PROGRESSION LITERATURE: THE LITERATURE OF DENOUEMENT:
INTRODUCING A NEW LITERARY GENRE
What one hears, reads, says, sees, tastes, feels , remembers, and experiences affects our understanding. It is ‘truth’ as we perceive it. Remembering, in particular, evokes attitudes and emotions linked to ‘true’ knowledge of past events. Such experiences affect how we experience and interpret the present – especially if a past event is somehow linked to a present or impending event. For example, if one had been bitten by a white dog in the past, seeing the same white dog again can bring forth an automatic reaction, such as fear or aversion, even if the dog now appears friendly to others, who may then not understand your apprehensive reaction. Your perception of reality is different, though you and the others are both presented with the identical stimulus and information at the present moment.
In fact, much of what we might believe to be a ‘fresh’ experience is likely to be based on many past experiences that may or may not be directly related. A beautiful woman, never before seen by a particular male, may attract, have no effect on him, or repel, depending on past experience/ inexperience. First impressions are often based on past experience, learned prejudice, or instinct: a classic study in Scientific American showed pictures of the same male face, but with different amounts of hair, to respondents. Hairiness ranged from totally bald to long beard and long hair, complete with mustache. Respondents were asked to put the faces they saw in order, according to attractiveness. The shaved face, without mustaches and with neatly trimmed hair, was chosen as the most attractive. Total hairiness and total baldness were lowest on the list. In addition, the presence of a mustache reduced confidence. The faces presented were identical in every other respect. Progression from stage to stage of hairiness versus baldness was judged as a factor of attractiveness, but the test subjects didn’t see the face progress in cumulative stages (progression).
Progression in literature (cumulative stages of revelation of facts) is what makes reading enjoyable: we aren’t certain of the outcome, and what we think is true can develop in different directions, depending on the information given. In fact, different readers guarantee different reactions. A fine novel captures the attention and interest of most readers.
Real world experiences are not, generally, as complete as a crafted novel. Modern writers, of course, reflect the chaos of our emerging modern world in what, for convenience, I term chaotic literature, white noise literature, with more or less deconstruction or minimalist influences. The result is discomfort for most readers, who must deal with the same stressors in real life. Time, for example, is short, and many of the most popular works, such as Stephen King’s works, are eagerly read because an entirely different world is spread out to relish and enjoy, however macabre. Fantasy and science fiction works have their loyal followings, too. In all writing, ‘truth’ is important — a guideline in the fog, a face in the mirror, or a beacon in the night. But ‘Truth’ is perceived through a mist of the prejudices we gather in life experiences over time. Truth’ has impact: among other possible repercussions and reactions to its revelation, emotions and thinking can be stimulated or depressed. At any time, what is perceived in the real world as ‘truth’ can suddenly change.
Ian F. A. Bell describes Tony Tanner’s approach to this phenomenon in his introduction to Tanner’s The American Mystery:
“Tanner conceives of the dematerialization of language in American literature, the move beyond the structure of binary opposites, as a continuous process of self-invention. This move involves literary strategies of transformation: the construction of ontological identity, character, and modes of representation. As Tanner observers…if life was in “flux” or constant “metamorphosis,” then writing should be the same. As Emerson says, “In the beginning of America, was not only the word but the contradiction of the word.”
Bell goes on to describe Tanner’s analysis of Hawthorne’s language in The Blithedale Romance:
“…The Blithedale Romance does not ask what constitutes the real, much less the Real, as reality is only “known by the conviction that you have not got it.” As an American Romantic, however, Hawthorne may be suggesting that to know that reality is not real could be the beginning of a Real experience. Tanner tracks the binaries between fact and fiction, forgery and real money as a means of determining the “true” copy; whether “forging” the uncreated conscience of one’s race or forging money, “both ‘forgers’ work by putting falsities/fictions into circulation.”
And finally, in his study of Melville’s The Confidence Man, Bell notes what Tanner says about “reversibility” and “interchangeability”:
“Melville’s novel about trust and confidence in the new world of America, shows how “reversibility” can be re-cast as “interchangeability.” This term, which Tanner borrows from Thomas Mann, registers “the multiplicity and sheer ontological dubiety of the self” in a world where identity, as determined by the constructivist nature of language, is constantly being reinterpreted.”
Whether it is Newspeak, Orwellian style, or Spin City, whether it is a news report or a personal experience, above all, we trust personal experience, and then the Voice of Authority. Anyone with intelligence, plus sufficient interest in the case, can eventually recognize the spins and spirals in the Official Version of the Kennedy assassination. Calling people who discard the Official Version “conspiracy theorists,” while calling supporters of the Official Version “assassination analysts” exemplifies the polarization that can occur in searching for the ‘truth.’
Christopher Sharrett reviews Art Simon’s book, Dangerous Knowledge (concerning truth and imagery in the JFK Assassination debate) with some acerbic insights:
“the endless debate…came to constitute an “epistemological crisis,” as each official and nonofficial investigation refuted a previous truth claim, and interpretation formed a huge Moebius Strip that traps the body politic and renders truth itself indeterminant but continues to provoke discussion.”
Sharrett notes a lack of moral center in these twisting and turnings of the truth:
“Simon invokes Michel Foucault’s remark that “Power has its principle not so much in a person as in a certain concerted distribution of bodies, surfaces, lights, gazes.” This simultaneously compelling, obtuse, and arid remark is emblematic of much postmodern discourse… Foucault’s linkage of the gaze to power is not the sum and substance of Simon’s method, but it does much to turn this work into a studious, eloquent, but labored exercise lacking a real political and moral center.”
Even Official Versions can be abandoned when necessary: enough time has now passed that the Gulf of Tonkin Incident, which provided an excuse to bomb Hanoi, is no longer presented as the ‘actual truth.’ Evidence suggests the incident never occurred, but it’s too late for Hanoi, and for many Americans who haven’t seen the new evidence, American ships were fired upon in the Gulf of Tonkin. ‘Truth’ for those who have come upon or noticed the new evidence differs from those who did not, and both groups will claim they have ‘the truth.’ Progression of knowledge from the former stance to the latter was incomplete. Incomplete transmittal of ‘the truth’ occurs constantly, creating divisions and conflicts. In real life ‘truth’ is almost a commodity.
