OMG! (To use one of my student’s quaint expressions.) The so-called “fair and impartial” writing contest at New York’s Symphony Space just got even shabbier, judging by the recent winner, “Swimmers.” The contest instructions clearly stated that the short-short story must contain a “surprise” within its plot, but, unless you believe these little munchkins on the coast of Argentina were being sexually molested by their elders (there are tell-tale, probably unintentional, hints at such shinnanigans), this story is (again!) simply a slice of (petty bourgois) life, and not a complete work of literature as in (for example) one of O. Henry’s classic tales, such as “The Last Leaf.”
It’s quite disenchanting to really creative authors to see such obvious shams taking place. Who is this Ivy League kid? Is she a relative of one of the judges or employees of Sym(phony) Space? Give us all a break and shut these contests down! They are an insult to our intelligence and are possibly even breaking the law.
Yes, I entered the contest; here’s my entry. I guess my “surprise” could be considered weak, by O. Henry standards, but I think it has more fascination than the winning story. You be the judge.
The Lady or the Tiger?
I tried to please my father by going to his alma mater, Cal Berkeley, and I even majored in PoliSci, but I became too involved in the Free Speech Movement, and I was one of those “marked” by the Feds that day when we rioted after they arrested Mario Savio. I was called into the local FBI office and told that I could either join the Navy or serve some prison time for my “seditious activities.” I served in Vietnam for two drafted years, as a Navy Seal, and I saw many men die agonizing deaths—some of them by my hands.
Now I am a carpenter, after all these years, and my wife, Jane, is dying. My only solace is my thoughts as I plane wood, pound nails and varnish sanded banisters leading to nowhere. I know she is up there, lying in bed, as we have no insurance for hospice care, and we get the drugs to ease her pain from all her friends from the years of nursing she did at the University Medical Center. I greet a nurse each week, usually a Filipina, who brings Jane her dosage of morphine. This is, of course, totally illegal, but these are the times when many of us Americans are stooping to such drastic measures for our loved ones. Therefore, I will offer the kind woman a cup of tea or some other respite, and she will usually decline, rushing, instead, up the stairs that I built, but never a word about the beauty of my finely crafted workmanship, just a quick trip up into Jane’s loft of quiet dying.
Sometimes, as I am working on the house, I do a lot of thinking. One of Jane’s girlfriends once said that Jesus, a carpenter like me, had the humblest job in Israel. She said, “Carpenters were the lowest type of workers, and Jesus and his friends were, most likely, totally illiterate.” That bit of information stuck in my craw. Not because this woman was a Jew and taught Bible as Literature at a local community college but because I know carpenters are not humble! Why would God make his son a carpenter if the job were low class? We carpenters, as I see it, have a lot of time to think very deeply about life and death, and this is my main argument against this good lady’s assertion.
Jane, who has no family, only me, has become my cause célèbre these days. We met on a commune in France. It was springtime, and I was left alone to tend the animals for a month. The others were partying in town after doing their hallucinogens. I needed no drugs, as I had just gotten word that my father had died. He had long ago cast me out of his lawyer’s will, as I was the misguided “hippie freak,” as he had called me that day before I left the country of my birth. As I sat and talked softly to the sheep, chickens and pigs, I suppose I had a bit of an epiphany. I knew I was going to become a carpenter—yes, just like Jesus! These animals needed the shelter I could build, and they thanked me, by God, by looking kindly at me as I stroked their mammalian fur and fed them with delicate attention. Jane came in on me feeding and talking to these animals. She was joining our commune from Holland, her birthplace, and she told me later she “loved me at first sight.” When I asked her why, she said, “You were so kind to all those animals. I knew you would be kind to me.”
