by Peter C. Conrad
This was supposed to be an easier credit for my degree: there would be no final exam; how could you have a final exam in an advanced creative writing class? Instead there would be a final critique, which is now. I feel nervous and uncomfortable as I step into Professor Homes office and he looks up at me; his white hair flattened on one side: he was having a nap again on the small sofa in his office. He looks frustrated, tired, clearly pained at seeing me. Homes glances at the chair facing his desk that I am standing behind inviting me to sit down, but I want to just take his comments and manuscripts and hurry away. I sit down.
He smiles, trying to make me relax: we had enough of these meetings that I knew that that he had carefully written in his comments was a diplomatic note about what he really wanted to say. I didn’t want to hear what he wanted to say.
“Where do you get your ideas?” asks Homes in a cautious strained whisper. I consider fleeing. I could claim I am sick, feeling ill.
“The stories just come to me,” I say. Professor Homes frowns again. “Sometimes I see something and other times, when it’s late at night, I’ll start writing with a character in my head.”
“I know I told everyone in class to prepare everything they have written that I had not seen during the course, but as soon as I saw your package …” Homes stared at several hundred pages I provided and shook his head. “Well, I regret making the invitation.”
“Didn’t everyone have that much …”
“No.” Professor Homes leaned back in his chair and draws a long exasperated breath.
“Writers write,” I said.
The professor stares at me, exhausted, agitated. “I wrote my comments about larger issues in what I read. I don’t always know who is speaking in you dialogue. I get lost in some of your descriptions. Everything needs more re-writing to improve the flow of these stories.”
I have my clipboard out and start wring notes. Professor Homes looks up, discussed.
“I have everything written here, just listen. There are many qualities in your writing: above all, your work isn’t literary. Stop writing for the one percent literary magazine market and concentrate on the nine-nine percent of readers out there who are very literate.”
“I’ll make a note,” I say.
“There are just some things that I don’t know what to do with, like your story ‘The Silent Circle.’” Homes slides his glasses down his nose as he flips through the pile of manuscripts. He pulls the story out and looks at it for a moment. “I think it starts fine. I’ll read this so you can understand better.”
I feel nervous, unsure how it will sound; a story being read is like a painting that is framed, it can look professional and masterful if the matting and frame are chosen well. If there is a mismatch of mat, frame and picture it can appear, or sound amateurish.
Professor Homes clears his throat and starts reading in an animated voice;
“The doctor paces the room quietly as if I would not know he was there–that he was having difficulty with what he had to tell me. He speaks, yet it is the meaning of what he is saying that I could not hear. The bandages will be removed from my eyes. The light will not return–that was what the doctor is trying to say.
“The blackness will be a whole new world for me. The darkness is a form of freedom. I can go far back in time and forward. Blindness as a freedom…
“Open or closed, it’s all the same. It’s so dark in my room at night–I will open my eyes and there is nothing. I turn my head this way and that and see nothing–not even a slight blur of light from some forgotten lamp on in the hall, or maybe light that slips up the long stair case from the sitting room, where my father and mother sit silently reading or knitting. I close my eyes and pull the warm sheets tight.”
Homes looks up from the manuscript and appears pleased. “But, then things are a bit confused as we read on.” His voice is flat and tired as he reads:
“Silence–I hear nothing. I now strain my ears (if you can) and there is nothing to be heard–nothing. Hear, how much, how little do you hear? Listen–do you hear it? It comes into this total darkness from out there. Where? The tracks that run along the road–it must be a mile, a mile and a half from here. It gives me a feeling–I don’t know what I feel. I hug my sheets tighter. The whistle seems to penetrate the walls, penetrate me. I like it; I hate it…
“Do you hear it? Listen, do you hear? Have you ever heard it? I do. The air is brisk–cold. It is Sunday morning. November. I hear; I hear it all. Those bells. They are bells–which I learned from my years of being in this town–raised here. But they’re not bells today. Two miles away down some street, which I don’t know. I can’t see. But, I hear–they’re bells, but at two miles (at least I think it is two miles, I can’t see) they sound like – that same train whistle–that hollow distant penetrating– “
“There is a narrative of the blind, and then, there is the deaf,” says Homes.
“Without the visual fill of spaces one hears the silence,” I say hopefully.
“That’s I conceit, to hear the silence.”
Irrigation stings my face, gives me a dull ach in my chest. I want to say that some may disagree, but I stop my self; I have no interest in having this meeting last any longer than it has too. I shrug.
“I see you are coming to finally understand what I have been saying about your work all year,” says Homes with eagerness. I want to look at my cell phone to check the time or see if there is a text, but I resist. “You’ll understand as we cover more of your story.” The professor continues reading in the same monotones:
“When I was young I would be in that church… Ding, dong, ding, dong–silence. Rise–sit. Black robed, he walked to the front. The one made us rise–sit. Sing; listen–quietly.
“No blurs of colour–or even a sudden blast of black and white–no. I open my eyes–I know they’re open. I turn my head left, then right. I’m in that room of the blind–a place of my youth. Where are the warm sheets? The sheets I can hug tightly. That hollow howl is with me. Why must they ring so long? I want to run from them. There is nowhere to go.
