Thursday, December 13, 2007


My boy was running down the road without a look back at me as I crept up in my car. That impressed me. Fourteen years old, confused as hell. The wind picked up his hair. Thanksgiving day was bending into the afternoon, threatening to break.

I opened the passenger door as I dragged up next to him.

—Hop in, I said.

He looked at me, his eyebrows hunched.

When he climbed in, I knew I ought to bring him home to his mother. But I wanted him. I wanted to spend the holiday with my oldest boy. Conflicted, I tossed him the option.

—You want tofu or turkey?

—Turkey, he said.

We made a right off Eagle Road, headed to town.

—We’ll go to the Ponderosa, I said.

He nodded.

Landsing Pike dipped down through farmlands in silence. I was glad to be out of Lower Plymouth, a poor neighborhood, the place Ellen and I had decided to settle down in fifteen years ago. The prices were right and the realtor convinced us that Lower Plymouth would be Plymouth proper in three years, five on the outside. He was wrong, or lying. But it was a good lie, and we wanted to believe it. In Lower Plymouth, cookie-cutter houses stacked close together and only the liquor store stayed open late. High school hoodlums claimed the town’s only shopping center, where a 7-11, a Wendy’s, a hardware store, a Payless Shoes, a Dollar Store, and a closed-down Chinese food joint orbited the liquor store. Families in Lower Plymouth lived on government food stamps, handouts from relatives, and hard work. Despite Reaganomics, nothing had trickled down. Everyone in Lower Plymouth worked in the service industry. I had done short order at The Shrimp’s Tail before quitting a year ago. Ellen was still at the supermarket, across the railroad tracks in Gwenydd. But only about a mile east of Lower Plymouth sat Red Apple Farms. When El started eating only vegetables and going to church, she used to drive to the Red Apple on Saturday mornings and buy a barrel of tomatoes, corn, squash, green beans, and broccoli. God and greens went to her head. On Saturday nights, she concocted vegetables into patties or loaves for the dinner table. I couldn’t eat the stuff. El said abstaining from meat was healthier, holier. But I never felt better eating zucchini instead of chicken. I just felt hungrier. So I drank an extra drink, the whiskey filling my stomach.

Pete was staring at a fly that had landed on his arm. An odd kid, touched, up in his head.

The Farm was open. Happy, veggie-carrying customers, giddy with Thanksgiving, paddled back to their mini-vans. As we passed the Farm, I drove fast over the bump in the road that made the car jump, giving you that funny, leap-and-drop feeling in your gut. Pete held his stomach and chuckled.

—I’m sure the Ponderosa’ll have a nice spread, I said.

—I’m hungry, said Pete.

—It’ll have meat. That’s for sure.

—That’s good.

The farmland dead-ended into Groving Road. I made a left. Into the nicer part of town, Plymouth proper. The country club was full of doctors and lawyers staving off family dinner with a drink and a round. We drove another couple of miles in silence until we hit the downtown area, right on the edge of the City of Brotherly Love. Cobblestone streets and brick-laid sidewalks. Fine shopping: Banana Republic, Nine West, the Gap. Stores for eyeglasses, picture framing, flowers. Antiques, wedding dresses, kitchen wares, everything. The Shrimp’s Tail was down on Wycle Street. The sun spangled off the storefronts, off the sidewalks, off a woman’s blond hair. The day had a chance yet. My spirits lifted as we crept along the cobblestone, looking for a parking spot.

That morning I had awoken to a fight with my girlfriend, Lucinda, who I’d been with for six months. Lucinda walked out on me, left me in hotel room 7B in the Pleasantville Lodge at the Jersey shore, snagged a few twenties from my wallet on her way. I laid in bed a while listening to the bay waves lapping, and slowly mustered up the determination not to see my Thanksgiving become a complete disaster. I showered and shaved and drove over the Delaware River to surprise my family, see the kids. My wife kicked me off the property with a sanctimoniousness that repulsed me. But fortune had delivered me and now my oldest and I were together. On our way to a feast. Things were looking up. I felt the day and its possibilities opening up before me, like a set of automatic doors.

—There’s a spot, Pete said, pointing to a spot on the corner beneath a waving American flag.

—Good eye, I said, cozying the tire up to the curb.

I was happy. I wanted to smoke a joint, to get my appetite up, but I figured I’d wait a bit. Didn’t seem quite right, what with Pete there. But as Pete got out of the car I transferred a jay from the center console to my wallet, stepped out of the car. I could see Pete fingering the penknife in his pocket.

—I see you carry the knife I gave you, huh, kiddo?

—What are you talking about?

—The knife in your pocket, I said.

He shoved his hands deeper in his pocket and said:

—I don’t have a knife in my pocket.

—Suit yourself.

My stomach growled. The excitement of the morning dropped into my gut, riled up my hunger. A nervous energy took hold. I pulled a toothpick out of my pocket and stuck it in my mouth, grabbed a free local paper off a rack by the door, out of habit, just to have something to read on hand. But once we were inside — the smell of good cooking wafting about, the sounds of other families bouncing from the corners — I was ready to celebrate good and proper. This was Thanksgiving after all. My favorite holiday. We took a booth in the far corner. A king’s spot, I told Pete. No response.

—Thanksgiving’s my favorite holiday, I filled in the silence.

—Yeah, Pete asked, why’s that?

—Because it hasn’t been co-opted by the corporations. It’s still pure. A concise, clear message: be thankful. Be thankful for all you’ve got. Look at us. We’ve got a nice booth at a nice restaurant. We’ve got a salad bar full of home-cooking just waiting for us. And we’ve got each other, we’ve got family.

—It’s not home-cooking, Pete said.

—Sure it it, I countered.

—It’s a restaurant, Pop, by definition, it’s not home-cooking.

—But it tastes like home-cooking, right? That’s what counts.

Pete picked up the menu and looked at the drink options. I was ready for a beer. My watch said 2:45. Almost happy hour. Hell, it was a holiday, a festive meal with my boy. My day had already seen two fights. I decided on beer.

—You going to get the salad bar? I asked.

—Yeah, I guess, he said. They got turkey up there?

—Sure, they got turkey, I said.

—Yeah, okay, he said glumly.

A family across the restaurant erupted in laughter. We both looked over. The place was decked in gobble gear. Orange and brown streamers, plastic turkeys, paper pilgrims and feathered Indians hanging from the ceiling. The customers looked Lower Plymouth — noisy families in old jeans and ratty t-shirts —doing it up in downtown Plymouth for the holiday. I watched the hips of the waitress saunter towards us in rhythm with the music playing on the jukebox. Young gal, not much older than Hannah, nametag said Linda. Along with her uniform black slacks and apron, she wore a tiny t-shirt, untucked so as to reveal her belly button with the slightest lift of the arms. Voice was full of attitude, her tone telling us she didn’t belong at the Ponderosa.

—Can I get you two fellows something to drink?

—What kind of beers do you have? I asked.

She bent toward me, turned the menu in my hand over to the back page.

—There’s the list.

—I’ll have a Coke, said Pete.

—How about a Yuengling? I said.

—Okay, she wrote down our orders. And to eat? We have a Thanksgiving Day Turkey Special.

—Isn’t there turkey on the salad bar? I asked.

—Sure, there is. But the special comes with stuffing, cranberries and our special gravy.

—Mmm. How much is it?


—And the salad bar?

—$7.99. All you can eat.

—That’s a pretty good deal.

—Which one?

Pete looked at me:

—I kinda want the Thanksgiving Day Special.

A few slabs of turkey and their so-called special gravy sounded like a rip-off at $10.99. And I was short on cash. But what was I going to do? Break my boy’s cranberry-loving heart?

—I’ll just take the salad bar, I told the waitress. So long as there’s turkey, I’m happy. But you get what you want, Pete.

Pete frowned at my order.

—No, check that, I said. I’ll take the Turkey Special. It’s good, yeah?

—Oh it’s good, she said and she winked at me. You two’ll love it.

What a darling this girl was, to wink like that, to catch and uplift the mood just like that. A wink and a promise.

—Yeah, two Turkey Specials for me and my boy, I said.

The waitress placed her hand on my shoulder. What a flirt this one was, with her big, boisterous bangs, her long, dangly earrings. With a little squeeze, she said she’d be right back with our drinks and that we could help ourselves to the salad-only portion of the salad bar. Using the small plates, she clarified. Sticking her pen behind her ear, she folded her black notebook back into her apron’s pouch, spun around and danced toward the kitchen. Pete and I made our way to the salad bar.

—All right, I said, let’s eat some greens.

I piled up a plateful of iceberg lettuce, cherry tomatoes, cucumbers, corn, peppers, beets and croutons. Linda brought my beer and lingered while Pete fixed his plate. She stuck her pen in the corner of her mouth and watched me as I took my first slug.

—Just father and son today? she asked.

—That’s right, I said.

