Although there were still some things in which he tried to find fault – a comma in the seventeenth paragraph that seemed equally disruptive in its presence or absence; the inclusion of the term 'vexation', for which he could not find a less pretentious substitute – it soon became apparent to William Edington that he had written the perfect story.
It had happened quite by accident, like most acts of genius, started as little more than a side project to relieve the pressure of composing his third novel, The Unhinged Gate. It was not a long work, scarcely ten thousand words all told; in his hands, the manuscript felt light and insubstantial. Edington flipped back to the first page and reread the story from the beginning. He was relieved to find he had not been mistaken. All the earmarks of greatness were there, the universal themes expressed through a tightly constructed, personal narrative, full of symbolism, foreshadowing, metaphor, and vivid imagery, rendered with a poet's flair for language. Not a single line wasted. In his workroom, silent except for the ticking of the wall clock, he studied the fruits of his labor, no longer taking in the words, but viewing the pages themselves, noting their thickness when placed together, running his fingers over the corners and reveling in the contrast of the print against the bright, white paper. Inside he felt cleansed, but fearful as well, as if a stiff wind might come and blow it all away.
His call to Emily was forwarded to an answering service, which informed him that she and her new husband, Gregory, were vacationing in the Caymans. Three years after their split, Edington's correspondence with his ex-wife had grown increasingly sparse. Bursting with an energy he had not felt in some time, he decided to see his story off personally; fastening it together with a paperclip, he slipped on his boots and buttoned his pea coat before stepping out into the street. It was the middle of December. The holiday season had begun its magical transformation of the neighborhood. Colored lights snaked their way up streetlamps like stripes on a candy cane. Storefronts bustled with intricate displays – stuffed animals, toy trains, packages, trees, and other, more exotic decorations competed for window shoppers' attention. Edington waved to a man hanging garland from the spout above the hardware store.
The mailing of the manuscript was nothing more than routine, the simple matter of purchasing a manila envelope and proper postage. Edington had expected more, somehow; the entire endeavor had taken only five minutes of his time, and now there was nothing left to do but return home. Treading along the sidewalk, Edington delighted in the 'crunch' the snow made beneath his boots. He passed the Fountainhead Grille, where he had spent many late nights drinking and carousing in his youth. The front window, which stretched for half a block, had been painted over, turned into a mural of a snowman driving a sled across the wintry countryside. Gripped by nostalgia, he kicked his boots clean and stepped inside to warm himself.
It had been many years since the last time he had set foot in the Fountainhead. The management had changed since then; it was much quieter than he remembered it, though seemingly cheerful enough. He ordered a beer and made small talk with the bartender, a man whose face he recognized, but whose name escaped him. Discussing amongst other things the weather, the price of gas, and the outcome of a local election, Edington ventured to ask about some of the old timers, friends of his whom he had lost track of over the years. Each name he rattled off drew a blank reaction, and slowly, the bartender drifted over to the sink to wash glasses, leaving Edington to finish his drink alone. He hummed along to a few of the Christmas carols being piped in over the speaker system before slipping from his stool and leaving quietly, his beer only half-finished.
When he returned home, Edington put water on to boil and rummaged through his refrigerator for something to eat. He decided on pork chops and took two from the freezer to thaw. When the kettle began to whistle, he removed it from the stove and prepared a cup of tea (six sachets, as was his taste), bringing it to the living room where he took in the second half of a college football game. Having nothing invested in the outcome, much of the drama was lost, and Edington felt only a mild flutter of excitement as the home team kicked a last second field goal to clinch their conference title.
When the meat was ready, Edington sprinkled it with seasoning and Italian breadcrumbs and placed it in the oven to bake. While he was waiting, he placed a call to his agent to alert her that his story was in the mail and would be there in a couple days. He received a tongue lashing for not faxing the document instead, but Edington simply refused to modernize in certain areas of his life and insisted on sending his stories through the post. He assured her this was the finest work he'd composed to date. She told him she would try for The New Yorker or The Atlantic first, but that he shouldn't get his hopes up.
When the pork chops had browned, he removed them from the oven and made up a plate, which included potatoes left over from the previous night's dinner and a small helping of sweet corn. This he took back to the living room, where he dined while watching a detective drama on one of the networks. Edington found the characters bland, the situations unconvincing. He had come to rely on his television more and more over the years, though it seldom brought him any sort of fulfillment.
The food, when it had settled, made Edington drowsy, and though he was an avowed tea drinker, he decided an evening stroll to the coffee shop would be a nice change of pace. The sun, very low in the sky now, provided little warmth, and Edington was shivering by the time he had covered the necessary two blocks. An hour from closing time, the shop was empty except for its two employees, a young man and woman Edington guessed were less than half his age. Their faces betrayed dismay at seeing a customer enter so late, but to their credit, they were never anything but courteous, and in fact became rather talkative as time went on. They each had seen him wandering past the shop on numerous occasions and asked him what exactly he did for a living. When he told them he was a writer, they were enthralled. Was it exciting living the life of a writer, they wanted to know? Was he on the road often, meeting new people, seeing new places? Edington dispelled their more far-flung notions, allowing for the occasional embellishment when he felt propriety demanded it. Made giddy by the rush of caffeine, Edington inquired about the two young workers. The girl was named Amber; she professed a love of animals and planned on going to school to be a veterinarian. The boy, Jeff, liked fixing cars, and would start working full time at his father's garage once he graduated. Before Edington could follow up with another question, Amber mentioned to Jeff a party taking place that weekend at the house of a classmate. Soon, the focus of the discussion shifted, and Edington found himself lost in a maze of unfamiliar names and references, thoroughly banished from the conversation with no hope of finding his way back in. He finished his coffee, saying nothing more except "goodbye" as he got up to leave.
Returning home, Edington turned up the thermostat and waited for the chill to lift from his bones. The apartment was dark now, but he elected to leave the lights off, instead lighting a pair of raspberry-scented candles that sat on the end table next to his couch. He sank down onto the cushion and opened the wooden box on the coffee table that held his pipe and tobacco. Packing the bowl tightly, he struck a match and held the flame close, feeling the warm burn as the first traces of smoke entered his lungs. He sat there puffing for some time, watching the smoke curl and twist playfully through the candlelight as he tried to figure out what came next.
About the author:
Randall DeVallance is a 2002 graduate of Edinboro University. His stories have appeared in several anthologies, including The New Yinzer's Dirt and TallGrass Writers Guild's Falling in Love Again, as well as Vestal Review, Eyeshot, McSweeney's Online, Opium Magazine, and many other publications online and in print. He is also the author of a short novel, Dive, which was published last fall by Exquisite Cadaver Press. He's now on the sunny shores of Bulgaria to spending 27 months serving with the Peace Corps.