A SELFISH INVENTION
by Donald Edem Quist
DaYana drops the butt of her cigarette into a dingy embankment of snow lining the cracked sidewalk leading to her residence hall. She exhales a final exasperated cloud of wet gray smoke and watches the vapors scatter in the frigid air. Glancing down at the beige stub steaming on the packed ice, DaYana considers the contribution she has made to the billion pounds of non-biodegradable cigarette ends that become toxic trash each year. DaYana folds her arms and shivers against a sudden chill slipping under her hooded pea coat and over her shaved head. She curses herself for breaking her promise to quit smoking, then curses herself for choosing to attend graduate school in New England. Shuffling quickly up the steps to the front lobby of her dorm, she chides herself for not being asleep, for coming out into the cold, and for fretting negative workshop feedback.
Issue #140 soundtrack: twenty-three “The Firm and the Yielding Displace Each Other”
DaYana pulls open one of the heavy steel commercial doors. She stomps her feet on the large entrance mats, but the squeak of her damp boots still echoes against the rubber tiles of the stairwell. Climbing to the third level, she decides to abandon the revisions she’s made over the last few hours. She forms a plan: she will use the bathroom and then head to her room to go to bed. She’ll snooze through the morning craft lectures and wake in the afternoon with fresh eyes and hopefully a better perspective on her piece and the “cultural incongruities” which her workshop leader and cohorts claim make the story feel less capital-A-authentic.
She arrives at her floor and pauses in the doorway. Darkness shrouds the halls—part of the college’s initiative to conserve energy. The only light emanates from the glowing red emergency exit sign mounted above her.
“Authentic,” DaYana says aloud to no one, letting the word linger in the quiet shadows as she slinks through the black towards the direction of the communal lavatories.
Pushing through the swinging bathroom door, DaYana squints against the harsh florescence. She recites silently the opening lines of her story.
The hardships and joys of labor make a solid symphony. Leo knew this. If you hear one of the others tell you they predicted Leo’s betrayal, do not listen. The truth: Leo worked hard, and the company rewarded him. He started at 17 in raw materials plant 6/20. He moved on to the assembly line in factory five. By 25, he had become a tester on the third shift, a very comfortable…
DaYana nearly stumbles as the tip of one of her insulated steel-toed snow boots hits a body curled on the restroom floor.
DaYana hops over the figure. Her drowsy brain struggles to process the scene. She stands for several seconds, scanning the mass before squatting down to examine. DaYana reaches out a hand and shakes the snoring carcass. The body wakes, coughing and sputtering.
“Phillip Dawkins?” DaYana hears herself say.
The distinguished visiting faculty nods. “You’re a woman?”
“Yes,” DaYana says.
“What are you doing in the men’s room?”
“All the bathrooms in this dorm are gender-neutral.”
Phillip Dawkins blinks slowly. “Jesus Christ.”
DaYana can hear the audible clicks and creeks from the old man’s bones as Dawkins sits up with a groan. He scans the restroom and asks, “Do you know what happened to the young lady that was here a moment ago?”
“You sure? She was just here. A girl. Her breasts are substantial but not gratuitous, you know? Falling from her chest but not drooping, they tug at her clavicle, creating pockets deep enough to carry sips of water between her collarbones and her long, elegant neck?”
“But you know who I mean, right? She’s perfect. She’s got a celestial nose, the tip turned up slightly, like her face was built to point to the heavens.”
DaYana claps her palms together. “Okay. I’m done with this. I've got to pee.”
She stands and walks to the furthest stall.
After relieving her swollen bladder, she emerges to find Dawkins swaying on his feet and gripping the sides of a sink to balance himself.
DaYana leaves a basin between them as she washes her hands.
“There was a party this evening over in faculty housing,” Dawkins explains. “Someone was kind enough to share their barrel-aged gin. As things cooled over there, I thought to cross that frozen tundra of a campus in search for warmer jubilation. That’s when I discovered that striking young woman in one of the downstairs common rooms taking shots of champagne, if you can believe it.” Dawkins’ hacking laugh is a piercing bark against the bathroom’s porcelain surfaces. He pauses suddenly to glance across the room again. “Where did she go?”
“I don’t know,” DaYana says, shaking her hands to dry them.
She moves around Dawkins to exit the room, but he calls after her. “You’re Diana, correct?”
“DaYana, like DAY and ANNA.” She turns to face him. “I’m in your specialized workshop. You critiqued me earlier today, well, yesterday.”
Dawkins squints and nods. “That’s correct. I liked your story’s premise. Chinese factory worker dies trying to build a teleportation machine with smuggled parts from a microwave oven assembly line. It’s interesting enough.”
