Ten Dead Darlings

Roger Rosenblatt

Every so often (all right, every day) I write something with no idea where it’s going. In most cases the answer is, nowhere. So I find myself in possession of, or in the possession of a burgeoning file of false starts. They are growing restive. Nights, I hear them grumble in their manila folders: Say, how about a second paragraph, Charlie. (They call me Charlie, and a lot worse, to get my goat.) Sorry, I tell them, I can’t think of what to write next. Then why don’t you toss us? they say. Relieve our great expectations? (They can be cruel.) The sad truth is I couldn’t bring myself to toss them, whatever Faulkner advised about killing one’s darlings, and I couldn’t make anything of them, either. So I finally came up with a solution. You. I decided to kill these darlings by dumping them on you. The following is a mini-anthology of stunted beginnings—each originally written in the highest boyish hopes that it would lead to a book. I still hope it does, but it won’t be my book. Perhaps yours? If any of these darlings appeals to you, take it. Run with it. All I ask in return is that you send me a copy of the book you were able to make of my beginning. I enjoy the company of superiors.

• •

Margaret and I take a ride in the country in her 1964 sunflower-yellow Mustang convertible. She does the driving. Margaret looks like Rita Hayworth, and behaves erratically. She has flaming hair, and I don’t just mean red. Every so often during our chats, she takes out a Zippo lighter and sets fire to her long locks. In fact, she does that now. The wind extinguishes the flames. I read that Florence Nightingale used to do the same thing in the Crimean War, to distract wounded soldiers from their pain. They’d bring in a kid on a stretcher who had both legs blown off by a land mine. He would be moaning and bleeding, and Florence would go for her matches. I love this car, says Margaret. I could lick the fenders.

• •

Here’s the thing about pitching. The pitcher dreams. Did you know this? The pitcher is the team dreamer. That’s his position. And you can tell. Watch him on the mound as he goes into his windup. Just before he throws, as his arm is poised to pitch a fastball or a screwball or a forkball, or whatever, he slows down, nearly stops, as though his body were moving underwater. As he slows down, the game slows down—all eyes on the pitcher. The game slows down, and the world slows down, in anticipation of something good and wonderful. The pitch. At that moment of hesitation in the windup, that moment of anticipation, the pitcher lives in a dream of his own manufacture. What he dreams about is making things right, in the game, and in the world. Right and good. Everything. That’s the thing about pitching. The pitcher dreams. I thought you’d want to know this.

• •

Doomed to do right by her daughter, Melanie, Mrs. Finnegan brings the girl to her singing lessons, even though the teacher has discouraged it, Mrs. Finnegan cannot afford the lessons, and Melanie can’t sing a lick. Mrs. Finnegan is Mrs. Finnegan to her coworkers at the Target in the village mall, where everything under the sun is for sale in a store the length of a football field. There is no Mr. Finnegan. Never was. The father of Melanie was in and out one rainy night, after too many dirty martinis in Silly’s Saloon. Mrs. Finnegan regales her coworkers at Target with stories about Mr. Finnegan’s antics. The man is impossible, she says. He still plays with exploding cigars and joy buzzers. He never met a whoopee cushion he didn’t like. A real kid, says Mrs. Finnegan. The girls at the store always smile and shake their heads in amused disbelief, but they know Mrs. Finnegan is lying. They, too, lie about lovers and husbands. About everything, really. Clara Freelinghusen in cellphones and tablets, claims to have made the semifinal round in the figure skating competition for the Olympics, in 2004. Mr. Finnegan just loves sports, says Mrs. Finnegan. Sundays, I’m married to the Jets.

• •

The world is a culvert. The world is a thick crust of soda bread. The world is a spade you use to flatten a thick crust of soda bread. The world sings. The world sings off-key, flat and sharp. The world sinks in the moraine of poetry, weeping, never to surface. The world is a beer, small beer. The world is a bier. The world is a light in silence, and then again, not. The world is not a light in silence. The world is a killer from the egg. The world imagines you as you imagine it. The world speaks your language. The world speaks no language, neither the language of the spheres nor the language of muskrats. The world is a meal made out of nettles. The world nettles. The world starves, save on those occasions when, gluttonous to the nines, it swallows the Elgin Marbles and nibbles on its own red thumb. The world. What may one say about the world? The world is an English professor. The world is certainly not an English professor, you can count on that. The world is a cathedral-shaped clock clacking in the entrance hall of a great house atop a hill where it rained only this morning and where calves and bibliophiles graze. The world is no such thing.

