While I was in the plane coming home from Portland last week I saw the flight attendants decanting water from cartons labeled Talking Rain. I thought that would be a good name for a story. The story came to me in 1.2 picoseconds.
I tried to write it. I couldn't. I'll tell you why in a moment.
All of my stories start with an image. A sort of hallucination. Usually it's something fractal -- fractal means "fractional dimension", so you have to think of the hallucination of only being marginally part of this world in every conceivable way. It's fractional in time, space, resolution, compatibility, coherency, consistency, applicability, etc. Sometimes the images are cartoony, like animation. Sometimes they're in 70mm with 12 channel Dolby sound. Sometimes they're in "feel-o-vision" where I can feel what the characters feel, but nothing else. There's also "smell-o-vision" and "run-o-vision" and "worry-o-vision" and "you-are-there-o-vision". Someday I'll explain those.
These fractal hallucinations are mostly static. There's a snippet of music, and something vivid.
Talking Rain is a Canadian beverage company. It's not one I have ever run into before, so if you're Canadian and live with Talking Rain commercials day after day, you'll wonder why anyone could be struck by the words. If you're me, you get an image.
It went something like this:
There is an old man standing under a leaden gray sky that's bleeding rain in torrents. The man is saturated. We see him from behind. His shirt is gray and sticking to his back in folds. His dark trousers leak water from the cuffs around his ankles.
He is barefoot. Mud and dead leaves cling to his heels. His thin gray hair is matted to his head. His shoulders are hunched. His arms are held outward barely from his sides as if he's trying to turn his palms upward to beg for mercy but doesn't have the strength.
We are in his backyard. He's standing on a grass lawn that has been allowed to grow just a bit too long. In the rear of the yard by the stockade fence there's a vegetable garden staked out and surrounded by chicken wire. There's nothing growing there except dandelions. To his left is a detached garage. There's a thin layer of dark green moss growing on the wet roof shingles. The white paint is peeling from the sides. The garage door is closed. On the ground where the garage wall meets the dirt is a pair of woman's gardening gloves and a small hand shovel.
A large crow stands silently on a branch of a tall maple tree to his right.
The old man's son has had a mediocre relationship with him. Now that the son is as old as his father was when he was a kid, he's seeing the world through his dad's eyes, which makes him even more critical of his father in many ways. Also, it makes him sympathetic. What he hated in his father, he now hates in himself. What he loved about his father he loves in himself and tries to cultivate.
But everyone's imperfect. They ignore the good things, and they tend to be intolerant of each other's imperfections, because they're their own.
The son has shown up unexpectedly. He is in the house at the screen door looking out onto the backyard and his father in the rain. He calls out to him, but the father doesn't answer.
The father wants to die but is perfectly healthy. His wife passed away some months ago after a prolonged illness. For reasons the son attributes to psychological fragility, the father, who has never been religious or superstitious or subject to sudden flights of fancy, now believes he can hear his dead wife's voice in the rain.
How will the son deal with this? For there to be a story, he must try to get involved with the old man's fabrication. What will he find? In trying to fix his father, is he being selfish -- just trying to make Dad easier to handle? Is he interested in the hallucination? Does he want to speak to his dead mother? Does he believe in the rain voices? Where does it lead? Will they wind up meeting the native shaman who gave the mother the idea of the talking rain to pass to the father?
How does it end? What does it mean? Why did I think this?
Please fasten your seatbelts put up your tray tables as we are beginning our descent to San Jose Airport. Discontinue use of all electronic devices. A flight attendant is coming down the aisle to collect all remaining service items.
In two weeks I am going to Alaska with friends. I have Antarctic friends in Alaska. They are letting us stay at their house.
I have been dreaming about Alaska for months and now I am finally going. It works like that, usually. If I dream about something long enough, it happens.
I have a regular life. I am trying not to dream of anything bad.
That phone rings on my desk. Nobody I know calls me on that phone. They all call my cell.
I don't answer. Let it roll over to voice mail. I listen to the message. It's a cold call. Verbal spam. The good old fashioned spam of our ancestors.
"Hi, this is Jeremy from Oxford. I'm doing a reference check on Tung Tran, an ex-employee of yours and I'm wondering if you can help me. Please call me back."
Sorry Jeremy. Did you think of the "I'm doing a reference check..." ploy yourself, or is it on a sheet in front of you along with, "I have a candidate who has heard of you by reputation and has always wanted to work with you?" You are young and have a lot of time to spend trying to make a buck by selling services to uninterested people. I wish you had a better job. But you don't.
Nobody named Tung Tran has ever worked at this company.
I'm not terribly old, but I don't think it's necessary to answer cold calls anymore. Nobody loves me anymore if I do, and nobody loves me any less if I don't.
I delete the message. It is out of my life.
My cardiologist says that my not sleeping is putting a horrible strain on my heart. I will wind up with problems if I don't sleep. "Problems" to him means heart attack or stroke.
I haven't slept a whole night through in over a year. It is caused by stress.
My blood pressure is very high that day. My cholesterol is under control. My cardiologist knows he can't tell me how to live my life. He can only try to keep me alive living the life I have chosen. He does this with pills.
He tells me he knows I hate pills because I used to hate them. Now I don't anymore. When he writes me a prescription I'm thrilled. I need to be different than the way I am, and I pray these drugs will change me.
The druggist says, "Do you know what these are?" and I don't. I've heard the name. Don't know the effect.
"These may make you sleepy."
I say, "Let's hope so."
She smiles. I go home and take one. Nothing happens that day. The next day I take two, even though it says "one" on the label.
I sleep the entire night for the first time in over a year. My body feels like lead. Like young lead. It doesn't want to get up but my brain tells it to. My body is actually happy. I can feel it thanking me, thanking my brain for ending the beatings.
