“There was only one thing that worried Arthur more than unfinished work: the dreaded block.” A short story, all too relatable to authors, that suggests a writer can not always foretell where the pen will take them…
by: Tristan Snyckers
Arthur’s fingers left graphite trails where they scrawled tiny, looping vowels and sharp consonants. Thin yellowing pages curled at their edges as he transcribed phrases dictated by some otherworldly being. He paused, staring up at the ceiling to find that which no one else could see. A moment. A revelation.
He hunched over the worn paper once more, conducting his pencil across its surface. As he neared the story’s end, he set the pencil to rest, sharp-side-up, in an ocean-blue hand-blown glass that stood on the heavy oak desk inhabiting the corner of his bedroom, leaving the sentence unfinished.
Arthur knew that the incomplete phrase would haunt him as he went about his daily business. The absence of satisfaction forced him to spend the moment contemplating where the story was going or whether the characters were behaving according to their nature. There was only one thing that worried Arthur more than unfinished work: the dreaded block.
He picked up the page with dirty fingers, imprinting smudges where they came to rest. His eyes scanned the cursive text through half-moon spectacles, his lips thinning behind a beard in urgent need of mowing. Once satisfied (although he often remarked that “satisfaction is a foreigner in the land of literature”), he set the parchment down and stood up, twisting himself first left, then right to rid the ache from his bones.
Arthur strolled through the open doorway towards the kitchenette, struck a match to light the ever-rusting gas stove, filled the kettle, and set it to boil over the open flame.
If you asked, Arthur would tell you that this moment was the best and worst of them. His mind was empty yet refilling. Everything he saw, thought, or heard was exposed to the light of potential. This could make a great description or that would be the right direction for the narrative to take. He had to combat the urge to sprint back to his desk. His experience told him that these ideas were unrefined and would only serve to muddy his work. Time would decide what would stay and what would go.
He scooped out two spoons of instant coffee and watched as the milk spiralled from white to ochre. He tapped the teaspoon on the edge of the mug, twice for good luck, and took out a second cup from the cabinet, spooned out two measures of brown sugar and set it next to the quieting kettle.
Ally yanked her navy blue coat from the hook by the door, fumbled with the key for a moment (it tended to get stuck half a turn in), swung the door open and let it slam behind her. Her breath was a phantom in the winter air. A beret sat artfully upon her head, undisturbed by her pace as she hurried past the General Store, her friend Susie’s Salon, and Farewell’s book shop. The cover of a novel which sat in the window caught her eye. Inscribed on the dust jacket, in elegant typeface, was the name, Arthur S. Zeal.
A giddy feeling of pride warmed her chest before soaring into an unadulterated panic. She hated being late.
Arthur set a book down on his knee, one thumb wedged between its pages. He peered over his spectacles at the kitchen clock and chuckled, foreseeing how annoyed Ally would be with herself. A couple of minutes passed before the buzzer rang.
“You’re late,” he mocked, making sure to keep a smile in his tone.
“I know, don’t make it worse Art. Open up, it’s cold,” she replied.
He pressed the small, grey button that sat next to the wall-mounted phone and listened carefully. He could always tell what mood Ally was in by the way she walked. Her steps were even yet hurried as she ascended the stairs. She was frustrated, but only because she was late. He unlatched the door to find a panting Ally at its step.
“I hope you’ve made coffee,” she said, pulling off her jacket and throwing it, along with her handbag, onto the light grey couch that looked over row-on-row of double-storey apartments.
“How did I know you’d ask,” he said, pulling her towards him with one arm. He kissed her on her cool porcelain cheek, to which she responded by playfully pushing him away.
“Coffee,” she repeated.
“Yes ma’am,” he said in mock seriousness, stepping over to the rusty stove.
“Any news from the publishers? I saw your book propped up in the window on my way here,” she asked.
“I’m still waiting for the final figures, but it seems to be doing fine,” he lied. His book had been a terrible flop. The critics had torn him apart. “Too much fluff,” they said, “paced like an old man’s ticker.” He felt bad for lying to Ally but he needed a buffer between him and those ruthless bastards.
“Any news from Mr Russo?” he asked in an attempt to divert her attention from the subject of his stillborn.
“He says he’s waiting for the client to confirm the offer, but I’m starting to doubt whether there even was one to begin with. I knew it was too good to be true…” she trailed off, spooning sugar into her mocha.
“Woah! Easy on the sugar. I’ve already put in two,” Arthur said.
She shrugged and dipped the spoon in.
“Oh well, I could use a pick-me-up,” she said, sipping in careful measures.
