issue eighteen

art gallery
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current issue
(4875 words)
Gabriel Ricard
Tower of Song
[Updated monthly on the full moon]

Because it involves literature, this can really only be a small injustice. Still, in the world of small, mildly pretentious and literary-themed injustices, the story of Melvin Spengler is pretty severe.

You don't know the name. That's okay. Don't feel bad and certainly don't feel for a second like you might be alone. You might have missed out on one of the most underrated, staggeringly powerful and completely unsung literary heroes of the 20th century, but you don't have to feel like you're alone.

Jared stopped to see how those two paragraphs worked as an opening statement. It amazed him a little that this was his first shot at writing an article of any kind. He had always been tempted to take a break from fiction, poetry and scripts to try a movie or book review, but he had never taken the jump into actually trying. It was all a matter of language. The guys who wrote that stuff seemed to have a special kind of language nailed down for the work itself. There was a special skill involved in knowing that language, and he just had never been able to find the courage to see if he could crack their line of conversation.
Now, however, it seemed as good a time as any to give it a shot. Melvin Spengler was worth that kind of headache and risk.

Besides, he thought, the article might actually sell. Some great and terrible editor in the sky could come along and finally give him a reason to put aside all the fiction, poetry and scripts for a while. Stranger things had happened in life, and the best success stories were the ones that had a few years of almost comical failure to back them up. A lot of truly brilliant writers had made their mark in non-fiction. All that mattered was the dedication. As long as the commitment was there, then there was nothing to worry about.

If anyone should feel alone in this whole thing, it should probably be me.

The actual plan was to write the article tonight after finally being introduced to Melvin's writing room and his great, holy-grail archive of material. A long, incredible year of knowing the guy, listening to him talk, describe his greatest stories, learning about the craft and nature of writing from him more than anyone or anything else, and he was finally going to see that room. It was the same room where he had composed twenty-seven novels, six hundred short stories, eleven hundred and twenty-six poems and a random assortment of stage plays and articles covering everything from baseball to opera to the paranormal history of the deli that was down the street from his apartment.

All of it, based on the pieces Melvin had recited from heart, was brilliant. Virtually all of it was also unpublished. That was where all the small injustice stuff came in.

He turned off the monitor on his computer. By the end of the article, the hope was to have every last person who read through it completely agree with everything he said. He wanted to use the energy of seeing Melvin and that room, which was less than an hour away, and push into writing the entire piece tonight. Still, he wanted to leave the apartment with the beginning knocked down and out of the way.

And as far as introductions went, he had to think, getting up and grabbing his coat as he moved, this one was pretty good.

There were worse openings out there. He had spotted them on countless occasions. His was somewhere comfortably in the middle. It left enough room to build momentum, and that was all the first couple of paragraphs ever really needed to do. From where he had started, there was more than enough opportunity to set the whole damn world on fire.

He locked up the apartment and hit the cold streets outside with both feet begging to move faster than he actually wanted to go. The whole day felt like a predictable, wonderful movie. It probably wouldn't make it into the article, but he still had every detail in his head of the first time he had met Melvin. Every second of memory came together and looked as brilliant as it had in real time. He could still remember the way Melvin had walked by while Jared read Vonnegut at the book store. He walked past him, stopped a couple of feet away as though the thought had just smashed into him and then stepped back to tell him that Vonnegut was just a hack who got lucky at the right place and the right time. That line by itself wasn't very funny, but Jared could still attach those words to Melvin's very, very particular way of putting things and laugh in public like a complete idiot. Which he did while ignoring the look he got from a homeless guy selling CDs out of a garbage bag outside the bus station.

After Melvin introduced himself in his own way, Jared thought about how he had then spent the next month and a half defending Vonnegut and every other writer Melvin dismissed with almost frightening ease. Winning an argument with Melvin was impossible, but it was sure as hell fun to try anyway. And in between the arguments, the conversations about the city, the world in general and a thousand weird little things in between, he just happened to find out that Melvin Spengler was quite easily the greatest writer he had ever encountered. 