Literature can be replenished and reach new heights if the principles of progression and perceived ‘truth’ are properly developed by the innovative writer. In the examples presented in the small sample collection of short-short stories provided in this paper, the potential range for progression literature (the genre could also be called the literature of denouement) can be stunning – mind-blowing—and i9t can happen in ‘real life’ as well. Films such as Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction exhibit progression/denouement qualities. A killer known to be dead is shown very much alive after his death, with incredible impact. To the patrons in a restaurant, terrorized by robbers, they’ll never know that one of their ‘saviors’ later died, or that the two men had come into the restaurant to eat after cleaning out a car full of gore and pieces of brain. Williams’ A Streetcar Named Desire brought the same approach from stage to film: we slowly realize that the ‘truth’ will never be fully known to Stella, whose passions are manipulated by Stanley, her brutal husband.
Much can be done to fully develop the new genre. The short-short story collection shown here presents controversial religious experiences and interpretations, as felt or reported by persons under widely different conditions. Time can change ‘reality’ and ‘truth’ for the reader or for those in the stories, as more information is obtained., The information might be false, however, leading to false conclusions, which may or may not alter others’ perception of what is ‘true,’ or new information might reveal a ‘new’ or unsuspected truth, or confirm a suspicion. Anything is possible, for ‘truth’ is what is perceived by each individual, or accepted due to the voice of authority. Those impacted by the ‘truth’ can create or live in entirely different universes, depending on the individual, to say nothing of the vicarious experiences felt by the reader or viewer (via literature, film, video games, etc.).
In addition, the writer-as-truth-teller can present the ‘truth’ more vividly and with greater emotional impact, employing the arts as well as the sciences, setting the ‘truth’ in proper proportion to right and wrong, with the potential to sculpt a moral perspective that a simple, arid recounting of events cannot, thus revealing a social aspect and interpretation to ‘truth’ that delivers a personal weight to the individual. Engels, commenting on the impact of Balzac’s Comédie humaine, observed how Balzac delivered “a most wonderfully realistic history of French society … from which, even in economic details (for instance the re-arrangement of real and personal property after the Revolution) I have learned more than from all the professed historians, economists and statisticians of the period together.”
A simple progression example is to reveal how two people meet after years of absence. They assess the differences now present, compared to the past. These may be psychological as well as physical. What if one person s simply pretending, and isn’t as he seems, or perhaps isn’t the person from the past at all, but is merely masquerading as such? Would/will/can the other person ever find out? Perhaps, perhaps not. Denouement to the reader can be exhilarating, shocking, disappointing, etc., to say nothing of the reactions that can be created by the writer as the story progresses. Truth becomes an object of itself, with its own life, its own history, created within and outside the progression, and may not be ‘true’ after all. Yet the ‘truth’ may be more important than ‘reality’ for political, practical, or social reasons. ‘Truth’ ends up being what we finally believe. If our information remains slight, or even if supporting facts accumulate, the ‘truth’ remains unchanged unless conflicting information enters that is accepted by the recipient. And what about experiencing only conflicting, untrue information at the very onset? We are all familiar with the effects of advertising and propaganda. Hence, ‘truth’ is a hostage of fortune.
Progression could highlight how people change through time – perhaps a sinner really can become a saint! Yet another kind of progression involves revelation, where a character is developed before the reader via actions, events, and so on, but then unravels or morphs due to what we next learn. There is always the chance that what we think we know is not real. Dialogue – actual conversations – might reveal ‘the truth’ – and can be persuasive – if ‘the truth’ is being fully revealed. What if it isn’t? I use the example of a person thought to be a scammer turning out to be a saint, but seen by the world in the news, upon learning of his suicide (which isn’t presented here) as a man with a checkered reputation who took “the coward’s way out.” Read the short-short stories yourself, then decide how cruelly you could make the news story reflect the ‘truth’ as the Official Version would have it. There are two ‘saints’ in the short-short story collection: progression literature tells us much more than meets the eye.
In the literature of progression, just as in real life, ‘truth’ is indeed in the eye of the beholder, so I hope I will be forgiven for appropriating the cliché for the short-short story collection. In the examples of progression that I choose to present, brevity is used – but I stress that the objective is not to be gimmicky or to play tricks on the reader, nor necessarily to be brief, for the skilful writer now has a tool of power. I suggest a respectful treatment of the original perspectives in the foundation stories of progression literature, as they can relate marvelously, in talented hands, to the perspective which emerges or is revealed or appreciated later.
The literature of progression invokes past events, but might now address a different part of a different story altogether, and ‘you’ may be in a different situation: for others, your story of a biting dog may seem utterly senseless, if this dog is known to be friendly to all. And so on. .
There is the element of the voyeur or the rascal involved in writing the non-fiction novel, related to our concerns, where historical characters are fleshed out fictionally to enhance or comply with a stereotype originally created to advance an Official Version that is controversial. Particularly disturbing is when the stereotype is advanced to ‘truth’ by the new fictionalized treatment. If the writer is actually unfamiliar with the historical person, of necessity then relying on what remains of the ‘truth’ in the Official Version [or other extant] records, the ‘new truth’ can become the final and lasting impression. For example, Don DeLillo’s Libra presents a cold-blooded view of Oswald’s treatment of his wife, based on her reports. The brutal glimpses DeLillo gives us of Oswald’s treatment of his wife are seared into the memory: what Oswald told me about his fights with his wife has no place in the version of the ‘truth’ DeLillo created.
