CONSIDERABLE COMPLEXITY by Steven Lang
IN WINTER, 5 BELOW FAHRENHEIT is nothing. It's wry. Safely dismissible. 15 below gets your attention. 20 below and I plug my truck in. I wear choppers and stock up on dry goods and make soup and have a fire in the fireplace, and the smoke emanating from the chimney lets my neighbors know I'm okay. At 25 below the mailbox sticks shut, and I worry I'm not getting my rejection letters. My fingers and toes are numb 24 hours a day. I sleep in my jeans. I tell myself the only thing that could ever really keep me warm is someone like Sofie. Or maybe only Sofie herself, because she is here experiencing these same arctic blasts, the incessant flow of frigid air that rushes unimpeded across the plains of Manitoba, down into North Dakota, through the Red River Valley, into western Minnesota, and eventually straight into your face and your eyes and ears and into your lungs and your heart and finally your sex. The only thing left, if you're still alive, is your brain. I've lived here my whole life, and I can draw a map of the entire town from memory, northwest to southeast, on a cocktail napkin, drunk, in a dark barroom, in about a minute. To scale. Sometimes I want to close my eyes when I'm drawing, just to prove I'm that good. Because I'm that good. But sometimes I want to close my eyes for other reasons. The only hope for those who don't escape Wadena is to find someone. Well, I've found someone.
My left hand is at eleven o'clock and my right hand at four, though the time is now just past eight. On the passenger seat next to me is a silver oven bag containing one large Canadian bacon, sausage, and pineapple pizza. Sofie ordered it at exactly 7:33. I put it in the bag at 7:45, and I was cruising at 50 miles an hour by 7:48. By 7:49 the smell had permeated the bag and wafted into the air of the cab of my truck as if in casual conversation with me. By 7:55 I was in front of Sofie's house. That was seven minutes ago, and I've been sitting here since. I look out the driver's side window. Sofie's red brick house, blurred by falling snow, appears dark and muted against a cloudy January sky. I look for any sign of movement at the door or the windows of her living room, but the house appears empty. I check my watch. Six minutes to spare.
I can deliver a pizza to anyone within a five mile radius of this town in 35 minutes or less, no exceptions. From scorched earth summers to kill-me-already winters, 35 minutes or it's free, and in 24 years I've never given away a single pie, not even in the winter of 1991, the year I started, the year it snowed 30 inches on Halloween. If the business in question is the pizza delivery business, I'm the best in the business. This time, however, although I still have five minutes to spare, a problem has presented itself: I have an erection. It isn't Sofie's fault, exactly, but I'm not the type to blame myself for something like this. While I could easily be rid of it within the deadline, this thought makes me want to die. So instead I spend a minute thinking about genocide. The Khmer Rouge is always my go-to genocide, but no luck this time. The smell of the Canadian bacon overcomes the imagery of the killing fields and, because the smell reminds me of Sofie, and by association this reminds me of how much I love her, or would love her if given the opportunity to do so, in fact my erection becomes worse. So I think about baseball. Then the drug war. Then slavery. Then hurricanes. Still throbbing. I think about my maxed out credit cards. Still stiff as can be. I think about government surveillance. Absolutely no effect. But, I have a secret weapon: my twenty-year Odyssey of failure, my great American personal hell, my Waterloo, my Watergate, my Waterworld, the reason I'm still delivering pizzas in Wadena: my unfinished novel. My futuristic, speculative, genre-defying work-in-progress of nearly 450,000 words, not-so-tentatively entitled Considerable Complexity. Whenever I think about my writing, any of it at all, but especially my novel, my arousal immediately diminishes, and this time is no different. The throbbing is gone. This is progress, but I still can't properly stand up and get out of my truck, even in this dunce of a town. Someone, specifically Sofie, but really anyone, might see me. I've just two minutes to spare now, so I get serious and think about all the failed query letters to all those literary agents and all the unanswered voice mail pitches to all those publishers. The postcards I sent to Ursula le Guin, the teaser I emailed to Neil Gaiman, the full manuscripts I cleverly sent to both Harper and Collins. The presumptuousness, the humiliation, the sacrifice. The unrequitedness of it all. What was I thinking? What am I thinking? Sometimes the idea of writing even one more word is simply too much to fathom. Eureka! With just under a minute to spare, I am as flaccid as my prose. I take Sofie's pizza from the oven bag. The future is now.
