Finding His Voice

Submitted into Contest #124 in response to: End your story with someone finding themselves.... view prompt



The needle found the groove and the sounds of Mustafa Özkent began to fill the room with a satisfying hiss. Bobbing his head and dancing his way across the room he plopped himself down in front of the small typewriter. “One published story and you think you’re Hemingway?”, he asked himself, still unable to dampen his smile. The music only increased his euphoric smirking and distracted him from writing. The ambiance was right, the record and the typewriter having recently replaced the iPod and the Moleskine. He had always wanted to be a writer and now having become one, he had nothing to write about. In the wake of his published story, he had spoken to countless authors, editors and fellow novices and all had given him essentially the same advice, find your voice. That each of these had offered this similar advice in their own voices proved to him that they were all correct. By the time side one had finished, and he had gotten up from the typewriter and walked, not danced to the turntable he was no longer smiling. Having flipped the record, he returned to his desk and the smile faded as he read aloud what he had written.

If I am to make a sport out of writing, then I must use poetry as stretching

His lips contorted, the upper lip muscles beneath his right nostril stretched taut. Examining the sentence closely, both physically and metaphorically speaking – he had put his nose just inches from the typed words, he decided that he liked the sentiment, but not the sentence. Pulling the paper from the patter roller and crumbling it up he tossed the sentence towards the waste basket at the other end of the room, the crumpled paper hitting the edge and delighting the dog who was had been curiously watching his owner for any signs of play. Taking the paper ball as his cue he disappeared down the hall. On a fresh piece of paper, he rewrote the sentiment to his satisfaction.

If the story is to truly become my sport, then poetry must become my stretches. 

The piece of paper, like the one before it was removed. Unlike the preceding piece, this new one did not become the plaything of man’s best friend. It was cherished for a moment before a third piece of paper was placed into the typewriter and he stared at yet another blank sheet. Looking back at the second piece of paper with pride he drew a small smiley face after the period. “One published story and you think you’re Vonnegut?”, he asked himself, the smile having returned to his face. “Why not?”, he concluded as side two of his Anatolian Funk record ended. 

Any words, even in languages he did not speak, like Turkish, became the scapegoat for why he had not written the story he had been asked for. The smile was gone, and he exited his writer’s nook, which his wife referred to as the kitchen. Meandering down the long hallway between her kitchen and his living room, his mind began to drift towards things that are not writing, and he rebuked himself sternly. With renewed determination he located his copy of the Czech Philharmonic performing Shostakovic’s Symphony No. 7. “If you can’t get inspired by this performance, you have no soul, no hope”, he mumbled to himself while marching back to the writer’s nook, the kitchen having once again faded into oblivion. 

The needle once again found the groove with a delightful hiss and popping that was one of the draws to playing music in the old-fashioned way. His superstitious return to the music he had played while writing that one published story had immediate benefits. The clickety-clack of the typewriter began to match the rhythm of the classical music that had followed his wife’s kitchen in receding. Only the dog was aware of the whole cosmic significance of the moment; unfortunately, he spoke as much English as his master spoke Turkish.

Too often, we – this being the royal, ‘we’, find ourselves amplifying and enhancing the negative aspects of life. True, we do this with what we hope passes for wit, and we are cautiously optimistic that our work has been received as humorous. This still does not nullify the cold, hard truth that my work has a mercurial temperament. There’s a bit o’ melancholy in these here fingers and they have no qualms about offloading a bit o’ that melancholy onto whatever they can. I begin to worry that while I try and develop my voice – 

He sat back and admired the ink blots on the paper and studied them intensely. Reading that last sentence, he let out a chuckle that was not bound by the restrictions of language. His dog immediately understood and ran to fetch the saliva-soaked crumpled piece of paper. “My God!”, was his initial thought. “How pretentious can I sound?”, he asked rhetorically. Then he leaned in close again to the paper and read the final sentence a final time before passing judgment on it. Just as he was about to give his dog a new crumpled piece of paper to play around the house with an epiphany struck him. The record began to skip, looping the military drumbeats and pizzicato strings of Shostakovic and the kitchen flickered in and out of existence. Fighting through the distractions he completed his thought.