Linda pulled her right leg up and scratched her ankle, as to draw my attention to her slender, runner’s legs. I changed my mind about her age: she was a community college girl. Probably taking courses in modern psychology or the role of women in literature. A smart girl. Curse my man’s mind all you will, but in that moment, I thought of having pretty Linds right there bent over that Ponderosa booth. Her two hands splayed out across the squeaking, green vinyl. The taste of salt, the smell of turkey, on her neck. She chewed on her pen a moment and I looked at her and then she moved aside to let Pete slide back into his seat.

—I’ll be back in a minute with your dinners.

Pete took a bite of his salad: mixed greens, mandarin oranges, walnuts, cottage cheese. He chewed methodically, contemplatively. I searched for an agreeable subject of conversation. I wanted to get into it with my boy. But all I could think of to talk about were the salad dressings: I had chosen the creamy Italian. Or the Eagles, who were adrift in a dismal season, having mustered up only 11 points in their most recent contest against the Lions. Or the revisionist history of Thanksgiving, a subject I knew Pete and I could riff on. But can you really talk about the unconscionable slaughter of the Indians without ruining your appetite? Who wants to think about smallpox blankets on a holiday?

—I read that book you told me about, he said.

—Oh, really? I said. Which one?

—Rabbit, Run, he said.

I felt the fool for having recommended a book about an unfaithful husband. When I had read the novel, I had related deeply. To the running, to the feeling of foot on pavement, to the exhilaration of freedom and the burden of responsibility. I gave it to Pete so that we might talk about these things, but now I couldn’t fathom where to begin.

—Did you like it? I asked.

—I liked it all right, he said.

—I really liked that first scene, I said, when Rabbit plays basketball with those young kids.

Pete drew Coke through the straw.

—You know, I said, Rabbit’s trying to recapture the glory of his youth. You can feel it in that first scene. And maybe that’s what the whole book is about.

—I just thought Rabbit was a bastard, Pete said.

He looked at me, his final judgement hanging in the air, transferring to me.

—Maybe that’s the point, I offered.

Pete coughed and then delivered a little speech that I imagine he’d been working on:

—The problem with the novel is its portrayal of women. We have Janice, the sloppy, dumb, alcoholic wife, who can’t hold onto Rabbit and then accidentally drowns her newborn baby. And he have Ruth, the fat crosstown whore and mistress who allows herself to be impregnated by an irresponsible adulterer.

Hell, I was no literature professor. I had just enjoyed the book. My boy, on the other hand, was bright and insightful. A bookish fellow. The trick with Pete was he made you feel like he had figured out things on a deeper level, but of course he hadn’t. He didn’t understand that book any better than I did. He was working with the model of such a life; I was living it.

—What about Eccle’s wife? I said.

—She’s only in the book to have her ass slapped.

Naive boy, thinking he’s so smart. His problem is he lives in his head. When he discovers his body, that’ll be his awakening. His reckoning. Everything’s clear in theory, impossible in practice. He’ll learn. Until then, he’ll come off as a know-it-all punk. My boy, angry, intelligent, but deadly. Bringing his self to bear at the dinner table, taking on his old Dad. I liked that.

Linda sashayed over with our turkey dinners. My mouth salivated. The Yuegling made me feel limber, giddy. The clean break of the morning, the invigorating fight with El, the flirtation with the waitress. I took a slug of beer and it warmed my innards, bubbled up to my brain. Our deluxe meals sat before us. Despite everything, I was with my boy and I felt frisky. Life is in the friskiness.

After a few bites of turkey, I realized that I hadn’t called El to tell her that Pete was with me. That seemed only right. She would worry. I excused myself and walked to the back of the restaurant where the bathrooms and the phone booth and the kitchen were. Put a quarter in the slot and dialed Eagle Road. Linda walked through the swinging saloon doors from the kitchen laden with two more Turkey Day Specials.

—Who are you calling? she asked coyly.

—The boy’s mother, I said, over the ringing on the other end of the line.

—Hmm-mm, Linda strutted on.

These young ones are the friskiest. Once they get older they carry too much past. History saturating every pore of their bodies. The young ones will still walk into unknown worlds with you without looking back.

—Hi Ellen, I said, it’s me.

—Is Pete with you? she asked right off.

—Yes, he is. He’s right here. We’re having dinner together.

—Why didn’t you call sooner? she asked.

—I didn’t get a chance until now.

—You bring him right back here after you two are done eating.

—I thought we might go to the park.

—You bring him right back, Michael, she threatened. Or I’ll call the police.

