David slipped this phrase into our conversation with such ease and grace that I flirted with the idea that he couldn’t possibly know how brilliant it was. Brilliant, is a relative term, of course, but this experience set me back a few paces. It reached me on a personal level, yet I believed it could reach so many, in the same manner, that I thought it might have had universal appeal. It was silly, yet poignant enough to be thought provoking. It captured an essence of what it means to be human in a manner that could be taken seriously and used as ammunition against those that take themselves too seriously. The artist in me didn’t want to use someone else’s material, but the satirist in me couldn’t wait to use it in blogs, stories, and conversations with those that had never met David. And all of these thoughts came flooding into my head in the thirty seconds that followed David artfully slipping this phrase into our conversation.
I was laughing at it, but it wasn’t really funny, and I thought about that while laughing. Laughter, I think, is my “go to” when I am utterly confused, and fascinated, and awed at the same time. Vonnegut, I would later read, would say the very same thing in different words.
This luncheon was supposed to be my first meeting with my first fan. He called me out of the blue and said he’d like to meet. He said he’d read a number of my blogs, and he found my number on the net, and he said he’d never done this before, but he wanted to sit down and talk. He was my first fan.
He mentioned a couple of my pieces, and we talked about them over the phone. I think he was trying to prove he wasn’t some scary wacko, but truth be told I think I would’ve sat down with him even if he was. I was looking for validation if not a coronation, after years of toiling in anonymity, and that was all over before my butt could warm in the seat.
If David had introduced me to a mathematical, or scientific, theory in a manner I couldn’t understand, it would not have been bothered. If he had discussed geopolitical theory, or politics in general, in a way that was over my head, I would’ve politely smiled and waited for him to finish, sure that the overarching theme would return to one of my theories, my writing, or in some way to something about me. The subtle delivery of a satirical thought, with such brevity, diminished me in a manner that I couldn’t help but think was a violation of our proposed roles in this luncheon.
I was so sure that this thought didn’t come from him that I watched his mouth while he spoke. I’m not sure if I looked at his mouth, expecting doves to fly out, and thus punctuate this idea I had that this phrase was born of an inspiration from another world, or if I was temporarily enamored by the biological passage of idea from brain to mouth to such a degree that I expected the phrase to reverse itself back into his brain in the form of a rainbow. My goal, I think, was to disembody the brilliance from the man for the expressed purpose of dealing with the brilliance as a standalone. I did not want to have to deal with it, in conjunction with the fact that this man had just said it, for he was a self-professed fan, the fan of mine, that had expressed a desire to get to know the man behind the words better.
His attire was disarming. When I entered the coffee shop, there were two other people there, sitting solo, and I went to them first, before David stood waving. I unconsciously considered him the least likely of the three, to be my fan. I was so sure that the man in the unimaginably expensive suit wasn’t the self-professed fan, the David with which I had had a brief phone conversation, that had he not stood and waved, I may have sat solo waiting for the apologetic man to come running into the coffee house. The suit was black with gentle, white stripes, an ideal complement to the crisp, white shirt he wore, and his expertly coiffed white hair. The coif was also so meticulous that I assumed he had paid triple digits for a stylist to conjure. His skin was the final upsetting matter, upsetting to the balance I foresaw the night before when I thought of this luncheon. It appeared a little too tan, and a little too shiny for even a novice like me to think that he hadn’t visited another professional in this regard. And it was all done for a meeting with a blogger of no repute, in a chain coffee store, on a midweek afternoon. Had this been an interview at Cambridge, and I a famous author, I still would have considered him overdressed and over coiffed. His appearance at this meeting had me wary and defensive.
Immediately after laying the phrase on me, he sipped on his coffee as casually as he had the first two sips. This was followed by a smile, a cheesy finger point, and a wink. The normal progression did not happen, that being “the guns” and a loud, playful clicking. The wink and the point did happen, he knew how profound his phrase was; he knew I was chewing on it; and he knew I couldn’t believe it had come from him.
We all have varying definitions of brilliance. What may be seen as creative brilliance by some is judged common place, or too far out of the mainstream by another. You never know how these phrases will be accepted, but it’s just like anything else. So, I asked him about it. I asked if he had ever considered its market appeal, “You never know with these things,” I said.
“Don’t ask me about it. Just use it.”
“But we have to talk about money and all that,” I said. “If it comes to that of course.”
“I have no need for money,” he said sipping on that coffee again. “I’m old. What would I do with money now?”
He did look older, but I wouldn’t have called him old. Being older and being old were two different hemispheres as far as I was concerned. Being old suggests to me that you’ve given up on most of life’s requirements. You no longer feel the need to wear unimaginably expensive suits, or expertly coiffed hair; your skin is your skin, and you no longer feel the need to enhance it in anyway. Being old suggests to me that you’ve given up enhancing any of your attributes in anyway, because nobody cares how an old man looks anymore, least of all you.
“You could copyright the phrase,” I said, “and make little bits here and there when people used it in songs, or on T-shirts, or God knows how often a phrase like that could be used.”
He tilted his head to the right. He said nothing.
“Can I use the phrase?” I asked, even though he had already stated that I should.
He appeared caught off guard, and pleasantly surprised that I would ask such a question.
“You sure can,” he said apparently recognizing that I did not want to take his permission for granted. “You sure can,” he said pronouncing sure in the manner most of us pronounce shore. “That’s why I called you here today.”
I was unsettled. I wasn’t sure if it was ethical that I use this phrase as my own, without some form of attribution. In the space of time where neither of us spoke, I drifted through some creative ways I could provide attribution while still providing my readers the illusion that it was mine, or at the very least give me points for creative use of it.
“I’ve read through your stuff,” he said. “It’s fairly good.” When he added that I considered the assessment to either be a qualifier that would lead him to a ‘but’, or a polite introduction to a greater point. “But you seem to be on the verge of something. What was it Capote said, you only need one great book to be considered a great writer?
“I know how difficult it is to break into the industry,” he continued. “I never did. I wrote ten books, and thousands of pieces, and this little phrase is probably the only thing I came up with worth any merit.” I felt bad when he put it that way. “Don’t feel bad,” he said reading me in a peculiarly adept manner. “I had a good life. Even if I used it, and accomplished all of my publishing dreams as a result, it would mean far less to me now than it would’ve, say, twenty years ago. I have no one left to share such joy with. That life is over now, and I think I’d rather see someone like you, someone that appears to know how to use it, how to enjoy any fruit it produces, and still has someone to share it with.”
The fact that he wrote numerous books, ten I thought he said, lessened the sense of violation. It allowed me to believe that this man had worked through his brain for ideas as hard as I had, and by his own estimation it all resulted in a solitary phrase worth any merit.
The two of us did eventually get around to the reason I thought we were in this coffee shop in the first place. He did compliment some of the pieces I put up on the net, pieces he had printed out and critiqued in a line by line fashion, and he provided valuable insight for some of the others. There were even two pieces that he claimed were worse than worthless.
“Worse than worthless is constructive criticism,” he said. “As opposed to the meanness that a sensitive writer might hear. These posts actually do damage to all the other ones. I know you meant them to be funny, but all those other, more serious posts are actually damaged by the over-the-top silliness of these few posts. I would probably remove those before the day is done.”
Any writer hearing that one of their babies is worse than worthless is going to be sensitive to it, but they will inevitably give the critic bona fides for being honest, and they –like I— will provide more weight to the the negative criticism than the glowing compliments.
We parted company that day, under the coffee shop’s eave, shaking hands, smiling, and glowing with an appreciation for finally meeting a like-minded soul. It was less an earthshaking moment in my life and more of a pleasant afternoon spent with a man that loved to talk writing, shared authors, and a love of books. Thus, when we finished shaking hands, under the coffee shop’s eave, and I said, “We need to do this again,” I was a little shocked by his reaction. He blanched for the first time. He appeared to contemplate that simple, almost obligatory parting gesture for far more time than it deserved before completing the obligatory circuit saying:
“Yes, that would be nice.” That smile was quickly replaced by a look of determination. “But hows about we head down the alleyway and take in the park, the ducks, and this glorious day. Right here. Right now. What do you say?”
I would regret what I would say next, but I had had a long-standing policy of not appreciating perfect days. There is a sense in relatively cold locales such as ours that every perfect day should be appreciated as if it were our last. This sense is not shared by those in other locales where the temperature is more stable and taken more for granted. It was sixty degrees, no wind, and a clear sky. It was also made all the more beautiful by the fact that it had been sandwiched between relatively cool, windy days and more to come by the forecast. I can’t remember what I said exactly, but it had something to do with the fact that I didn’t care to see ducks swimming in a pond, while drinking sangria in the park, in order to forget one’s self, or think I was someone else. Someone good. I saw no intrinsic value in perfect days, or in walks around a body of water with ducks in it, and I still don’t. And if I were to engage in any of the aforementioned rites of appreciation, it wasn’t going to be done with a fella, unless that fella were dying or something.
What I actually said, and what I’ve said so often that I fear I said it there, are all intermingled in the blur of regret I have for my refusal to walk with a dying man on one of his last days on earth.
I recounted the latter parts of the encounter to a friend, one week later, the day after I got a call from a man announcing himself as the lawyer of this David’s estate, and the friend thought it was hilarious. “In a cold-hearted way,” he said.
“David has passed on,” the lawyer said in that phone call, with somber tones suggesting that he was trying to be as delicate as he possibly could.
“Why are you calling me?” I asked after learning of the nature of the man’s death, and learning all of the answers I had to the five ‘W’ questions I had regarding his death.
“You are on the list,” the lawyer said. “David made out a list of the people he wanted notified. The list is very small,” the lawyer said in response to that question. “He survived most of his friends and family. The list is four people long,” he said when I pressed him. “Most of them are out of our area code.”