“Really? Because during workshop you said my piece was ‘static, colorful static.’ Then I just had to sit there while you asked other students to rewrite my opening and read their alternative versions with you interrupting them every few lines to say, ‘Do you see what they did there, Diana?’ It was pretty awful.”
“Does criticism of your work offend you? If you hope to be a better writer, you’ll have to be open to a little feedback.”
“Hey. I’m sorry, but that’s bullshit. I’m open to constructive criticism. That’s not what that was. I mean, you barely said anything about my story beyond the first page, just vague assertions about how some of the cultural aspects of the narrative didn’t feel believable.”
DaYana pulls back her hood. She runs her cold hands across her buzzed scalp, yawns and shakes her head. “I’m going to bed. I guess I’ll see you tomorrow.”
Dawkins wobbles closer. “I apologize if you perceived my guidance as less than thorough. I can tell you exactly how you can improve, Diana. If you aren’t too tired, we can even discuss your fiction now, while your prose is still relatively fresh in my mind.”
DaYana studies the crystalized drool at the corner of Dawkins’ mouth, leading to a thin, matted line of hair across part of his bushy, grey beard. His red, vein-streaked, eyes shake rapidly behind his horn-rimmed glasses.
“Great. Might I trouble you for a cigarette? The nicotine does help me think.”
“How do you know I smoke?”
Dawkins narrows his eyes. “You have a gross compulsion to nibble the skin around your fingernails. I’ve noticed you do this during workshop. You’re even doing it now. This betrays an oral fixation or sexual frustration, and although I’m not entirely prepared to exclude the possibility that you might be starved for intercourse, you’re wearing a coat and boots, your face is red, and you obviously just came in from the cold. The only thing that would compel a person to venture out into below freezing temperatures this late at night is a vice.”
“Fair enough,” DaYana says, pulling her fingers away from her mouth. “But if you were just able to figure out I just came inside, why would I go back out there?”
“We won’t be long. We’ll smoke quickly-- imbue our lungs with warm tobacco and return indoors to talk about your writing.”
DaYana senses the tug of sleep behind her pupils, but her extremities surge with excitement.
“Fine," she relents.
Dawkins beams, removing his hands from the edges of the sink and stumbling to the restroom door.
Peering out into the hallway, Dawkins gasps. “Who vanished the light?” he asks.
DaYana strides next to him. She removes her smartphone from her coat and taps on a flashlight application. The pair moves to the stairs.
“Diana, do you think that young woman resides on this floor?”
“We should try to keep our voices down. People are sleeping.”
“Should we go in search for her? Should we attempt to wake her?”
On the stairs, Dawkins’ caution surprises DaYana. He turns his body sideways, both hands white-knuckled on the railing. Dawkins continues to chat about the girl he met earlier and dubs her his “Missing Muse.”
“She reminds me very much of my first wife who was a dancer, trained in classical and interpretive, not a stripper or anything of the sort, although we did meet in a dive bar. HA!”
Again, Dawkins expels his explosive, biting laugh, filling the stairwell with the cracking phlegm in his throat and chest. He prattles without interruption until they reach the first floor and exit the building.
DaYana unbuttons her coat and reaches into the breast pocket to remove a pack of cigarettes and a lighter. She offers both to Dawkins.
“Aren’t you going to smoke too?” he asks.
“I’m trying to quit.”
“Ah, so am I,” Dawkins says. He pulls a cigarette from the package, places it between his lips. He lights the cigarette, breathes deeply, and exhales. “My current wife, she couldn’t be much older than you. How old are you?”
Bouncing on the balls of her feet to generate heat, DaYana replies, “25.”
“Yes, a year younger than my wife. My new bride nonplused my youngest daughter, who just turned 30. However, my spouse makes me relatively happy and keeps me young. She sincerely worries about my health and nags me to stop drinking and smoking, but breaking bad habits is difficult for men of a certain age. When I was younger, everyone smoked, at least during social occasions. We were neither fully aware, nor particularly concerned, with the physical or environmental impacts of our guilty pleasures. Did you know cigarette butts are not degradable? Huge environmental and economic burden.”
“Yes,” DaYana replies.
“It’s quite terrible. My daughter gave me one of those e-cigarette devices for my birthday last year, but it isn’t the same.”
DaYana can feel the cold slice her lips and slap her bare skin.
“Maybe you can give me your thoughts on my writing right now, just a brief overview? Big things you noticed, and then we can talk more in-depth another time.”