She hung up. And the click of the line brought back all the reasons I had left her. El had changed. God and greens had gone to her head. I wasn’t any fool for a pie in the sky. Too much magic in that kind of thinking. God’s a metaphor for the father. There’s a slice of heaven for all of us right here on earth if only we’re courageous enough to look for it. That was my way of thinking. El and I used to get high and listen to The Animals in her parents’ basement. Isn’t that heaven enough? How much better can a soul feel? When the record ended, her father yelled down the stairs that it was bedtime. Heaven came and went with the tides like that. Nothing’s always the same. The river flows and we swim along. But at some point, El got religion and started eating only vegetables, feeding a holiness she needed inside. And I just couldn’t get with it. The more I resisted, the more she hardened up. She stopped partying on Saturday nights and started going to church on Sunday mornings. “For the kids.” Said they’d need religion and order in life and if I wasn’t going to give it to them, then she would. Now look at her. She just said she’d call the police, a word she’d pronounce only with distain in the seventies. Back when we didn’t believe in authority, when we believed in ourselves.

I pulled a joint out of my wallet and pushed the exit door open to the outside. The day was brilliant. I sparked the joint, leaning halfway out the door. That first drag was dynamite. Quick stuff, it coursed through my limbs and lit up my head. Linda sauntered back toward the kitchen and stopped in front of the swinging doors. She was holding a tray full of dirty dishes.

—You going to leave your kid there to eat his dinner alone? she asked.

—Bring him a milkshake, I said.

She set the tray down, shook her head at me and asked:

—You gonna bogart that thing?

I beckoned her with a sideways head nod. She raised her hands above her head and clapped three times. Her shirt hiked up, her navel peeked out. As she walked toward me at the end of the little hallway, she smoothed down her apron. I imagined those thin, runner’s legs wrapped around my head. She and I could’ve walked out that door right then. There was nothing stopping us.

I handed her the joint and she sucked down a hit and then giggled and said something about how naughty she was to get stoned on a busy day at the restaurant.

—It’s a holiday, I reassured her, enjoy yourself.

She handed the wet joint back and teased:

—You’re naughty, and then she scurried back into the kitchen where a bell was ringing.

Dinner was delicious. I ordered a second beer when I got back, thinking Linda might comp me one. I felt lucky, which is the same as happy. My boy had chosen me to have Thanksgiving with. Linda was in the pocket. The stuffing was hot and moist and full of raisins and brown sugar. The morning had punished me, but now the good karma was flowing.

—So, I asked Pete, how have things been at home?

Pete leered at me, his eyebrows scrunched into his cheeks.

—Fine, he said. The stingy bastard.

—How’s school? I fished.


—What are you reading in class?


—Do you like him?

—Yeah, he measured. I like him very much.

—What is it you like about him?

—I like how he writes about self-reliance. Personal conscience and communing with nature. I like his attention to detail: the list of the vegetables he plants in his garden, the meticulous financial records, the reflections. The whole idea of spending time alone in nature appeals to me.

—Yeah, I dig Thoreau’s view, too. I like his philosophy of taking care of yourself. Because that’s really the most important thing in life: to just take care of yourself. From that, the rest follows.

Pete put down his fork and took a swig of Coke. Then he wiped his mouth with his napkin. I changed the subject.

—I called your mother, I said, let her know you were with me. I told her that maybe after dinner, we’d go to the park. Or check into a hotel and watch some football. What’d you say?

He shrugged his shoulders.

We finished our meals in silence. Linda dropped the check. She wrote, I’m off in ten minutes, on the back. I looked at my watch: 3:50. Pete slurped the last of his soda through the straw. He stood up.

—I gotta go to the bathroom, he said.

As he stared at me, I caught a glimpse of Linda’s ass over his shoulder.

He turned and made his way to the back of the restaurant. While I wanted to hang out with him, I figured I ought to get him home. Yes, I could dump him home quick, then come right back for Linda. That seemed fair enough. Linda, seeing Pete was gone, ambled over.

—Fifteen minutes? I said. That’s just enough time for me to run my boy back to his mother. You can wait an extra minute?

—Ten minutes, she said, sticking her pen in her hair, Tops.

I smiled and looked at my watch again.

—Ten minutes, I said. I handed her the cash for the bill, tipped her as well as I could, having to save money now for what might come.

—I gotta go close out my register, she said.

With that giddy, nervous energy that had been with me throughout the meal, I rapped my fingers on the table. I listened to the music. They were playing a new Madonna song. I lost myself a moment in the melody.