I went to his funeral, I was one of ten people in attendance. Of these people, only three were related, and they had traveled a great distance to be there. They lived so far away, they said, that they hadn’t seen David in ten years. Their communication was limited to a once a year, lengthy “catching up on how you doin'” Christmas card. Two of the other people worked with the man for over twenty years, another lived next to him, and the four had very loose attachments, such as the two that ate with him every Sunday at the Denny’s on 84th street, and another was his mechanic –a bond developed based on the fact that the man had purchased so many lemons. The last person there was his lawyer –the only person that had anything to gain from the man’s demise, his nominal fee for services rendered.
“The rest of his estate, if that’s what you want to call it,” the lawyer said with a small, polite smile, “Will be donated to charity.”
None of the people attending this funeral knew anything about ten novels, a wide array of short stories, or a phrase. “I’m just not much of a reader,” said one of his buddies from Denny’s, “and I told David that.” “I thought it was just something he did in his retirement years,” said the mechanic. “Ten books huh? Wow!” The rest of them said that they either “faintly recall him saying something about it” to “he never mentioned it to me.”
I was invited by the lawyer, per David’s instruction, to comb through the man’s library. I was invited to take all the books I wanted from the man’s studio apartment, but that I shouldn’t feel obligated to do so. I was invited to take the man’s silverware, and anything else I wanted. The latter invitation was extended by the lawyer, not David, because:
“It will all be given to Good Will if you don’t want it,” the lawyer said in the middle of David’s sparse living room.
The lawyer’s face reflected my sadness, as I looked around the room.
“The family has already gone through everything,” the lawyer informed me before I could ask. My sadness must’ve been apparent, because the lawyer felt the need to add: “It’s what happens when people die.” He said that with an unemotional shrug. “I’m sorry,” he added, collecting himself a little. “I shouldn’t be so flippant. Consider it an occupational hazard. Did you know him?”
“I did not,” I said. “I mean kind of.”
“It’s what happens when old people that have survived all of their friends and family die. He had a nephew that he was close with for a time, he told me, but their lives went in different directions. He wasn’t a bad guy. He just had no substantial attachments.”
I decided to take his books, and as mentioned earlier, I read every single one of them in a couple months. There were ten. I got to know him through his works, an homage to a man I never knew. They weren’t very good, just like my books aren’t very good. For a brief moment, soon after completing one of the books, I was glad David was dead, so I didn’t have to face him with my prognosis of his books. They were well-crafted, and there weren’t too many errors, and no tense changes that would distract, they just didn’t leap off the page. It was depressing. At points, I think I strained to find interest. It was pointless.
I decided that I would allow his legacy to flow through me, in that he would influence my works from that point forward. I decided to tweak the premise of one of his ten unpublished books to get it published. Or, if I didn’t get anything published, perhaps I could continue this tradition. Perhaps I could try to find some fledgling, but talented writer, somewhere along the line and give him our combined efforts, and see if he could rub it until some pearls dropped out.
I was so obsessed with this in the intervening months that followed that I began to wonder if I could actually do this. I changed a number of his plot lines, chunks of his dialogue, and I cut a great deal of fluff, or what I considered fluff. I had it so this combined effort was truly a 50/50 venture, but I knew it needed something. I began to think of the cover of the book, I hated all of his; I began to think of query letters, and marketing gimmicks, and that’s when it dawned on me. The marketing gimmick, a catchy phrase to put on the back jacket, a catchy phrase. I forgot the man’s phrase.
I didn’t write it down, and I didn’t tell anyone about it. I was so concerned with no one knowing that the best catch phrase I ever heard was not mine that I did not want any evidence to the contrary.
My first instinct was to search for it. Even though I didn’t write it down, I made a motion to my notepads. I didn’t actually touch one of those pads, but I came close. I didn’t search through my computer files, though that thought crossed my mind. I, in fact, didn’t even leave my computer chair, until I thought of his books. I left my chair, grabbed some of his books, and surfed through them. The thought being if I could get his thoughts in my head with his cadence and tone, I could remember the catch phrase. He told me that he didn’t write it in any of his books, and that it only occurred to him after most of those books were complete, but I thought that reading through those books again would do it. It didn’t. Nothing. Done. Gone.
The phrase that I thought was so great, so brilliant, and so profound that I wouldn’t forget it, was forgotten, just like the man that thought it up. I felt apologetic, but I had no one to apologize to. I felt some profound regret that nearly caused me to be depressed, but no one knew why I was depressed, and I didn’t tell them because I was so remorseful and ashamed that I didn’t want anyone to give me that crushed look that I couldn’t bear seeing. It would only depress me more.
I still haven’t published that book, but my obsession has grown as a result of remorse and regret. I live with this belief that the reason the guy was so fixed up that day at the coffee shop had more to do with a legacy, that being that at the very least, he would have a beautiful corpse. Nothing else made sense. He didn’t think that day we shared was any more, or any less, special than any of the others he had lived. He wasn’t attracted to me, as I had initially feared, except through collegiality. He just wanted to pass along one piece of information that he thought another could use to their benefit, and I forgot it, and I’ve told no one about it until now. The only thing that helps me now is remembering something my dad once said when I forgot one of my many brilliant thoughts as a kid: “If it was as brilliant as you thought it was, you wouldn’t have forgotten it.”