Dawkins stares up to the cloudy sky. When he eventually returns DaYana’s gaze, he says, “Yes, of course. But first, before I forget, I have two suggestions for you if you’d really like to quit smoking. The first, chew cinnamon sticks. It helps sate the oral cravings, and it smells great. Number two, get yourself a boyfriend that will hold you accountable, Diana.”
“My girlfriend usually makes sure I don’t smoke. I’ll look into the cinnamon sticks.”
Dawkins’ stare widens. “Oh, I apologize. I suppose looking at you, I should have guessed you were homosexual, right?”
DaYana bites her bottom lip, resisting the urge to rip the joking smirk from Dawkins’ face.
“And about my writing?”
Dawkins readjusts his stance.
“Right, well…” And suddenly he is collapsing.
DaYana bends quickly to hook her arms around his torso, but his right knee clacks loud against the icy sidewalk.
“Shit. Shit. Sir, are you okay?”
Dawkins turns his face away from DaYana’s belly.
“Getting older is a series of indignities, Diana.”
DaYana bears most of Dawkins’ weight as he climbs back onto his feet. He pulls DaYana under his right arm. She becomes a crutch.
“Do you need to see a doctor? That sounded pretty bad.”
“At my age, impacts like this are common. I only need to get of my legs for a while.”
“Can you make it back upstairs?”
“I think its best I retreat to my own quarters. We can talk there if you like, and I will undoubtedly need your aid trekking across the campus quad. My lodgings are accessible from the street, handi-capable the president informed me, which I initially felt reluctant to accept but now am very grateful I did.”
DaYana glances across the snowy lawn. She can see the lights of the faculty residence hall, but the expanse, glowing under floodlights perched at the edge of the building facades, looks vast. In the quiet stillness, DaYana imagines that only she and Dawkins inhabit the entire campus.
She guides their first steps. They wobble before finding a rhythm.
To the crunch of packed snow under feet and Dawkins’ wheezing breath, DaYana lets her mind drift to her story…
… Leo’s work ethic is what we had most admired. When the bells ring through the factory at 11 a.m., Leo often stayed behind at his station. We would return to the dormitories for lunch while he stood eating over a machine or conveyor belt. Leo’s hard work provided him opportunities to steal from the company, pocketing spare pieces, parts, and defective products for his selfish inventions. Dawkins tries to interject an anecdote about surviving Minnesota winters as a child and urinating his name into snow. DaYana ignores him. Since Leo’s death, we found many of his contraptions hoarded in the closet of his dormitory. Despite his work ethic, Leo never understood that mature people might not always do what they want, but always what they must do. This may explain many of his peculiarities. He never sent money home to his family and never showed an interest in marrying. Leo didn’t speak much, but when he did, he spoke of places he had never visited and destinations he longed to see.
DaYana is pushing though the door to Dawkins’ residence. She reaches intuitively for a light switch, flips it on, and navigates Dawkins across the carpet. She seats him by the window on one of two matching wooden chairs, parked beneath a half-circle kitchen table.
“Thank you,” he says.
DaYana replies, “It’s really late. I’m going to go back and go to bed. You should sleep, too.” She expels a final exasperated cough and turns to leave.
“But we haven’t spoke about your writing yet.”
“It’s okay. Maybe tomorrow.”
“No, I’m a man of my word. Look, Diana, do me a favor and go into the kitchenette over there. You’ll find some plastic cups and a bottle of highland single malt scotch whiskey, Aberlour 18. Pour one for yourself. You’ve earned it.”
DaYana wants to tell him that she thinks he’s had enough libations, but she complies. She returns to Dawkins with the half-empty bottle and two clear disposable cups. She pours him an inch and less for herself. Dawkins toasts his missing muse and takes a long sip.
DaYana follows. The alcohol warms her cold chest. She chokes at the taste.
“I first tasted scotch when I was your age. My agent sent me a bottle after I signed the deal for my first novel.”
“I didn’t realize you were so young when you wrote The Native Threat.”
“I presume you’ve read it.”
“It’s my favorite.”
“Your favorite book I’ve written.”
DaYana takes another sip from her glass and winces. “Actually, my favorite book, period.”
“In our time together, I never perceived you to be an admirer of my work, Diana.”
“I was really excited to join your workshop.”
She avoids eye contact but can sense Dawkins’ focus.
“I feel I’ve gotten to know you well, Diana, and I can be forthcoming with you. Based on your name and background, I can assume you are familiar with Charles Marlowe’s Tales of River and the work of Benjuan and Lupope.”
DaYana squirms in her seat.
“Hemingway said, ‘From all things that you know and all those you cannot know, you make something through your invention that is not a representation, but a whole new thing truer than anything true and alive.’”
