Block

By Bud Smith

Essay

Good Luck: Episode Seventeen

 

This paragraph was written on a cellphone at my day job. With all the mess, and the noise, and the constant humming and slamming of million pound machines. I’ve run out of things to say, which is unacceptable. Usually this place sounds like angels singing, but now the demons have begun to shriek.

This paragraph was written on a laptop, as I sat at my famous bamboo desk. Our loud apartment. The loudest apartment in America. A knock was heard on the door, interrupting my non-progress and I was relieved. At the door, I found a man in a gray suit, and a woman in a gray blazer and skirt. Businesspeople. “We’re from the city—conducting a study.” The man opened the briefcase and showed me two monitors. “One for air quality, the other for decibel level.” “Absolutely not,” I said. The woman said, “We’re not recording conversations, don’t worry about your privacy.” I said, “Still, no. If I let you put that in here, you’d tell me it’s unhealthy to live here, and then I’m going to have to move.” She said, “It’s not unsafe.” “Then why bother with the monitor?” “They may do something with the traffic light, reduce idling, and the exhaust.” I told them, “If you want to monitor anything, you should come to my miserable  teeth-clattering job. I can barely get any writing done there, first time in my life I’ve got a creative block, and now I’m talking to my co-workers about what they watched on TV last night, and what their kids are like, and I’m even helping them with the labor instead of sneaking off to a work truck every ten minutes to write more of a short story, or a poem…” The man said, “You’re a writer? Writing…in a…in where?” I said, “Nevermind.” They smiled and said goodbye, started to walk away from my door, and I followed them into the lobby. “Wait, actually, I’m not getting anything accomplished at home, either. There’s been some change, I can’t explain it. Can I offer either of you a drink? Bring the monitors in, let’s look at them inside.” After two gin and tonics, the man had his suit jacket off, and his dress shirt open and was showing me and the woman where he had been stabbed in the chest during a robbery of the Blimpie sandwich shop where he’d previously worked. The scarred man had tried to karate chop the knife out of the robber’s hand, and it had worked, but when he bent down to pick up the knife, the robber put a second knife in him. “I’m lucky to be alive, and this job is much better, people give me gin and tonics instead of knives.” I got up to use the bathroom. While I was gone, Rae came home and caught the two of them french kissing in our dining room. It took me quite a while to dissolve the situation; Rae thought I was taking part in some kind of orgy. They showed  their IDs and Rae said, “A city government orgy…” They showed Rae the monitors and she was still in disbelief. We, all four of us, had to walk out of the apartment and down the hall, to apartment 1F, where the old German woman in the wheelchair lives. She let us in the apartment and showed Rae the exact monitors, these ones suction cupped to the kitchen window. I took our assigned monitors, then. The city workers went on their way, hand in hand. But I didn’t suction cup our monitors anywhere in the apartment. I took them to work, and I freaked my coworkers out, saying the plant was recording what we said, and monitoring the air for pot smoke or mist from a popped can of beer. The monitors were smashed almost immediately.

This paragraph was written on Rae’s desktop computer, which she mindfully set up in the quietest part of the apartment. It still sounded like a world war outside. I’d always been able to write during a world war, what was with me now? I changed the screensaver from “Lava Lamp” to “Fish Tank.” That didn’t help. I yanked the cord out of the computer, threw the keyboard into the trash can, where it slammed against the laptop at the bottom.

This paragraph was written on a train headed blind north, using a pencil. I hadn’t used a pencil since I was a child. Number two pencil. I knew now there were #1 pencils (which smudged but wrote darker and were preferred by editors), and #3 pencils (which draftsman preferred), and #4 pencils (which were so hard they ripped the paper and nobody preferred). The problems of society are the problems of adults who have stopped thinking like children, who have forgotten how to play, who have stopped having fun, who refuse to hop on a train headed north, having left work early for a tax appointment, and never getting there. This pencil is getting dull and I have no way to sharpen it. Fuck this pencil. I’m going to snap it.

This paragraph was written with a blue pen. I don’t like writing with a blue pen, either. No new thoughts have become privy. I miss Rae already. Whenever I’m on a train, I wish I was having sex with her. Right about now she’s coming home, wondering where I am. The train is dark. We are far into the mountains now. Everyone is sleeping and I cannot see the moon because it is hidden by the mountain, or is directly overhead and obscured by the roof of the train car. I go from car to car, looking for it, but find no trace, just the moonlight suggested by shadow play. The conductor stopped me as I approached the engineer’s compartment, assured me there was nothing to see there either. I was lost in the darkness of this rocky wilderness. The only one that could see the light was the engine driver, looking down the tracks, making sure our path was clear.