I looked toward the back of restaurant and wondered what was taking Pete so long. I looked at my watch: 3:57. I’d never make it back by 4:05. Was I going to miss my chance here because my kid was dropping base in a public restaurant? No. She was probably kidding. She’d wait. I stood and crossed the restaurant. In the bathroom, I called Pete’s name. No response. I checked the stalls: he wasn’t there. Fuck, I thought, where’d the little bastard go? Back in the hallway with the phone, I noticed the back door was open. I stepped outside and shouted Pete’s name. No response. What the fuck? I walked through the restaurant, checking back at our table, empty and cleared, and went out the front door. A scan of the horizon in all directions revealed nothing. I hustled to the car: empty. My heart beat on, hoofs in the dirt. The little bastard must be on foot towards home, I figured, I’ll catch up with him on Landsing Pike. So I got in behind the wheel of the car, started the engine, and backed out of the spot. The car plunked awkwardly backward, sunk into the driver’s side. What the fuck? I got out. Sticking out of the back tire was the penknife. The front tire, too, slashed.

I lost my breath and gripped my chest. I collapsed against the side of the car, caught myself, staggered through the door, and slumped into the seat. I turned the car off. I put my head on the wheel. I wept. Everything pushed through me. Everything rotten. Up in the sky, above the car, the flag wrested with the wind.

A moment later, Linda tapped on my window. I looked up, gathered myself, and motioned for her to come around to the passenger side door.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

The Scribbler

Jacob stepped to the urinal and lifted his tunic. His fellow monk Johannes stood beside him. A separator between them preserved their privacy. Jacob exhaled with a deep sense of pleasure. Ten straight hours spent transcripting, without rest, without sustenance, with only water to drink, had given him a tremendous pent-up urge to urinate.

“Oh yeah,” he moaned.

“A good one?” Johannes laughed.

“The best,” said Jacob.

Johannes zipped up. Without looking over to Jacob, he said, “I’ve heard about what you’ve been doing.”

“I don’t know what your talking about,” said Jacob.

“Look,” Johannes said, “Don’t make me spell this out. I’ve heard about it and I think it’s wrong.”

Jacob folded up his tunic and turned to face his friend. For a moment they locked eyes.

“Just stop,” said Johannes. “For your own sake.”

“It’s my life,” said Jacob.

“Yeah, I know it is,” said Johannes. “And you can stand on your head to prove your freedom, but you’re still standing on your head because of your need to prove your freedom.”

“Blah blah blah,” said Jacob. He’d heard that hackneyed argument a thousand times over during his years of theological studies.

Johannes shook his head and crossed in front of Jacob to the sink. He washed his hands in silence, enjoying the feeling of the warm water on his cold fingers. He thought to himself, the study is particularly chilly today. He shivered at the thought of returning to his carrel.

Jacob picked up the hand towel and handed it to Johannes.

“Thank you,” said Johannes, adding, “very kind of you.”

Jacob bowed in a show of respect. Before exiting, Johannes gave Jacob one last meaningful stare, as if to say: Stop, for the love of the Word, for the love of the Brotherhood, please stop. Jacob stepped to the still flowing water in the sink and placed his hands under its warmth.

Back at his desk, Jacob found his confidence flagging. He worked in the I.I.W. — It Is Written — wing of the Brotherhood. Their slogan was: We uphold the Noble Paradox — It Is Written, So We Must Write It. His official title was Senior Transcriptor. Jacob knew that to toil in the I.I.W. was a blessing and a noble calling. He understood intuitively that his Book had been discovered because his personality was well suited to this kind of pious work. His constitution had been designed to uphold the Order’s one thousand and twenty five precepts, including no entertainment, no games, no large beds, etc. His sole task in life was to transcript the text of his life. After all, his Book had been discovered — and its very physical existence was a miracle. (Chances were, the revisionists argued now, these Books had been written by the great prophet Jeremiah Johnson in 2041, but that was besides the point.) His Book existed. His life was leather-bound. The story of his time on earth had been foretold, forewritten, and fated, as were the lives of all human beings, if not in actual ink, then in metaphysical ink. The difference was a flesh-and-blood, paper-and-binding copy of Jacob’s Book had been discovered. So when he turned two years old, his intensive training began. In short, he was instructed in the art of transcription: how to trace over with his own human hand the predestined text of his life as it was written in his Book. Now a fully ordained monk in the Brotherhood of the Word, Jacob spent his every waking moment transcripting. And with each stroke of his pen, he felt closer to God.

Over the years, Jacob proved himself an exceptionally skilled transcriptor, the keenest and most rigorous in his class. He pioneered the time-loop method, a wickedly clever device in which a transcriptor could trace a page or two ahead of real-time, so that he might earn himself a brief respite. He was also quick to catch up in time, if necessary. So, after returning from the mandatory bathroom break, he was the first to write out the scene that had transpired in the bathroom with Johannes. Word for word, gesture for gesture, vital detail for vital detail, the drama of that conversation had been long-ago recorded in the Book, and then transcripted by Jacob. Within minutes of resuming his work, Jacob had brought his text back to the usual refrain: I am writing I am writing I am writing...