Nevertheless, denouement literature, in progression format, can wrest — even from a DeLillo opus — a new and relevant perspective. David Foster Wallace summarizes the challenges to the writer of great literature in today’s fast-moving world, where entertainment is cheap, easily accessed, and well-designed:
“(There is)a contempt for the reader, an idea that literature’s current marginalization is the reader’s fault. The project that’s worth trying is to [make]…the reader confront things rather than ignore them, but to do that in such a way that it’s also pleasurable to read… Part of it has to do with living in an era when there’s so much entertainment available…and figuring out how fiction is going to stake out its territory in that sort of era. You can try to confront what it is that makes fiction magical in a way that other kinds of art and entertainment aren’t. And to figure out how fiction can engage a reader, much of whose sensibility has been formed by pop culture, without simply becoming more shit in the pop culture machine. It’s unbelievably difficult and confusing and scary, but it’s neat. There’s so much mass commercial entertainment that’s so good and so slick, this is something that I don’t think any other generation has confronted. That’s what it’s like to be a writer now.”
Progression literature can be exciting and relevant. It can do many things: turn the reader’s perspective upside down, enhance understanding of human nature, restore truth to history — depending on the author’s intentions and abilities. “The literature of denouement”, or, “progression literature,” in more skilled hands than mine might well provide a revitalization to modern literature, with new depth and excitement in its inimitable approach to crafting.
Judyth Vary Baker Stockholm, Sweden (degrees in anthropology (BS), Creative Writing (MA), and English literature and linguistics (ABD)… genre developed at UF and U of LA @ Lafayette 1986-1999
Tanner, Tony. The American Mystery: American Literature from Emerson to DeLillo. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2000,242pp., ISBN: 0521783747 £15.95 (Pbk)
Sharrett, Christopher. Review of: Dangerous Knowledge: The JFK Assassination in Art and Film, by Art Simon.
Temple University Press, 1996. 257 pp., illus.
Reviewed by Christopher Sharrett
Vol. 22, Cineaste, 01-01-1996, pp 59.
Marx, Karl and Engels, Frederick. On Literature and Art. Progress Publishers. Moscow 1976; p 91. (trans. Andy Blunden)
Brown, Charles Brockden. Wieland; Or The Transformation: An American Tale. Gutenberg’s etext version 2008.
David Foster Wallace. Quote from an interview about his best-seller, Infinite Jest, by Laura Miller, for Table Talk, Internet forum.
=================an example of Progression Literature in fiction:
THE EVANGELIST (story #1)
The Holy City…a battered fortress of gray and brown and white stone blocks, where two thousand years ago Roman soldiers marched the Jews into the Temple’s center, and slaughtered them…where a thousand years ago the Crusaders had come, with their banners and emblazoned crosses, announcing “Convert or die!” to Muslims, and dying themselves, overcome by those who cried “Death to the infidels!” And where Jesus, in incredible patience, hung from the cross, when a single thought could have saved Him from agonies indescribable… but He was Love Itself, and conquered all of these things.
So thought Jeremiah Mosley — pale of face, ascetic of form, trembling in his own exquisite agonies because he was – after great financial sacrifices – actually present in Christ’s own city — and Christ might come again at any time, like lightning from the sky, it would be so sudden — Christ would separate the sheep from the goats and save the believers, and was he, Jeremiah, ready for that? He had come to Jerusalem to seek a saint’s advice, to seek, too, a sure sign that he had really been called to become an evangelist –to spread the Word, the Good News– wherever he might be sent by God, the Living God, not some fairytale character, but the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob who had come to him in a dream, and touched him on the shoulder, and told him, “I love you.”
He had spent a large portion of his savings to get this fine room overlooking so much of the splendid, if war-ravaged city. The porters had been civil, even if they had snickered when they saw his battered suitcases and the way he kept his head down and prayed just under his breath. To them, the young man with black, curly hair was just another fanatic on a pilgrimage. When they brought the bread and wine to his room as he requested, they were surprised at the size of the tip he gave them. They didn’t know it constituted almost all he had left in the world.
“I’m in Your hands,” Jeremiah whispered, pouring out the dark wine into two crystal goblets. One for Jesus, one for him. He broke the unleavened brown bread into two halves and placed the broken loaf in the center of the little table with its two glasses of wine on either side. The white tablecloth was pure linen. With a burst of emotion, Jeremiah threw himself on the floor and whispered, fiercely, “Come, come, Lord Jesus! Only take a sip of the wine, that I may know You hear me, and that You accept me!”
Then he waited. The sun descended, sending trembling, ghostly shadows across the room. Blue mist filled the valley below, and red-orange clouds lit up the sky as the sun inched down, down… and still, he waited. Sweat beaded on his forehead. –Please!—I must know this is what You want!— It was such a little sign he sought, just as the fleece that Gideon threw down, asking only for a bit of dew on it, with none on the ground all around. A sip of wine, when he wasn’t looking…. Was it tempting God? …it is a humble request… only take a sip of the wine, excellent Lord! — Please!—
On the windowsill, as the sun set, a white dove flew down, sat for a moment looking into the room with its sad supplicant, and then, with a little dip of its beak, and a low coo, it pulled a feather from its breast and dropped it on the windowsill. On the ivory white shaft was a single drop of dark blood. The wind whispered away the feather with the evening wind. The dove dipped its beak in a courtship gesture, then flew off with a whirr of its soft, white wings.
Jeremiah was never quite sure that he saw it.
He was wearing a two thousand dollar linen suit, hand-made for him by one of the world’s best custom tailors – he had specified only pure white linen — and the glittering diamonds on his hand proved that he was prospering mightily with the people. Outside his dressing room, as Jeremiah finished grooming his hair precisely as it should be combed, he could hear the choir across the street finishing the hymns he had selected to rouse the people from their torpor into hope and praise to God. His black hair had thinned and was not so curly as it once had been, but implants had corrected the receding hairline: he looked maybe ten years younger than he really was, and with any luck, he’d outlive all his critics, by God!
“Pastor Mosley!” came his publicist’s voice, “it’s time!”
“Just a minute, Rachel!” he answered.
Rachel was so efficient. He needed that. He was such a slacker, such a romantic. He almost put on his Rolex, then decided against it: too showy. With a spray of Parisian cologne to each wrist, and a quick look in the mirror to make certain his necktie was in perfect order, Jeremiah paused to look more closely at the reflection there: —Would you buy a used car from this man? — he asked within himself. His critics said they knew better.