This paragraph was written with a typewriter in a rickety cabin, far from anything that could be called town. The typewriter came with the cabin. Rusted up, not functional at first, but I found gun oil and that did the job of freeing the mechanisms. The oil also destroyed a portion of the ink ribbon, I typed away anyway. Using a typewriter was more physical, tired me out. But at least I was finally getting some work done, finally saying something, like my ancestors had said before me at their very own machines. Click clack click clack. I’ve told you about pencils, and childhoods, and hurt hands, and that I can’t see the moon: that’s a start. Back to nature, where I could concentrate. Even if nature was just as loud. The constant wind up here, making the cabin shake to the left, and then shake to the right. I was glad I didn’t have those monitors with me, or else I would learn how toxic country living was. At night, wolves howled at the moon, the way you always hear wolves howling at the moon in stories like this. But when I opened the door to look up at the moon they were howling at, all I could see was a wall of clouds faintly glowing with the moon presumably behind it. I don’t know, do I look like a moon-expert, or a wolf, to you?

This paragraph was written with a feather quill and an ink pot. The way the monks did it back in the day, copying the sacred texts into the first invaluable books. I was even writing by candlelight hoping that that scared task bled some holiness into my work here, which feels more and more desperate and farther from godliness as the deadline looms closer. I couldn’t sleep; wolves running circles around the cabin. It was fine. They didn’t know how to open the door. And even if they had, I would have just offered them some gin and tonics and then we would have become great friends. I could ask them about the moon, and ask to be shown the scars they had given each other fighting like one does to survive in elevations such as these. The feather quill and the ink pot, I am finding, to my dismay, is not the answer either. Perhaps I have to go back even farther, to the reed and the papyrus and the ink ground down from colorful minerals gathered from the banks of the Nile. They had it harder than I do. They had to invent the hieroglyphics in order to say what they wanted to say; my language has been invented, I just have to say what I want to say in it, and I can’t even do that. I’ll put away the feather quill. I’ll put away the ink pot. There’s nothing in my life I have invented except more trouble. Imitating people performing sacred duties has not helped me produce anything sacred.

This paragraph was recorded, and later retyped here for posterity. (Hi guys, it’s me, Rae ).The landline phone rang on the cabin wall, the ringing nearly gave Bud a heart attack, “Hello,” he said, and Rae said, “Bud?” “Yeah, what’s up?” “Where are you?” “Deep in the Adirondacks. I can’t believe this phone works. And how did you get the number?” “Why are you there? Why aren’t you home? I was so worried,” she said, and Bud answered, “I’ve come up here to get some writing done.” “Why didn’t you leave a note, at least?” “I’ve got writer’s block,” he said, laughing. She didn’t laugh. She said, “That’s not funny. Not even a little. I thought you’d been…kidnapped…murdered…” “Murdered? Who’d murder me? Kidnap me?” “I found your laptop in the garbage…I read your emails, saw one from Airbnb. Are you in an Airbnb?” “I’m in a rickety-ass cabin, and it’s not even working, inspiration-wise. In movies, people always go off into the woods for inspiration and inspiration hits them, blam blam blam.” “In movies? What movies?” “I don’t know…Walden Pond.” “On Walden Pond? They made a movie out of On Walden Pond?” “Yeah sure,” Bud said, “Jack Nicholson as Henry David Thoreau. He was great.” She was even more angry now, “Did Henry David Thoreau use Airbnb? I filled out a missing person’s report. Your phone is off.” “It’s dead. No signal anyway. No matter, I’m up here working on my masterpiece, so far I’ve got pencils and moons and you bitching at me, but bitching rightfully so.” Rae said, “This is being recorded. The police wanted me to record any calls. So.” “So tell the cops I’m fine, and listen, I’ll see you soon, I love you, I’m making great headway.” Before he could hang up, she yelled, “I’m coming!” “I’ll be home soon, don’t.” “I’m looking at the map now—Jesus—did you have to go so far? Are you sitting on your ass and pushing down with your fingers up there, couldn’t that be done at your desk, here?” Bud said, “Ask the assholes at Yaddo and Bread Loaf…My famous bamboo desk, yeah, it doesn’t work anymore. I’ve got to find something that works, or, I don’t know, I’ll have to kill myself, or something.” “Or something!”