• •

Christa Reinig wrote that she had a whiskey bottle and a coffee pot and a chessboard with the pieces ready to be moved, but no one to move them and no one to visit. Did you ever read Christa? German poet, lesbian, 1940s. A Trümmerfrau, she worked in a factory. Also sold flowers on the Alexanderplatz. Christa wrote that she had an endless sky above her where she might find herself again, and a city full of streets where she might meet herself, and an endless song in which to breathe in and out, also infinitely. But, in fact, she had no more than the smallest plot of land, with a single sunflower growing out of the lightning crack in the sidewalk, and she must live there.

• •

What do you plan to say at the banquet? Oh. You didn’t know there was a banquet? There’s always a banquet, and everyone gets to speak. But what will you say? You certainly don’t want to wing it. That would be crazy, suicidal. Speeches like this take thought, consideration and reconsideration, especially when it’s your last chance, your swan song. And there are no do-overs. You don’t want to wind up like Felix Penderghast. At last year’s banquet, Felix Penderghast stopped his remarks in mid-sentence and said he was going to take it from the top. A firing squad stepped forward from behind the gold lamé curtain, and before poor Felix could issue a single syllable of his corrected speech, the squad of six men and six women blew his head clean off. Someone in the audience muttered—unkindly if you ask me—so much for taking it from the top.

• •

A hitchhiker is wearing old-fashioned canvas tennis shoes that look like dead butterflies in the puddle where he stands. Even in the wind and rain I can hear his shoes make a gurgling sound as my car approaches, and he begins walking backwards on the road. He walks backwards on the road, raising his massive right arm as if in a wave, and signaling with his thumb that he needs a lift. There is no doubt of that. His worn and shaggy appearance indicates that he probably has been walking on the roads for days. Though I am alone in my car, and have no destination I am hurrying to, I drive past the hitchhiker, thinking what bad shape the world is in, and wondering where and how far away is the next rest stop.

• •

The cemetery where the ledes are buried lies just north of the city, in a grove of maples. It was established some years ago, when a state senator sought to bury the lede in a speech about gun control, but had no place to put it. Another legislator had a similar problem in a speech about abortion rights. And yet another was looking for a place to bury the lede about despoiling the waterways. The maple grove north of the city was deemed ideal for a ledes cemetery, as the soil is arable and one might bury a lede so deeply it would never be recovered. So citizens went to work at once, enclosing the area and putting up headstones. The cemetery is the first of its kind in the country, though it has drawn so much national attention, it would not be surprising to see many more such cemeteries crop up shortly. For local families, it doubles as a park. People picnic among the buried ledes, and children often ask if they can bury a lede when they grow up. In Japan, cemeteries are built on hillsides. In heavy rains, the coffins are lifted out of the ground and float in the streets. No such danger applies here. In all the years of the cemetery’s existence, not a single lede has resurfaced.

• •

A woman sits in the village square, which is a circle, in the circle she has made of herself. Folding and stretching her body until she becomes the circle she sits in. She is the circle. Her eyes are brown. Her eyes are bright blue. She is you, sitting where the light is torn like a pennant, heartbroken over the lover who has left her, or thrilled by the lover she’s just met. Make of her what you will. She’s impossible to read. Quiet as a novice, she looks upward for the whisper of wings. She is a miner in the coal pits, wearing her own light. She is a coachman bringing a dwarf to town. She is an owl in the rain, the Moon, a rose. The heart’s faint light exposes her as beautiful.

• •

Making my way around the house, I sometimes think I am sleepwalking, because of the dreams. Sometimes not.  When I am certain that I’m dreaming, it turns out that I am not.  Often I dream within a dream.  Have you done that? It’s disorienting.  You awaken from the dream within your dream, only to find yourself in the first dream, where you are afraid of going to sleep lest you return to your dream inside the original. That inner dream is the one you never remember, the secret dream. It frightens you the most, but maybe it shouldn’t. The story tells you what it wants you to know.

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