They said he was crooked… that he stole from the people, filled his coffers with their dollars and threw away their prayer requests. That healings didn’t take place. That the Holy Spirit wasn’t a holy spirit, just a sly show calculated to separate the gullible from their money.
He didn’t know how else to get people to listen, except putting on a show to get their attention. If it was so wrong, why were there were twenty thousand people out there, waiting for him to come out, and help them transform their lives (as if he could do any such thing!). It was God who had done this. As always, he felt himself shaking, because he was really, deep down, ultimately a shy man who would have preferred a quiet life in a monastery. Instead, the show must go on. And on.
—Please, God!– he whispered to the image in the mirror. — Please!– It was his only prayer, just a choked exclamation of half-strangled hope, that some of the people out there would be healed, would have their lives changed because of God’s Hand moving among them. Ah, the Hand of God! –Jesus!—he managed to say, before his throat closed up with terror. To face all those people again! He had seen so many in wheelchairs come, then leave, disappointed.
He threw himself down against the mirror, onto his knees, and raised his arms high in the air, letting them finally rest against the mirror. “God, God, God!” he breathed aloud, and then, with a half-strangled voice, he added, aloud, -“Please, God, have mercy on the poor people! Take my life, if you want it, but help your sheep!”
He calmed himself, got up off his knees, brushed away the talcum powder that clung to the knees where they had touched some of the fallen white dust that perfumed his undergarments… he wiped his forehead with a pure linen handkerchief… took a deep breath….
—–Pastor Mosley!– came Rachel’s almost angry voice on the other side of the door.
He opened the door, was half-blinded by a bank of photographers and their flashing lights.
“What are they doing here?” he demanded, pushing past the photographers, and directing his anger to his publicist, the woman with black-rimmed glasses who held a walkie-talkie to her ear.
“They say you’re being sued by some guy who claims you didn’t heal his eyes after all,” she replied.
“He’s a maniac!” Jeremiah snapped. “I don’t heal, Jesus does.” He put on a brave face and began striding down the hall. He was God’s Man, he could not allow these people to see any fear. He smiled and kept on walking, his publicist and two underpastors at his side..
“But there’s some good news, too, Pastor! Someone’s been healed, and they’re calling it a miracle! Yes, Pastor!– Someone’s been healed!—” he could hear the excitement in her voice, and in the crowd. He hoped it was true.
Deep within, he wondered if a psychological event occurred that had convinced someone they had been healed, or was it a set-up, by someone once again trying to prove the ‘healings’ were all fake? Maybe this time it was for real. It did happen, sometimes, despite what his enemies said. He never knew exactly when anything miraculous occurred, or what to expect from the crowds, for it was just the power of their faith in action. He remembered what the Bible said, that Jesus visited his own city, Nazareth, but could do no mighty miracles there because the people had no faith. —A prophet is despised in his own country—
A lot of ‘miracles’ were just psychological, but even that was something. Better than hopelessness, helplessness. Somebody had to care. And occasionally, there were unexplained, mysterious changes hat doctors couldn’t explain. He would have liked to have had seen some sign from God during his prayers today, but as usual, he ran on empty. The signs were so rare. Just enough to keep him from drowning in terror. Was he doing the right thing? If not, Jesus could take his life, that was okay.
—Seek-– Christ had said, —and ye shall find.–
Except for me, he thought. –I do not doubt that You will drink wine with me someday, but it’s been fifteen years now—
Now he was walking calmly between rows of photographers, reporters, and people begging him to heal them. As if he could heal anybody! “Praise Jesus!” he told the people. “It is Jesus, who will heal you!” — O You secret, hidden, unattainable, silent Lord…!–
A drifting sense of peace came over him then. He got into the elevator and the door closed. Blessed silence… and most of the photographers and reporters were now cut off. Now to cross the street… With the pastors on his right and two security guards on his left, Jeremiah crossed the gauntlet of the street with its masses of shouting people. He entered a huge auditorium, composed himself a minute, hiding behind a big screen, while choirs sang and a huge organ played….the audience had been worked up for about an hour, singing with the choir and watching huge screens that showed miracles and events at other crusades.
–Please, God!– he prayed, once again the same old prayer, seeking, seeking…stopping in the midst of it — done with crossed arms– to notice that somehow, in the rush, he had lost a solid gold cuff-link. “Damn!” he said, removing the solitary golden cufflink. “Lost another one!”
He thrust the cufflink into his coat pocket.
It was peaceful in the evangelist’s hotel room. A sleepy guard sat on the big bed, making sure nobody who came into the room would steal any of the pastor’s things for a souvenir. As he half-dozed, two maids entered the room, with dust-cloths and a vacuum cleaner, to freshen it up. On the mirror, where the famous evangelist’s hands had pressed momentarily against the glass, the white talcum powder had, interestingly enough, created a pair of white doves. One maid began wiping them away, when, too late, the other, with wide eyes, stopped her. They both knelt and began to pray, weeping, but Jeremiah never saw any of that, nor did the sleepy guard.
APPEARANCES (Story #2)
by Judyth Vary Baker
There she was, lying on the rumpled bed, the evening light fading. She could see her legs stretched out toward the window with its plum-striped curtains and the green, swaying trees beyond. There was an ochre glow in the sky, as the sun set, with crimson-edged clouds bathing the darkness. Her legs looked spindly, too thin, but then, she was a model, with the skinny frame desired by clothiers and designers. She wanted to eat, but dared not: outside, where she saw the birds flying in black punctuation points against the red-rimmed clouds, she thought how they could eat as they wished, without a thought as to appearances: they were all soft, downy, fuzzy, fluffy. Fat, perhaps, according to clothiers and designers.
There were little sparkles of raindrops on the windowpanes, for with the final light came a quick showering down of rain, against the deepening deep blue of the sky. The yellow and gold of the last sun’s rays faded away to a soft tangerine glow, outlining the tall buildings and skyscrapers that rose on the horizon. She wiggled her toes, stretched them wide, thought to herself, I have prehensile toes! She could pick up anything with them – a talent for which none would pay her a penny. She saw how her knee-bones stuck out more than they should, her thighs began behind the knee-bones, too thin, too thin. But there was no help for it. She knew that they would put makeup on to hide the dark circles of starvation that made her large, brown, glowing eyes look even more mysterious, and that she’d walk down the red carpet on the arm of Max Taylor, Movie Star, smiling and waving to the adoring crowds, her photo snapped, her gown declared simply ravishing, her hair declared adequate for the occasion. Max was homosexual and she liked being with him, being ordinarily too exhausted for sex: they made a good pair.