It all made for a pretty damn remarkable story. This was especially true in light of the fact that Jared had never physically seen any of Melvin's writing. It was all in his head. Every single thing he had ever written was committed to an extraordinary memory. Since Jared often himself struggling to remember things like R.E.M.'s third major-label album or the name of that kid from The Wonder Years, it was easy to be impressed by Melvin's capacity for knowledge. It started with his work and didn't seem to have an actual end anywhere in sight.

Seeing Melvin's actual work wasn't critical. It wasn't going to influence the quality of the material in any way. Still, it would make for a good ending. The article needed a conclusion that would leave the reader desperate to see if there was any truth to Melvin's story. Today would be perfect. It was rare to have this kind of confidence. Jared couldn't remember the last time it had come so easily to him, but he thought he was handling it pretty well. Melvin's apartment wasn't that far away from his own. He would be there in the time it took to once again write the entire article in his head, which he had done dozens of times over the last couple of months. Every draft was a little better and took him a little closer to what he actually wanted to have in his head when he sat down to finish it later in the day. Remembering virtually everything he wanted to say and being able to go back in his head to make changes was actually pretty impressive to him. It was certainly a strong contradiction to having such a crappy memory for what felt like everything else. Writing seemed to be the greatest and clearest exception to the rule. The fact that he seemed to have such a mind for it was the best evidence he had for making it the one thing he wanted to spend the rest of his life doing.

He had mentioned that to Melvin once. Melvin agreed and had often praised his passion and dedication to everything that involved or came close to his work. He had told him more than a couple of times that his love of what he did and his willingness to do whatever it took to take it as far as it could go would come handy during the lean years. Those long stretches of worldwide indifference and almost comical self-doubt. Melvin himself had long since given up on trying to appeal to the public. His career was one of brief flashes of early success, small print magazines and the like, followed by years of rejection and apathy by anyone within reading distance. Jared knew Melvin's story as well as any of the other stories he had on tap in his head. How he had finally given up, on his thirtieth birthday, and decided to simply write for his own interests, his very own audience of one.

That was forty years ago. Now, at seventy years old and with no chance of miraculously getting any younger, Melvin wanted to try his luck again. It was just a matter of getting over the problem of being at a complete loss as to how to go about doing that. The two of them meeting in the bookstore had just been a small miracle to coincide fairly closely with the decision to give it another go. Jared still wasn't sure how much good he could actually accomplish on Melvin's behalf. At last count, he had even less for the victory pile than Melvin had at his age. The article was the best he had been able to come up with in the way of ideas. Other thoughts had included obvious tricks like a MySpace page or readings in college coffee shops. He didn't even imagine getting through to one of the major publishers at this juncture. And then there was self-publishing or appealing to one of those small-press groups, but he didn't have a whole lot of experience with either one of those venues. Researching them on Melvin's behalf would be just as much an adventure as if he were to research them for his own career.

He was willing to do it though. If getting his own career off the ground meant first celebrating who might very well be the last brilliant, undiscovered relic, then he was willing to do it.

He crossed at the next light, moving slowly through the Escher drawing of mid-morning commuters and weirdoes. Everyone had their own universe to contend with. Jared knew that the same way he imagined everyone would secretly chainsaw their way through this non-stop theme park ride line if they could. Still, it was possible to get material out of anyone or anything, assuming you were willing to actually look at things and pay attention to as much as humanly possible. Jared liked to believe that his desire to do this should count for something. Some moment of Hollywood luck when everything came together just long enough to catch up with him at the end of the street. It was cheesy and a little unrealistic, but he felt like he was entitled to the feeling anyway.

Finally making it to the other side of the street, he looked ahead to Melvin's apartment building. It was a scary, dangerous place that hadn't seen much change in its interior or exterior since first being built around the turn of the 20th century. Jared liked that. The whole place had a great miserable energy to it.

For one thing, it would make the article even better. Even a good writer would have had to struggle to make up that kind of atmosphere. Jared was getting it for free. Being able to later tell people that he had at one time fully understood what Bukowski had been writing about in some of those flophouse poems of his was just a bonus on top of a good time.

He let himself into Melvin's apartment building. The place was so beat down that you didn't have to buzz yourself in or wait for someone to open the door. The hallway was thin, wheezing and as close to death as the spirit of a building could ever hope for. The walls rattled and mumbled softly with what was either several dozen rats or a state of sinking perpetually further and further into the concrete. Jared walked carefully, moving past an elevator that had probably not been used in his lifetime. Melvin's place was on the third floor, and there were a million different ways to die before getting there. How this place could have escaped the attention of the city for so long was extraordinary.

He made it to Melvin's door without incident or seeing another living human being. In fact, he had only met two other people in all the times he had come here. Both of them had been as old and annoyed by life in general as Melvin was. The whole building was very likely an unofficial rest home to which no one of note had the time to pay attention. Even the drug dealers and misfits who weren't going to make it past thirty seemed to avoid these rooms and halls. Jared stood at Melvin's door. He hadn't knocked yet. With Melvin, it was always important to have at least the first five minutes of conversation worked out before actually talking to him. When he felt like he had it, he knocked and wondered if any of the take-out food places would ever dare to try and deliver.

Melvin took a long time getting to the door. He always did. It wasn't because of his age either. The way he moved and went about anything suggested a man almost obsessively devoted to a steady pace. Walking with him along the sidewalk was always an adventure in watching other people get frustrated. He was slow even by their zombie-march standards.

The door swung open as though something bad was about to happen. Melvin gave him a small, sleepless smile. "Well, if it isn't my agent."

"Stop calling me that," Jared said, smiling as he stepped inside. "Or I'll actually start demanding ten percent." He looked around the now-familiar surroundings. There were three rooms in Melvin's apartment. A bathroom that looked like a good location for a movie about heroin addicts, a sentimental, dusty living room that acted as Melvin's bedroom and was attached to a reasonably disgusting kitchen. Then there was the bedroom, playing the part of the vault that held Melvin's career and to a lesser extent, his life.

"I guess you feel pretty good about our chances then," Melvin said, closing the door and shuffling past Jared to get to the kitchen.

Jared shrugged. "As good as I can feel, I guess." He looked at the photos that were above the three-hundred-year-old TV set. In particular, his gaze drifted, as it always did to the one of Melvin as a young man. He was standing with a woman on the steps of what looked like a brand-new, post-war suburban house.

"Trust me," Melvin said.

Jared looked at him. "I should, huh?"

Standing in the kitchen, Melvin poured himself a glass of whiskey. "You're the one who's gonna pull this off." He took a long drink, paused and then refilled the glass. "You want to break into the business? This is how it's going to work."

"I guess," Jared replied, looking away. He went back to the pictures. There were a few others scattered along the walls, but this was where a visitor would find the museum-bulk of them. "I think you have more faith in me than I do though." The woman was gorgeous in a way that went well beyond her 50's pin-up girl eyes, hair and smile. Melvin refused to reveal who she was, so Jared just assumed she was a long-gone wife. The rest of the photos were mysteries as well. They represented a timeline that abruptly came to a stop in what appeared to be the early 1960's, judging by the cars in the background. With Melvin finally on the verge of showing him his entire career, it could possibly be a good time to bring up his past again.

"I just happen to know this is going to work out for the both of us," Melvin said. "For this comeback to work, I need someone who's hungry to write and see his work out in the world the same way I did when I was a kid." There was then the sound of a cigarette being lit. "I need someone who's in the same place I was in at that age, but they also have to have some talent to make the whole thing worth a damn."

Or maybe, it wouldn't be necessary to ask. Everything he could ever want to know might already be in the work that he could barely believe he was about to see. "And that just happens to be me."

It had taken a lifetime, but he finally understood the concept of attaching a Christmas Eve level of excitement to something entirely different.

"It just happens to be you," Melvin intoned, walking out of the kitchen.

Jared turned to face him. "Well, like I said, I think you have more faith in my luck and talent than I do."

Melvin waved him off, taking the cigarette out of his mouth to sip the whiskey. He was a cliché and a throwback, but he was absolutely authentic all the same. "I've read your work, Jerry, and it's some of the best stuff I've ever seen in my life. I don't know how many times I'm going to have to tell you that."

"Several thousand more times," Jared said, turning to him. He saw that Melvin was staring at the pictures himself. He didn't do that very often. When he did, it was always as though he was a stranger in the house and didn't have the faintest clue of what each picture meant, where it came from.