Of course, there was cause for the occasional hilarious variation: I am writing now or I am writing this now or I am writing I am writing I am writing with my favorite quill. The monks knew how to have a good time. I am writing all blessed day long. Jacob was the first to write that line. How heartily the other monks had laughed at the insertion of the word blessed into the already comical variation all day long. The other monks considered Jacob a humorist, a natural, a master transcriptor.

When he started cheating, rumors of his corruption spread fast. The other monks were genuinely worried about him, about his emotion well-being, and of course, about his salvation.

“What is he doing?” they asked each other.

“Does he think he’s being funny?”

“Does he want to go to hell? Cause if he does, that’s the way to go. He can write himself right into the seventh ring.”

The other monks were befuddled and their worried whispers filled the corridors of the monastery. Once, during lunch in the great hall, they shared a laugh over Jacob’s transgressions after someone made the wisecrack, “Does he think he’s the Word?”

Meanwhile, Jacob persisted in his private subversions. First, his hands shaking, he experimented with handwriting. With ten years of transcripting his text behind him, Jacob knew the exact flow of the original. He knew the i’s were dotted ever so slightly off-left of center. The l’s dipped just below the line. And the j’s were slanted, twelve degrees right of the vertical. One afternoon, with no warning, no sign, no revelation whatsoever, Jacob simply started correcting these minor imperfections in the handwriting of the original. For the first time ever, his transcriptions, his tracings, did not precisely overlay the original. In his heart’s core, he felt the thrill of the sinner.

Then one day he scribbled in the margin. He said to himself, I am the scribbler. He recorded this thought in his text. I am the scribbler. Looking at the very words in the text proper — I am the scribbler — Jacob thought to himself, It has been recorded that I would be the scribbler. Now I am become the scribbler. I am merely writing the text of my life, transcripting my every thought and action. I am scribbling I am scribbling I am scribbling.
This was what he wrote in the margin:
Look here! I am the scribbler. I am scribbling.
A rush of originality filled his chest and his heart beat madly. He quickly returned to the text proper, but then, an hour later, he again ventured to the margins, this time, writing, What a beautiful day! Outside my window, the birds make wondrous music. He didn’t know why he did it (and of course he recorded his transgression in the text proper), but he did do it. He’d written in the margins, twice now. That much was clear. He’d written in the margins of his Book, and the action baffled him. What does it even mean to write in the margins of the text of one’s life? Am I commenting on the text itself, merely making a few harmless observations? Or have I deviously and devastatingly departed from the path? The movement of the birds outside my window was gorgeous, stirring, aesthetically pleasing, and I felt I had to record this beauty. Pay witness, precisely as my vocation pays witness to the noble paradox. There is such beauty in the world, he said to himself, and then he continued on with the usual: I am writing I am writing I am writing in my study...

“Yes,” said the Order’s severe and chaste Mahamonk, later that evening, as they sat in his office, “yes, of course, Jacob, there is tremendous joy and beauty in this world, but this is not our calling, is it, to record this beauty?”

“No, sir,” answered Jacob.

“You must return to your given task,” said the Mahamonk. “You must continue to purify. Return to your transcriptions, without further wandering. As I see it, your situation is critical.”

Jacob briefly thought of a reading from his days in the seminary. The class was called “In the Margins: The Temptations of Interpretation.” The piece had been written by a master monk of the 22th century. It began, “The text is the text is the text is the text is the text is the text. There is no margin. Do not be fooled by the illusion of the margin. Open space is found only within the words themselves. Do not look elsewhere for your liberation. Be free within the infinity of that which is written.” Suddenly the entire essay came back to Jacob now. Only this time, his mind registered disagreement, discord. Cognitive dissonance. The texture of this thought was new to Jacob. He blushed.

“Do not fear,” said the Mahamonk. “This too shall pass.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jacob, almost mindlessly.

“Focus,” said the master, “Be intent.”

“Yes, sir,” said Jacob.

“You are excused,” said the Mahamonk, “but be warned: the waters in which you swim are deep and full of dangerous creatures of ambiguous origins. Do you understand?”

“Yes, sir, my Maha.”

“Very well, then,” said the master, “Return to your work. May the Word be with you.”

“And also with you, my Maha,” said Jacob, with a hint of half-heartedness. Sensing the fissure in his student’s resolve, his master frowned. They bowed to one another in a show of mutual respect, and Jacob left the room. The Mahamonk cast out a desperate prayer — Bring him back, back to the path and back to the Word. All praise and glory be to the Word, Amen — then he pulled from his desk his own Book. He himself had not transcripted in ten years, but suddenly was called to do so. He dipped his quill in the holy ink and began. The first words he wrote were: Sorrow is a lonely bird...