Well, she had fourteen hours before she had to get ready for tomorrow’s appearance at the Oscars. Fourteen hours, phone calls turned away, and Room Service bringing up, in another hour, her dinner, composed of a cup of clear broth, a chicken wing, and a leaf of lettuce, with vitamin capsules. She wanted to bathe after that, but wondered if she had the strength. Staying in bed, for she felt so cold, was best: her nails wouldn’t get chipped that way. Why turn on the telly? Why not watch the raindrops gather, as the wind blew them sideways on the glass, watch how they merged and became fatter, then dribbled down the clear pane, falling to oblivion…
She looked again at the alarm clock: forty-five minutes to dinner. There was a slight prickling along the bedcovers that crossed her flat belly, and she looked to see what caused it, but nothing was there. The white hotel sheets, the white hotel blanket, the white hotel mattress with its plum-colored stripes, were as in all hotels everywhere: a formal luxury, her common fate in hotel after hotel. Sheared carpet and sleek lamps and slick wood with glass: the brochures of the hotel, the beckoning pamphlets listing cafes and cabarets and caffe au lait. One hotel was as another: either filled with antiques stiff with gaudy gilt and lace and carved balustrades and flowers, or modern-sterile, Isn’t it Good Norwegian Wood?
What was life about? She wondered. I’ll strut my stuff a hundred more times, then what? I wish I could believe in God.
Incredibly, she felt the electric touch upon her belly again, and again looked down, past her hunger-shrunken naked breasts to the blanket and sheets twisted over her middle in the shape of a white cross, the plum-red stripes making a big “X” as if blocking her empty belly off from the rest of her body. As she breathed, the “X” went up and down, up and down…and as the night sky darkened to deep purple, she thought she saw the “X” waver, and move sideways. As it did so, the prickling sensation returned. This time, she drew the sheet and blanket up to her chin, covering herself. I’m cold all the time, she thought to herself. How good the hot broth will feel! She looked at the clock again: in fifteen minutes, they’d bring dinner. She remembered, as a child, saying Grace over a meal of bacon, eggs, toast and jam, with hot cocoa on the side, and how her sister and brother grabbed for the last pieces of toast, but she was content to let them go for it, she had more than enough to eat. Donny was dead, now, and so were Mom and Dad, in the car wreck that so suddenly took their lives. As for Donna, her sister, she hadn’t seen her for several years: Donna was heavy, having had children… ashamed of her stretch marks and her after thighs.
. I think I will say Grace over the broth and chicken wing and the lettuce, she thought to herself. Jesus! I wish You’d appear! But those things don’t really happen, do they? It was always mere legend.
Then it happened.
The broth had gone cold. The lettuce lay untouched. They had forgotten the chicken wing, but no matter. She was washed over with heat and warmth, lavished with it….she lay stretched out, her arms flung wide, her eyes moist with tears. She rolled from the bed, drawing the sheet and blanket with her, and the quilt that had twisted to make the “X” as well. On her knees, she whispered, Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!
“But such things are hallucinations,” he told her, as he warily watched her eating a normal-sized meal. “What about your contract?” he asked, anxiously. “If you change sizes, you’ll be fired from Victoria’s Secret, and the rest will follow. And what will Henri say, if you stop going out with him? He’s always getting you good film deals.”
“I’m rich,” she said. “I don’t need Victoria’s Secret anymore. And I don’t need Henri, either.””
“Well, I’m not rich!” he told her, heatedly. “And you have a contract with me to be responsible. You’ve had a god-damned hallucination. As your agent, I insist that you see a psychiatrist.”
“You don’t have that right,” she told him.
“Of course I do. I‘ll sue you if you don’t go. Then see how rich you’ll be.”
There she was, lying on the rumpled bed, the evening light fading. She could see her legs stretched out toward the window with its plum-striped curtains and the green, swaying trees beyond. There was an ochre glow in the sky, as the sun set, with crimson-edged clouds battering the darkness. Her legs looked spindly, too thin, but then, she was a model, with the skinny frame desired by clothiers and designers. She wanted to eat, but dared not: outside, where she saw the birds flying in black punctuation points against the red-rimmed clouds, she thought how they could eat as they wished, without a thought as to appearances.
Henri would be by tonight, to sleep with her again. He was a powerful Senator. They met all over the world: her ‘photo shoots’ were all lucrative deals. Some of them were real photo shoots… After all, she was so much thinner than his wife, Bernice, who was trying to get pregnant. Models on the make were much more fun to be with, and the contracts and magazine covers he got for her made the hotels and the meals and the dreams keep coming.
REVISION (Story #3)
By Judyth Vary Baker
“Henri Ballantyne was very near-sighted, and middle-aged, but he still carried a handsome shock of blonde hair, and had the body of an athlete. The fact that his wife had just died made him one of America’s most eligible bachelors, though he was still avoiding dating. Henri’s career as U S Senator was reaching its pinnacle: he was a powerful man who now found himself stalked by paparazzi, aching for a photo of him with some movie star. At Bernice’s funeral, Henri had let himself go a little, drinking too much and saying some unwise things about his wife’s untimely and sudden death. “Of course, those people are fools,” Henri told Charles. “All that blather about rising again, about the Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want. What I wanted was her, damn it all. Now I have to go find another respectable woman.”
“Why didn’t you keep your opinion about that ‘blather’ to yourself?” Charles asked, wishing it had been his wife, instead of Henri’s, who had kicked the bucket. Charles had silvery hair now, and a paunch, but his wife looked even worse. Charles looked down at his bad left foot, that leg two inches too short that made the thick, heavy shoe so necessary, then glanced with scarcely-concealed envy at his younger client, a former Olympic star whose biceps were still firm. Charles was barely interested in Henri’s latest problem, but it was his job to keep Henri popular. Right now, his job was in jeopardy. Henri surreptitiously lit another cigarette, which Charles ardently hoped the waiter wouldn’t see.
“Perhaps we should move onto the terrace,” Charles suggested, picking up his wine glass. “There’s a cool spot out there under the umbrellas.”
“It’s all the same to me,” Henri told him. They moved outside to the restaurant’s rocky terrace, sheltered under rows of bright red umbrellas with ‘Coca Cola’ emblazoned in white, curling letters. Charles was glad to be back in Budapest: he looked forward to the mineral baths, the good, cheap wine, and the pretty women who would sleep with him willingly, despite his bad left foot. That clump-clump of his shoe followed him everywhere, and most women glanced down at the thick sole of the shoe, hearing the heavy sound of it, and instinctively avoided intimacy with him. It wasn’t fair. Charles was also accursed with a gloomy cast of the eyes, a sad down-turning of the mouth, and with a voice so raspy he couldn’t succeed, as he had dreamed, in politics. He was forced to function as a mere advisor, well-paid to guide candidates into high offices, and keep them there, by making certain they said the right things and did the right things.. At present, he was worried about Henri, whose chances for re-election had been very good, until today.
Henri was part of a Senate committee on a fact-finding mission touring the European Union, with a stopover for fun in Budapest, where he had just dined with the Minister of Culture, stating his opinion that religion was a sham, and that Jesus was probably a closet homosexual. Damn! Charles sighed to himself. Henri had made his opinion known to the new Minister of Culture – a devout Catholic — not to the old one, who had been an atheist.
“This story isn’t going to ride well with your constituency in Maryland, Henri.”
“I know, I know! So what the hell should I do now?”
“Maybe show up at church. And make sure people know about it.”
“If you can’t fix this, I’m quitting politics,” Henri told him, peeling off a few thousand into Charles’ hands. “This should cover costs for your quick little trip over here. Do what you can to cover this up. Okay?”
“I’m not Mr. Fix-It,” Charles complained. “I suggest you stay away from religion altogether after this. I’m sorry I ever mentioned the word ‘church’ – but how was I to know you’d end up attending a healing session in some Praise-Jesus-Hallelujah cult?”
“It has twenty thousand members,” Henri said lamely. “And I have to admit, I was entranced.”
“Hypnotized, not entranced,” Charles corrected. “I should have set up the right church for you.”
“Yes, you should have,” Henri said. “So now, get me the hell out of this mess!”
Henri, whose poor vision was the result of a botched operation to reduce his near-sighted condition, couldn’t wear contact lenses anymore and didn’t dare risk a repeat of the operation until methods became more advanced. Maybe any day, he thought to himself. Meanwhile, he was stuck wearing glasses, and hated it even more than getting old and out of shape. He’d really been caught up in that Jesus-Hallelujah-Praise-God jamboree, and, mesmerized, walked in a daze to the altar, knelt there, and said he believed. A man stood over him as in a cloud, his vision actually became dark, as if an angel hovered somewhere, blotting out all the hot lights overhead, and then the evangelist asked if he could ‘lay hands’ on him.
“Do you believe you can be healed?”
The fellow looked a little tired and was in a hurry, as there were dozens more who also sought the ‘hands-on’ experience.
“Healed of what?”
“Whatever your need is, of course. God will heal you now, if you believe!”
What was that shiver of hope that flowed over him, as those hands were laid upon his head?
He felt an exquisite sense of peace overflow him. The evangelist’s hands seemed full of electricity. It was uncanny. From Henri’s lips burst out his secret desire.:
“I want my eyes to be healed!”
“Then – be healed, eyes! In Jesus’ name!”
What a fool he’d been! Such an utter fool! For nothing had happened. Not a thing. He’d had some blurry spots in front of his eyes, like a thousand little dark dots, just as he came down the aisle to the front, and yes, those little dots disappeared, but that was all. He was still as near-sighted as ever.
They’re all fakes! he thought to himself. He didn’t see a single person healed at that altar, except maybe one little old lady who said she was healed of cancer. Oh, sure! He’d ‘believe’ when he saw the doctor’s report! He got the old lady’s name and address. He’d fix that so-called ‘healer’ if she died of cancer.
“Okay,” Henri told Charles, “it is true that the little black spots went away. And the woman with cancer got better. But then she died of a stroke.”
“But you get those dots in front of your eyes when you drink, Henri,” his manager told him. “It comes and goes. Think of the consequences! They snapped your picture there, with that crazy preacher’s hands on top of your head. Good God! It’s front page news in every damned tabloid in the country!”
I know,” Henri said gloomily. “But what can I do?”
“At least, you didn’t get ‘healed’ of something and feel like you had to proclaim it to the world,” Charles said. “That would have really wrecked everything.”
“I sure got psychologically drawn in,” Henri admitted. “They have that service set up like a fine art. And of course, I didn’t get healed. I feel like closing down their operation. They’re raking in money like crazy, you know.”
“I suggest you do nothing of the kind,” Charles told him. “At least, don’t directly be his source of trouble. Just promise me that next time, you’ll stay away from anything to do with churches. For the rest of your life — or it’s bye-bye, career.”
“Of course I will!”
“Instead, start going to hospitals. Go visit some sick kids with cancer. Kiss some lepers. Do something nice, but stay away from the goddamn churches. Maybe they’ll forget.”
“I hope so,” Henri said. “I sure hope so.”
It wasn’t the paparazzi who were responsible, as Princess Diana had been hounded, but the auto accident was photographed by the paparazzi. The stunned senator was photographed, too, mourning the fact that the accident wouldn’t have happened if she hadn’t taken so much valium
And here she had been pregnant!
Jesus hadn’t been there to rescue the guy: the evangelist had been on his own in the Valley of Death. Now Henri was in the hospital. He’d fallen on some ice and was currently getting his back pulled straight — in traction. He was doubly irritated because he was experiencing double vision from his concussion.