"I guess so."

Jared looked at the cigarette in Melvin's hand. The walls, the ceiling and the floor of the apartment were like three combined histories of chain-smoking. "I just don't see," he said, slowly and then pausing. He was trying to think of conversation to fill the time between now and when Melvin brought up his room and his writing. "I guess I just don't see," he began again, "how you think this is going to work." Because this wasn't going to be the kind of thing he could just bring up. It would happen when it was meant to happen. There would be no manipulating time with this.

Of course, he knew exactly what Melvin's plan was for making this work.

"You know damn well what's going to happen," he said, before taking another small sip of his whiskey. "You're providing the energy to see this through, and I'm providing the desire to make a comeback and the back story that's probably going to appeal to these idiots a lot more than the damn actual writing will." He took a drag from his cigarette and then dropped it onto the carpet, crushing it down with his shoe. The whole floor was littered with cigarette burns.

Jared imagined that some of them were probably older than he was. "Right."

"But in the end, I wouldn't be doing this with you if I didn't think you had a chance to mean something out there with your own stuff."

Jared nodded. "Well, you know I appreciate your faith in me."

"You better," Melvin said, laughing a little. "I don't give it away easily."

Christ, he thought, a bout of vicious, childish impatience suddenly washing over his eyes and the back of his neck. Just show me the fucking work already. "I know," he managed to say.

"Hell," Melvin said, his voice trailing off. He laughed again. It was the kind of laugh that belonged to a man who clearly didn't think anything was all that funny. "I'm amazed I even got out of bed this morning."

He was still feeling edgy. That feeling which had hit him a moment ago hadn't gone away. He even ran a hand over the back of his neck and took a small breath. This would be a great day to take up smoking, although he couldn't imagine it helping. Most of the time, he was just amazed smokers like Melvin even existed anymore. It was like having black coffee or writing letters by hand. As far back as it all felt, it seemed like science fiction.

"Tell you the truth, Jerry," he took a drink, "This is all pretty goddamn scary to me."

Stop it, he warned himself. This was a lousy moment for trying at a distracting thought. Just stop it and focus. Focus on what's coming up. Melvin was right, of course. If the writing on the page was as good as the writing in his head, then it stood to reason that Melvin would be right about everything. This was the kind of back story that would sell faster than the writing itself. It would just be an added miracle that the writing happened to be suddenly and immediately worthy of iconic consideration. And when people looked at that, they would eventually get around to whomever it was that brought an incredible story like Melvin Spengler in the first place.

"I guess," Melvin said, "you get to a certain point in your life, and you want it all to mean something."

One brilliant writer, one good writer and a hell of an interesting story wrapped around them. How often did that come along?

It was hard to not be at least a little selfish about this. Jared had prided himself on having pure intentions through all of this, but he wasn't going to ignore what this could mean for his own career.

Melvin laughed again and finished his whiskey. "Well, to hell with it," he said, turning to Jared. "What do you say we pry that damn bedroom door open?"

Even with his mind trying for three or four different directions at once, he was ready for that question. He nodded and went to great personal lengths not to look too excited, not to look like a dumbass teenage girl or something. "Absolutely," he said, nodding and smiling.

Melvin nodded, too. He looked at his empty glass and glanced towards the kitchen, but he didn't head in that direction. Slowly, with that constant attention to taking his time, he walked that short distance to the bedroom door.

Jared slowly followed behind him. This moment needed a John Williams score or something equally dramatic.

At the door, Melvin turned to Jared. "You know, I haven't been in here in about six years."

This seemed like a good time for a joke. "Hope you didn't leave a sandwich in there."

Melvin grinned. It was a lot more sincere than his laugh, and it didn't suit his features a bit. "God only knows," he muttered as though relating a true-life horror story. "God only knows."

"I'll watch your back," Jared said.

Nodding, Melvin turned back to the door again. He took a deep breath, building up the expected tension to go through with it. The doorknob turned slowly and with a little effort on his part. It was almost like it was trying to struggle against inevitable cooperation. The door opened with a dull grumble of a block of wood being cracked in two.

