Wednesday, May 28, 2008

Dialogue with Doubt

A dark room with a harsh cone of light coming from the one exposed bulb hanging from the ceiling. There's the two of us there, me nursing a cup of coffee and the man on the other side of the table smoking what must be his third cigarette in the ten minutes we've sat in silence.

How I've ended up here is anyone's guess. Certainly when I was out in the bright world of colors and subtlety I didn't think it would lead me here. When I fell from the daylight into this dank musty-smelling box of a room all I could do was look behind me and think why?

I don't get a chance to think too long about it. The fellow on the other side, him with the long face and the fierce eyes, puts out his cigarette in the small metal ashtray already half full and leans forward, speaking around the lungfull of smoke that pours from his mouth.

"So tell me, Matt, how have you ended up falling this far?"

I take another drink of my cup, staring down into the depths of the liquid in the cup. It's black, the harsh ligthing removes any tone of brown from it and I'm left drinking something that looks like night and tar. It's easier to look into that void than into his eyes.

"Couldn't tell you. One thing lead to another, and here I am in this room ... wherever this room is."

"This room ... well, better to not say anything yet."

"Don't tell me," I say. "I've hit bottom."

He laughs. It's hard and barking and makes my head throb. "This isn't the bottom yet. Trust me, you have a long way to fall yet. I wouldn't be nearly so nice if you were on the bottom."

"So what is this?"

"A safety net, maybe? In here think of me as the cop. You're in trouble, mister." An affected stern face, like a painted mask.

"All bad cop here, then," I say as I look up at him.

"Eh, I am what I am, as the sailors say. But look at it this way, in here I can't rough you up. You go any further, and our little roleplay ends and I can get down to business." This grin is predatory, all teeth too big and too sharp to be normal. I recoil from it and return to the coffee.

"So what do you want?"

"I'm supposed to scare you straight, eh? So talk."

"About?"

"About how you got here, you idiot. What do you think?"

"I was just going along, minding my own business, heading through life and ..."

"Whoa, whoa. Back up. Going along, heading through life. What the hell does that mean, anyway?"

"What it always does. I was just living."

"Just ... living?"

"Yeah."

"Explain."

"I'd get up, go to work, come home, try to write, talk to friends, go to bed, rinse and repeat."

"I see..."

"What?"

"Tell me about your friends."

"Good bunch. Nothing wrong with them. Don't question there."

"Touchy?" That cannibal grin again.

"No," I say, not looking away this time. "I just don't want to waste time with something that helps. They've been actively helping me. I just haven't been listening."

"Why not?"

"Isn't that your job?"

"Oo, got some fight in us, do we, book boy? Fine. Tell me about your job."

"It's fine. I got hired on full time."

"Good, yeah?"

"I like it."

He picks up another cigarette and lights it, smoking as he thinks. "Raise?"

"Slightly."

"Comfortable?"

"I never had any complaints."

"I see." The cigarette burns down quickly. He taps the ash in, and the ashtray fills more.

"I don't see what this has to do with anything, I mean obvi-"

"Shut up." He snaps as he put outs the cigarette.

"Excuse me?" I'm naive enough to be shocked into silence.

"You heard me. I'll tell you what matters here. I'm in charge. Not you. So answer my questions, but otherwise keep your damn mouth shut." He pulls out another cigarette and lights it. A long drag. Then a tight-lipped smile.

"Your friends are good, yeah?"

I nod.

"Your work is good, yeah?"

I nod.

"How about your home life?"

"It's nice, finally. Settled. Best choice I ever made, y'know?"

He nods and exhales and is obscured in a rising curtain of smoke. All that's left is cloudy features and his piercing eyes.

"No problems?"

"Except for the writing, no."

He smiles knowingly. "I see."

A long pause. He smokes and I drink and we pass the time together. It's cozy in a sick way. Old friends with guns trained on each other.

His cigarette is burned down, and he puts it out. He reaches for the pack. "Only room for one more in the ashtray. You better talk well, because when I'm out of space I'm leaving to go finish the pack and you're not coming along."

"What do you want me to tell you?"

He puts the cigarette to his lips. "Why can't you write?"

"I don't know! That's why you're here."

"Wrong." He lifts the lighter, and flicks the wheel. The flame leaps out, the cigarette is lit, and he inhales once.

"Then what?"

"You're the rock star, figure it out."

"I can't. Don't you think I've tried?" I sink into the chair, defeated.

"Now how is that attitude going to change the world?" Another inhale. He's burning quickly through the cigarette, but I can't think of anything to say. He's right, of course. I've been beaten. There's nothing I can do. For all my efforts, I just didn't have it in me. I've petered out at the starting line.

"Maybe I can't."

He grunts. "Coward."

"Then what?"

"What's the first rule of doing this forever?" He leans forward, all his spiteful mirth gone and instead a deadly earnestness in his manner. I sit up. The answer is automatically dragged out of me.

"Never make a Plan B."

"So tell me ... how's your life?"

I scramble to find an answer. "It's fine! There's nothing wrong with it. Work, friends, family ... it's all good."

"You said that before."

"It's still true!"

"What's Plan B, dummy?"

"What does this have to do with-"

"Answer the question!" He blows out a heavy puff of smoke when he shouts. The cigarette's almost burnt down. I'm running out of time.

"I ... it's ... getting comfortable with how things are."

"What do you have to be uncomfortable about now?"

I scramble to think. "Well, there's my feelings for--"

"You got over those, remember? Wrote a hell of a book, too, though nobody will ever know."

"How about my problems with--"

"You moved out, remember? I believe your words were 'best choice I ever made'."

"But ... I want to be paid to do what I love."

"You enjoy your job, right? You make good money, and it'll get even better, eh?"

"But ... but..."

"Face it, buddy," he says as he inhales the cigarette. It's burning down to the filter now. He taps some of the last ash into the tray. It threatens to overflow. "You just," he inhales deeply, the ember burning all the way down and out, "don't have the fire anymore. You lost the desperation."

"So now what?"

"You need a reason. And fast. Fear and panic won't work anymore. But if you don't hurry, it'll all be gone. You'll be just like everyone else. All those dreams, like a puff of smoke." He grins, and then exhales, and smoke pours from his mouth, and towards me. I lean back to avoid it, but it's no use. It's as if he's on fire, smoke billowing from his mouth and nose. And then I can't see him anymore as my eyes water.

When I reach up and rub them, and wave away the smoke, I'm alone in the room. I reach down to drink my coffee, but it's gone cold. I leave it on the table untouched.

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