Hot Metal Bridge

Current Issue : Number Twenty-Five

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BY SHYA SCANLON

I come to a stopping place, push back from my small desk in the northwest corner of my tiny apartment, and look out the window. 

Deciding between frequency and intensity probably comes down to a matter of taste, where inconvenience is concerned, I think.

Through the window I can see the car owned by the neighbor, loud, who lives above me, and a small sliver of the street beyond.  I watch, and listen a while to the sound of passing cars.

Lately I’ve been giving myself the creeps. 

I pull myself back to the desk and consider my work, which has been going well: by eleven today I had two strong pages, by two five. 

To be fair, the pages I wrote were dialogue, which comes quickly, but which is nonetheless not my strength. 

Dialogue, I’ve found, is the most difficult thing to convincingly recreate.  Not being much of a conversationalist to begin with, this should not surprise me.  Much of it will no doubt end up being cut.

This is okay; I’m probably overly concerned with quantity.  For instance, I know that it takes seven steps to reach the hallway from the bedroom in my apartment.  Six if I’m in a hurry. 

A couple of nights ago, in an effort to overcome a bout of writer’s block, I decided to take a walk.  I didn’t know where I was going, but not far from my house I came to a building with a door set back from the sidewalk. 

It must have been a back door, because it didn’t have a handle on the outside, just a small metal plate where the knob would have been.  It wasn’t lit.

Actually, the language of my dialogue isn’t altogether bad, but the flaws usually accrue unevenly – leaving one voice flat, or unrealistic.  It always sounds wrong when read aloud.

Before I know what I’m doing I’ve left the sidewalk; I’ve entered the little space before the doorway, and I’m just standing there, face out.

After a few seconds I realize that I’m waiting.  I’m waiting for someone to pass by. 

I save my work, power down my computer, and stand up.  I find that I spend a great deal of my time at home just standing, trying to determine what to do next. 

I always have several important responsibilities, but it is rare that one or another of them exerts a distinguishably stronger pull than the rest.

It’s not that I don’t have priorities.  In fact, they trouble me.  For instance, if a friend going through a difficult time were to visit, and I happened to be even mere sentences away from finishing a promising piece of literature, I don’t think I’d make him wait. 

I’m afraid that this decision reflects something fundamental about my character: that I, for all time, will choose personal connection over an affinity with transcendental art. 

Fortunately, I’m not often confronted with this revealing choice.

When I’m standing in my apartment, waiting for a decision to be made, I often begin to pace.  It is because of this pacing that I’ve discovered the specific location of every significant creak in the floorboards of my living room. 

As I’m standing in the darkness before the door, I grow nervous.  If someone were to pass by and see me they’d be startled.  Obviously I’m not going to do anything, but there is a good chance they’d believe, if only for an instant, that I would.  Is that what I want?

Not that five pages—dialogue or not—is anything to scoff at.  Didn’t Flaubert take five days to write one page?  Madame Bovary may not have been happy, but she certainly was superbly crafted. 

I’d be well off if any character of mine could be one fifth as compelling as she.

I know these creaks so well, in fact, that when I’m pacing I walk from creak to invisible creak, as though I, by stepping in the right place, am soliciting my apartment’s opinion.  As though the room itself is speaking to me.

After I realize that’s what I’m thinking, I immediately try to get out of it.  Of the small doorway on the street, I mean.  But also from that line of thought, I suppose.  Of course I don’t want to scare unsuspecting passersby.

Likewise, even when not opting for companionship over completing my work, hurriedly forcing out page after page of text, in expectation that my buzzer might go off at any second, no doubt signals a nervous temperament – one unfit to truly grasp, let alone reproduce, the finer nuances of great literature to begin with.

Actually, the difference between five to one and one in five would be one tenth, wouldn’t it?  Or one twenty fifth!  Incredible.  Still, I’d be lucky.

And yet, I’ve begun to wonder whether my dialogue might not simply be a new direction, a progressive element, rather than a flaw.  Who can say what’s         “natural?”

The history of art exhibits not only an extended dialogue about the place, and value, of “the natural,” but a long series of premature judgments. 

However, I stay in the small dark doorway a little longer, even after I decide to leave, because I’m afraid that someone might see me walk back onto the street.  I’m certain they’d think I was in there doing drugs, or worse, and they’d probably cross the street to avoid me.

I try to be as silent as I can, and I listen for footsteps, or any sound someone walking down the street might make.

Waiting for a clear direction to dawn on me, I walk between the creaks in my floor for a minute before turning on my stereo, which is preset both in station and volume. 

With the volume on three, I can hear the buzzer of the apartment across the hall.  But not when the volume is on four. 

With the volume on four, however, I can’t hear when the basement washer’s buzzer sounds, signaling that my laundry is done, so even though I’m not doing the laundry more often than I am doing it, I prefer to have the volume at a level I don’t have to change.

Classical music fills the room, keeping me company.  The piece is familiar, yet I can’t quite place it.

The problem with my plan is that it’s windy out tonight, and the way fast air moves past large objects combined with the sounds various smaller objects make while being blown around together sounds a lot like distant speech.  Or laughter.

