The Best of Times Short Story Competition

Autumn 2012 Results

In One Word or Less

Copyright © Rob Johnson 2012

If thereís one thing I want people to say when I die itís that I wasnít unoriginal. I was a bastard, maybe, I was an acid-tongued, irresponsible deadhead who squandered his imagination and intelligence on ridiculous schemes that led him to nothing and nowhere and a timely but largely unceremonious and underwhelming demise, but I knew who I was and I did what I wanted and I never let anybody tell me otherwise. Because it means something to be original. I donít mean in that sentimental religious way that the Bible-bashers harp on about with the sanctity of each individual human life and the soul and the unconditional love of God and his inextricable and intimate relationship with the lives of each and every one of us, come as we are. Not like that, no. I mean it means something to know who you are in life, to cut the crap and do what you want to do and know that that means something. Maybe not to anybody else but when youíre doing what you want to do that means something to you. And in the end who the hell else is there? God? Three years of inconsistent attendance at Sunday school at least taught me one thing: God put us all here for a reason, but heíll be damned if heís going to tell us what it was. A mouldy Russian writer once scribbled: God sets us nothing but riddles. I think thatís right. Itís our job to find out why weíre here and die trying. Why be children of the Almighty Father and take such solace in his specific individual love for every human being if we donít devote ourselves to being specific and individual? Thatís why I never really got priests. All dressing the same and giving the same stock uninspiring interpretations of scripture every week and toting the message of some wrinkled Roman resident who theyíd never met and who didnít care in the slightest about their personalities or aspirations or talents or dreams. Doesnít sound very specific or individual to me. Iím not angry at the Church or anything. Iím not one of those. To be honest I think they try their best at a difficult job: retaining moral and political power in the world while simultaneously keeping up a veneer of dignity and purity and steadfast spirituality. I suppose that assessment in itself sounds pretty loaded but I donít mean it to be, itís just my perception of what seems to be a pretty obvious reality. Beyond that I just donít really give a shit.

Maybe Iím coming out too strong against my religion. But it is my religion. Teachers say that when you write you should write about something you know, so I reckon when you rant you should rant about something you know, just the same. And maybe it all comes out from last Sunday. I was sitting in Church like I usually do and like my father wants me to, the earthly one that is. Caught between two dads: the irony of my religious life. But anyway last Sunday. I was in my Sunday best, tie tight and shoes polished and hair well combed and parted (and parted again on the other side at the last minute just to keep things spontaneous), trying to listen to the priest up the front give his latest rewording of his analysis of St Paulís First Letter to the Corinthians without dozing off, or worse yet becoming uncontrollably enraged by the dull repetitive banality of it all. But much to my dismay, I was put off throughout the whole thing by the sheer ineptness of the organist. He didnít so much play the organ as he molested it, fingering the thing with remarkable disdain for the celebration in which we were apparently participating. He hadnít quite grasped the subtleties between fortissimo and just smashing the keys down as hard as you can Ė you wouldnít guess it, but thereís a difference. Nor had he realised that piano had a meaning which extended beyond the name of an instrument. He didnít even play the pauses in the music; he usually filled up all the silences with a trill or a glissando or some other fancy crap to show off how good an organist he was. Which was quite ironic, because he wasnít actually very good at all. Now Iím not saying poor musicianship is an excuse to condone atheism, but by the end of the responsorial psalm I was on the brink of renouncing my faith just to get out of there.

Itís interesting how in the heat of intense suppressed frustration the tiniest things take on the most powerful resonance. All of a sudden I could feel the pulse in my throat hammering against my skin, seemingly in time with the organistís woefully slow dirge during the Gloria. My sleek denim jeans were too tight and itchy down my legs and I was unbearably thirsty. Joan of Arc looked down at me from a stained glass window with a knowing ill-humoured sneer. Even a martyred French witch tied to a stake was laughing at me. This had gone on long enough. I mumbled something to my father about needing to use the bathroom as I slipped past his legs that sat at a perfect right angle to the floor, his hands clasped between his knees and his head bowed so that he was a form of such compact prayerfulness that I sometimes wondered if his body had been designed to sit exactly in that position. Creationists and evolutionists can fight it out among themselves, but my father was made for the exact purposes of silent worship on the rickety wooden pews of St Angelaís Catholic Church. He said nothing as I worked my way to the aisle but I saw his dark eyes flash from beneath his heavy closed lids. A childish reaction of hesitation and fear clamped in my stomach but I did not pause, and I had strode down and out of the large lacquered doors and into the grim chilly morning before I had time to breathe.

No sooner was I inhaling the sweet damp air of freedom than I realised I didnít know what to do with myself. The mass had a good twenty minutes left in it, and I could easily attribute my absence to an unexpectedly violent bout of gastro that had befallen me. I looked back at the church from where I stood in the street, took in its deep brown-bricked exterior with its white panelling above the doors and the enormous cross that stood atop its arched roof that glowed a phosphorescent blue in the evenings that made me think more of a casino than a place of worship. I wondered if I could run home and sneak a smoke out of my motherís bedside table, but decided that maybe it was too cold to smoke, and my house was too far anyway. I shoved my bluing hands into the deep pockets of my woollen coat and I started to walk. I didnít know where I was going exactly, but it felt good to be moving.

