Auld Acquaintance (Part Four)

Boston, Mass.  1996.

The oranges never came.  I got a check for $100.  Bob Edwards didn't call.  Harper's never approached me.  I called Florida State's Writing Program and asked about the oranges.  They said they worked with a particular grove and if I never received the oranges, I should take it up with them.  I called the grove on three separate occasions, an answering machine each time.  My Homicide phone did not ring.

(Shyness is nice, and shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you'd like to.)

"The Custodian" appeared in Sundog, and has been reprinted in a couple anthologies and a textbook, and it showed up as the topic of an article by Ron Wallace in AWP Chronicle.  It lives on in the Web in interesting and complimentary ways, and family, co-workers, and friends across the country have reported coming across it in writing classes, teacher trainings, and Google searches.  My wife read the story online before our first date, doing her due diligence to dig up any digital dirt.

In some ways, that story's out there having the career I always wanted for myself.  On the cusp of its eighteenth birthday, that story is not so much a child of mine as a doppelgänger, a shade using my name and making something of itself while I stay home and do the washing up.

Anyone who says they have no regrets is either lying through their unreflective teeth or living such a charmed life as to be contemptible beyond all measure of reason.  Even Sinatra reported having "a few" regrets, and who lived a more privileged existence than Frank effing Sinatra?

I regret that I didn't push harder for the deluxe treatment -- pushing back on Florida State for NPR connections, for a little box in the Readings sections in the front of Harpers.  I know other writers who've sparked their careers by nudging editors.  Just wasn't me, still isn't.

(Coyness is nice, and coyness can stop you from saying all the things in life you'd like to.)

For lack of a crate of oranges, I went to one of the futon stores that serve all the underfunded students of metro Boston, and bought a table that fairly looked to be made from old fruit crates.  I stenciled the thing with red spray paint and made myself a crate where none had appeared.

I stayed in Boston until August of 2002, then brought that coffee table back to Milwaukee with me.  I published a few more stories in disparate places and I worked on a novel for a while, but sputtered at it and back-burnered it, and worked more and got married and had two kids through adoption and a book appeared in my local bookstore that traded on exactly the same high concept character idea I'd been working on in my book except written by someone else, which crushed me, and though work I invested myself into issues of student retention and success and always sort of thought the whole time that I'd get back to writing fiction, and then one day you realize you've entirely run out of excuses.  "Read less, write more," a friend wrote to me at the end of last week.  "Seriously."

In Pam Painter's Short Short class, everybody had their particular trick when it came to in-class recitals.  I recall Ted Adams rubbing hell out of his eye socket while trying to bring back the opening paragraphs of A Hundred Years of Solitude.  And I remember the otherwise unflappable Jessica Purdy in full voice-quake, maybe reciting the tip-of-the-tongue-to-the-top-of-the-teeth bit from Lolita.  I squinted, head down, trying to imagine the page I'd studied, saying...

When the shadow of the sash appeared on the curtains it was between seven and eight o' clock and then I was in time again, hearing the watch. It was Grandfather's and when Father gave it to me he said I give you the mausoleum of all hope and desire; it's rather excruciating-ly apt that you will use it to gain the reducto absurdum of all human experience which can fit your individual needs no better than it fitted his or his father's. I give it to you not that you may remember time, but that you might forget it now and then for a moment and not spend all your breath trying to conquer it. Because no battle is ever won he said. They are not even fought. The field only reveals to man his own folly and despair, and victory is an illusion of philosophers and fools. 

Previously:  Parts One, Two, and Three.



