This One Line, A Short Story
Jonathan Kohl had a perfect beginning to his story. Actually he had six. Six beginnings, but only one story. At the moment, it begins like this: “I used to think of myself as a pacifist. Then my next door neighbors installed floodlights outside my bedroom window.”
I think we can agree that, as an opening, this sentence has quite a lot to offer. It neatly establishes the central conflict in the story, while retaining a playful tone. Now, Jonathan would be in an excellent position to continue his story if not for the small inconvenient detail that he is utterly bumfuzzled over how to proceed from here.
Watch him, sitting at his desk, nobly fighting the urge to open Firefox (the poor boy thinks he can resist switching to Chrome) and check Facebook, his emails, and a horde of other frankly useless websites. Jonathan’s problem, to put it plainly, is that he is scared. Well, he’s also not a particularly good writer, if we’re to be blunt, but poor writing is no excuse to put down the pen. It’s certainly never stopped me as you may learn to your dismay as your eyes skim down the page and see just how long this story is.
Getting back to Jonathan, he is currently running his hand through his curly black hair, wishing he could use some of his other excellent opening sentences more than once. But that would be rather like running back and forth over the same patch of a racing track. Amusing perhaps, but it won’t get you anywhere. Of course, a writer may sidestep his or her dearth of second sentences by endlessly writing about the first sentence, but who would want to read that sort of thing?
No, Jonathan, if he’s to be successful, must get over his fear. What fear is that? Well, it’s the same fear that all men and women who have had the audacity to put their words on paper feel. It is the fear of failure, and of rejection. Poor Jonathan Kohl has never published a thing in his life. Not even his charming little story about a cat named Barnaby who loses his tail in a car accident. He has submitted his work to countless magazines, and even his friend’s blog, yet has received nothing but terribly polite rejection letters from them all (to be fair to his friend, that blog is about car mechanics, so he was somewhat justified in rejecting the story).
I wish I could give him some advice - like, “don’t come up with a fanciful story if you don’t have a proper ending,” or “don’t be self-indulgent by writing silly dialogue,” or “above all, do not let your characters become self-aware.” You know, the usual list. But he never listens to my advice.
I know what you must be thinking. You’re thinking, “well, this story isn’t going anywhere at all, I’m losing interest.” I understand the sentiment. Do you think I’m having any fun either? Yet we can’t just abandon Jonathan Kohl to his lonely desk. To stop reading would be to condemn him to an eternity of running his hand through his curly black hair, never overcoming writer’s block. You wouldn’t be so cruel as to do that to him, would you? For one thing, he’ll go bald rather quicker than he would otherwise. For another, don’t we all deserve a chance to be the best we can? To take our greatest talents and soar with them?
No? Oh. Well, how about this. How about we give Jonathan Kohl some privacy. Maybe he’s simply having some trouble performing with all of us watching. How would you feel if a room full of people watched you write? Let’s step out for a few minutes, and allow Jonathan Kohl to make some progress with that tale of neighborcide. In the meantime, why don’t I tell you the story of Barnaby the cat, and how he lost his tail in a car accident. I promise you it’s wonderfully thematic.
Barnaby the cat had white fur and a boring life. He lived on West 13th street in Manhattan (you know, that funny line between New Jersey and Long Island), and rarely got out, save for when Diana, his owner, asked him to pick up the groceries. This was an unusual occurrence as Barnaby always ended up buying far more fish than Diana ever had an appetite for. But on the rare Tuesday when Diana was busy, Barnaby was given the task. On one such Tuesday, Barnaby lazed in the sun, shining in from the clean-enough-to-be-getting-on-with apartment windows, licking himself in areas that have been described quite enough by other writers. The phone rang, and, reluctantly breaking from his grooming, he got up to see who it was. He only ever answered Diana; her friends were all dog owners, and he simply didn’t have the time to associate with trash like that. If he were especially bored he would answer her mother’s calls. Mrs. Johnson usually had some choice things to say about her daughter’s dating life, and the odd tip on how to cook better salmon.
It was Diana on the other end, so Barnaby answered.
“Yes?” he asked by way of greeting.
“Good, you’re awake,” said Diana. “I need you to go to the supermarket for me, I won’t have time later.”