“You were saying about the painti—“
“I don’t want to talk about it, the entire situation’s weighing me down. I really thought this was it Art,” she said, slumping into the couch, nurturing her cup with both hands. “How’s your new book coming along?”
“Honestly? I’m struggling to get through it. I’m scared that if I get too lost in my imagination that the hallucinations will come back. I’m getting in my own way I guess. Besides, the meds only make me feel numb,” he said, combing his fingers through his salt ‘n pepper hair. “It’s as if I’m always one clock shy of a cuckoo.”
“That’s quite the imagination you’ve got there babe. That’s why they pay you the big ones,” she teased, knowing how much the diagnosis had been toying with his mind.
“Ever the optimist,” he retorted, struggling to keep the frustration from his voice.
Ally stuck out her tongue like a mocking child, to which he responded by tackling her from where he was sitting. Hearing her laugh was salutary and he knew where she was ticklish.
It was dark outside when he awoke. The morning air was biting and the comfort of his bed was too sweet to leave. But he overcame temptation, as he had every other morning, swinging his feet onto the yellow-wood floor. He shrugged on the crumpled sweater that hung over the writer’s chair and sat down to read what he had written the day before. As he approached the incomplete sentence, his mind began clicking in unknown places.
I stood waiting…
The torrent was coming. The words gaining, allied for a moment for this story. His story. He tried to keep up as they rushed towards him, afraid that he might lose his nerve or that the words would run out. A distinct image formed as his pencil scribbled with a definite urgency. The room Arthur occupied began to transform.
…at the edge of the world.
He stopped, held his pencil in place and looked around only to find that the room was empty. He mumbled to himself. He knew he was genetically predisposed. The pencil began to travel once more. Arthur looked up, his mind struggling to make sense of what he saw. The air was redolent of decay and fire.
Ally was beginning to worry. She hadn’t heard from Arthur in days. He usually called to run ideas past her or to check how she was doing. The last time he had disappeared like this she had found him staring vacantly at the ceiling. He had been dressed in the same shirt and sweatpants he had been wearing when she left. Mugs of half-consumed coffee marked his anxious trajectory through the apartment, many of which served as fly traps.
She fixed the old routine in her mind: get him outside, feed him, let him pee on a tree if he must. Sometimes she felt like owning a dog would be simpler. She smiled at the thought, knowing that she loved the effort, even if it meant that she felt like throttling him sometimes.
She peered through the front gate in a final attempt to see if he was home. Disheartened, she turned to leave, nearly knocking over poor, old Mrs Olivia.
“I’m so sorry,” Ally said, holding her upright, afraid that if she fell that she would scatter like a caught string of pearls.
“It’s alright dear. You startled me is all,” she smiled warmly, patting Ally on the shoulder.
“Have you seen Arthur recently? I’m concerned he’s having another one of his episodes.”
“I’m sorry dear, I don’t think I have. Would you like to come in?” Mrs. Olivia had been called on occasion to help tidy Arthur’s apartment while Ally dragged him away from the deluge of crumpled paper and half-eaten sandwiches. She understood his habits better than Ally did. After all, she had lived with his chaos for two years longer than they had been dating.
Mrs. Olivia dug around in her handbag, searching for the ring-of-a-million-keys. Ally wished to snatch the bag from her frail hands but she smiled politely instead. As soon as the gate was open, she stormed up the stairs.
Knock, knock, knock, knock. Silence.
knock, knock, knock, knock “Art, open up. It’s me. C’mon Art, this isn’t funny.”
She doubted whether he’d left the apartment, seeing as she had brought him enough groceries to last him the week. He had planned to lock himself in, thereby forcing himself to finish his new book. She turned the door handle but it would not budge. Something wasn’t right. She ran down to get the spare key from his kind landlady (this would give her a good reason to suggest that he give her a key to his place. It was about time).
Upon entry, she noted that the room was unusually clean. There was not a filthy cup in sight.
“Arthur,” she called out repeatedly as she swept through the lounge to the bedroom. No one was home. Confused, she turned in circles, searching for any sign of him. That’s when something on the floor caught her attention. She bent down to pick up a fallen pencil. Arthur would have been furious that it had dropped, lest its lead had broken.
Ally pulled out the still-warm chair. She could have sworn someone had been seated in it but a minute ago. She sat down and stared at the pencil between her fingers, holding it delicately with both hands. It took her a moment to bring her attention back down to earth. She placed the pencil back in its glass and turned to look at the solitary page that lay on the stained oak desk. It had drunk its fill of nouns, clauses and quotations. Ally picked it up, hands tremulous and read the near-incoherent handwriting with disbelieving eyes: