and not in a shallow way either.…” No, nothing shallow about Jennifer. “I don’t know. I’d say no, though. I always thought of her as a friend. I think she saw me the same way.”
“Do you talk to her anymore?”
“Not anymore,” I said. “It’s complicated, though. I’m a much different person than I was a year ago…”
“A year isn’t so long,” she said. “You should get in touch with her if she means so much to you. You should write her a letter or something. A long letter should do the trick.”
“I want to bring you to my tribe. Maybe we can clean you up a little, but I need something to call you. Do you have a name?”
I just stare at her.
“My name is Sympathy,” she says.
I did writer Jennifer. Then I stopped.
And so, I had to explain to her (and you) the reason I stopped.
The reasoning goes something like this: The day Jennifer left for college she was fine. There was no crying, none of the emotional stuff that usually came with saying goodbye; and, in a way, I was glad, because there was nothing more painful in the world than seeing Jennifer suffer; she wasn’t like that anyway, she never really got that emotional; but, still, even the thought of it gives me shivers.
The redheaded girl from South Africa smiled at me. “You have a nice way of talking, do you know that. Go on.”
She told me that she would write to me and that I could come visit her as often as I wanted to. A little while later (about a week) I talked to her mom who told me that Jennifer was having some kind of nervous spell—perhaps she was just adjusting to her new environment, was her explanation. It was something she eventually grew out of, but still, it was serious enough to warrant her mother’s concern. I read Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar shortly after and nearly lost my mind with guilt.
The redhead looked at me. “I think I skipped reading The Bell Jar. But I think I can guess what kind of book it was.”
Although I don’t attribute this episode directly to myself (I’m not exactly sure what caused it), she did tell me in a phone call that it had something to do with me. What exactly? I’m not sure. It was subtle the way she said it, but more or less she said it. We wrote one another for a year. Since that time, Jennifer got used to her life. From her letters I gathered that she was happy. When I went to visit her last winter, I realized that she was the happiest I’d ever seen her, and further, that the life she now lived had nothing to do with me.
I was sure that the best thing for Jennifer was to keep myself out of her new life. At the time it was just a thought, but the more I thought about that weekend, the more I became sure that I was right.
“Maybe your letters were a big reason her life was going so well. Did you ever stop to consider that?” the redhead was earnest as she said this.
Something you should understand, though: I always thought I was the benefactor of the relationship. She may have gained something from it too, but not the way I did. She was the greatest person I’d ever met, and there was nothing I could really offer her except a kind of clumsy dependence (if that makes any sense). Whenever I had a problem, she was always the person I went to see—it was never the other way around, because Jennifer never really had problems, and if she did, she was always smart enough to solve them on her own. In short: I was the privileged one.
I don’t remember exactly what the redhead said, but maybe she said something like this. “Perhaps you both were privileged. Your clumsy dependence, as you put it, might have been a creation of your imagination.”
Maybe, I replied. But eventually, after the visit, my problems started piling up: my dad’s illness got worse, my schoolwork was more difficult than I had anticipated, and I was working more to help my dad pay the bills. It wasn’t an easy time. All I could think of the entire time I was working and caring for my dad was how happy Jennifer was somewhere else; and it seemed that the cruelest thing I could do was respond to her letters, and bring my world of problems to hers. I didn’t want to tell her what was going on, but I didn’t want to lie to her either. So my idea to stay out of her life seemed to make pretty good sense. I responded to a few of her letters with some pretty superficial letters of my own, and then just slowly stopped writing her.
The girl with the pale complexion just looked at me. “You poor pathetic loser. She was in love with you. It was nothing more complicated than that. And distance turns love to poison.”
The girl next to me now had a name, but I was still anonymous. An anonymous no one. And that’s how I preferred it.
“Anyway, I hope it makes sense to you now.”
The redhead told me, unequivocally, that no, it didn’t make any sense.
“Why not?” I asked. At this point I realized that the other two girls from South Africa had been listening while playing pool.
“Because,” the skinny girl with the light complexion told me, “if she really loved you, she would have wanted to help you with your problems.”
“That’s exactly what I thought, and that’s why I didn’t write her. I knew she would want to help me out with my problems. I didn’t want her helping me out with my problems. That would be awful. Just because she would’ve wanted to help me out with my problems, doesn’t necessarily mean that helping me out with my problems would’ve made her happier. She’d probably be happier not knowing that all that stuff was going on in the first place,” I said.
“Even if you didn’t write her back at the time,” the redhead said, “you should probably write her now and let her know how you’ve been. She’s probably wondering what’s happened to you.”
“Yes, I think you should at least call her and talk to her,” the skinny one with the light complexion said.
For the first time in a while, I feel as if I have a path and a purpose.
“Don’t worry,” she says. “We’ll find a name for you.”
“Thank you, Sympathy,” I say as we walk together.