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Rated: 13+ · Short Story · Writing · #1809626
a story about a controversial book titled Winterfly.
Twenty-Two. Seven.

a short story

         Paul Slazinger finished his twenty-second novel on a Saturday, September 7. It had taken him a total of seven years—or rather, it had been seven years since he published his twenty-first. He called it Winterfly. The novel was published blindly, seven days later, and there was much controversy about it.

         It was a strange thing, his novel getting published so haphazardly. His publisher was so gracious to have it that he forewent even reading it. Paul’s repertoire was so stunning, both literarily and profitably, that he thought that neither their company nor the world could survive another day without it. No time was wasted in getting it on the shelves.

• • •

         It was a good day or so before the first critic finished reading it. An old, world-weary, and well-versed man, he was well-respected in the literary world. His name was Terry Donahue. The instant he finished reading Winterfly he smiled, leaned back in his favorite leather armchair, and set the book down. His review in its entirety was only seven words: “The single greatest novel written about anything.” He died seven days later, laughing.

         This confused many.

• • •

         Seven years passed—and scholars, angered and confused by Winterfly, still could make no sense of it. But, nonetheless, they ranted and argued and asserted that it was somehow a masterpiece, more complex and deep than any before it. How could it not be when the great Terry Donahue himself praised it as substantially as he did? Dissertations and theses were written over Winterfly, going at great length to explore hidden meanings and themes, many of which made a lot of sense—but, to Paul Slazinger’s delight, were all hopelessly wrong.

• • •

         January came, and with it, heavy snow. A fresh blanket of the stuff covered the grass, protecting it from the harsh cold and adversely making life difficult for the scholars; it wasn’t afraid to play favorites. And today it was angry, furiously whipping through the sky, kicking itself high into the air, and plummeting to the ground to form maliciously inconvenient barricades between the scholars and their lives.

         What angered the weather so, as far as anyone trapped in “Auditorium B” could tell, was another discursive lecture over Paul Slazinger’s Winterfly—or another P.S. rant, as these lectures came to be called in the greater Williams College community (these lectures typically wandered aimlessly and were often incoherent.)

         Two hundred or so students sat before Leroy Fallax, a stocky and bookish, bearded man in his early sixties, who paced the expanse of a seven-paneled blackboard, which spanned the length of a large, handsome, well-lit stage.

         Auditorium B was the sole beneficiary of the previous year’s remodeling fund, as it was in desperate need of update. Every detail had been tended to. The tattered, dirty curtains that used to haunt the room were replaced with sleek, black velvet drapery that created clear boundaries for the eye to stay between; the picky, disobedient stadium seats, replaced with beautiful postmodern, black seminar chairs with inductive charging tablet arms; the poor old stage floor, worn and heavily trampled, was replaced with pristine and intricately patterned birch wood. The other four Williams College auditoria looked primitive and dated by contrast.

         One thing that stood out amidst Auditorium B’s handsome twenty-second century architecture was the decrepit antique blackboard that lined the back wall. The thirty-year-old thing was doubtlessly the least technologically advanced piece of equipment on the entire campus, as it was the only chalkboard therein that actually required chalk; it was primitive and inconvenient.

         Four days before the lecture, however, Fallax informed administration that he would not be lecturing without it. He argued that this rotting slab of wood and slate represented the prime importance, the permanence, the continuity, and the respectability of the classic literary establishment.

Upon this insistence, looking not to upset one of the greatest literary authorities on the planet nor the literary Gods themselves, the Williams College administration had the chalkboard shipped and freighted from his classroom in Cambridge.

• • •

         Like so many others before him, Fallax took upon the task of dissecting Winterfly’s infamous twenty-second chapter, a well-established tradition amongst the literarily elite. And today he was eager to share his ‘brilliant discovery’ with the literary community.

         For those who don’t know, chapter 22, the final chapter, is comprised of three parts: Mary Monroe’s emotional trip to the train station; the final endeavors of Jack Simon, her hopeless lover; and then the controversial climax.