Professor Homes grins as he stares at me. “Short machine gun sentences, is that good writing?”
“Well, I like it.”
“I don’t think anyone else would,” Homes says irritated. “Where does this narrative come from? Did you have an experience like this?”
“No. It was late at night and the words were in my head. My majors in my BFA is painting and drawing, I think about my senses a lot.”
“Well, maybe you shouldn’t write late at night. I’ll continue,” says Homes as he looks at the paper in front of him:
“Early Sunday morning on a street somewhere… Listen.
“Tap–tap, tap–tap. Listen. I’m doing it. The white rod (if they are still the same colour as they were then) announces my presence to the silent streets. I am announced. Stretched out in front of me feeling the pavement. Do you feel it? The vibrations telling me what I do not see. I’m not seeing.
“Broken legs, broken arms, broken bodies, broken eyes? I will be better–only a knock–only a knock. Only on the head… Light will come through again. Again. Not this, no not to me–no! So I’ll walk out of this? Where? Look and see…
“She who helps me and talks to me, touches… The voice that tucks in the sheets around me–tight and warm… I’ll look at her that day and she’ll look at me, and I’ll say, of course you look as I thought you would. I’m better all better.
“I’m still in the dark room. I open my eyes and look around. There is nothing. Not even a blur of dimness from the hall. They must shut off all the light in this wing of the hospital at night. It is like —“
“These are sentence fragments, grammar that leaves me cold,” says Homes impatiently, angry. “Can’t you see the problems here?”
“The writing has a lyrical quality. I like the way it sounds and the feeling I captured.”
Homes grins again, “Maybe it’s a limerick, maybe that’s what you should be writing, limericks.”
“I guess I can give limerick writing a try,” I say as I become aware of a sensation of being a part of some strange stage production, a farce, black comedy, satire?
“It just keeps coming,” says Homes sardonically. He continues reading:
“It is snowing. There are pinpoints of ice on my face. Slowly, silently they fall. And soon, like a fog, the street will be a misty silent, anonymous place. Will the morning sunburn it off? The flakes will fall on the surface of my sun glasses. They will melt into small beads of water. But I won’t take off my glasses and clean them. Does it matter? They’re black–
“Starting over again. Children put down your pencils – will I go through that again? Again. To read in the dark–a new skill… Write in the dark– a new skill. Seeing in the dark– Painting, drawing, sculpting in the dark—
“Twenty-two steps down turn right. Forty-three steps straight, turn right–stop. Turn left forty-three steps straight turns left, twenty-two steps up: a day.
“Twenty-two steps down turn right. Forty-three steps straight, turn right–stop. Place–carefully–carrying bag on the ground… One foot on one side, the other on the opposite side… Squeeze together. Feel it. Don’t let anyone take it. Don’t forget it. Wait–bus comes. Pick up bag and march boldly toward the sound of the bus with rod out. Be prepared for a miss–try, and try until the bus leaves, or someone else helps–
“Tap–tap, tap–tap, step, step, turn, step, turn, up, down, up down, all around. Count, observe; remember–know. Go–stop.
“Conversation–stop. Ten, eleven, twelve–tap-tap. She says, he says, she says–no stop. We pass–silence. Dark room where my eyes are open… Look left, right–all black. No gray enters.
“What are you doing with all these dashes? The bullets from the machine gun are coming faster now,” says Homes.
“It helps with the cadence of the piece.”
“It’s a poem now?”
“Fiction can have a cadence.”
“I know,” explodes Homes. “But, this isn’t fiction, it’s something else.”
“It is a stream of consciousness.”
“If you stop making any sense, you call it a stream of consciousness.”
“I don’t thing that would wash with anyone,” I say without a thought. Homes stops and stares at me. He slowly begins to grin again.
“You tell me what it wrong with this ending.” Home continues to read with a triumphant tone.
“No. No, there isn’t silence there is a bark–a dog. A laugh and short cry–a child… Tap-tap, tap-tap… It’s cold here it’s not that place. She says, he says–their voices fade.
“Forty-three steps straight, turn right–stop. He says, she says. He said, she said. Silence now. I stand among the group. They are always silent when I’m near.
“It’s that dark room. My eyes are open, but–it’s not the room. It’s cold. I hear in the distance–
“I am here now. In that place… This place. Where? A dark–no…
“A prison of dark…”
Professor Homes watches me as he places the last page on the stack on his desk. I don’t want to answer, but I do: “I really like it; there’s nothing wrong with that piece.”
Homes smiles and leans back in his chair. “Maybe you should just quit well you’re still ahead.”
“Stop taking English classes from this Department?”
Homes smiles more widely. “That would be a good start.”
I feel bored and tired. The tension is dropping as I wait for his last comments, and whatever mark he is going to give me. Homes draws a breath as he leans back in his chair, his eyes on the ceiling.
Professor Homes speaks calmly as if nothing had happened. “I don’t like what you do; I don’t like how you do it, but you do it very well.”
“Thank you,” I say, uncertain.
Professor Homes slides the stack of manuscripts toward me. His had written comments are on top. I take the stack and lift the top page to see the mark for the course. It has Honors with Distinction written on it. Homes smiles as I stand up to leave.
Good luck,” says Professor Homes.