An Urgent Message from the Gone-Wrong Department

by J. J. Steinfeld

Sitting in his small office in the oldest building on campus, an office he has used for a decade now, the English professor was having an unproductive, horrible morning. He was attempting to revise his paper on Emily Dickinson for a forthcoming conference on 19th Century Women Poets, but nothing seemed to be going well, not least of which was a phone call from his wife telling him she had decided to take the teaching job on the West Coast, even after he had told her that he had to stay on the East Coast, close to his aged and ailing parents. And this morning his novel had received its thirteenth rejection, not that he was superstitious, merely depressed over the prospect that perhaps he would never have a novel published. He was determined to reread every single Emily Dickinson poem in one day, that would be about a hundred poems an hour if he read for eighteen hours, which he planned on doing, but after a morning of reading Emily Dickinson, poems 1 through 100, he decides to take a long walk downtown, stumbling turning to easy strides, hoping for inspiration or fresh air, whichever comes first, his daydreaming walk broken by the body in the street as if it were an urgent message from the gone-wrong department. That is how he describes it in his thoughts, hoping he can remember this absurd description for the novel. Why today of all days, he berates himself, had he forgotten to bring a notebook and pen with him.

He attempts to ascertain if the man, motionless as absence or regret, is dead or passed out, not this isn’t his area of expertise, he thinks, but he has seen pulses taken on TV and in movies in theatres. There is a character in his novel who goes to a movie theatre every evening, sits in the same seat, day after day for three years, and dies in the middle of a film about a blind man who is attending his first film.

The professor wants to see the stricken man’s chest rise, a pronouncement that the man is holding on, and just as he begins to invoke God’s help, the elderly man says, ‘Thanks for the concern but I’ll be okay. I swim in whiskey and I don’t need no personal-flotation device.’

That’s amazing, brilliant, the professor thinks, wanting to remember every word the elderly man is saying.

Made a career of sweating the small stuff, the theological at tea time, he hears, but no, that’s within him: imagination frolicking amidst the sad compassion, an unsatisfactory art form disenchanted, disenfranchised. It is a warm morning, too warm for this time of year, he had not eaten breakfast, his concerns over everything that had distressed him this morning, he tells himself, wanting plausible explanations for his usual thoughts.

‘I will not last, I came in last,’ he hears.

The tyranny of endings a taste of beginnings, he thinks.

‘When the bloodless start to bleed,’ the elderly man says, and the professor ponders the words, wondering what in the man’s life had inspired this sort of thinking and talking. He wants to understand this man who, he feels, has the potential to become an engaging character in his novel. He estimates the man is at least eighty, twice his age, would make him even older if he becomes a character in his novel.

‘You have a poetic way of speaking,’ the professor tells the elderly man, who is still on the sidewalk, the discomfort on his face disappearing.

‘I’ve always liked poetry, but I haven’t written a poem since I was a young man. Emily Dickinson is one of my favourites.’

‘Why’d you say that?’ the professor says accusingly, annoyed that the elderly man might be tampering with his morning and mind.

‘Last year I heard you give a lecture at the university about dear Emily,’ the elderly man says.

The professor closes his eyes and seems to thank God for the explanation. Which number poem of Emily Dickinson’s do you favour? She penned nearly 1800, you know. Should I call an ambulance or recite one of Emily’s poems about Death and the Eternal? Does he say this or think it, the professor wonders. Whichever, he hopes to hold on to the words for his novel.

He feels his right arm grabbed; he smells the whiskey, sees the toothless mouth and the smile, the knowing smile, and before the professor gets one syllable further in his revised novel, he hears loud and clear, ‘I’ve nipped your soul…’

 

Canadian fiction writer, poet, and playwright J. J. Steinfeld lives on Prince Edward Island, where he is patiently waiting for Godot’s arrival and a phone call from Kafka. While waiting, he has published fourteen books — ten short story collections, two novels, two poetry collections — the most recent ones being Misshapenness (Poetry, Ekstasis Editions, 2009) and A Glass Shard and Memory (Stories, Recliner Books, 2010). His short stories and poems have appeared in numerous anthologies and periodicals internationally, and over forty of his one-act plays and a handful of full-length plays have been performed in North America.

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