By Robert Dart
Followed by Q&A
A fellow, Jack, lived in a spacious apartment on the West Side of Chicago. It was a fashionable loft, with clothes strewn about, and a good chair in front of the computer screen where he sat many evenings. Jack worked in a large structure in the South Loop. And there he sat, behind a closed door, and stared at a computer screen for most of the day, and looked out the window.
He read a lot of interesting things. Such as, an e-mail from an associate of his, decrying the sandwich the associate had eaten at lunch. The sandwich had been soggy and incomplete, an utter failure. Oh what a sandwich! Oh what an associate that associate was! Oh jolly!
Jack’s screen summoned forth a billion little pages, each one leading to others, where anonymous persons made witty observations about what the baby did, or how their coffee tasted today, or why torture is bad. One could leave brief remarks in response to the brief observations. In like fashion, many people gathered to be witty together.
Jack had a girlfriend, and friends he had made during his schooling. His girlfriend he saw most nights, and his friends he saw almost never. Even those who still lived in Chicago were presently growing tiresome in comparison to the internet people.
Jack’s girlfriend, Suzanne, was soft and pink, with a round soft belly and a full pleasant face. She smiled very warmly at Jack as she watched him get out of the cab. Jack was tall, thin, and very pale. Still, he was handsome and wore fashionable spectacles. Steam came out of the door with Jack and the vapor continued to rise up off him as he stamped through the snow.
Getting out of the cab, the cold air hitting him, Jack had a significant moment. There’s no saying why. But the moment lingered and, by lingering, signaled to Jack that, yes, it was significant.
The moment occurred when Jack thought to brush a bit of Suzanne’s hair from her face. She had big piling blond hair, and it had come out from under her hat, and he had reached out to brush it, planning to kiss her. But his gloved hand was clumsy. The gesture was awful. It was as though he were pawing her face. In fact, yes, he had just pawed her face. Jack saw, from the very beginning, how inelegant this act was, but he could not stop himself from doing it. The moment would not end.
It was disgraceful. Yet Suzanne just looked up and smiled while Jack continued to be disgraced. He stepped back into the snow, stumbled, and had to regain his balance.
He thought: She doesn’t even know what a terrible, awkward thing I’ve done. She doesn’t even know, and will never know. There she stood, as though he hadn’t just come out of a cab and pawed her face with a gloved hand.
She doesn’t even know, thought Jack. The right woman would not abide moronic pawing of her face. She’d find it contemptible, and him contemptible. Then he’d do something impossibly charming to win her back. Suzanne could not inspire him to be impossibly charming because she did not hold his gesture in contempt. She was wrong
It was something Jack had been considering. There were things Jack could share with the people on the blog that could be shared with no one else. For instance, the people on the blog were all interested in politics. There were many important issues, such as torturing and voting machines and whose fault was the earthquake. Just reading about these things, and thinking about them, made Jack upset. Sometimes he would look out of the window in his square office at all the tall buildings and watch the white smoke piping from the rooftop generators in the cold. The tall metal casings stood out in all directions, and beyond them, packed city blocks, and Jack wondered, what is all this, what is all this I live in?
Suzanne did not demonstrate strong feelings about politics. Somehow the conversation always got back to people they knew. Or she would just shrug as though to admit there were things she could not know for certain. This was maddening.
The people on the blog were not maddening. Specifically, there existed a persona named Calliope Short-pants, a delightful, intriguing persona, who Jack believed to be female. Calliope Short-pants was surprising. Each thing she wrote was amusing. If she had nothing amusing to write, why, she did not write anything. She left no clue as to who she might be. All of this contributed to give her writings an air of attractive mystery. Even passing a child in shorts or viewing the word “calliope” in any sort of print (though rare) reminded Jack of this beloved persona and left him wondering: who is this Calliope Short-pants?
Why, just that afternoon Jack had enjoyed an especially entertaining round of banter with this Calliope involving illuminated manuscripts. Calliope explained that she was always finding illuminated manuscripts in her undergarments, an obvious fabrication. Jack responded, “One ought to tell these manuscripts to stop rifling through one’s delicates.”
To which Calliope responded, “Rifled delicates are considerably more accurate than un-.”
It was clever! Oh very clever!
But that moment had passed. In the present moment, nobody said anything clever. Suzanne just said, “hello.” She was warm and they could go inside and feed their bodies, go home and lay their bodies next to one another.
But it was all wrong. He thought to brush her face again, this time with the edge of his hand, gently. But Jack could not so much as lift his arm. He was frozen to the sidewalk in this wrong moment. Then he saw, by the formation of the tiny creases between her eyebrows, that Suzanne had sensed the wrongness herself. Finally she’d sensed it, but it was too late for Jack to do anything about it. Certainly, he could not explain it! So he started forward, and then stumbled back again to the curb. His coat was open and the wind was getting through to his core. He turned, not yet regaining balance, and stumbled a few steps away from her. Then he ran. It felt very natural to him, once turned away from her, to pick up one knee and then the other, to get up on his toes and feel his hamstrings getting into it, and he looked over his shoulder only once after he had started. His feet slapped on the pavement as he ran, slipping just a little. Then he turned the corner. Then he was gone. He didn’t ever want to see that restaurant again.
Jack was able to make it all the way to the elevated train station, outside of which a man was sleeping, without slowing down. Jack hurdled over the man, got out his city pass for the turnstile and, hearing a train approach below, bounded down the escalator.
