I had spent an hour in a podiatrist’s waiting room exposed to daytime television, watching adults jumping up and down frantically — like little children needing to pee, but with an added element of ecstasy — competing to win an enormous refrigerator for their home. On my way back to work on a bus I distractedly counted seven cell phones, all with little colored objects moving around, as their owners frantically swiggled their fingers around the screens. When I was back at work, entering some data into columns on my computer, I got this idea for a story, which has now been on my mind for a couple weeks.
I tend not to share story ideas before they are solidly rolling down the tracks because it somehow lets the steam out prematurely. But, since I’ll never put the flesh onto the bones of this story, I’ll share my skeleton of a synopsis instead.
Let’s call him Ignatius. Or Ishmael. Let’s picture him sitting at his desk with big bookshelves behind him; a detail suggesting he is well read.
He’s not the sort to go to many parties, but to get things rolling I sent him to one last week. And of course, as his creator, I was there also. Amidst some serious conversation by the fireplace, growing out of the fact that he had read the works of all the Great Minds, he allegorically explained his encompassing view of life. I of course had pen and paper to jot it down.
“Combine all the colorful ideas of all the wise men and women, and that combined presence of all their imagined colors would equal white — like milk clouds in a cup of coffee. I have spent years swirling them around and, well, the coffee still remains a very dark mystery. To my taste that is quite delicious, but many could not handle that astringency.”
The driving point of my story will be that events around him then shift, situations arising that were, so to speak, adding more and more coffee to his cup — and not the fancy fair trade roast that he likes best. Hence a new bitterness is hitting his palate.
And so he begins writing down a list he calls Why-I-Don’t-Give-A Fuck-Anymore. [Wait wait, don’t leave, it would all be quite funny — really! — nicely served up gallows humor, and I’d work in a bright happy ending.]
As I suspect even you know, there is plenty of material out in the world for that sort of endeavor.
The List would be a bit like an image by image study of each element in some dark Hieronymus Bosch painting. Not even a Baptist preacher, ranting on the seven deadly sins, could come close to this catalog of human transgressions — which will range from those worthy of shame, even disgrace, to lesser foibles, ones which, while brushed aside with a mere eye-roll or head-shake, still make one throw up one’s hands in resignation and a defeated prognosis for homo sapiens.
I would have the protagonist also travel on public transportation a lot, as well as expose him to occasional bouts with television, and these experiences alone would provide him with a cornucopia of list items suggesting a despair for his biped kin.
Of course the big heavy subjects would be there — like youth being recruited to kill and die for various creation myths or to maintain borders. Trust me, suicide bombers will have their own line item. Various types of manipulators of resources, those who help yield both ghetto and penthouse architecture, will be thoroughly documented. And the seemingly endless supply of the small ethical irritators — the man pissing in the street, the woman throwing her fast food wrapper on the ground — will have their day.
The internet has certainly added to various sublists, buzzing with new variations of human deception and dazzling displays of extraordinary gullibility. A selection of mass produced corporate entertainment, in all its media forms, will be inventoried; in parentheses: franchise and reboot. Shopping malls with all their levels of superfluity and significance will be visited; notations made about the zombie shoppers inchworming along.
There will be people driving cars erratically, watching sports devotedly, and keeping other organisms as captured companions. For the latter there will be a rather whimsical entry observing “people walking around city streets with animals on strings, picking up their poop in plastic bags.” And of course that Beast-with-two-backs, Sex, will add items to the discussion — sometimes merely by its status, like Death, of things not discussed. Footnotes to gender power games will follow. Fashion will do a backwards catwalk in a pair of gangsta droop pants. The food and beverage industries — oh boy. Alcohol is a fascinating source — just how many liquor stores are there per square mile? The machinations of Advertising will certainly light up the scoreboard of The List.
As he rides the bus one day he overhears a passenger going on about how much better it was in the Good Old Days. He makes a note.
This list, if fully realized, would go beyond any short story or novel; it would comprise quite a large section at the Library of Babel.
I suspect the narrative itself would have to be quite meta-fictional and in fact the bulk of the entire story’s text would be made up of just this obsessive and crazy list he has put down; and yet even the abridged versions I envision worry me because of The List’s possible effect on readers. Some, whose library consists mostly of the holy scriptures of Saint Pollyanna will most likely progress into reading Celine, Bukowski, Kafka, Artaud and who knows what else. I jest not that some, who already regularly dip their toes into the waters of the Dark Abyss, just might jump right in after reading this inventory.
I myself, as I pondered this story, would be unable to sit with the entire work at any point, even if I did decide to write it, which I won’t. In an imagined scenario in which I am actually trying to spin this tale I see myself confronting mere sections of the list at a time, interspersing the creative act of writing with escapades to watch movies, listen to music, and simply find other ways to experience Awe; otherwise I foresee myself as a permanently disabled Futilitarian.
But quite truthfully, while I won’t write the story, I am finding it fascinating, even necessary in some way, to examine things from the perspective of this imaginary protagonist. You see, I also enjoy my coffee quite dark, but not black. And in some way, even just writing about not writing the story, just by letting my mind wander over The List, I somehow sense an extra dollop of cream lightening things up.
Published May 2016 as part of the “Two Stories Up!” Series (2016–2017).
Two Stories Up! was an ongoing project that had AleXander Hirka and Tammy Remington (The Anomalous Duo) each composing a new (extremely short) short story every two months which was then sent via postal mail to interested readers.