The ophthalmologist came in, with his apparatus, to check his eyes, and Henri heard him shake his head, as he made little clucking sounds like a mother hen worried about a chick.
“You’ve had some real problems with these eyes, haven’t you?”
“A guy like you botched an operation on my corneas,” Henri told him. “Wrecked my chances to get away from glasses.”
“But the other condition, I mean,” the doctor said. “Just when did you have that operation on your retinas?” He was peering deep into his right eye with that blasted irritating bright light.
“What operation? What are you talking about?”
“Your right retina was obviously torn loose, and was reattached by lasers. The left eye had some work done on its retina, too.”
“I never had anything done to my retinas!” Henri thought how the evangelist had laid hands on him, and a kind of bitter horror began to build up inside.
“Well, it’s been some time, I suppose. Perhaps you’ve forgotten, though I can’t imagine you would. If it hadn’t been for this obvious emergency operation, you’d be blind in your right eye.”
The ophthalmologist looked again into the left eye.
“Yes, same thing, just not as bad” he said. “Your left retina has also been re-attached. Surely you remember seeing a flood of what we call “floaties” in your eyes? A feeling of a shadow falling down over your eyes, as if a curtain was closing down your vision?”
O, my God!
Suddenly, Henri undersood. The darkness of his vision, as he knelt down, shielding the harsh overhead light from his eyes as he knelt— and the hundreds of little dark spots that swirled in his eyes, as the trembling hands of the evangelist gently touched his head, and Henri had asked to be healed.
“Oh, God!” he whispered, as he lay stretched out on the hospital bed. “Oh, God!”
REPARATION (Story #4)
Jeremiah was ready to die. He had long been prepared for the event. His only regret had been that he’d not had enough true faith to heal everyone upon whom he’d laid his hands – for which he had prepared with much prayer and fasting. He’d never really seen a vision, though others around him reported white doves always landing on windowsills wherever he went – hotel after hotel.
That was strange, indeed – but he had never seen a single white dove himself. Still, he had tried to follow Christ’s example, believing he could lay hands on people and heal them if they had enough faith, just as the Bible had promised, in Christ’s name. He’d seen a number of miracles – nobody could deny it!– but there were so few among the thousands he’d hoped to see walk again, be happy again, have hope again. It was distressing, for he also could not deny that there had been hundreds of stunning failures. Psychosomatics. Self hypnosis, maybe. His tireless nemesis, Henri B., had even planted “cured people” in his congregation to proclaim they had been healed. Jeremiah’s best-selling book, unfortunately, included a few stories from fake ‘healed’ people who had infiltrated the church, paid by Henri B. They had lied. They had been included in the book— along with a dozen genuine cases – (he assumed they were genuine!) – all to glorify God’s name and His holy powers of healing through Christ’s shed blood. Instead, outrage and mockery. Accusations of fraud. Prostitutes had even come forth claiming he’d slept with them. Lies, lies, lies!
Henri B., the Senator, revealed that he was sick of scammers acting in God’s name, so he’d paid actors to pretend they’d been healed. The evangelist had not been told by his ‘God’ which people had really been healed. He was utterly clueless. His ‘God’ had let him down.
All of this had come about because the evangelist had laid hands on the Senator’s head and declared that his eyes had been healed. He had done so on inspiration. He had been impressed – even certain — that the Senator’s eyes were been about to go blind – yet at the last moment, they had been saved, either by being healed, or because Henri himself had gone to an eye doctor and got operated on. Whichever way you looked at it, Henri B’s eyes had been saved.
But Henri didn’t see it that way. The doctor – alone—was the healer. Jeremiah had asked him to go to the doctor to have his eyes checked, to make certain they had been healed, and the doctor had insisted on operating. Since then, Henri B’s persecution had been relentless. Thoughts of suicide had crossed Jeremiah’s thoughts again and again. Now, the waiting was over. No more fasting and prayers in the lonely nights. No more tears, lying prone on his face, begging for people to be healed, begging for conversions to his hero, Jesus. He could even consider this final, terrible event as martyrdom. Dying for Jesus
Jeremiah was so shaky that he only had the strength now to put a little cross under the words “I forgive all my enemies and place all my faith in God’s mercy.” The word ‘mercy’ had a long, smeared trail of ink after it because he could no longer see what he was writing, could no longer feel the pen in his numb hand. Pain was eating his belly alive. He dropped the pen, as a convulsion from the drugs he’d taken filled his body. He knew he would soon be dead. “Father, forgive my enemies,” he tried to say, but with so little breath left, other words came out….
Henri had moved to a monastery in Sweden. It was built in the fifteenth century of hand-cut stones. It was cold and had always been cold. It was dark and had always been dark. Bernadette – Bernice’s sister — had suggested the monastery as a suitable place for private penance, a new life. The Catholics would let him find some peace in his soul, perhaps, in a primitive way that his take-charge mind could understand. In his jealousy, he’d murdered his wife. Then he’d driven the evangelist into bankruptcy, and to his death.
Too late, he’d learned that the eye doctor hadn’t operated on his eyes. Too late, he realized that the evangelist had indeed – by some unknown power — healed his eyes. And for doing so, Henri had destroyed him! Had thrust his church into financial ruin! A million dollar check fixed that, and his declaration that he had been healed wiped out much of the onus caused by the fake ‘healings’ mentioned in the book that had disgraced the evangelist so soundly. But none of this could bring back the man of God who, in his suicide note, had written, “I forgive all my enemies…”
As Henri whipped himself (he slashed his body with twenty lashes every evening, except on Sundays), he gritted his teeth and let the fierce pain sink into his flesh.
“God forgive me, I didn’t know what I was doing!” he prayed, each night when he finished, cleaning the blood from his back and off the stone walls. Then he laid down on the hard, flat bed, letting the cold creep over him. The cold sank into the mass of festering wounds on his back. With his diabetic condition, he knew he wouldn’t last too very much longer — maybe a year or so. As for the Brothers and Monks, they thought him a wondrous saint-in-the-making, and with their silent gazes of admiration, they allowed him privacy in his holy efforts to make reparation for his sins, and for the sins of the whole world.