I begin to worry that while I try and develop my voice – My God! How pretentious can I sound? Never one to spoil a chance to rise just short of the occasion let this be a challenge! Eek! These damn fingers o’ mine.

Reentering the kitchen from his writer’s nook he addressed the skipping record by tapping the arm gently that resulted in a less than gentle scratching sound that was far less pleasant than the hissing and the popping. Beauty is pain though; and the ambiance was essential to his craft. To intentionally sound pretentious while remaining nonchalant and endearing is not something that comes naturally, even to this smarmy composite of everything he had ever read.

I see the beauty as much as I see the anxiety inducing monotony, the relentless waves of sinister sameness – eager to drown me, drag me out to my death with its wicked undertow. I fear two things, these two things, I fear! The monotony and the undertow.

When I was a child, maybe six or seven years old, my family had gone to a waterpark in Myrtle Beach, SC. I was nearly drowned there at the wave pool. I remember looking up at my moment of desperation, gazing upwards at the lifeguard, the glare of the sun behind him, shadowing his face. Though he was probably only a child himself, the dark halos around his head and the acute angle from which I looked up at him made him seem much more severe than a child of sixteen- or seventeen-years old ought to properly aspire to. He appeared, from beneath him, as a bronzed idol – an indifferent god surveying his creation. 

A minimal amount of suffering is to be expected in circumstances like these, thought the young sea god to himself. A sea nymph, wearing the neon orange bikini bottoms paired with a similarly luminous teal body glove shirt caught his attention. A minimal amount of suffering is tolerable in circumstances like these, thought the board of directors for the unnamed waterpark. After all, adults would never allow low-paid children to supervise younger children in potentially life-threatening situations. 

Panic gripped me as I lost my grip on the smooth wall of the pool and the undertow began to take me out to the sea, that neglected domain of that god smitten so totally by that nymph. I petitioned that absent-minded and young god one final time in vain. His eyes were elsewhere ad my prayers fell on distracted ears. My head bobbed above and below the surface of the water as my tippytoes tried in desperation to keep me in a position that allowed me to breathe. This deadly dance went on for what seemed an eternity. 

Pausing there as the symphony broke out into loud bursts from each section of the orchestra, he admired his retelling of the event. Likely, he considered, his straining to reach the bottom of the pool and the whole near-drowning episode probably only lasted a few brief moments. Board members can consult the auguries of the actuary all they care to; the calculus of a mother is quite a different story. The smile on his face went wicked as he recalled the haranguing the young lifeguard took at the hands of some man who was in the vicinity of his thoroughly convincing mother. 

Within moments of my certain demise my mother summoned two men to do her bidding. One pulled me to safety while the other dethroned the young god. The girl in the fashionable 90s bathing suit walked by the scene and god became man, man became boy and boy squirmed uncomfortably at the punitive lecture he was receiving at the hands of this burly stranger.  I have reasons to fear the undertow. I fear the modern homogenization more. Powerful as she may be my mother may not have the prerequisite omni(s) to stop its assault on us. 

That was almost a hopeful paragraph, he thought as he read it aloud. His dog hung on every word, nodding in agreement with his assessment. “I was so close, poochie”, he said. Taking his right hand, palm facing toward his face, he wriggled his fingers. “These damn fingers”, he said, laughing loudly, over the conflicting melodies of the symphony. His dog responded to the attention by barking, his petitions and prayers falling on distracted ears. The symphony was on a triumphal march and so was he, the typewriter click-clacking as fast as his damned fingers would allow.

I see the patterns in the absurdities of the everyday, woven into the fabric of life by Fate herself. She is cunning at the loom, that one. My near drowning incident, a prophecy for the coming tsunamis of the 21stcentury was so obvious. How was everyone so blind to my revelation? I must not have been vocal enough. I vow to never make that mistake again. I intend to make new ones each and every time. Ha! Hear me, o Fate! I see your handiwork all around me. Alas, my utterances have begun the process of becoming the living embodiment of prophecy. See how pretentious I have already become! Now, if I could only figure out what all these minor, personal tragedies meant I could let y’all know…

It could have probably gone without saying but enjoying the sound of his emerging voice at that moment, he went ahead and said it. “I survived the drowning, poochie. I’m hanging on for dear life in the 21st century”. His light-hearted chuckling was juxtaposed with the rambling cynicism that his fingers were imposing on the unsuspecting typewriter and the symphony coming apart at the seams.

In all the madness of the wars, the economic chaos, the decline of individualism, the gentrification, the political turmoil, the pandemic, the upheaval, the commodification of the upheaval being set against the backdrop of hyper technological advancements, life has returned to her natural state, being nasty, brutish and growing shorter for everyone who cannot afford to blast off into outer space for early real estate scouting missions. This is what the rich are up to! Hear me, you, people! Hear me and wake from thy indifference. The petition was not unlike the one I had offered the young and bronzed god of the sea. The answer was equally similar. 

The smile had once again fled from his face. His forehead became wet with perspiration, and he worked hard to subconsciously match the increasing tempo of the record playing in that distant kitchen. When he became stuck his fingers guided him to his next acerbic pronunciation of woe. His righteous rage had transcended just the absent-minded lad, who as a teenaged boy was put in charge of younger boys in situations where poor supervision might cost someone their life. The rage transcended even the board members who had so wantonly chosen the profit side of the actuary’s balance sheet over the less quantifiable, but inarguably more important side, the one weighing the potential risk to human life. It transcended the whole world and from on high, it looked down on everyone and pronounced judgment.

This set of circumstances is conducive to our innate tribalism and our worsts tend to come out when we are in sympathetic groups. In such a tipsy-turvy state it is natural to latch on to whatever one can to not only survive, but to be right at whatever the cost is, financial or otherwise. Out of this tribal, brutish and nasty existence emerged the mobs, digital at first. Now strong enough to assume physical form the mob has returned to the streets.

I am an optimist though. I have no fear that corporations will eventually, and more rapidly than in the past (thanks be to Bezos) because of cloud computing. The algorithms will figure out what will pacify the mob. The men and women who owned these whizpoppers went on to become fabulously wealthy. Damn these negative fingers! They’ve struck again.

Sheepishly, he shook his head at the typewriter, the pages of ink on paper bringing him a profound pleasure. He was enmeshed in this anachronistic approach to creation because of a multitude of reasons. Of course, there was the obvious and powerful good luck charms. He wondered, when would those beneficiaries but not benevolent capitalists finally zoom off into space for good. Probably whenever life on this planet really becomes untenable, which coincidentally is exactly when everything becomes one. 

I am an optimist though. I see the beauty in the tapestry alongside the misery Fate has so capriciously woven. The other day, I saw a burly, tattooed officer from the local Sherriff’s department standing outside the Claire’s in the mall. This man reminded me of the one who had deposed the lifeguard, looking tough, mean and agitated – ever ready for action, whatever the cost. Actuaries be damned! Any criminal mischief might have been bouncing around in his mind vanished with the first glimpse I had of this mountain masquerading as a man. 

Walking towards me, the officer in between, was a Hispanic couple pushing a stroller with a little boy in it. The hard man instantly softened as he shared a fist-bump with the child, obviously enamored with policemen. It was the exact kind of encounter that this world needs more of; and I considered myself blessed to have been the proverbial fly-on-the-wall to that beautiful display of human emotion.

I smiled as I watched the two humans on opposite ends of the spectrum interact so beautifully. Still smiling I walked past the officer and child and thought to myself, “What deep level of hell have we descended into where a store like Claire’s needs an armed and burly bouncer? My smile quickly faded as I caught sight of the tween mob headed in my general direction.

He read the whole of his story three times before concluding that it was true to his newfound voice. Drained of his words, pretentions and energy he pushed himself away from the typewriter and trudged the distance once more between the kitchen and living room. There he selected a book of poems from the bookshelf and returned up the hallway. Back in the kitchen he selected a third LP, letting it find its groove before lying down on the hardwood floors. His dog loved this, coming to stretch with his master on the floor, listening to the poems that were read to him without understanding.   

December 17, 2021 18:22

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