* * *
He had to turn the phone off because he knew she would be calling. The computer was booting up. He put the phone away in a drawer to keep from thinking about it. He leaned back in the chair in front of the large flat screen. It was almost finished.
The thing to do was to have a glass of wine. Jack generally kept a bottle of some kind of red. He poured a glass. He felt very free and open, and he was very eager to see what was being said on the blog.
There were rows of text, large text and small text. On the right were recent subject headings. On the left was a list of recent commenters. And among them, having made several recent comments, the delightful Calliope Short-pants!
Jack had neglected to turn any lights on, save for a small desk lamp. His face was washed in the bluish glow of the high resolution screen. He typed and giggled. He took a sip of wine. And then he typed some more, and giggled some more.
What naughty thing has Jack been up to, to be so frolicsome tonight?
I ran away from a dinner date. All the way down the snowy street I ran.
Did it chase you?
And Jack wrote:
It did not give chase.
And Calliope wrote:
Your date was too stingy. I would give you chase.
And Jack wrote, quickly:
If you gave me chase, I would accept it.
Accept, and not return it? Not for store credit?
For cash but not for store credit.
Then Jack paused and took a sip of wine. He wrote again:
If I knew where to go, I’d return the chase before it was given.
E-mail me, Jack.
Oh how those fourteen figures danced on the screen! He glanced away and looked back again for the joy of rediscovering them. He fumbled with the bottle of wine. He thought to wait a bit, but then decided the confident thing would be to just e-mail right away. So he sat for a time with the e-mail page opened. And after a long three minutes of looking at the e-mail page, he composed an e-mail without any words in the body of the message, and the subject heading: “as you wish”.
Another came back. It read: “I am a giant spider.”
Jack did not believe in jokes going over his head and so he decided this one must be very funny. “I am a medium-sized caterpillar,” he wrote in response.
“I am a giant spider,” was the return. “I weigh four-hundred and forty pounds. I have long, scarlet, poisonous fangs, and prickly black hairs all over my body. I type with my two hindmost legs. I eat people.”
What a fascinating person! Extraordinary! He had a bit more wine.
“Do you live in special housing?” wrote Jack. “Or perhaps with family?”
“I was born far from here, in a large pit of eggs, with six-hundred siblings. I have never met my parents. I ate four-hundred of my siblings before they hatched, to sustain myself in infancy. In my youth I traveled. Now I live in Chicago, under the elevated train platform at Milwaukee and Damen. I seldom venture from my nest.”
“I love you,” wrote Jack.
“I am incapable of love,” wrote Calliope. “I know only hunger and lust. I will allow you to copulate inside of me, but then I will eat you.”
Jack wrote that he lived near that stop and would pay a visit. What a wonderful conceit! He wondered if she’d show. If not, she was welcome to her fun. It wasn’t very far.
“If I see you, I will eat you,” Calliope responded.
Jack got up and hopped about the apartment. He rinsed his face in cold water and spent five minutes mussing his hair and then putting it back in place with his fingers.
What would she look like, he wondered, walking with his hands tucked into his long overcoat. She might be very attractive. But then, she might not. It didn’t matter. She was the most interesting thing in the universe.
He waited outside the station. It needed a new coat of paint. He decided, at first, not to go directly underneath the station platform, as she had suggested. He didn’t think she’d really want to meet him under there: it was dark, and there were probably needles, or who knows what.
He stood there for a while. Nobody loitered near him. Large groups came and went. It was cold. He pushed his glasses up the bridge of his nose and determined to walk underneath the platform. The smell, as he turned to duck under the beams, was awful.
Not long afterwards, a train came to a screeching halt at the elevated platform, and a crowd got out, huffing in the cold. Suzanne was among them, holding her hat, determined to find Jack. She was worried about him. Just as the train left the platform, above the transportation noises, Suzanne heard something down below: a male voice, moaning or crying. But what the cries indicated, pain, ecstasy or terror, she could not say.
Robert Dart is a writer and attorney in Los Angeles. His clients have included large corporations and convicted felons, and he enjoys running, watching movies, and collecting cheap sunglasses. Mr. Dart currently lives with his wife of three years and their weimaraner-boxer mix, David Hasselhoff. Prior publications include Euphony, Whim Quarterly, and Danse Macabre.
Q: What was the inspiration for this piece?
A: “Something Life-Affirming” was not born of personal experience. But I did once live near the Milwaukee-Damen train station, and I do read blogs.
Q: What's your second favorite place on Earth, and why?
A: Silverlake Coffee, a coffee shop in my neighborhood in Los Angeles. I like to loaf around in coffee shops, and Silverlake Coffee is my second favorite place to do so.
Q: PC, or Mac?
A: I'm a PC. I'm not very hip, and Justin Long is always making me look foolish.
Q: What's your process when writing a short story?
A: I start with an idea, often not knowing exactly how I'll get from A to B. I write it out, trying not to edit too much as I go. Then I cut a bunch of stuff. I strike out lots of sentences and phrases, and try to tighten things as best I can. I've heard that other people are more considered, but I like to surprise myself. Whatever your approach, the main thing is just sitting down and writing.
Q: If you weren't a writer, what would you be?
A: A wreck of a man. Sometimes I think I'd like to be a forest ranger, but I lack the resume for that. I'd also like to be a professional skier one day. Technically, I guess I'd be a lawyer, but I'd probably burn out.