“They say he is raving mad,” said one monk to another in the great hall. He lifted a spoon of porridge to his lips. “They say he began doodling. Can you believe it? Jacob, a doodler?”

“So unfortunate,” said another.

“A sad case,” chimed in another.

“But a fool or a king?” said the first monk. “Which do you think he is? From which sin does he suffer: ignorance or pride?”

The other monks shook their heads side to side or shrugged their shoulders, and returned to their gruel.

Jacob had been excommunicated from the Order of the Brotherhood of the Word that morning. The Mahamonk had no choice; Jacob had turned his Book into a travesty. With doodles in the side margins, great sweeps of poetry running along the bottoms of the pages, bold X’s and strikeouts scattered throughout, the Book itself was the proof of Jacob’s fall from grace.

“I heard he drew a picture of a naked woman over what was supposed to be the text of his morning meditations,” said one monk incredulously.

Nobody believed that salacious claim, but the rumors were enough to spoil their appetites. Their finest contemporary, their master, had fallen. He’d become a heretic.

“I heard” said another, “that he told the Mahamonk that he considered himself a poet.”

“Yes,” said another, “I heard that too. He claimed to be taken by inspiration.”

Finally, Johannes, the most reticent of the Order, and forever second in class to Jacob’s first, entered the fray. “Jacob told me it was a matter of perception. It was his eyes, he said. Not his mind, nor his heart.”

“What do you mean?” asked a young novice.

“He claimed to see a different text than the one the Mahamonk saw when he looked it over,” explained Johannes. “You see, Jacob said that his transgressions were all foretold, forewritten in the text. He said that he was merely playing out his part, that all along he was transcripting honestly. He said when he first drew a great X through an entire page of text, he only did this because the X was already there, in other words, It Was Written.”

“So He Must Write It,” echoed the young monk.

“Exactly,” said Johannes. “Jacob confessed to me that his eyes hurt. That they ached horribly. That he could hardly make out his text any longer. He told me that the whole exercise of transcripting was pandemonium every time he opened his Book in the morning. But he swore to me that his transgressions were forewritten. He told me he felt like Judas and that in his heart he was very sad, but that, at the same time, he’d never felt such a thrill, such exhilaration.”

The other monks briefly conferred with one another, murmuring excitedly. Then they looked back to Johannes and the young one asked, “What do you think, Johannes?”

Johannes exhaled deeply and set down his wooden spoon.

“I think he’s a liar,” he said gravely. “Perhaps he lost his eyesight, but the doctors said his vision was fine. I think he went mad. Mostly I believe we have the Mahamonk to thank for his wisdom and prudence in this matter. All praise and glory to the Word!”

“All praise and glory to the Word!” said the others.

They finished their meal in an uneasy silence, each of them guessing at the heart of Johannes and at the mind of Jacob.

Jacob wandered the desert outside the monastery for three years. He suffered from hallucinations, starvation, demons, disease, loneliness, and despair. He suffered the unutterable humiliations of the vagrant. Through it all, he transcripted. That which he saw in his Book, he traced over with his human hand. As he understood it, all of his life, even his transgressions, his wanderings, his excommunication, had been written. Every detail was in his Book and his vocation was to transcript every word. As well as every scribble in the margin, every doodle, every great X, and every poetic utterance. Whatever he saw in his Book, he transcripted. He feared that his vision was slowly leaving him, but he transcripted on. He feared that his mind was failing him, but he transcripted on. He feared that his body was dying, but onward, ever onward, he honored his calling.

On some days, Jacob could not be sure if what he saw was an illusion, a pale and sorry figment of his imagination, or the text proper, but he learned to forge ahead regardless. This lack of clarity caused him the most subtle and excruciating pains. Out loud, to the heavens, he wished that this same trial never be suffered again by another soul, that he, Jacob, right here and now, would undergo and purge this brand of suffering for all humankind. Ultimately, he could not afford to worry about possible discrepancies between what was written and what wasn’t, what was real and what was imagined. What was important was that he continued to transcript as best he saw fit. So he continued to run his hand along the page and trace the outlines of whatever his ailing senses presented to him as the world.

He grew a ghastly beard. He communed with the scavenging birds. He ate weeds and seeds and the occasional offering from a passing faithful who recognized his habiliment as that of the Order.

Three years passed in this manner, Jacob holding on tenuously to his sanity, to his vocation, to his dignity, and to his inspiration.

