by Mitch Levenberg
I am about to read the first sentence of my new book The Unfigureoutables. The only problem is that it is also the last sentence. The crowd which seemed endless which extended as far as the eye could see or ears could hear grew hushed. I began to read: “All my life I had no idea how to figure out the unfigureoutables.” Then there was nothing.
The truth is I had nowhere to go. I had no plans, no agenda, no thoughts, no ideas; I already felt drained, that somehow I had said enough, said all I was going to say. “All my life I had no idea how to figure out the Unfigureoutables.”
“And what or who were these ‘Unfigureoutables?” an interviewer on the radio once asked me. But nothing came of it. I looked at the host and he had a bead of sweat beginning to form on his upper lip, another just below his lower lip. I actually felt sorry for him. I was for him as I always was for everyone, one of the Unfigureoutables. I remember how that pause – wide enough to create a chasm of death and destruction – completely unnerved him unnerved him enough so that he began to speak for me, began to answer his own questions as if I were no longer there. “Not that you even need to answer that question. I mean,” he said. “I mean, after all,” he said. “What else could they be but. . .” And thinking one good turn deserved another, I thought I’d help him out and exclaimed with as much commitment and enthusiasm as I cared to muster at the moment, “Exactly! My point exactly!”
So with only a title in hand – they, whoever they were, were already trying to come up with a book jacket. They met one morning in the boardroom of the 34th floor of “The Building.” I don’t think the building had a name just an address and a lot of fictional type people who worked in it, kind of the opposite of my book as it now stood, tottering on a narrow precipice in my brain. For several hours apparently they threw ideas around for a book jacket and finally decided on a couple of stick figures and a question mark
But I protested. Yes, even with only a title I had earned the right, the prestige really, to protest – the title does not have a question mark. “Do you understand?” I shouted to the guy, that guy in charge whom I never liked dealing with unlike that beautiful bright and incredibly Unfigureoutable woman who worked for him, who inspired my title and hopefully, someday, the rest of the book, “or I’ll just have to take the book (title of course) elsewhere!” There, that should hold their attention I thought to myself while I try to figure out what to write next.
It was, surprise, surprise, my dinner with the assistant, that Unfigureoutable woman I was talking about that inspired my first line. (See above – it’s just too painful to keep writing it out) it kind of just happened. Everything suddenly went quiet. I felt dizzy. I could hear the blood rushing through my ears. My feet went numb. If I had tried to stand up, had made excuses for no longer being part of this world, I would have collapsed. People at tables all around me seemed to be speaking in slow motion. I thought I might be having a stroke. What a time I thought to be getting a stroke just when I finally got this woman to go out with me. But it wasn’t a stroke at all. My body and mind were merely shutting down to those meaningless distractions around me. The great mind was moving, no locking into final position. There was just me and that wonderful unfigureoutable assistant -who was taking this journey with me whether she wanted to or not – tottering on the precipice of non-existence, alone now in an impenetrable infinitesimal space left in the world, in my world, as a line, the first line of my novel was spawned from my brain. “All my life I had no idea how to figure out the Unfigureoutables,” I said to her, meaning her and nothing and no one else, never suspecting that by the end of the evening all that would be left of it, all that it would be good for, this useless, feckless, unforgivable line, would be the first and last line of my novel.
When would I learn that no one especially women want to be considered Unfigureoutable? It’s insulting. It’s phony. It’s as bad as or just the other side of figureoutable. “Don’t give me this Unfigureoutable bullshit,” the assistant said to me. “Writers should be able to figure out anything about anyone or at least have the decency to make things up. You just want my ass. Admit it.”
She was right. I should have admitted it or perhaps I should just have said she had that Je ne se quoi quality and left it at that. ” Little did the world know the sordid beginnings of that orphan line – spawned in horny desperation. No, from then on it would become sacrosanct, a head-nodding self-contained self-explainable line that needed not the four hundred plus pages one might expect to follow it.
Yet, to be honest, in a very practical sense at least, even if followed by so much gibberish that had been flooding the markets these days, it needed something, especially if people were to make money off me. You could not expect or hope that people would buy the book, yes and even judge the book by its cover alone. Never notice – until they took it home and maybe not for days or weeks or even years after that – that beneath the cover and title there would be one line and then four hundred or so blank pages.
Soon, the book jacket was appearing everywhere. Ads in newspapers and magazines and on billboards; from the highway one could see a group of stick figures huddled together with one big question mark hovering above the highway.
Suddenly I was being invited to writers conferences all over the world to read from my new book and then sit on a panel and answer questions from the audience. All one line of it. I feigned all sorts of illnesses. Once I feigned mental exhaustion. It was true that I had been wracking my brain trying to think of a second line and as a result began taking frequent naps. There was a cryptic press release about admitting myself into a sanitarium in the Swiss Alps which would probably mean that I was having an affair. Certainly, this would have made me, cemented my reputation, branded my name into literary folklore until the end of time, ensured at least a nomination for the Nobel prize, but unfortunately none of it was true and yes, believe it or not, I believed in the truth.
And then the threats came. “Unless you can have the first three chapters done by such and such a day we reserve the right to dissolve your contract,” the Building said. I knew they wouldn’t. I knew they were bluffing. I mean why spend all that time and money on a book jacket and then abandon the book – which at that point existed only in my mind; although, then again, it only existed in their minds as well. It was their absolute certainty of its existence in my mind that trumped any tenuous existence it may have had in their minds.
And I was right. Soon the threats ended and I had even heard through my agent that certain people had been fired from the threat department altogether – to be replaced by those in the blurb department and whose blurbs were even longer than the first sentence of my book.
Of course, with the threats also came the fame, the adulation. Big tough kids told me they couldn’t wait for the movie. Grandmothers, housewives, firemen, sociologists, and even philosophers stopped me in the street and – assuming that somewhere in the middle of the book, no matter what I might have asserted at the beginning of the book, I would have somehow figured out how to figure out the Unfigureoutables – then telling me it was about time someone did. I smiled knowingly more knowingly that I had ever smiled before because I knew that most certainly I had not.
And so it went until I was finally convinced to do a reading at my alma mater – a college I loved so well, a college in the foothills of a bigger foothill that took me in when no one else would, a gesture of faith and kindness I would also never understand.
And so it was that now I stood before the endless crowd in total darkness, my only light the light from a small lamp on the podium and from the reflected glare of the sun on the eyeglasses of the furthest person in the furthest row that like a distant star had actually gone out years ago.
Perhaps that light was still traveling towards me from my own eyeglasses, from where I stood years earlier in the last row on a night just like this to listen to the great writer who came all the way from the city to this little-known college buried in these little-known foothills to inspire us all.
I paused for a long time. No preface, no introduction, no thank yous for those who invited me, no droll story about some eccentric person I sat next to on the train coming up here – just one long pause. It wasn’t only because I had so little to read to these people that I had paused so long, but also because there was something about them, their expectation, their absolute faith and trust in me, that now I too would inspire them all – that is what I needed to breath in, to absorb before it was all gone – before I would lose them forever. Then when I began to feel their restlessness, and yes I could always feel the squirming restlessness of the very last person in the very last seat in the very last row, when I started to feel their restlessness, when their restlessness became intolerable to me, I began.
“All my life,” I said, slower than I had ever uttered anything before, “I had no idea how to figure out the Unfigureoutables.” First there was a great silence as if they were hanging on the next word, waiting, waiting of course for me to go on, for what writer after all reads just one line and then walks away? I did not walk away but only closed my book, my book with the book jacket with the stick figures and the question mark hovering not just above them but above the crowd as well. Then, suddenly, like a sudden unexpected storm, they began to applaud, first one person, then another and still another and so on and so forth one row at a time until it finally reached the last row, until the last person in the row realized that I was done. Oh yes, at first there were a few sporadic boos, but then came the cheers, and when the cheers came they came all at once as if one spontaneous epiphanous roar of recognition had broken out among the crowd.