Sunday, May 13, 2012

An Encounter in Scranton

This is a work of fiction, a response to a perversely difficult writing prompt. As it is my custom to insert writing prompts verbatim into my works, the perversity of this prompt was especially herd to work around. But I did it. More commentary after the break.

"What are you reading, a book?"

It was an idiot's question, asked by an idiot, and I was already having a hard enough time with one of those. I looked up from my reading at my uninvited inquisitor. He had the appearance of a frat boy, a pampered rich kid, spiked dyed hair and popped collar, glassy fish-eyes and a softness from too much beer and not enough labor. His pink shirt and mint green jacket would have looked ridiculous in any other era, but were the height of fashion for 1987.

"Yes. Yes, it's a book," I replied, looking at him coldly over the top of my glasses.

He chuckled, shaking his head. "That's one hobby I could never get into," he said, and shuffled away towards the doors that led to the platform where the buses arrived and departed. I watched him go with a mixture of loathing and gratitude. Then I returned to my book.

"The last time I read a book," came an accented voice from nearby, "my family was destroyed. By an asteroid."

I looked up again. Obviously a bus depot in downtown Scranton, Pennsylvania was a poor choice of location for reading Dostoevsky. This particular voice belonged to a man so ancient and withered I could have mistaken him for a desiccated corpse. He was sitting in the row of molded plastic seats opposite me, maybe ten feet away. I hadn't noticed him before.

"We lived in a village along the Podkamennaya Tunguska, the Stony Tunguska River," he continued without any encouragement from me. "Early one morning fire came from the sky and left destruction in its wake. Our village was reduced to ashes, the people burned to cinders. I was not there when this happened, of course." No, of course not, I thought, staring at him over my book. His watery blue eyes seemed fixed on a point ten feet past my right shoulder.

"I was in Irkutsk," he offered in response to absolutely no prodding. "I had already set out upon my quest, the quest which had been laid upon my shoulders by another who had grown too old to continue. I did not seek it, nor did I even believe I was the one truly intended to take up the burden. But once I had taken it up, it was impossible to put down."

Why me?, I thought. He went on.

"I was there in Irkutsk to sift through the ashes of the great library, destroyed in a fire nearly thirty years before. But there were precious few ashes to sift. So I allowed myself the pleasure of a book - one written by the very man whose words you are reading now."

I closed my book. The adventures of Prince Myshkin and company would have to wait until later. I glanced at my watch. My bus should be here soon.

"The universe permitted me to finish my reading, to enjoy my moment of truancy. When I had completed the book, I received word of the great disaster that had befallen everyone I had ever known, the great rock from the sky that had blasted away all traces of my past. I took this as a sign that I was to keep my feet upon the path, to be steadfast in the performance of my duty. To continue my quest without diversion or distraction."

He stopped talking. I thought maybe he was done. Or maybe he had simply died. As far as I could tell, he hadn't blinked during his entire monologue. But then he continued.

"The quest has led me across five continents, over mountains and across deserts and through jungles. Now, after more than eight decades, it has led me here. My journey is nearly at an end. But the quest is far from over." Finally, a blink - I was starting to wonder if he was blind or something. But now his eyes were fixed directly on mine.

"The time has come to pass on the quest. I bid you farewell." There was an odd note of finality to these last words.

The man at the counter loudly shouted out the arrival of the 4:17 from New York City, continuing on to Wilkes-Barre, Hazleton, and points south. I was still looking at the old man across from me when a crowd of passengers swarmed in, eager to use the facilities, buy some snacks from the vending machines, or get on with whatever business had brought them to Scranton. In a few minutes the bus would be ready to depart, and I would be on it. I hoped the crazy old man from Tunguska would not.

A dozen or so passengers trampled noisily through the depot directly between me and the old man, dragging their luggage behind them. When they had moved on, the row of seats opposite me was empty.

There was a matchbook on the floor under where the old man had been sitting.