“I am inspired,” he recalled he had told his former Mahamonk. “I have come to depend upon my inspiration. It follows me daily and I obey it. I write what I see in my Book, and nothing more, my Maha. You must believe me.”

That was the case that he had made for himself, but the Mahamonk had not believed him. The Maha believed Jacob had fallen from the grace of the Word, that he had been possessed by demons.

“You are lying, Jacob,” he had said during that final meeting. “You are no better than the common street poet, proclaiming his inspiration to the ignorant masses. You have abandoned your calling, your Order, your Word and your Book. You are a disgrace to the Brotherhood, and you are hereby banished. Speak no more to me with your forked tongue. Leave immediately and sing your cursed poems to the other fools of the desert, for they will be your neighbors now.”

On some days, Jacob would find himself returning to the familiar refrain of I am writing I am writing I am writing or I am writing all blessed day long and he would long for the company of his fellow monks. At the same time, he would curse the simplicity of their lives, their cowardly escapism and false purity. I am the only one truly in and of this world, and thereby the world beyond, he said to himself, in self-justification, in self-consolation, and perhaps also in truth, for Jacob had become the true ascetic, the genuine seeker. Oh how they take even their porridge and warm water for granted, he cried to himself. What a tower of mortal pleasures they live in! Nevertheless, despite his moral indignation, at times, Jacob longed for the simple comforts of his former life.

On the fourth anniversary of his exile, having set up camp at the far end of the desert, three thousand miles from the monastery, Jacob ceremoniously threw his Book into the river. He wept as he watched it float away on the gentle current. He fell to the ground and repented. With this act, he let go of his past, of his desire, of his self — and he was profoundly transformed. Nevertheless, he still identified himself as a transcriptor at heart, and he still felt it was his calling to uphold the noble paradox: It Is Written, So We Must Write It. So he sat crosslegged by the river and opened a journal. Blank pages stared back at him, taunted him. But slowly, with trained concentration, his eyes, ever so slowly, began to make out words written on the pages, and so he passed his hands over the words that he saw take form before him, however ghostly they may have first appeared. He gave real ink to what had already been inked by the invisible hand of the Word. Such was his conviction as he wrote. Three more years passed in this way, Jacob filling book after book after book with witness, testimony, scripture and poetry.

“How come he no longer writes?” one of Jacob’s students asked another.

“He writes with his body,” said the older student.

“What does that even mean?” said the younger student.

“It means exactly what it says,” said the older, “it means he writes with his body. The world is the text and the body is the pen. You’ve read Book Twenty-Seven of the Works of the Glorious Body, yes?”

“Yes,” said the younger, “I think so.”

“Well, read it again.”

The two young monks continued their transcriptions. Jacob had eleven students now. That was enough, more than enough. He was eighty-seven years old, and he spent most of his days tracing forms in the air with his fingers. Beautiful, vanishing forms. He also sat in his study and conducted interviews with his disciples, a few of whom had fled the Brotherhood of the Word on the far side of the desert. One student of Jacob’s had been exiled exactly as Jacob himself had been exiled as a young man. This young novice John often barraged old Jacob with questions about the subtle distinctions between the world, the body, and the text. Naturally, John would become Jacob’s successor. And so Jacob’s nearly every thought concerned the proper training of this single, most promising student.

“I have fear,” said John. “Great fear.”

“About what?” asked Jacob.

“I don’t know exactly,” said John. “Mostly about the steadiness of my hand as I transcript.”

“Fear not,” said Jacob. “The Word shall keep your hand steady.”

“But sometimes,” the novice continued, “sometimes it shakes and I mistranscript a letter.”

A cry escaped Jacob. His outburst was pathetic, but brief, and he accepted that his old heart was so tired that perhaps he must allow himself a few tears.

“It’s all right, my boy,” said Jacob. “Your hand may shake.”

“But what then?” said John. “What happens when I can no longer hold steady to the form of the letters? What then?”

Jacob paused, and listened to the sounds of the birds outside his window.

“’What then?’?” Jacob echoed the young man’s question.

“Yes,” said John, “what then? What happens when I slip from the form of the letters?”

“Then you learn,” said Jacob, “that there are no letters, there are no words, there is no text, there is no body, and there is no world.”

“But what does that even mean?” said John.

“Indeed, what does that even mean?” said Jacob. He knocked his cane on the hardwood floor of his study, and the sound traveled to the ears of his assistant sitting outside the door, who promptly brought in a pitcher of water and filled their glasses.

“Will that be all, sir?” asked the assistant.

“Yes,” answered Jacob, with a modest bow. “That will be all.”