I don’t feel so kind these days. I can hear Jane screaming out in pain, and my agony flies up into the rafters to join her. I never realized how painful cancer could be. It is beyond even the relief that morphine, the high sacrament in the Church of Drugs, can bring! Wounded men on the battlefield are transfigured into instantaneous reverie—I have seen it work its wonders! Our generation was the generation of the Counter-culture, was it not? We played with drugs like kids in a candy store; we tasted sweet sexual rendezvous and experimented with our inner connection to deeper spiritual levels: Dr. Tim Leary, Bob Dylan, the Summer of Love, Carlos Castaneda, the Beatles, we all did our part to tear down the old paradigm of the Establishment’s rules. However, there is no inner peace while my Jane languishes upstairs, in the house that I built, the house that has seen us go childless for these many years, saw us constructing room after room as a shrine to our loneliness.
I heard that the wife of William Wirt Winchester went crazy after her husband died. She was told by a fortune teller that she would be haunted by the victims of her husband’s weapon invention if she did not construct something new in her house every year. The Winchester House in San Jose is like our house. It has stairs that lead nowhere; it has a “spy room” near the middle of the house and quite high up where Mrs. Winchester watched the workers—the carpenters—as they created the intricate structures of hobby and whim, something that I can readily attest to, something that can keep one from going insane.
Jane is my Mrs. Winchester. She is high above, and I picture her watching me, when the pain has subsided, watching my bulging muscles as they strike out in bold invention, creating a new piece of sturdy edifice and protective cornice, or a vaulted ceiling that rises up, up into the night of my lonely dreams. “Raise high the roof beam, carpenter!” I shouted, the other evening, when I finished the chimney, and Jane came down the stairs, woozy from her rush of morphine. This is the truth: we knelt down and prayed up into my new chimney. Don’t you see? Before the funeral business in this country, the chimney was believed to be the place where the soul would fly up and out into heaven. It was the hearth, the mantle of masculine pride, the site of Christmas cheer and revelry, and this was why we held hands and prayed over my handiwork. All my political education can go to hell! My father, who ate hard tack and drank water inside his little room on Telegraph Avenue, as he studied to pass the Bar during his Depression days at Boalt Hall. I never made it to law school, Father, but I am building my wife a solid ceiling and a chimney, by God!
Yes, Jesus was a carpenter. As the days pass, and Jane gets weaker, I can identify with this man Jesus and his job. His friends were “fishers of men,” but Jesus was the carpenter. He constructed their coffins, did he not? He died for their sins, did he not? He built the temple, the houses, the shops in the market, the structures that shielded his fellow Jews from inclement weather. And, as he worked, he would think, as I do, about life, death and eternity. Until, one day, it became too much, and he decided to give it all over to his fate.
“Billy!” I can hear her calling me. The women loved Jesus so; he gave his own life for them. They did not forsake him as his disciples did. No, he knew they would be there for him in the end. I know this is true, and yet, for an instant, I believe I, too, can save the world. My funds have run out. Perhaps the Jew teacher was correct. We carpenters are the humblest people alive. We, ultimately, have no taste for greed and success. We keep building until it gets the best of us.
I drove last night past the tract homes and the glass buildings of our New Age. The computers that wreak havoc with our privacy, the steadily encroaching terrorism created by the backlash, the blowback of our imperialistic advances into other countries, and if only Jane and I could have had one child! She, who was condemned to childlessness by using the Dalkon Shield in her socialist Holland! A shield that came between us and our future, and now she calls me from above. I should have agreed to adopt a child, the way she wanted us to. I am such a selfish fool! I must go up, put down my tools, and put down my worries, once and for all.
She is so beautiful lying in our water bed. We are in our sixties, and yet the light from the window casts a glow of heavenly insight on our bodies. I want to hold her now, please forgive me. I can write no longer. Will it be the lady or the tiger, you ask? The tiger is on the wood dresser between two adjoining angels—one good and one evil–that I built with my own two hands. The Asiatic, golden tiger holds the drug of infinity inside his open jaws. We got the tiger on our trip to India. The men in the shops of Bombay would stare at Jane wearing her shorts and halter in “The Sixties.” The lady or the tiger? Jesus was a carpenter, and he died for our sins. I am going to lie down now, next to my love, my communal bliss, my heaven on earth. We shall both rest, peacefully, as the stars come out to shine down on our hearth and home. Om, shanti, shanti!