‘Brother’ Henri prayed constantly, begging forgiveness particularly from the man he’d destroyed, mindful of the power of that Silent God who had healed his eyes. How many more blows from the length of electrical cord he wore around his waist (when he wasn’t using it) could his body take? When he had no more strength, he would quit eating. Finally, his pain would be over. Forever.
DIVISION (story #4)
By Judyth Vary Baker
Henri Ballantyne was very near-sighted, and middle-aged, but he still carried a handsome shock of blonde hair, and had the body of an athlete. He was one of America’s most eligible bachelors, a powerful man who found himself stalked by paparazzi, aching for a photo of him with some movie star. Charles, his political manager, was told to find him a suitable lady to date. Henri still missed his dead wife: “What I wanted was Bernice, damn it. Now that she’s dead,” he told Charles, “you have to go find me another respectable woman.”
Charles had a big Rolodex and a vast reservoir of email addresses, but the combination of Movie Star and Respectable Potential Wife eluded all attempts. Then, a break: Bernice’s sister – Bernadette—called.
She very well knew that Henri was cheating on her. It was a shame that they couldn’t have children. Too many times, he’d demanded to know if she had finally become pregnant, only to be told that once again, everything had failed. When the problem was finally diagnosed as Henri’s fault, not Bernice’s, she celebrated by getting drunk. The relief! The blessed relief! Henri, seeking to make himself feel and look better, got an eye operation that same week, but something went awry, and both his corneas were damaged, forcing him to stay in thick glasses. Henri tried to sue the doctor, but papers he’d signed before the operation, and the doctor’s good reputation, resulted in a settlement out of court. Bernice had done what she could to help: she tried to get inside information: she became friendly, before the lawsuit ensued, with the eye doctor, and even had a little minor surgery, which the good doctor gave her free of charge, knowing how upset Henri had been.
Then came a meeting after regular office hours, when Bernice, noticing that the doctor had the same tastes as she for good music, invited him to accompany her to a Bach concert. It came about almost by accident: she had spotted Henri with a Pretty Young Thing on his arm, and with jealous ire, she called Dr. Richardson.
They met outside the Concert Hall: he looked very fine with his bright blue contact lenses and his thick, blonde hair, much reminding her of Henri’s own tawny mane. By evening’s end, she was calling her escort ‘Paul.’ By the end of the month, they were meeting regularly for concerts and more.
I should feel guilty, she told herself, as she combed through her own dark, glossy curls. But I don’t! She was still a stunningly beautiful woman. She carefully examined her still-glamorous figure in the hall mirror, wishing her stomach was as flat as his secretary’s…but who can compete, at thirty-eight, with women fifteen years younger? She felt a bit under the weather lately – was it age creeping up on her already? — and this made it seem all the more important for her to spread her wings and bring an adoring man into her arms.
Henri is discrete in his indiscretions, she told herself. And so am I! It’s good that we didn’t have children to complicate matters. She chose the correct purse for the evening, checked her hairstyle from the back, then took the elevator down to the foyer. Paul had sent a nice New York limo to pick her up – yet unaccountably, as she entered the limo, her thoughts turned again to Henri, who was treating her so much nicer, now that he knew it was his fault, not hers, that there were no babies.
And he always brings me such nice gifts, now...for it is he, she decided, who is feeling guilty! He’ll soon be going to Europe, and I’ll be left behind, but we’re only acting as Royals have done for centuries. Generous to one another in public, and we still even sleep together! She would not dare compare the two men in bed, for Henri had known her such a long time now, and Paul’s fascination with her might fade. She should be grateful for good sex with two good men, in a comfortable life.
His spies told him that Bernice was pregnant, and that she had been seeing the very eye doctor who had destroyed his chances to look handsome again! No – more than seeing the eye doctor! More than that! The divorced doctor had two children of his own and was obviously the source of Bernice’s sudden pregnancy. How dare she! And next year was election year! Did she think she could hide what she had conceived, when he had photographs, and even a videotape? True, she was being very careful – she of course did not wish to harm Henri’s reputation – but what in hell possessed her to allow herself to get pregnant? Damn it all!
“Women want babies,” Charles told him. “She knew it was hopeless with you, so—”
He had to pause until Henri’s teeth stopped gnashing.
“I have to be very blunt with you, Henri,” Charles told him. “Your little trip overseas, your lack of sorrow when she died, has been noticed. Her family has received a telephone call –”
“—No doubt from him!”
“It seems they’ve received information that’s disconcerting to them. Something about your hiring a private detective, who now wants a payoff to remain silent. Or else, he’ll speak to Bernice’s family. They, too, have reputations to consider.”
“It’s not against the law, what I did,” Henri said gloomily. He tried to pretend that he wasn’t as deeply concerned as he was at the fresh bit of bad news. The first bad bit was that Bernice’s sister was going to exhume the body, to have an autopsy done.
“I thought Catholics didn’t do things like that,” he complained.
“Apparently, sometimes they do,” Charles said. “I suggest you get yourself a good lawyer.”
“I can’t begin to express to you how much I despise you,” Henri said to Dr. Richardson, who sat uncomfortably with him in the lawyer’s office. “I found her diary, you know.”
Paul Richardson said nothing. The smoldering hatred in Henri’s eyes was enough to keep him quiet. He didn’t want Henri to jump up and choke him or something. They were waiting, with a wary-eyed male paralegal, for word on the DNA test on the dead fetus within Bernice’s womb. Henri had demanded the test.
“Another thing,” Henri said. “This all began when she volunteered to spy on you, for your information. Prior to my bringing a lawsuit against you.”
“She told me all about that,” Paul said, mildly. “And she apologized.”
“She never was good at such things,” Henri admitted. “That’s why I was so shocked. That she got away with all of this with you.”
“You weren’t around much to notice.”
“I was around enough!” Henri snapped. He dropped his face into his hands, then, as if he were about to weep. Paul was surprised at this sudden shift of emotion. He hazarded a comment.
“I think we both have missed her.”
“If only I had never had that operation!”
“Well, I’m sorry it was botched up.”