This paragraph was written in blue pen. Again. I just wanted to try the pen again. No.

This paragraph, back to the pencil. No.

This paragraph, back to the typewriter, it sounds cool at least. Ideas no better, unfortunately. Hieroglyphics, the missing moon, On Walden Pond starring Your Mom. I looked out the window and the view was of a mountain blocking everything, which was the same as the view I had back home, a brick wall. I got up from my desk, determined now to get up the mountain where I’d chisel my message into the rock face, for all eyes to see. I gathered what I could use from the tool shed. I left a note for Rae on the desk, “Be right back, got an even better idea…” I set up the mountain with a chisel and a hammer.

THIS PARAGRAP

Back to the pencil. Carving something into the side of a mountain is not for me. Gilgamesh and Moses were better off with stone tablets. I needed some stone tablets. The weather has gotten worse. I took refuge in a small cave and began my fate of freezing to death. Just before nightfall, the snow let up and I made it into the high forest where I gathered just enough timber to stoke a fire back at the mouth of the cave. I’d be dead if I hadn’t. The blizzard set in worse after midnight. I set in dying.

This paragraph was written in smoke signals. I took off my flannel shirt, wet it with melted snow, threw it on the fire, so a single puff of white smoke was sent up into the clear blue sky. “HELP,” the signal said. “HELP.” “HELP.” Okay, one more…“HELP.” So much for my favorite flannel shirt.

This paragraph was ghostwritten. There is a correlation between motion and generation, or I should say genesis, begetting, bringing forth. On a moving train, the feeling of leaving behind one’s troubles begins, a bliss overtakes the artist. A multiplying of ideas. Travel spiriting along the mind, nirvana blooming, bale long vanquished. A certain seriousness with respect to the transfer of thought to page, or if the train car remains this stable, perhaps even paint to canvas. The lucky creator stretches out into full expression, traveling like this, by way of rail, gliding through the night, bursting through a limestone tunnel bored by men deceased for a hundred years, men who respected dynamite. The men are gone; but we remember their art—we remember their method was dynamite. Across from me in the train car sat two disheveled Americans, traveling home, I ascertained. You can always tell when someone is traveling home. I have no home, the rails are my home, the page and the pen are my glorious castle. The man opened his eyes and tried to sit up, but the woman put her hand on his shoulder, urged him to rest. “How’s it coming?” he asked me, meaning my writing, having heard my steady typing even in his dreams. I say, “It’s coming out most well.” I was composing an article on the banana squash muffin, using the voice of a famous celebrity chef, whom I cannot name. The disheveled American was bare-chested under a black hooded sweatshirt, and his fingertips were purple, a sign of severe frostbite, I assumed, but when pressed about it, he said he’d had some trouble in the storm, yes, but the stains were not damage to the skin cells; amputation was not necessary. The stains were from the sloppy usage of a feather quill and ink pot, he’d made such a mess, that now he suddenly had respect for Benjamin Franklin, who he’d hated his whole life. He also professed a newfound respect for the ancient Egyptians and King Gilgamesh. The man was clearly unwell. Home, yes, I understood now. I assumed the woman was transporting him to some kind of sanitarium. Eventually his head fell back on her chest, and he appeared to be sleeping once more. She talked to me in a voice without anguish, explaining that he, her husband, was suffering from a most perilous condition, and one perhaps without cure, “writer’s block.” I understood the dilemma then, and I took pity on those young Americans, and I understood with even more depth, as she elaborated on the man’s quest into the wilderness, which had terminated here, in this very train car, in his shame and lowly defeat. He’d been infected by the Teddy Roosevelt Virus, the Ralph Waldo Emerson Self-Reliant Plague, the Jack Kerouac Endless Scroll of Paper Disease, and so on and so on. I offered my services to the woman, explained I was a seasoned ghostwriter and I would gladly do it again, for a small fee, to save her husband’s life, so to speak. She was most delighted and after inquiring about some of the work I had ghostwritten, I shocked her with some of the titles, which, sadly, I cannot dare mention here. The porter came along announcing dinner service, and she woke the sick man, and they left for the dining car. Soon after, biscuits with butter and jam and a tea service were sent my way, courtesy of the couple. I flew along merrily on my Chromebook, my fingers dancing, the words coming with ease. For motion is the balm of the artistic soul; since I had found motion, motion brought the words to me. As the locomotive sliced through the blackness of the countryside, I was blindingly illuminated. When the couple returned from the dining car, they were red-faced and smiling, and carrying a port glass for me. I declined, saying I had never worked inebriated and I wouldn’t start now. The man offered to pay me fifty dollars more to write “under the influence” but when he opened his wallet, I saw it was empty. His wife paid me. I drank the port, and felt fine, I must admit. They whispered among themselves and I paid no mind. I wrote with a new fury (all of which has since been deleted). When I looked up from my Chromebook, his jeans were down and they were fornicating in the train car. I was rightly shocked. Her dress was bunched up, and she faced away from me. When they were done with their deed, they looked “healed” and had sweat about the temples. He was in good spirits then, and she left to wash up in the lavatory. He asked me where I was from, and I said London. He said, in a faux Cockney accent, “Ah, jolly ol’ Londontown. Most merry.” He then told me all about where he was from, speaking in a faux Brooklyn accent, about a loud cesspool of a city, it sounded like, where peace could not be found—the way he described it, Sodom, but you could get brunch. Gomorrah, with excellent bus service, and low sales tax, believe it or not. He told me he was ready to go home, go back and get to work at the factory, or foundry, or steel mill where he was employed. I couldn’t follow. But I offered these words of advice, from an ape I thought he could relate to, “The writer Charles Bukowski once said, ‘Writing about writer’s block is better than not writing at all.’” He grinned. “Thank you, guv’nah. Are you putting me dick in that?” he asked, pointing at the Chromebook. I shook my head, no. She came back with champagne and we all began to drink, and then the writing ceased. Soon, they were at it again, her breasts uncovered, and I had to leave. Out in the dining car, no food was being served, but I did find a man working on a 10,000 piece puzzle of the Grand Canyon. The puzzle was so large, it took up multiple tables in multiple rows, much to the annoyance of other passengers trying to read newspapers, who had no wish whatsoever to take part in puzzle-doing. The sun glistened strawberry shades of luminance on the river and then on the city, and we came along into Grand Central Station, where the lusty couple said goodbye, passing along a slip of paper with an email address for me to send along this writing when it was complete. I got off the train, stretched, and immediately boarded another train, headed nowhere specific, just longing for more motion in which to aid my life’s work.