Nonetheless, I normally try to err on the side of my less contentious strengths, and emphasize the descriptive passages in my work as much as possible. 

Which is why this sudden burst of dialogue took me a bit off guard.  Pleasantly so, perhaps, but off guard.  I simply wasn’t, at that point in the narrative, expecting interaction.

Just as I’m being caught up in the music, my buzzer rings.  It is the mailman, asking for my name.  I respond, and he asks me to come to the door.

That, and the “interaction” was actually an argument.  A passionate shouting match.  There were ultimatums involved, threats.  There were insults.  The relationship was at stake.

On my way to the door I pass by the bookshelf, which taps the wall slightly when I stand in front of it with my legs spread apart, putting pressure alternately between my right and left feet. 

I’ve tried, unsuccessfully, to fasten this bookshelf to the wall, but have since decided that the sound is not significant enough to merit completely overhauling my shelving system. 

Let me ask you: if you were walking down the street—especially after dark—and you passed by a doorway set back from the sidewalk, very dark, and saw inside it someone with a long, beak-like nose wearing a black hooded parka and grinning nervously, what would you do? 

You’d be startled, at least.  You’d quicken your pace until you reached the corner, if not your destination.  Would you call the police?

One option would be to switch the positions of my bookshelf and my bed, but this would mean taking my bed away from the window, which I like to look out before sleep, and for a while after waking.

This was surprising because the characters who argued had actually been on their best behavior until then.  In fact, I was beginning to think there wasn’t enough tension in the story. 

Thankfully, I was overlooking something.  They’d been hiding their true feelings from me.  As usual.

When I get to the door of my building, the postman explains that he is under orders not to deliver personal first class mail to mailboxes which do not clearly indicate the name of the recipient. 

He says I am lucky to have been in, and I agree.  Though he has no mail for me, I thank the man, and make a mental note to purchase some tape with which I can affix a small piece of cardboard to the inside of the box on which I can write my name in tiny, black letters.

When I get back inside my apartment I turn on my computer and open my file again to reread what I’ve written.  It’s just as I suspected: it has the same flaw my dialogue always has.  The truth is, I favor one side of the argument.  I agree with one of the characters.

Another problem with my plan is that the longer I hesitate in the doorway, the more likely it becomes that someone will see me leave, not to mention notice how long I’ve been in here, and conclude that my business is untoward. 

And with my bed in the corner, I occasionally stand on it, back to the wall, and look down across my apartment which, with the lights off, takes on a strange and unfamiliar aspect. 

Especially when I’m listening to the radio at very low volumes.

There’s something about barely audible music—as if muffled by a wall—that makes a room seem even more than entirely empty.

Frankly, I can’t quite escape the thought that my business is untoward.  Even though I couldn’t possibly do anything more than frighten someone a little, this alone seems sufficiently anti-social to earn my suspicion that there might be something wrong with me.

Not that there’s anything wrong with agreeing with one’s characters.  But should it be so obvious?

I sit at my desk and again peer through the small slot affording me a view of the street.  I think again of the errand I have to run, and feel uplifted by the calling of this small but significant task.  Once finished, I shouldn’t have any trouble receiving first class mail any more.

The sounds on the street seem to be amplified by the small, receded doorway I’m in, and they bleed together too, making it difficult, at first, to distinguish between intentional and unintentional sound.

I strain to determine whether or not I’m alone.  After a few minutes, however, I finally feel like I have a decent mental image of the street.  What’s there, what’s not.

It seems to me, the more subtlety used by the author to convey his points, the more mature the work is thought to be.  This may not always be so, of course.

But just as I build up the courage to step back onto the street, the ambient street sounds are replaced by the unmistakable pattern of footsteps.  Walking my way.

Not knowing what else to do, I turn around and face the corner.

My buzzer rings.

Certainly in real life people appreciate directness.  Why do they seek out and reward ambiguity in art?

Some music is so powerful that it can bring me to tears, even when playing merely in my head.  There must be a physics behind it, but it seems odd that this impact isn’t diminished by my amateur musicianship.

I wonder who it could be.  I’m not expecting anyone.  The mailman again?  I save my file once more and get up from my desk.  Just then I hear the thunder of footsteps descending the stairs.

The back stairwell of my apartment building runs down the inside of my closet.  I’ve often been tempted to tape up a message in the hallway about this fact. 

It would ask that people pay more attention to the level of noise they make when ascending and descending the stairs.  But I haven’t. 

I worry it would be considered rude—or worse, prudish—and while some of my neighbors might respect this request, I fear I’d risk inspiring certain others to stomp even louder, and if so, it would not be worth it.

Deciding between frequency and intensity probably comes down to a matter of taste, where inconvenience is concerned. 

Perhaps, however, I’m mistaken.  Perhaps readers will laud the directness, the transparency of a dialogue which so openly reflects my opinions.  They will say it is refreshingly real, honest. 

They will speculate that this is how it must surely be, when speaking personally with the author. 

The buzzer rings again. 

It takes six or seven steps to reach my hallway from my bedroom, during which one passes my bookshelf, and at the end of which stands a small table holding my keys, hat, and gloves.

It is an old, oak table, simple in design.  Sturdy.  It stands waist high.

There is a mirror above it.