A Smith Corona Sterling portable typewriter exactly like this one was my prized possession in 1967. I pounded those keys with a furious passion sure that I was creating timeless literature.
Note: Last week I shared a short-short story from the 1967 edition of Apotheosis, the annual literary magazine of Niles West High School in Skokie, Illinois. It was my senior year. The world around me was roiling with unrest over Civil Rights, urban blight and poverty, and increasing resistance to a faraway war in Asia. All of that had grabbed my attention and led to the stirring of activism. I ventured into Chicago for the big anti-war demonstrations and to march with Dr. King for Open Housing. The local group I belonged to, The Liberal Youth of Niles Township quaintly known as LYNT and pronounced like the stuff you had to clear off a drier filter organized a program called Uptight About the Draft? which I certainly was. I even edited and produced on a primitive chemical bath Photostat machine an “underground newspaper” for the three Niles Township high schools called grandiosely The Promethian. In its densely typed columns I pontificated on all of these maters with deadly earnestness.
But in the school newspaper where I had an alleged humor column called The Wind from the West I produced frothy commentary on student life. That is until my 18th Birthday when I had to register for the draft and wrote a blistering and bitter screed on facing war. That aroused the ire of West Principal Nicholas T. Manos who stripped me of some small scholarships I had been awarded from Thespians (drama), Forensics (speech) and for my creative writing in Apotheosis.
But my several contributions to the magazine that spring did not contain one overtly political entry Each one was a reflection of my personal obsession that year—to become a genuine blue ribbon, award winning, critically fawned over Great American Writer. I spent more hours fantasizing about that than I did at the typewriter actually writing. I knew, or thought I did, that the way to become a literary star was to write deeply about serious shit. And what could me more serious than death? Of course what could an 18 year old really know about death? Nothing that he hadn’t learned second had in books and movies. Not that I let it stop me. Two of my short stories in the magazine had death themes. So did one poem, maybe two. In retrospect I now remind myself of that girl in Huckleberry Finn who Mark Twain mocked for her saccharine, Romantic poems about tragic death. You get the picture.
Here is one of the stories which also reflected my fantasies about being a starving writer and living la vie Boheme.
|How I imagined my writer's room. I had seen one too many film noir.|
The Small “g” in God
I lay in bed running my hand over the cool brass of the bedstead and watching the flashing shadows of three different neon signs fight for a place on my wall. I could hear a guitar being played badly down the hall, a toilet flushing and rattling and klerking, and the traffic moving outside my window. But most clearly I could hear the Sleeping Beauty ballet playing on Tanner's phonograph and floating through the thin wall.
Those thin walls were a symbol to us. We had made the slum apartment building a kind of artist’s colony, and the unnecessary poverty of our existence was proof to us of our own purity and dedication. We felt that by the very act of rejecting middle-class comfort we were purging our creative works of the contamination of complacency. So no one ever complained about the thin walls.
I lay in my bed and listened to Tanner’s music—which I loved almost as much as he.
Tanner was our painter and my best friend. He had shown up in May with an Army duffle bag and a half dozen finished canvases under his arm. The paintings were mostly in cool blues and greens with half-shadows of searching lost souls. All of them had the big bold signature—Tanner. Since then we had known him by no other name than Tanner.
He painted alone in his room or out on the stoop, or on the fire escape, or on the roof, but always alone. He painted from the sound of music, using only his own mind for a model. And most of time he used those same sad cool colors we had first seen him with. But each of the paintings was different—one caught a different mood or time of day or smell. We others could only begin to detect what was in them. And his paintings got better and better while the signature got smaller and smaller.
Tanner had never sold anything-he had never tried to. He had given a picture to each of us in the building. He called them paintings pictures of our souls. Each was different and painted in the color and style of our souls. He finished mine last. It was in blue—bright and catching but deep and dark. The brush strokes were high and sweeping, jerking down just a hit at the top as if to rush down on the kneeling player of my soul. The signature was very tiny. Tanner said it was the best thing he had ever done.
I was pleased, not just because it was good, but because it seemed to say that Tanner thought I was good. So I got a frame and hung my soul on my wall. I listened to the music and I looked at it as I lay in my bed and it was distorted by the flashing electric fire of the city at night. And I wrote a poem in my mind that would never find paper.
Tanner took the ballet off before it was finished. I had never heard him do this before and I was angry because I liked the music. Then I heard—or maybe felt—electronic music. It pierced and swayed and rattled then pierced, pierced, pierced and shuttered and pierced again. It swelled and rolled and tit, tit, tit. It engulfed, shattered, retreated, and engulfed again. And I did not understand it or Tanner.
Even through the distortion of the wall, the power of the music was irresistible. It thickened the air until I could not walk through the room, but had to swim in it. And it went on and on and on. I heard the record repeat itself—once, twice, three times. The third time I decided to go to Tanner’s room.
I knocked on the door and waited a moment—not for Tanner to come to the door, but to hear if he called not to come in. We always afforded each other that much privacy. When he did not say anything, I opened the door.
Tanner’ s room was much the same as mine, except the light was on and the music was playing. In the center of the room on an easel was a painting I had never seen before. It swirled with fiery orange and red. I could see it and feel its heat and the cutting roughness of its texture. In the center black exploded with a violence that was sudden and gripping. The painting had no signature at all. It was Tanner’s own soul.
Tanner was in the corner already cold. The note was simple—“I saw myself. There is no more—”
—Pat Murfin ‘67