This paragraph was written on a cellphone. Rae has missed her period and we are taking it as it comes along with no plans either way. But we may name the child Train-o if it’s a boy, or Train-a is it’s a girl.

This paragraph was carved into a stone tablet. It’s really not that bad if you have the right tools. And a stone tablet is cheaper, per “page” than standard ink cartridges for a home computer. It just takes a while to write this way. Takes a year to get this far. Oh, I wanted to mention, Rae’s pregnancy was a false alarm. I’m not gonna be a dad.

This paragraph was written on a laptop. There was an open house the other day. Apartment 1F is for sale. The woman got nervous when her results came back from the city’s monitoring. She’s decided to move back to Hamburg. I was able to buy used copies of all kinds of wonderful books. Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Flush; James Joyce’s Ulysses, and Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man; multiple first editions of Peter Handke,  unfortunately not translated, still in German…maybe I’ll learn German, maybe it’s easier to write in German, and it’s the English language itself which is the cause of my “block.” The woman also sold me an Olivetti 32 typewriter, which seems to work infinitely smoother than the rusted up one I’d attempted to use in that cabin when I was a mountain man searching for that moon.

This paragraph was typewritten. It’s nearly spring. 1F has had a hard time selling, word got out about the monitor’s results. Because of a report filed at City Hall, buyers are worried about lung disease caused by the ever-present exhaust of the cars at the light, and hearing loss from constant sirens. Now, real estate agents are required to suggest ear plugs and a respirator to anyone looking to occupy the space. I sat down at my bamboo desk, and pounded on the keys of the typewriter. Blam blam blam blam blam. I wasn’t saying anything. But I liked the sound. It drowned out the police sirens, blam blam blam, the people screaming, blam blam blam, even my own inner-voice of dissatisfaction and regret.

 

BUD SMITH lives in Jersey City and works construction. He is the author of the novel Teenager (Tyrant Books '19), among others.

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