Sometimes when I find myself at a bit of a loss, I ask myself: What would Holden Caulfield do? I suppose he would probably call me a phony and then try to pick up a bird or two, which more often than not is useless to me. So I try to think of some other little trick to get me through what problems happen to befall me in my day to day business. Which are often not very substantial problems, but a boyís got to keep himself interested. Holden Caulfieldís the kid from Catcher in the Rye, by the way. If you havenít read it you should. Itís genius. Books are genius. Anyone who doesnít read is an idiot Ė how can you be original if you donít know about all the other ideas that are already out there? Maybe Iíll have a truly profound idea one day. Or at least one that gets taken as being profound. Sometimes I wonder if some of the people we view as geniuses really had any idea of what they were on about. I read that Moby Dick was a flop until people started reading it as a big watery analogy for American society. Maybe Melville just wanted to write a story about a man chasing a whale. Everything doesnít always have to mean something else all the time. It was bloody freezing but I was starting to wish I had a cigarette.

There was a park at the end of the street so I decided to kill a bit of time and have a go on the swings. I got pretty high after a few strong flexes of the old quadriceps but the thrill lost its edge pretty quickly and I ended up just sitting pretty much still with my feet scraping along the woodchipped ground. I always remembered this park because it was where Iíd run into Damon that time last year, before his family had to move away. He was a kid from my class who was pretty weird, always sort of dirty and doing something stupid. I was wagging a bit early this particular afternoon, and I was a little suss when I saw Damon had had the same idea, but I decided to talk to him so he wouldnít dob me in if he got caught. I asked him what heíd been up to and he had this stupid grin on his face, like heíd just won the national award for Best Haircut or something, and he told me without mincing his words that heíd left a fresh steamer next to the organ in the school chapel, and was so pleased with his accomplishment that heíd given himself the rest of the day off school. I was both bewildered and amused, to say the least, but when I asked him why he did it he said nothing. His face went blank and he just shrugged his shoulders and started acting all agitated, like no one had ever explained the binary between action and desire to him before. He said he had to go and he quickly walked away, back in the direction of St Angelaís actually. Maybe heíd felt a rumbling in his gut and was headed up to the church for round two. Tell you what, a big lump of human faeces was about the least of that organís problems. If I really listened Iíd probably be able to hear it bellowing out the recessional to its own funeral right about now.

But that whole incident had really got me thinking. I donít understand people like that. Doing things just for the hell of it, but not like you or me might do things for the hell of it. Doing things because the consequences of their actions, because even the actions themselves, mean nothing and have no definitive or resounding impact on anyone or anything. Philosophers call that nihilism. Philosophers are idiots. So by the power of induction I posit that nihilists are idiots. There isnít anything in this world that means nothing. Even nothing means something for Christís sake. Iím not normally one to trash a worldview, but if youíre going to have one at least make it one that has meaning. Sure leaving a steaming bog in the choir loft is original, but when youíd just as quickly go to class and answer every question and bring the teacher a ripe red apple and not blink and not think twice about acting one way or another, well that really makes me think: Whatís the point? That almost sounds like a question a philosopher might ask so forget it. But I really donít know about some people. You need to know who you are, and keep it brief so people donít get the wrong idea. Use one word, or even less if you want to. Just be clear about who you are, and what you represent.

Thatís what I want as my epitaph Ė sum me up or say nothing at all. Iím dead, thereís no need for embellishments. Because words lose meaning when theyíre describing dead people. I think they do anyway. The second death rolls in people take on this mystical quality Ė a stock raving idiot can become a martyr the second his blood stops pumping. So the way I see it is why paint the picture for the people who are going to come and see your gravestone, or even just skim over it as they walk past on their way to visit some other fallen hero? I see no point in wasting your time on adverbs and adjectives and soppy references to wives and children and loving families. Youíre just forcing another boring uninspiring unoriginal life story down the peopleís throats and pleading with them to swallow it. I wasnít special, I wasnít different, and please carve it above my final resting place so everyone can remember it and not give a shit about me forever and ever. No. I donít see the point in that at all. What you need to do is create a sense of sophistication and mysteriousness through straight out vagueness. Take the stock standard line about the wife and children with the loving family Ė boring sack of crap. But the second you start breaking that story down, you spark the imaginations of the people. Father. That could mean anything. Lover. Even more ambiguous. What did I love? Who did I love? How did I love? Suddenly I could be a hopeless romantic or an avid artistic appreciator or a sinister pervert, and who cares if any or all of them are true because Iíve made a connection with someone from beyond the grave. And thatís the point. Keep it vague and you keep on living. You need to make yourself into a legend, or at least the ghost of one.

As I wandered back towards the church with my hands in my pockets and my nose starting to run I thought about Damon. Where was he now? I wondered what theyíd put on his gravestone when he finally kicked on. If it was up to him itíd probably be something like:

and I donít really see the point of that at all. Because it wouldnít be the poignant absence of words that Iíd go for, itíd just be empty space. Anyway I suppose Damon shook me up more than Iíd expected him to. I decided to put him out of my mind. I looked up and saw the dull blue of the tall proud cross atop the church from down the street and I started thinking about Las Vegas. Maybe Iíd get there someday. Lots of real originals in Vegas. At least thatís what Iíve heard.

Rob Johnson has been writing since he penned his version of the story of Holy Week at the age of five (and did all the illustrations). Much of what he has written since then has been utterly terrible or complete nonsense, but he hopes this has taught him what not to do in order to write a good story. On top of writing, Rob also studies Media and Communications, and performs improv comedy weekly with Sydney comedy group Project 52. Next year he plans to chuck it all in and pursue acting. Wish him luck...