Sofie's sidewalk is neatly lined in plastic yellow tulips with snow on them, and the front porch steps are painted yellow to match. A bird feeder hangs from the gutter, empty but sufficiently quaint. I can imagine living here. Shoveling this walk. Repainting these steps. Adding a little of my own sensibility to the mix. I laugh under my breath at the notion, since I've never so much as had an ounce of domestic sensibility and nothing I've ever added to anything has become part of a “mix.” Still, I carry the pizza as I might an engagement ring, my left hand beneath it, the box facing forward, poised for me to kneel and pop it open. Marry me! Too soon? Well, this is our 200th pizza, after all, don't you know that rule? I knock at the door.
We met this way, through her screen door, when Sofie ordered her first pizza three years ago. It was the evening of the summer solstice. I remember it vividly, the image of Sofie in a white t-shirt, her auburn hair streaming halfway down her back, the cut-off green jeans, open-toe sandals and yellow painted toenails, the evening light, the sincerity of her expression, the almost humanitarian way she allowed me to look at her far too intensely for far too long, and finally the way she held the pizza box as if it were an illuminated manuscript. The image was almost fictive, like a David Lynch scene, or a living Raphael. I was scared to admit to myself that this woman was not some cliched speculative character that I or someone like me had created. She was real. Google, that ultimate arbiter of reality, would later inform me that she had just published her first novel, Firebrand. And it had been selling relatively well. At that point the $20 tip she gave me made more sense. Since then, Sofie has ordered a few pizzas a month, and she tips $20 every time. This practice eventually led, once I broached the subject, to our weekly writing workshops. Since then she has published another novel and has a semi-lucrative third novel deal, just signed. Professional jealously doesn't have enough syllables to express my envy. On the other hand, I shouldn't call them novels, exactly. They are romance books that go straight to paperback. She calls them “reality novels.” Not because they have anything to do with reality, but because they don't contain anything speculative, futuristic, or genre-defying, and therefore they pay the bills.
This time Sofie opens the door just before I can fully suck in my gut.
“I figured out the problem with my narrator,” she says.
I raise my gut another notch. “The fisherman? Did you get rid of the patois?” The screen is entirely missing from her screen door, so I hand her the pizza through the open space.
“He's from Missoula now. No accent, no missing finger, nothing.” Sofie reaches through the door, stuffs a $20 bill into my jacket pocket, then grabs the box.
“What about the ending? Did you keep the shipwreck?”
“I thought you hated that part.”
“I do, but I liked it when he kept yelling, 'We goin' down, boss! We goin' down!' Now what's he going to yell?”
“Nothing. He accepts the situation and goes down with the ship.” She lifts the lid of the box and takes a whiff. Satisfied, she closes it and looks up, then waves. While her written word on occasion lacks the unambiguous immediacy her chosen genre typically demands, her body speaks with remarkable clarity. The wave insinuates that if there were anything else that needed to be expressed, anything at all, it could wait a day or remain forever unsaid.
I return the wave. “See you tomorrow.”
She closes the door and I let my gut fall like a sandbag plummeting backstage. I skulk back to my truck, where I send a text to the boss. Ten minutes, I tell her. There are no orders anyway. I'm now sitting in front of Sofie's house in my Toyota, and I'm nearly fully erect once more. I hate this. Sofie is so much more than just this. I engage the clutch, turn the key, and start the engine. Then, with the trepidation of a mouse, I turn to see if Sofie is watching me from her living room window. She is. A mouse knows when he is being watched. Although the snow has picked up in the last two minutes, I can still make out Sofie eating a piece of pizza straight from the box. It startles me when she moves toward the window and leans against it. Her breasts (more on this later) press up against the glass. Her long, dark hair, peppered lightly with gray, surrounds her pale face like a hazy night sky around a full moon. A full moon that is chewing. Now I realize she likely doesn't even see me. Her gaze in fact seems to miss my truck entirely, which comes as some relief. But, I must ask myself, does she know? Could she? It doesn't seem possible. I never get the erections when I'm actually in her presence. And nothing similar has appeared in her fiction, and she writes about erections a lot.
I look away from Sofie. I contemplate doing something I vowed I would never do again. In the bed of my truck is an old, wooden icehouse with “Boondocks Pizza” emblazoned on the side. It's been there for all 24 years of my professional tenure. I decide I have to risk it, one last time of course. Within three minutes I am flying down a country road, and a minute after that I am wobbling and shimmying fully erect into the icehouse. I slam the door and lock it. I'm back in my truck cab in no time. My life has as much meaning as the empty pizza bag next to me.
* * *
What put me here? All the free pizza I can eat, eating every last slice of it, and not dying from the cholesterol or the guilt. My porcupine eyebrows and pine needle eyelashes put me here. My Neanderthal forehead put me here. My pocked cheeks, pasty white skin, and sunken eyes put me here. A houseful of 1950s sci-fi memorabilia doesn't help. Nor do the roughly ten thousand comic books I own. And then there is my writing. For so long now I've maintained the delusion of writing my way into Sofie's heart, believing I would eventually succeed by publishing my novel. Or perhaps by writing the perfect short story. Or maybe just by crafting a winning paragraph within a passable story. Or even coming up with one, just one, fucking sentence that could never be mistaken for the work of a hack. If I could somehow write that sentence, one that a future science fiction anthology would feature on its inside front cover—the ideal sentence to reference whenever the virtues of genre fiction are questioned—then, and likely only then, I might deserve Sofie's affection. Unfortunately, this delusion applies to none of the sentences I've managed to come up with so far.
And of course I look every part the overweight science fiction writer / pizza delivery driver. But Wadena has always known me simply as the kid who lost both his parents on Halloween. My dad refused to use a snow blower and died shoveling out the 1991 Halloween blizzard. An hour later my mother died on the floor of the River City Casino in front of a slot machine when she was given the news. She had just that moment won $300 in quarters and when she hit the floor the quarters were still falling, smacking her grimaced face, bouncing off her teeth. I remember it vividly, because I was there, shaking her, attempting to revive her with a daytime TV version of CPR. But forty years of smoking, a genetic predisposition to kielbasa, and my father had all taken a toll on her. When the quarters finally stopped, she was dead. They let me keep the money.
People still talk about that snowstorm today, and when they do I want additional compensation. Never saw it coming! Damn near covered those little kids in drifts! We dug the pumpkins out in spring! Sure, amazing freak of nature. But every year for twenty-five years? Hell, I still think about it, too, when I'm using the same snow blower my father refused to try, even once.
“I have zero tolerance for laziness,” he said. “Zero tolerance. Do you hear me?”
“It isn't lazy to blow snow,” my mother insisted. “You're going to die of a heart attack.”
“If I go down, I'll go down with a shovel in my hand.”
“You'd rather die?”
“Just use the fucking snow blower.”
He died looking at his watch, the one he got for 20 years at the landfill. I'm wearing it right now—a glow-in-the-dark Citizen. It has worked perfectly for all these years. After I picked them up at the crematorium, their ashes commingled as I had asked, I scattered them evenly across the ice of Lake Itasca. That spring they were carried by Mississippi waters first north through Minnesota lake country then south to the Twin Cities, over all the locks and dams, into the Iowa valley, down past St. Louis and Memphis, then New Orleans, and finally across the Louisiana Delta, into the Gulf, and, with any luck, over the oceans to somewhere far, far away—somewhere very much unlike Wadena.
* * *
My computer screen is a welcome sight after a long Saturday afternoon shift. 42 pizzas, all on time. The living room curtains are still drawn and the burst of light from the 24” monitor floods the room. I sit down at the keyboard and loosen my belt. A new twist in my novel necessitates some additional world building. Explaining exactly how a planet small enough for a successful terraform could also be big enough to have six large moons is not easy to do in a nimble sentence or two. Music helps. Bach is best for world building. Fugue in C minor sets the right mood, and I begin to think about the world, the one I need to build. Five minutes later: Boob Bomb.
I pull out my credit card. Boob Bomb's website is entirely organized by size. For the newbies they offer the prosaic, the 36Ds and the 34Cs, but the stars of the website are the outliers, those falling squarely into the realm of fetish, such as 38K, 40F, and the one that Sofie wears, almost certainly a 34G (I don't have to ask—it's right in my wheelhouse). I click on the link to the 38Ks. The regret is sickening, but I can't help myself. After another five minutes, I shut down the computer. I look out the living room window to the oak tree I planted as a five-year-old boy, now a reminder of my wasted adult life. The tree looms against the evening sky and pink clouds fill the spaces between the silhouettes of the branches. Negative space. I remember the concept from my first year drawing class at U of M Morris. Negative space, it seems, is almost all there is, both in the universe and in life. I decide to change the title of my novel to Negative Space. A title change, for better or worse, will at least allow me to query the same three hundred literary agents yet again. Sofie will try to talk me out of it, but she doesn't know what it's like to receive a rejection letter once a week practically every week for 20 years.
It's five degrees and lightly snowing, nearly dusk. I drive toward the Boondocks where Sofie and I meet each Saturday evening. As I approach downtown, several cars ahead of me have stopped. People are getting out of their vehicles, pulling out their cell phones, pointing. Further up the road, clusters of children hang like berries on the vines of their parents' legs. No one is looking skyward, so with some regret I rule out a U.F.O. sighting. I slow to a crawl and open my window halfway. A biting wind blows from the north, bitter and antagonistic. As I stop, I see the cause just to the east: a train derailment. Not a terrible one. Looks like a couple of oil tankers. But this is not going to be good for Wadena. One trainwreck hides another.
I open my truck window fully. The road gleams a cold, icy black. It's not a spill, just ice on the road, but it's an ominous backdrop to the hushed voices, the smell of creosote, and a darkening smoke from farther down the tracks. A dozen cameras flash on a stretch of nondescript road where maybe a hundred photos have been taken in a century. Suddenly, everyone looks up. My U.F.O. hopes are again dashed by the lights of a low-flying helicopter. Several people bow their heads in prayer, then turn back and shoulder against the wind toward their vehicles. But I don't even turn off my engine. And I don't pray. Not yet.
“You're that writer.”
Startled, I turn to see a fifteen-year-old version of myself standing right next to my truck.
“Jim Wheating? Right? I read your story on Strange Horizons last month. It was incredible.”
I realize that he is in fact not me, no space-time travel has occurred, no parallel universe accessed, no alternate timeline created. He's a kid who likes sci-fi. Gather your thoughts, I tell myself. Give this situation your full attention. Act as though this happens to you every year at WisCon.
“You...read my story?”
“So you are him.” His eyes seem to widen and narrow at the same time.
“Can I have your autograph?”
In the 24 years since I decided to become a writer / pizza delivery driver, this has never happened to me even once.
“Sure, kid. Do you have something to write on?”
He pulls a baseball card from his coat pocket. I don't recognize the player, but I recognize the name: Joe Mauer. While I know nothing about him, judging from his picture I am certain that he is good. I sign the card and hand it back.
He clears his throat and then reveals: “I read your novel excerpt, too.”
I accidentally release the clutch. My truck lurches forward and the engine kills.
“Considerable Complexity? Right?”
“Actually, I'm pondering a title change. Where—”
“Reddit post. Truly brilliant. It will go berserk on Amazon.”
A breach of trust. But who? A disgruntled agent? More likely some agent's disgruntled assistant, or maybe a garbage man, or a postal worker...but not Sofie. She would never.
“Berserk, huh? Is that good?”
The kid looks down at the baseball card, sticks it back in his pocket, and runs.
I'm late meeting Sofie. I send a text: Trainwreck, gawkers. At least I can blame the derailment instead of why I'm usually late. I restart my truck, rev the engine, and reverse course. I imagine light speed—or even warp speed—my velocity outpacing my cell phone data. I navigate my way south past the trainwreck and finally arrive back downtown to find Sofie just stepping out of her car. As she approaches, she holds her pages up to her eyes, blocking the light of the Boondock's giant neon sign. I read this as a salute, and return it.
We sit down at our usual table, exchange our pages, and begin to read. There is no need to look at the menu; we have a standing order. One large thin crust with Canadian bacon, sausage, pineapple, pimento, and green olives. This particular co-order notwithstanding, a neutral observer might see in Sofie and me two very, very different writers. Neutral observers sometimes find themselves giving birth to speculative fantasies, but in this case the observer would be correct.
“When I think of place,” Sofie begins, looking up at the ceiling, “local color and regional dialects come to mind. But interstellar STDs, underwear from the far reaches of the galaxy, and alien strippers do not.”
“You dig and sift, like an archeologist,” I say. “Place is relative.”
Sofie shakes her head. “Archeologists dig for the truth.” She pages through my manuscript, then begins to read aloud:
After several parsecs in that position, she felt his hands tightening around her waist. And she could feel him (yes, that part of him) hardening against her thigh. "Dram, Dram," she said muzzily. "We're so... I mean, not right now... okay? I just want to be friends..."
She continues to read and I pretend to listen, but in my mind I move to kiss her. Amazingly, I feel nothing, not a single throb. Soon the pizza arrives, steaming and glorious. Sofie picks at her pizza carefully as she reads, plucking bits of pineapple and kissing them past her pursed lips. Perhaps she is kissing me in her mind, too. Or, perhaps not.
“The boobs again? Writing well about boobs is impossible, Jim. It can't be done.”
“There is a voice in my head that says it can.”
“That voice is lying. The status of boobs in America is a reliable indicator of...”
“Never mind. It's just that your main character has a bit of a fixation. And a thesaurus can't help you find a good synonym for cleavage. Although 'gulch' is pretty good.”
“What I'm trying to say is that language matters, but it doesn't mean shit when you're failing the test.”
“The test? Which test? I didn't know there was a test.”
“Which one do you think? The Bechdel Test. Two women, Jim. Just two women in one of your stories, talking to each other about something other than a man. Do you think you can manage that?”
“Isn't that test about movies?”
Sofie just stares. I turn away and look at the wall. Why is that picture on the wall so high? What is it a picture of? I look up at the ceiling. The light from above, cast form a single fixture over the table, bounces off the checkered tablecloth and underlights Sofie's face and hair. A red velvet tablecloth would cast a warm glow during Christmastime, and a bright yellow one might send a couple home with half a breath of hope. A green one might be a nice complement to fish baskets on Friday, all you can eat. Or, no. A green one would look like a billiard table, perfect for playing pool on a Saturday night, Sofie stretching the length of her body across the table to make a tricky shot...
The voice in my head suddenly ceases.
“Here is the deal. Cut this crap out and give your readers some real women to think about.”
* * *
I leave for home despondent. Readers? What readers? The kid with the baseball card and Sofie are my readers. And an anonymous blogger. Some fan base. I tend to speed when I'm feeling this way, but not on this road. Farm animals wandering onto this stretch of the county highway is not a rare occurrence, and there is even a yellow sign that reads, “CAUTION, ANIMALS.” People drive by and shoot the sign, leaving bullet holes in it as if it says “MAKE MY DAY,” which, if you've ever been mobbed by a rafter of turkeys, it does. There's no reason for the sign, really, except as a formality, because everyone who drives this road has driven it before. There's no new meat for the locals. But tonight I want to see something, anything, just try to get in my way. But the animals, and even the people it seems, have all sensed I wouldn't stop for anything tonight, because the road is eerily deserted.
In my bedroom I quickly strip and stand in front of my mother's old full-length mirror. I see the Canadian bacon attaching itself to my gut like a graft. The computer beckons from the living room. Instead of relenting, I take a deep breath and hold it, then smash my Neanderthal forehead hard against the glass. I imagine all the women of Boob Bomb mocking me from behind the mirror, and I hate myself for having loved each one of them. Of course it’s not really love. It's not even lust. At least lust is a sin. This is just sad. I know I need to end this game, but I can't let go of the idea that there is someone out there who could suspend my need to continually dig and sift.
I check the forums. On Infinite Chest I see a new name, Deena Darkly. I've never heard of her before. She isn't on Boob Bomb. Instead, she has her own website. $19.95 a month and “soooo worth it, fellaz.” New pics every month, and high res downloads, too. Plus live video chat by appointment, $49.95 for fifteen minutes. Deena? That sounds wrong somehow. Too flamboyant, not natural. But I have no choice. I click on deenadarkly.com and I feel the Canadian bacon come halfway up my throat when a semi-nude Sofie appears before me in startling clarity, looking directly at me. Full eye contact is something she so rarely does in real life (unless she is berating me for creating yet another shallow, objectified, feckless female character) that the semi-erection I had been trying to work up abruptly falls. “Enter” is the single word appearing between Sofie's sprawled (tastefully, yes, but still) legs. Sensing a new all-time low on the horizon, I close my eyes, and click.
Faced with registration, I scan my desk for a credit card. She takes Discover. I fill in the little boxes with my Boob Bomb username, Phil Dick, then hesitate. Sofie might have direct access to my personal information. I could regret this forever. The kitchen light dims briefly, as if the entire electrical grid were burdened by my decision. I enter Phil Dick anyway. The charge goes through and I am in. I see hundreds of thumbnails, and any residual regret fades like a dying comet. Sofie is nude before me in every conceivable position. (And always alone, to my great relief.) Themed outfits, good lighting, well-composed photographs. There are a few props, but nothing too gross. I can't stop clicking. The photos appear to go back several years—I can tell by the haircuts. I recognize a piece of jewelry. This is when she got her teeth whitened. And I've seen that look before—that's the way she looks at a slice of pizza. But now a pop-up window appears. These are supposed to be blocked on my computer. How did she manage that? Is she really that good? I realize I have underestimated her. Quite clearly, quite properly, Sofie holds herself in higher esteem than even I do, even in my infatuation for her, yes even in my love for her.
The pop-up window says “Live Video Chat by Appointment. Don't Keep Me WAITING.” Although I don't like the capital letters, I realize I have unearthed the one thing I'd always hoped to discover. Yet I also realize it has already been discovered by—how many?—hundreds, perhaps thousands, of other men (and some women, certainly). Along with my erection, my money, and my dignity, I am lost. New Member Discount. First Chat Half Price. Promo Code: BOONDOCKS. With that I wonder if I have finally hit bottom, but I quickly surmise that there are bottomless bottoms, and I'm still on my way down. Use card on file. Yes. Terms. Accept. Choose date and time. Next Friday at 8 o'clock (the day before our weekly meeting). Appointment accepted. We're all set, Phil! See you at 8:00 P.M. CST on Friday, January 23, 2015! I instinctively look at my watch even though the appointment is in six day's time. I wonder how much of this week I will spend on Sofie's site. The kitchen light dims again, then restores itself. I turn off the computer. For the first time in my life I would rather wait.
I pour myself a tumbler of whiskey and step onto the back porch with my notebook to pitch ideas to myself. My writing foibles have made me cling ever more tightly to the precarious lifeline that my unpublished novel has become. Yet, with every attempt I make at a course correction, I add another 20,000 words. The full manuscript, stacked two reams high, would be a pleasure to burn. But I don't fight the fire of my novel with fire, and I don't fight it with water, I fight it with more paper. Tonight I fill a dozen notebook pages until the smoky stench of purple prose fills the air around me so densely I'm uncertain if I haven't passed on.
* * *
My appointment with Deena is in ten minutes. As I wait, an email pops up. Another rejection. This time it's a small press. Damn those small presses. I am tempted to reply, but decide to work instead. Quick bursts to quiet the inner critic. However, instead of composing at the keyboard, I sit down at the kitchen table with Sofie's edited copy of my latest chapter. I begin to rewrite it longhand.
After more than two hours, I am finished. The chapter is now entirely boob free, but more importantly it has a semblance of narrative flow. Sofie was right, as usual. I look up. My computer has since gone to sleep, but in the lower corner of the reflective black screen I am startled to see the image of Sofie's face. Great, now I'm imagining things. Did I also imagine Sofie's website? Did I conjure up my young, adoring fan? Was I actually signing not a baseball card but a speeding ticket? This line of thought ends when I also see the reflection of the oak tree and the night sky behind it. I spin my head to see Sofie at my living room window. She gestures, and I meet her at the front door. When I open it, she barges right past me.
“You missed your appointment, Dick.”
I should have chosen another name. Maybe an actor or an athlete. Especially an athlete. Sofie hates sports. I think about the baseball card I signed—the image of Joe Mauer with my name scrawled across his jersey. “Sofie, I'm sorry. I was writing.”
“Oh, too inspired to jerk off?” She turns and I follow her into my kitchen. In front of the sink she stops, her arms folded across her chest. “No one knows. No one in Wadena knows. Except, now, you. Why do you think I moved here? The pizza?”
“Well, I didn't want to know. It just happened.”
“Porn appointments don't just happen.”
“Is this why you were so upset about my latest chapter?”
“No, your latest chapter just sucked.”
“Well I'm working on it. I got rid of all the breast references. You were right. Kind of ironic, though, you being a...”
She drops her arms, then raises her hands to her hips. The look she gives me is motherly, in that she suddenly despises me in a way that only a small child can be despised.
“Sofie, I'm sorry. I shouldn't have made the appointment. I would never have gone through with it anyway.”
“Oh, and I would have?”
Sofie shakes her head and runs her fingers through her hair as if ridding herself of the thought of me. She then sits down at the kitchen table in front of my revised chapter and begins, seemingly by instinct, to read. Not knowing what else to do, I sit down across the table from her. I think about the icehouse. I could be in it right now, holding myself as she is reading this, losing myself again, hearing that voice, not being able to ignore it.
“Sofie, I have to ask you something.”
“What.” She doesn't look up.
“Someone posted an excerpt of my novel online. A long one. Sixty pages.”
Now she looks up. “It wasn't me.”
“Okay. Just making sure.”
“I wouldn’t do that,” she says. She looks down again. “Not to you.”
She keeps reading. The kitchen light dims. I wait for it to restore itself, but it doesn't.
“You know, I'm contemplating a title change.”
“I don't think so.” She waves her hand across the page.
“You don't even want to hear what it is?”
“No. Keep the title. It's fine.”
Now the kitchen light can't make up its mind. Bright, dim, bright. So I close my eyes, and in my head I draw a map of Wadena. But this time I draw only the negative space—the areas between the roads, the railroad tracks, the creek, the nearby farm fields. It takes much longer than a minute, but when I'm finished I see things differently. Without the lines Wadena seems less like a prison. It feels unfinished, like a thought, almost entirely unwritten. I wonder if Sofie sees it this way. I hope she does. And I hope she likes this chapter now. It's the best I can do.
I open my eyes to find she is looking right at me. As I return her gaze, I become aware of the distance across the table, the space between us. In my mind I map the negative space between her heart and mine. How many words have been written to fill that space? How many more will it take? Now, save for a low electric buzz, the kitchen light goes out for good, and we both just sit and listen. I don't know if Sofie hears it, but from a faraway place comes the faint rumble of an old snow blower, the jangling of quarters from a low-stakes slot machine, the moan and gurgle of a run-down Toyota, the unnatural snap-clang of rail cars uncoupling, the dry wood thwack of a rickety icehouse door. I look down at my glowing watch. It's 11:38. Time is running out.
STEVEN LANG's writing has appeared in the fiction anthology, Fiction on a Stick, published by Milkweed Editions; in the book, The Art of Wonder, published by the Minneapolis Institute of Art, and in the online journal Revolver. In 2016 he was a resident writer for the Coffee House Press program, CHP in the Stacks.