I sit down and try to write the story of the man standing in the rain, but I can't. He's in the rain but it doesn't mean anything. It's just a picture. Something I once thought made sense. Now it's like something I read. I go to work. It's the same stressful existence. I'm looking at everything that pisses me off and I'm calculating answers. They're the same answers I would have come to before, only now my stomach isn't in knots. My chest doesn't feel like an alien is going to come crashing out of it.
I go to the men's room and stand at the urinal. I think to myself that all that worrying got me nowhere. I'd be in this exact same place if I hadn't taken these drugs, and I'd feel like hell. Now I feel fine. My business may be crumbling around me, but getting angry and depressed about it doesn't make me work harder or more effectively. In fact, if I'm less effective due to depression, then any productivity reduction I suffer from these pills is equal, only I'm not dying in the process. So that must be good, is my logic.
Only I can't write. I have no creativity. I listen to music and it's not interesting. I'm not interested in sex. I'm alive and marginally happy. Maybe that's why the great writers were so tortured. Maybe you have to be tortured to be good.
Now I understand what hell is. You can be miserable and in hell, or happy and in hell. Either way, it's called hell for a reason.
The phone on the desk rings. I forget to think before answering. It is Jeremy from Oxford. He doesn't mention Tung Tran. He wants to introduce himself and his services.
In my new drug-induced calm I tell Jeremy I have no need for him or his services. I feel sorry for being terse, the poor guy is just trying to make a living. I say that to him, he denies he's trying hard. He has a lot of clients, he says. They're all happy with him. Money is rolling in. He's buying a boat. People cut short important meetings when he calls.
I tell Jeremy I have to pee now. Goodbye. Good luck with the boat. Remember to put oil in the gas and to hose it off when you come back to port. Goodbye.
While I'm peeing I imagine Jeremy on a Boston Whaler with big outriggers bending in the breeze as he speeds through the channel to the sea. He is doing well and doesn't need pills to relax.
I imagine it is exactly the same thing Jeremy is imagining.
I had to prepare a couple of my short stories for someone to look at so I printed them out. But I knew they weren't good enough yet so I asked my editor friend if she would please look at them and help me.
She did. She read through the first one and said, "This is good. It's my favorite but you don't motivate the ending." She explains why.
Because I'm on drugs, I don't complain to her that she doesn't understand what I was thinking. What she explains makes perfect sense. I read the story and I agree. The ending has nothing to do with the beginning. What was I thinking?
I change it. I'm worried what I have written isn't as intense or edgy, but she tells me it's great.
"You're a great writer," she tells me. She coos into the phone like a lover. "You are really really good."
She is smart. I write what she wants. "This one, I made the kid older so she could have some dialog."
"It makes more sense now. See what I mean -- the reader doesn't have to wonder."
"I was trying to be more like Stanley Kubrick," I say.
"You are not Stanley Kubrick. You need less Stanley Kubrick. You are worthless as Stanley Kubrick. You need to be you. You need to show us what's in your head. You are a really good writer. I love what you write. In this next one, you have to cut off the last two paragraphs. "
I don't complain. I cut off the paragraphs. The story isn't the same as what I was thinking, but somehow it's still my story.
"Everything is so much better now," she says to me on the phone.
"Yes. Everything is better," I agree.
If she was close to me I would kiss her. I feel like being naked and close to another person for the first time in a year.
"Hello. This is Jeremy from Oxford."
"How's the boat, Jeremy?"
"I have a great candidate to present to you. He's heard of you by reputation and would really like to work for you some day."
"This is not the day, Jeremy. This is not the year. Jeremy, tell me. Have you ever been to Alaska?"
"I'm in New York."
"I know that. But have you ever been to Alaska?"
"This candidate is perfect for you. Our fees are reasonable. We used to do business with your company before you started. Ask your coworkers. We have a great track record with your company."
"I know. I know all that and I want to ask you how you feel when I say that there was no company before I started. There are no coworkers. We're talking about Alaska, here. I'm asking you how Alaska makes you feel."
"But I have a contract here that says..."
" Jeremy, I have a dream about Alaska. That there's a woman there who talks to the whales and eagles. She's ancient. She's a member of a very old native tribe and none of them can tell you exactly when she was born. She remembers when there was no snow on the mountains. And she's called the 'Owl Woman'. Now the Owl is the messenger of death. Everyone's scared of the Owl Woman because she brings death, but how stupid is that, Jeremy? Everyone is going to die. We should be friends with death. It's part of the life we got when we were born. So the Owl Woman is simultaneously our greatest fear and our best friend in the universe. And I have the feeling when I go to Alaska I'll be closer to her and she has things to tell me. Did you ever feel that, Jeremy? Like destiny is not a foregone conclusion or the name of a bad 70's wedding band, but rather, your own private Holy Grail. You have to quest for it. You have to quest for your destiny, Jeremy. What's your destiny? What do you think it is?"
"I would really like to work with your company..."
"Jeremy, a company is simply a group of people who talk to each other regularly for the purpose of making money. When the people stop talking, there is no company. Doesn't that sound fragile to you? Impermanent. Ethereal. Ephemeral, perhaps. What is real is the Owl Woman. What is real is death, Jeremy. Someday you are going to die and when you do, you'll realize how wonderful every second of your life was, and you'll wonder why you spent it this way. You hang up this phone right now, Jeremy. The next time I hear from you, you'd better be calling from your cell phone on the bridge of your boat out off Point Pleasant with a fishing pole between your legs. Did I ever tell you I was from New York? I have friends in New York, Jeremy. They're Sicilian. They'll cut your balls off if I ask them to."
"I've never been to Alaska."
"Neither have I."
"Have a good trip."
"Goodbye, Jeremy. Goodbye."