OK, I thought. I've seen this a thousand times. Jim Rockford finds a matchbook with the name of a bar printed on the cover, and a phone number written inside. He pieces together the clues and solves the crime. So I was going to go and pick up the matchbook and look in it and find something, some message or code or secret symbol, some clue that would indelibly mark me as the next bearer of the old man's quest. And I would be stuck, and my life forever changed, and I would find myself wandering over mountains and across deserts and through jungles in pursuit of some something the old man had never gotten around to mentioning.

Or maybe I would draw "Tippy" and be well on my way to becoming a professional artist.

Screw that. I just wanted to get back to Wilkes-Barre, maybe finish my book. I gathered together my things and tucked them into my backpack. I put on my coat. Those buses were usually cold.

I slung my backpack over one shoulder. Then I walked over, picked up the matchbook, and pocketed it. Just for the heck of it.

I stepped out of the depot and onto the platform, closing my coat against the cold Fall air. The driver was just scrolling the destination sign on the front of the bus from "Scranton" to "Wilkes-Barre." I reached into my pocket for my ticket.

"Yo, chief," came an all-too-familiar voice, "you got a light?" I turned to look at the speaker. The glassy-eyed frat boy had a hand-rolled cigarette dangling from his mouth. He was holding a small paper-wrapped package he hadn't been holding before.

I reached into my pocket, pulled out the matchbook, and handed it to him.

"Keep it," I said.

The prompt for this week was a line from a poem read at the previous week's session: "The last time I read a book, my family was destroyed. By an asteroid." (It might have been "wiped out," not destroyed.) The Tunguska event of 1908 was caused by a meteoroid or small comet, not an asteroid, and as far as I can tell, no one was killed when it happened, though I doubt there was a definite census of that part of Siberia in those days - except maybe for tax purposes.

The story was also based in part on a story told to me by another of our writers over lunch the week before, about a bizarre encounter he had had many years before in a bus station in upstate New York with a man who claimed to be on a bizarre quest guided by specific clues - clues which my friend was then able to spot for himself. I tried to scrub out as many details of this quest as possible, in the end even taking away the purpose of the quest - this, I figured, would be part of the quest. Unfortunately this led to some dissatisfaction with the story, as too many things were left open. The narrator seemed to have a remarkable lack of curiosity and is focused entirely on reading his book (Dostoevsky's The Idiot, a book I've been working on for a few years), though throughout the old man's monologue the narrator stares intently at him. This attitude is based in part on the attitude of the main characters (Stan, Kyle, Kenny, and Cartman) from the South Park episode Towelie, in which they are entirely focused on the task of retrieving their Okama Gamesphere while actively ignoring the epic events breaking out around them.

Some listeners felt that the narrator (or the writer) took the coward's way out. Which he (and I) did. But I made sure I included a precedent in the story - "I did not seek it, nor did I even believe I was the one truly intended to take up the burden." I also did not want to let the story drag on. In part this is due to the constraint of writing for a writers' group - I am trying to create stories that are complete, yet short enough to hear in a single reading of five minutes or less. When I scribbled out the first draft during those dark days last week when my computer was in the shop, I had the narrator open the matchbook to find - nothing. Nothing but a lot number printed at the bottom, a lot number which contained the out-of-sequence digits of his birthday. Intrigued a little, he would shrug, pocket the matchbook, and board the bus without re-encountering the frat boy character from the beginning - who was based on a real person who spoke to me while I was reading a book ("Drawing the Line") while waiting for my car to get yet another exhaust system installed, who actually made the comment about never getting into the "hobby" of reading. The story would then end with a coda, written months later, as the narrator is now caught up in his still-undefined quest. (Part of the quest would, in fact, be determining the actual point of the quest.)

I may take it further, may edit back in the things that I took out. I personally liked the open-endedness of the story, and I liked the idea that the annoying frat-boy character from the beginning had the quest inflicted on him at the end. Maybe I'll be able to find some other solution which will be more satisfying to readers. Let me know what you think.

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