Of course, the lights were off and the mystery of the room itself literally dominated Jared's entire scope of attention right up to the moment Melvin flicked the switch to astonished life. Even the room itself couldn't seem to believe what was happening. With all the excitement that had built up to that moment before the lights came on, it took a moment for the room to adjust and take shape. When it did, Jared looked around and more or less confirmed the image he had been kicking around in his head. A few hundred thousand sheets of typewritten paper, what appeared to be a desk and what appeared to be a small bed. That was pretty much it. The room looking the way he had expected it to look didn't do much to hurt the inspirational factory. It was still extraordinary.

"This is it," Melvin muttered, walking into the room and showing it off with a weak wave of his hand. "Exciting, right?"

"It's pretty damn cool," Jared said. "You know I was going to think that."

"Yeah, yeah, yeah." He looked around the room with a little of his own disbelief. It was clear to see that he hadn't expected to open that door after the last time he had closed it. He was quiet for a good five minutes. Finally, he sighed. "I don't even know where to begin."

Jared thought about that for a moment. He was still trying to register his own excitement, to put it into something manageable. He kept trying to discard the thought that this room looked as though it was holding the most ambitious suicide note ever written. "The first page off of any one of these piles would probably work."

On that note, Melvin reached over and looked at the stack that was closest to him. The stacks themselves were impressive enough. The room itself was surprisingly large and was able to hold several dozen piles. Each of them were just a little taller than Melvin, who himself stood at a little over six feet. He looked at the nearest stack and took off the page from the top. It was coated in a thin layer of dust, which could be said for the entire room. He shook the dust off and looked over whatever the content might be. He read what sounded like two or three short paragraphs. His voice was a low, inaudible mumble, and he nodded a couple of times as he read.

The suspense was intoxicating, numbing.

"I remember this one," he said, finally smiling. "It's a short story I wrote during my first year of college. I wrote everything but the last paragraph in just one night." He kept smiling. It was starting to look creepy. "That last paragraph wound up taking almost three months."

"I've had that happen to me," Jared said. It was true.

After looking it over for another moment, Melvin held it out towards him. "I'm sure you'd love to take a look."

Jared reached out to take it. His hand didn't shake a bit, not even when the paper was in it. He went to the first word of the first sentence. His eyes moved along the paper for a second before he finally realized he had never found the first word of the first sentence. It was that second time around that he realized it wasn't a word at all. It was the number one. In fact, the entire page consisted of nothing but the number one arranged in a weird pattern.

"I always wanted to write a story about the girl he's talking about," Melvin said, his voice sounding like an alarm clock trying to break through a really thick, vivid dream. "The one he mentions in the third paragraph."

It was a fish. That was the pattern. There was a sudden reflex that shot through his arm so violently that he almost crushed the page in his hand. He didn't, but he could feel the paper shaking a little.

"Bet you're ready for page two."

It was a fish. It was a bunch of ones that were made to look like a fish.

Melvin handed over the next page from the same pile. "It's a long story," he said. "Fourteen thousand words, so you may want to take it home." He sighed. "I'd rather not just dwell on one piece of writing." He took a few steps to the left, presumably, towards another stack. "Tell you the truth, I was hoping we'd knock the day off just glancing through everything and seeing what might be worth putting out there."

The first page hung at his side as he held the next one up. It was another series of ones arranged in a different pattern than before. He deciphered this page much more quickly. It was almost certainly a human eye.

He almost dropped both pages. He almost started crying, and he wasn't quite sure why he didn't. Every single thought almost instantly went back to that fish. He slowly looked at Melvin, even though he didn't need to do that to know there would be nothing but sincerity and hope on the old man's face.

This wasn't a joke. He was able to put that much together.

"So, you wanna take that home?"

He still wanted to cry. That was the other thought he was able to complete. He somehow nodded and looked at Melvin.

"Great," he said, still smiling. "Then let me see those two pages and let's see what the hell else we can find here."

Jared handed them over. At some point, he would have to think about finding all of this funny somehow. Escape was unlikely and an incredible sense of humor was the only thing that was going to save him now. He thought about that, and then his mind finally went blank.

Melvin returned the two pages to their pile. He looked about the room with heartbreaking determination.


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This work is copyrighted by the author, Gabriel Ricard. All rights reserved.