         The reason the climax is so controversial is that it makes absolutely no sense. In the twenty-second chapter, a rabid dog (which the reader hasn’t been introduced to in any way) drags Jack onto the train tracks just as the train passes. Mary then shrugs, smiles, cocks her head and says “Life’s a bitch.” She goes home, blows her brains out with her grandfather’s Walther P99, and enters through the gates of heaven, meeting her father, a bear, and three circus performers on her way in, greeting each with a loving embrace.

         Then, Paul Slazinger leaves the next twenty-two pages blank. Again, it makes no sense.

• • •

         But how this spectacled bear of a man was trying to make sense of it. On his blackboard, he had written seven boldly-lettered themes, harshly scrawled in shoddy chalkboard penmanship, one on each of the seven panels. Each theme branched off into sub-themes; and sub-themes branched into events; and events into supporting details; and details back into themes. It was, in all respects, an endless web.

• • •

         “I–IS HE DONE YET?!” Nitesh spattered, exploding from his sleep, slamming the tablet-arm shut with his knee. His computer plummeted to the ground and several pages of his journalism final fluttered several feet away. This stopped the lecture dead and commanded the unwanted attention of the room.

         Danny looked embarrassedly at the many turned heads, smiled, and laughed apologetically, then turned to face Nitesh. “Really?”

         Nitesh rolled his eyes and slouched back into his seat. Fallax continued pacing the stage. “Why are we here again?” Nitesh mumbled to Danny, somewhat rhetorically.

         “You know very well why.” said Danny, ignoring the rhetoric, “Winterfly is a classic, it’s one of my favorite novels, and I think Leroy might just have it figured out.”

         “I can’t help the feeling like he’s talking out his ass.” Nitesh said as he yawned.

         To Danny, this was outright heresy. “How well-cultured of you to say that. The man’s a genius.” he said as angrily as a whisper could allow.

         Nitesh scowled at Danny, “Oh, really?”

         “You wouldn’t know.” said Danny, turning his eyes to the stage.

         “Well then, enlighten me.”

         This, of course, was softball to the one-man-Leroy-Fallax fan club that was Danny, who immediately took a deep breath in preparation. Nitesh mentally braced himself for the verbal barrage that was sure to follow.

         “The man got a Ph.D. in comparative literature from Harvard in three years.” he whispered, starting a list with his fingers, “U.S. Professor of the Year four years in a row. Has written three books on Paul Slazinger, one of which won the Pulitzer Prize about a year ago. Let’s not forget about the fact that he’s been teaching at Harvard for the past twenty-two years...” he continued adding fingers to the list, not for a moment taking his eyes off the stage.

         Nitesh rolled his eyes and pulled out his phone. He was so desperately bored that he clutched at whatever fleeting measure of intrigue it could provide. A text, an e-mail; hell, even junk mail would be welcome mental shelter from Danny’s offense.

         “...And on top of that, the man’s got an IQ of over 147!” wheezed Danny, finally pausing to breathe. Danny and Nitesh once again commanded the unwanted attention of the room; several heads turned. Nitesh smiled at them and laughed apologetically.

         “Put that away!” Danny chided, looking very briefly over in Nitesh’s direction, making a sloppy gesture toward his phone. He then snapped attentively back to the blackboard, once again losing himself in the web; Danny was beyond rescue.

         Sensing this, Nitesh feigned receiving a text. “Uhh... I gotta go. I’ll see you at the mixer later?”

         Danny’s eyes were still glued to the blackboard, wishing desperately that he could make sense of it. “Yeahsurewhatever.” he replied.

         Nitesh walked briskly out the big double-doors in the back of the room, letting the cold, biting air rush in. He stepped wearily into the cold, wicked tundra before him; anything was better than this. He headed off toward his apartment, ready to once again spend the night sitting in front of his computer, writing.

         The harsh bite of the now exposed winter air was not well received by the denizens of Auditorium B—excepting Danny who was still loyally caught in Leroy’s web and hardly noticed.

