Kurt Mathers, aged seventy-two, was the greatest writer the world had ever known. Critics raved about his books, his poetry, his short stories and anything else he chose to grace with the written word. It was once said that if a woman ever received a love letter from Kurt Mathers, she would marry him on the spot.
Mary Wheaton, aged twenty-four, wasn’t a fan of Kurt Mathers, though. Neither were most ordinary folk, to tell you the truth. See, Kurt’s writing was so coded in symbols and subtext and what not that the ordinary man couldn’t possibly make sense of it. Mary sure couldn’t. “Art, schmart,” she once snapped at a friend after a few drinks, “I’ll tell ya, if I wrote a book, I’d tell you exactly what it is you needed to know and that’s that. Nothing more, nothing less.” Mary never did write any books.
One morning, stuck in heavy traffic on the way to work, Mary heard this bit of news on the radio after the ad for the sleazy accident-insurance company:
This Sunday, eight o’clock, at Mr. B’s Emporium of Literary Delights, Kurt Mathers will be stopping by for an exclusive signing of his latest best seller! Don’t miss it!
Mary seethed. How dare that pretentious snob of an “artist” come into her town and peddle his meaningless books like he’s worth a dime. To think – all that acclaim and wealth for such gibberish. She bit her lower lip and exhaled cathartically. Maybe she was being harsh. It was just so frustrating to read and to not understand! She wasn’t stupid, after all.
Kurt’s bones ached. He detested book signings, but tomorrow he would conduct his four-hundred-and-fifty-ninth and he would smile and nod and sign and sign and sign just like he had during all the rest. He had no qualms about engaging with his fans. As deplorable a bunch as they may be, he was no better. And after all, it was these very people about whom he wrote in the first place, though they may not know it. No, it was nothing like that. What bothered Kurt about book signings was the monotony of it all, the mechanical tedium of signing book after book with little to no human interaction save a few spare nice-to-meet-you’s.
The room, indifferent to Kurt’s internal grumbling, darkened as night crept in through the slits in the blinds. It was a quaint little room, lacking the usual redundancies of hotel living: old-fashioned banking lamps adorned each bedside desk and small black and white photos of nameless women hung on the walls. Kurt enjoyed the personal touches. He gave the string of the lamp a light tug and blackness swallowed up the light. He shut his eyes.
His book was a failure. As hard as he had tried, he couldn’t express what needed to be expressed; couldn’t capture what needed to be captured. He had rewritten it four times, and still, it lacked completeness. He began to ruminate on his capacities as a writer when sleep knocked him out cold.
One hour and fifty-two minutes Mary had waited. The line winded out of the bookstore and into the parking lot. Inside had a boutiquey feel, with old, sun stained, wooden shelves, lit more through the windows that constituted the store’s face than by the dim lights that scarcely populated its ceiling. Kurt sat towards the center, two people away, nestled neatly in a cocoon of his books. He looked old. She felt nauseous. Not only because she had nothing prepared to say, but also because the prospect of challenging him in front of an army of his most ardent supporters frightened her.
“Your book, please.”
Mary, visibly shaken by Kurt’s sudden appearance, handed over her copy of his first book, As it Rained. The book was about an odd southern family before and after the death of their matriarch. The book was really about how the basest element of the human spirit is fear, and only after being afraid can one confront the truths of his heart, etc., etc. Mary had borrowed it from a friend.
He signed it lazily and looked on to the next in line. He looked bored, which gave Mary the spark she needed. “You know, you really should be more grateful. All these people out here paying so you can sign their books—the least you can do is show ‘em some respect, treat ‘em like humans.”
Her outburst seemed to have awaken Kurt. “I’m sorry, I seemed to—” Mary cut him off. “And your books. You act like they’re holy as the bible. It’s really all just nonsense, a code, a cipher that only you know how to break. If you had something worth telling the world, you’d tell us. Instead, you hide behind your words and your symbols, so that when people say there’s nothing there, you can just tell ‘em that they don’t get it. People buy your books just cause the critics tell ‘em to, but I know better. I know your tricks. I know you churn out these meaningless sentences and all you see is dollar signs. Well some of us are really working, really living, really experiencing, and your lazy gobbledygook is insulting to us all.” Mary took a breath. She was pleasantly surprised by her speech.
Kurt looked the girl up and down. She was shaking, vibrating almost, her face red with sweat beading along the edges. She had startled him. He thought for a moment, and began calmly, “Miss, forgive me. My apologies for being so inconsiderate.” His voice was old, without sounding weak. “I must say, you gave me quite a scare, speaking up like that. It’s not every day I get such a deviation from routine. Now my books…you don’t like them, do you? I can’t say I like them too much myself. Miserable buggers they were to write. I only wish I could churn them out as easily as you think that I do.”
The girl didn’t seem to appreciate the humor.
“So why not tell my readers exactly what I think, stripped of the story? Because who should care for my opinion about the nature of humanity? I’m no philosopher. I don’t play with matters so big, at least not directly. The symbols are a buffer: a link in the chain of communication, if you will, between you all and myself. I take my thoughts and opinions and experiences and encode them, to continue your analogy, in a story in the hopes that you may see what I see and judge for yourself what it all means. These symbols you so loathe are the difference between an editorial and a uni—” With that, the old man froze, mouth agape, as if all his words had been used up. He tensed, reached for his chest and fell to the floor, smacking it with all the force that gravity could muster.
Mary watched Kurt fall. She couldn’t help but feel angry that his final words had been cut short and guilty that it was she who cut them. People rushed to his aid as she stood still at the center of it all, but he was dead. She turned and headed for the door, leaving her book on the table behind her, unaware of the words inscribed on its opening page:
To whom it may or may not concern, Thank You.