“Write what you know.”
“Precisely! Readers are starved for ethnic stories, but why not write about your own people? It seems you would want to follow in that literary tradition, to speak on your people’s experience.”
“And what if I don’t have anything to say about my people’s experience?”
“Well, you surely have something to say about that perspective.”
“Okay. What if I want to say something else, explore viewpoints beyond my own? Should I assume you’ve always written what you know? You have personal experience among warring colonies in distant galaxies?”
“You appear to be getting emotional. If you have been offended, that is not my intention. I'm only trying to give you sound advice. Like any industry, there are expectations. When it comes to writing and publishing, readers want to know the author has authority. They might expect someone like me to write a literary science-fiction novel, whereas most readers would expect you to write about your own culture. I'm not saying it's right, but it's true. I didn't invent these expectations; they predate me. So, of course when you decide to pen genre-bending short fiction featuring Chinese characters, it immediately raises questions about authenticity.”
DaYana sucks her teeth.
“Diana, if you look at the most famous works of literary fiction, the books that become canon, they are firmly rooted in the author’s own life experience.”
DaYana gulps the rest of her scotch. She clears her throat and says, “Fuck canon. I’ve never been a fan of classics. What about stories that defy convention? What about authors that challenge themselves to write about what they aren’t familiar with in hopes of learning and sharing more about the world?”
“Plenty of authors try to inhabit another’s skin through writing, and it most always fails.”
“And that’s a reason not to try?”
“You wanted to know how to improve your writing, how to be a successful author. That is why you are here. That is why you are talking to me. I’m telling you, as someone who has been at this for over three decades, a simple story based in your own personal experience is what to do. Play the race-culture-lifestyle-cards you’ve been dealt. A gay, immigrant, woman of color; that’s a literary jackpot! You should be able to secure an agent with minimal effort if you just stick to the basics and write what you know.”
“If I looked like you, would we even be having this conversation? I could pretty much write about whatever, wherever, whomever I wanted and not have to worry about never getting published, right?”
“Yes. Again, I didn’t set these precedents. But, yes. I could write your story, and it might be more widely embraced coming from me. However, I’m sure there would be some backlash from censor-happy social justice warriors online. If you do a Chinese factory worker story, it is empathy. If I do it, it is cultural appropriation.”
DaYana grins. “Must be difficult for you, knowing that if you fail in your portrayal of another group or race, you might have to hear their criticisms.”
“But isn’t that why you’ve grown so defensive, because I’m giving you criticism?”
“I don’t think that what this is.”
Dawkins downs the rest of his drink. “Okay,” he says, “your story’s protagonist needs to have a clearer sense of longing. The narrator explains that—what’s his name, Leo? —Leo likes to talk about places he’s never seen, but that needs to be more specific. Where does he want to go? The reader needs to understand what attracts him to other places. Don’t expect the reader to assume that Leo feels unfulfilled in his life and would be happier in another place. Why? That needs to be explained.”
Dawkins pauses to belch and scratch his beard.
“And the voice of your narrator, Leo’s comrade, needs to have more condemnation. Even if Leo were dead, the narrator would feel anger, even more so because Leo died radiating himself with a machine that was bound to bomb. And there would definitely be consequences for the rest of the workers because of Leo’s actions. The narrator’s life would be upturned when the factory introduced stricter regulations. The narrator should sound at least a little inconvenienced. Change the tone, or switch to a distant third person if you want more freedom in point of view.”
Dawkins rocks softly in his seat.
“Thank you,” DaYana says, nodding. “Seriously, that’s all very helpful.”
Dawkins tips his glass at DaYana for a refill. She pours, and he continues.
“I was like you. I think all beginning writers are like you. You want to defy expectations. You want to make something new, but readers don’t like new, not really. Flannery O’Connor said, ‘Endings have to be surprising but inevitable.’ Like my last book, for example. It was predictable, nothing new, but clever enough to become a critical and commercial success. It met expectations. The truth is, I can barely stand to do readings of that novel in public. However, I had a multi-book deal to fulfill and a family to support. At a certain point in every career, even yours if you stick with it, a storyteller must decide whether they intend to live on what they write. Once you’ve done that, you must then accept the fact that the unexpected doesn’t sell.”
Dawkins finishes the liquor in his glass. He reaches for the neck of the bottle. DaYana snatches the scotch from the table and stands.
“You should sleep. So should I.”
DaYana returns the scotch to the kitchen area and then moves to exit the apartment.
“Perhaps you could stay for one more drink?”
“I’m tired. Maybe another time.”
“I’ve enjoyed our intimate salon. You’re decent company. Are you sure you have to leave?”
“Good night, sir.” DaYana pulls open the door, and the cold rushes over her.
“Diana, what do you think happened to my missing muse?”
Turning around to face Dawkins, DaYana lingers in the doorway.
“I think she’s somewhere sleeping,” DaYana says.
Dawkins nods. “Did you read my last book?”
“I did. I’ve read all your books.”
Dawkins’ chest swells. “What did you think?”
“I thought you could have done better.”
Dawkins leans back in his chair. He gazes up at the ceiling.
“Sometimes I feel like that opening line to Ellison’s Invisible Man. I'm turning into some kind of phantasm. I'm vanishing, but when I try to sit down and write about it, I bore myself.”
“Maybe you should try writing for other ghosts.”
DaYana closes the door behind her as she leaves. Outside, it has begun to snow.
She buries her hands in the pockets of her coat. As she trudges across the campus to her residence hall, DaYana contemplates how to incorporate some of Dawkins' feedback. She thinks about his adamant recommendations and the basics of plot: a character, different but not unlike herself, moving from conscious into subconscious, from life to death to life again, on a journey from order to chaos to retrieve some great boon or personal insight. DaYana wonders if a good story can strive for innovation and still carry depth. She considers the possibilities of defying convention and bending form and becoming successful without having to follow a restrictive template or parade herself as other.
Maybe instead of dying predictably in a failed attempt to build a quantum teleportation device with pilfered microwave oven components, Leo succeeds in his experimentation.
Will this revision make Leo’s story less authentic and therefore less marketable?
“Maybe,” DaYana says to herself, “I won’t be for sale.”
Wind blows fat flakes of snow across her face. Squinting through the precipitation, DaYana can almost see Leo in his navy coveralls… He stood beside an unkempt gravestone on a white hill overlooking building 6/20, the raw material processing center where he started working as a teenager after his parents had died.
Seconds earlier, Leo had been tinkering with his device in the closet of his dormitory and then an invisible hand had reached through his belly, gripped his spine, and pulled him forward through space to here, now.
For several minutes, kneeling in the snow to closely examine the columns on the headstone, Leo struggled to comprehend his own name etched in granite between the dates of his own birth and death. Rereading his home province on the top of the stone, Leo began to realize the significance of his invention. His mortality had never felt more apparent and also irrelevant.
Leo smiled, contemplating how the pursuit of something unfamiliar revealed a discovery greater than anything he could have anticipated.
And DaYana, finally on her way to dream, grins, too, against the barren New England chill.
Donald Edem Quist is author of the short story collection Let Me Make You a Sandwich and the nonfiction collection Harbors. His work has appeared in North American Review, The Rumpus, Puerto del Sol, Hunger Mountain, J Journal, Vol 1. Brooklyn, Queen Mob’s Teahouse, Cleaver, Knee-Jerk, The Adroit Journal, Pithead Chapel, Numéro Cinq, The Nervous Breakdown, Slag Glass City, Publishers Weekly and other print and online publications. He is a four-time Pushcart Prize nominee, runner-up for the Howard Frank Mosher Short Fiction Prize and a winner of the E.L. Doctorow and Peter Matthiessen Authors Competition from the Writers’ Workshop of Asheville. He is creator of the web project PAST TEN, co-host of the Poet in Bangkok podcast, and serves as Fiction Editor for Atlas and Alice. He received a fellowship from Kimbilio Fiction and earned his MFA in Writing from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Find him online at iamdonaldquist.com.
Tracy Kerdman is a painter based in New York, NY. She graduated with a BA in Studio Art from the College of Charleston in 2009 and studied at the National Academy Museum and School in New York. The execution of her work is direct and strong, yet the figures are fragile and vulnerable. The pleasure of painting coexists with the uncomfortable nature of the subject. The viewer is haunted yet delighted. Tracy has exhibited in museums and galleries across the U.S., Canada and Germany. For more, visit tkerdman.com.
twenty-three is the moniker of percussionist Andy Kivela. He began the project in 2003 as a way to experiment with electronic music, soundscapes, and loops of ambient sound. The project has evolved into a way for him to experiment with Brian Eno's ideas of Generative Music as well as Erik Satie's "Furniture Music." The offshoot group, 23 Ensemble, began in 2009 as a vehicle for free expression of musical ideas in the vein of the free jazz loft scene of the 70s and 80s. He lives in Easthampton, Mass., with his partner, Nikki Beck, and their pug, Lexi. For more, visit collapsiblecatrecords.bandcamp.com.