• • •

         Leroy Fallax, having consumed his fill of his prey’s attention, eventually wound down and roughly summed up his lecture, leaving the scholars with the customary “But of course, the true meaning of Winterfly may never be known.” that typically followed P.S. Rants—and whenever this statement was made about Winterfly, Paul Slazinger would delight.

         Fallax stepped off the stage and began to gather his things as quickly as he could.

         Danny hurried towards him, extending his hand, “Professor Fallax, I must say it’s an honor to meet you and that I rather enjoyed the lecture.” he fawned, “You’ve truly shed some light onto the subject.”

         Fallax shook his hand politely. The friendly gesture was however betrayed by the clear expression of disingenuousness that slid down his face. Danny didn’t notice. “I’m flattered, but I haven’t... not even in the slightest.” he said.

         Danny was dumbstruck, there was no possible way that such an authority was even remotely  fallible. “E–Excuse me?”

         “I haven’t even scratched the surface; None of it makes sense. Not a sentence. Not a word! Not a syllable!!” Leroy whispered trough his teeth. His mind was clearly elsewhere.

         “It all made sense. Everything you said.” said Danny, doing all that he could to reassure him of his infallibility.

         At that point however, the professor had already fallen apart. Poor Leroy Fallax was trapped in his own web. “No no no, if the dog represented the death of her father then... then... ”

• • •

         Winterfly had a profound and utterly unhinging effect on Leroy; that was beyond question. Although, why it had such an effect—and, for that matter, why he continued giving lectures over it—was rather obscure.

         Very few people have ever known that he, Paul Slazinger, and Terry Donahue were all at one point quite close. Actually, throughout their years at Doherty Memorial High School they were the best of friends. And all three somehow managed to maintain their friendship through their first two years together in the Comparative Literature program at Harvard. If you were to now put all three of them in a room together, however, you wouldn’t ever know it.

         For the length of their friendship, Leroy was perpetually absorbed in some classic novel by some classic authorial giant. Paul, being the heretic that he was, would do his best to smear their theories, ideologies, philosophies, et cetera. He immensely enjoyed tormenting Leroy in that way.

         On many occasions, the three of them would go to Terry’s apartment and lounge in his study, sipping cheap tea from fancy little cups, reading or chatting or doing whatever the situation called for. On one such occasion Leroy and Paul were in an intense debate over recent events.          Paul had said something like “So, Leroy, what do you think about John McKinley?”

         To which Leroy replied, “Don’t get me started. Any author, best-seller or not, that denies the fine mind of Shakespeare is an outright menace.”

         To which Paul smiled and calmly replied, “I happen to agree with him, though. I do think that Shakespeare is no longer relevant in today’s culture.”

         To which Leroy exploded.

         When this sort of thing would happen, Terry Donahue, very much aware that Paul was joking—and that Leroy was not, would simply lean back in his favorite leather armchair and smile, holding back his laughter for the sake of the joke.

         Somehow, this strange dynamic between the three was enough to support their friendship, at least for a while. Things changed, however, when Paul handed over his first manuscript to Carry Hinderson at Kingsby Publishing.

         Over the next twenty-two years Paul Slazinger would become a classic.

• • •

         Except for Danny and Leroy Fallax, Auditorium B was now empty. Danny had just witnessed a fully grown man fall apart at the seams. “I’ve known Paul for well over fifty years,” said Fallax, “...respected him, looked up to him. But now, this?! How, How could he do this to me?!” Leroy bellowed very uncharacteristically.

         Danny blushed; he was at a loss. “P–Professor Fallax?” he asked.

         But Professor Fallax gave no response. He simply straightened up, cleared his throat, and walked out the door. Danny just stood there.

         This encounter had been strange for Danny, incomparably strange. Bearing witness to Leroy falling apart had instilled something all-consuming in him. It had changed him. For, from that point on, Danny had devoted his life to Paul’s sacred book, and to deciphering chapter 22, its gospel.

• • •

         September 22nd, seven years later, Danny received a letter from none other than the legendary hermit himself, Paul Slazinger. Years of knocking on doors, harassing publishers, phoning relatives under false pretenses, and the like had finally paid off.  Paul’s letter read this:

         Dear Daniel Simmons,

If I give you this interview, will you please just leave me in peace?

Sincerely and irritably,

Paul Slazinger

         Danny’s hands jittered in disbelief, rejecting the reality he was presented. All of the events that had led up to his having the opportunity to interview the Paul Slazinger were nothing but a blur; it had all happened so quickly. Right now interviewing Paul was the only thing in his life that mattered.

         In his current state, it was a miracle that he was able to step out of the cab and land successfully on the sidewalk, but somehow he did. Danny nervously double-checked the note on which he had written Paul’s instructions. Assured, he walked down 22nd street, on which lied lieu de rencontre, an obscure café on the upper east end where he was to meet Paul Slazinger. How the fates smiled upon him in that he would soon be the only person to have interviewed the legendary Paul Slazinger in over seventeen years, that he would be the absolute first to discover the true meaning of chapter twenty-two. He would soon be the envy of the literary world.

         Danny pushed open the café door and stepped inside. He looked nervously around.

         “You’re Danny Simmons, I assume.” said a voice to his left. It was Slazinger’s. Danny’s heart skipped a beat.

         Danny walked towards him, extending his hand. “M–Mr. Slazinger, you don’t know how much this means to me.” he fawned, “I must say it is an honor.”

         “I know.” Paul said, leaving Danny’s arm jutting awkwardly into the space between them.

         “...Excuse me?”

         “I do know... how much this means to you. You’ve been harassing me for the last seven years.” he said with a note of irritability, although the response was ultimately good-humored.

         “So... you can understand just how honored I am?”

         “Sure.” he replied, genuinely smiling, and finally shook Danny’s hand.

         For the next twenty-two minutes, Danny asked everything he could think of: the inspiration behind Cake—Slazinger’s first novel; the reason he left his first wife, Irene Bleaker; his thoughts on his multiple attempts at, and decisions against committing suicide...

• • •

         And then Danny, having exhausted everything else, asked the most obvious question of all: “Mr. Slazinger... Why does Winterfly end the way it does?”

         Paul suddenly grew somber and serious. “You too, eh?”

         Danny hesitated. “Yes.”

         You really want to know?”

         Danny paused warily, sensing the gravity of the question. “...well, yes.”

         Paul paused dramatically.

         “For absolutely no discernible reason whatsoever.”

         A vacuum filled the room. The only sound that could be heard was that of the air conditioner humming indistinctly in the background, coupled with the low squeak of chairs’ legs, uncomfortably pervading the silence as they scraped the tile floor.

         Paul then laughed, got up from his chair, and walked out the door, smiling.

         Danny just sat there.

• • •

         Danny boarded the A920 and was seated near the back of the plane.  Row 22 seat G.

         In shambles, he wandered aimlessly about the pages of a tattered paperback copy of a classic novel written by a classic authorial giant he had once worshipped. In this moment, his world was simply a void.

         But in the midst of the meaninglessness that crushed Danny’s lungs, by some considerable coincidence, his wandering fingers latched onto the first page. The page had a certain gravity that drew him to it. Danny turned the page, cautiously ready for whatever the literary Gods wanted to hit him with.

         He hadn’t ever noticed the dedication. But there it was, stark in the center of the page, written plainly and concisely:

Leroy, my friend, this one’s for you.

         Paul would die twenty-two years later, never having written a twenty-third novel. He would do so painlessly in a comfortable cabin in the secluded Michigan wilderness, his loving wife by his side, managing to say absolutely nothing significant on his deathbed. He died smiling.

• • •

         It was a good day or so before the first journalist had written an obituary. A young upstart, he was regarded by many as promising. His name was Nitesh. The article, in its entirety, was only seven words, “The single greatest comedian who ever lived.”

This confused many.
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