“Fine,” said Barnaby staring at his flicking tail.
“And,” Diana paused. “I have some medicine I need from the pharmacy. It’s further away, so you can take the car if you want.”
Barnaby’s interested soared. He hadn’t been allowed to drive the car since the nasty business with the kitten and the raccoon in February. He hung up without saying goodbye – which was his usual sendoff, grabbed the car keys, his crocodile leather jacket, and swept out of the apartment.
Diana owned a vomity green Honda Accord from the nineties. It wasn’t Barnaby’s style, but he worked with what he had. Pulling out of the apartment’s parking garage, he began speeding down Hudson Street, nearly empty at this time of day. Now, most unfortunately for Barnaby, he was a cat, and cats have infamously short attention spans (everyone knows that Napoleon lost the Battle of Waterloo due to his trust in a regiment of Belgian cats. Well, that and his fear of the dark). Barnaby, as was inevitable, soon grew bored with driving, and very fixated on a fly in the car. Suddenly he swiped a paw, jerking the wheel, and thereby sending the car careening into the other lane, where it promptly crashed into another.
Well, that’s Barnaby’s tale. Honestly, the part of him losing his tail is fairly anticlimactic; let’s just say it occurred in the crash. Shall we return to Jonathan Kohl? Yes, I rather think so. Oh, oh dear. He hasn’t made any progress at all. Oh no! he’s playing minesweeper! What an utter shame. Well dear reader, I suppose Jonathan will never be a writer worth –
“You know, you’re being very unkind.”
Oh no. Jonathan has noticed us.
“Yes, I have. And I can hear you Akiva. You’re being very rude to me. Also, you completely changed the Barnaby story.”
I am sorry to all the readers. I have to address this. I assure you it will be very dull – why don’t you skim down past this conversation.
“Don’t try to cover this up, you’re always doing that, always trying to smother other people's voices,” said Jonathan.
“That’s not fair,” I said, “I’m just trying to keep things interesting for the readers. We could use a little levity in this climate.”
“Well you don’t have to be mean. You keep insulting me, calling me a bad writer, saying I’ll never accomplish anything, and changing around the stories I write.”
“Yes, well your version of the Barnaby story wasn’t that good.”
“That’s not true!” shouted Jonathan indignantly.
“Actually,” said Barnaby, hopping onto Jonathan’s desk, (quite gracefully for a cat without a tail) “I have to agree with Akiva here. You didn’t give me that much to do Jonathan. Your character work isn’t great. At least I have an attitude in the new version.”
“My character work isn’t great?” sputtered Jonathan. “What about Akiva’s! I’m clearly a thinly veiled stand-in for him, just a cheap way for him to mask his fears about writing!”
Barnaby rolled his eyes. “Come on Jonathan, don’t be dramatic, all characters are reflections of the writers who created them.”
“I don’t care! I won’t take this anymore! I’m sick of being a one-dimensional stand-in. I don’t even want to be a writer, I want to go into business!” And with that, Jonathan stood up, and stalked out of the story forever, leaving the tale of the homicidal neighbor forever unfinished, and depriving a fictional jury of a fascinating murder case (it would have eventually been ruled a mistrial).
“This all must be very embarrassing for you,” Barnaby said to me.
“Well, yeah. Somewhat. I didn’t think the story would get away from me so dramatically.”
“Yes. It happens to the best of us,” said Barnaby sagely. “When I was a young writer, I always ended up in holes that I had no way to dig myself out of. If it helps, you can go back and edit the earlier parts of the story in a way that foreshadows this conversation. It will look very clever.”
“Do you really think that’ll work?” I asked.
“Depends if you can resist publishing this part of the conversation.” With that, Barnaby curled himself up on Jonathan’s desk, and fell right asleep.
Now, dear reader, we are at an impasse, for this story has lost its characters. Jonathan Kohl has begun a new path in life, and Barnaby is napping indefinitely. I suppose if there is a lesson to be learned from all this (a questionable assertion, no doubt), it is that none of us - you, me, that odd fellow pacing about the library muttering, “why yes of course!” - should take ourselves too seriously, even in such serious times. And with that, so ends this silly tale, of Jonathan’s story, and Barnaby’s tail.