Auld Acquaintance (Part Three)

Brian Hinshaw

The 1996 World's Best Short Short Story
Sundog: The Southeast Review, Vol. 16, No. 2

The Custodian

The job would get boring if you didn't mix it up a little.  Like this woman in 14-A, the nurses called her the mockingbird, start any song and this old lady would sing it through.  Couldn't speak, couldn't eat a lick of solid food, but she sang like a house on fire.  So for a kick, I would go in there with my mop and such, prop the door open with a bucket, and set her going.  She was best at the songs you'd sing with a group -- "Oh, Susanna," campfire stuff.  Any kind of Christmas song worked good too, and it always cracked the nurses if I could get her into "Let It Snow" during a heat spell.  We'd try to make her take up a song from the radio or some of the old songs with cursing in them, but she would never go for those.  Although once I had her do "How Dry I Am" while Nurse Winchell fussed with the catheter.

Yesterday, her daughter or maybe granddaughter comes in while 14-A and I were partway into "Auld Lang Syne" and the daughter says "oh oh oh" like she had interrupted scintillating conversation and then she takes a long look at 14-A lying there in the gurney with her eyes shut and her curled-up hands, taking a cup of kindness yet.  And the daughter looks at me, the way a girl does at the end of an old move and she says "my god," says, "you're an angel," and now I can't do it anymore, can hardly step into her room.

Previously:  Parts One and Two
Next: Aftermath


Auld Acquaintance (Part Two)

Previously: Part One  
Charlestown, Mass.  Early Summer, 1996.

I'd bought the phone at Office Max, likely the cheapest model on offer.  It was only fate or kismet that it had the exact ring as the office phones featured on NBC's Homicide, a show that made it okay to spend Friday nights alone.  A show that kept me at my cathode-tube iMac until 10 Eastern, writing away, because what else could I do with the time?  If hunger is the best gravy, loneliness is the best punch-clock.  This is how my phone rang.  Mine and Detectives Pembleton, Munch, and Lewis.

So one Saturday morning that summer following Pam Painter's Short Short course, my phone burbled.  It was Janet Burroway, a name that was familiar but one I couldn't place.  (Had my back not been turned to my bookcase, where Burroway's Writing Fiction was the bulk of my personal Self-Help, Advice, and How-To section, I might have gotten it.)  I hazily realized she was calling to tell me that my story had won Florida State's Short Short contest for that year.  She told me how much she liked the story, explicating the part that calls back "Auld Lang Syne" in the mother's cupped hands, told me last year's winner had not only won the promised $100 and a crate of oranges but also had this story reprinted in Harper's Magazine and read aloud on Morning Edition.  She told me I sounded young -- I wasn't even aware I'd spoken -- and asked what I did.

I told her I was a grad student in Emerson's writing program and working in Human Resources for a mutual funds company.  She said she was thrilled that a young person had won, that others had spent years trying to win their contest.  (To someone with my esteem issues, this meant she was already regretting the decision.)

She asked if I knew of Jerome Stern.  Again, familiar but not clicking (and again, Stern's Making Shapely Fiction was right there in the room with me.)  "He was," said Burroway, "but there you've already heard me say 'was.'"  The Florida State contest had been Stern's labor of love, and he had just that Spring died of cancer.  "So I can't promise you that this year will be like last year, in terms of the exposure," Burroway said.  "We're all fumbling in the dark here, after such a loss."

The call came to end, and I hung up, and holy shit, I think I was just talking with Janet Burroway.  And I won, and I'm going to be in print and I'm going to eat oranges and be in Harpers and Bob Edwards is going to interview me on the radio.

I called my parents.  "Oh," they said, "that's great."  My effusing embarrassed them.  I felt like I was telling them I'd discovered all the eldritch secrets of the Kingdom of Atlantis.  "Mmm-hmm," they said, "how wonderful.  One hundred dollars, you say?"  I'd borrowed $40,000 from the federal government to go to art school and write stories, and here I'd just made enough off of professional writing to pay for about two weeks' worth of interest on that loan.  They didn't see the victory.

So I called Pam, who was genuine and thrilled.  She asked if I'd called my parents.  I told her I had, but that I felt like they didn't totally get it.  Pam said we'd need to get the class back together when the oranges arrived.  "We'll inject them with vodka and have a party!" she said.

I was over the moon.  Could not sit still.  Everything was about to change.

And then, for an awfully long time, nothing happened.