The Way Out, An Unfinished Story
The Way Out
I tend to think of myself, I think, as others think of me. Perhaps, when it comes to me, I come to their conclusions before they do. My name is Mr. Stanfirth, and you may call me an unemployed philosopher. I have money, if not to burn, at least to spark. I am twenty-five, a bachelor, and am, as I hope has been evinced, someone a bit opinionated. I live in the eastern part of the republic, dividing my time between two apartments and a house, never traveling more than two-hundred miles from the safe harbor of that great concrete isle whose inhabitants, two-hundred years or so ago, fought against independence, and one-hundred years or so ago rioted against preserving the union. Do I seem a mite caustic – possibly slightly anachronistic? Well, suffice it to say I have no reason to make a living, and hardly a desire to make a friend. I love to watch the pageant. I love a parade? O.K., but my line traces beyond the invention of the word “parade.” It’s vulgar.
But, I won’t delay you, in this day and age, with my antediluvian mannerisms. I daresay you have Shoreham to protest in a half-hour, or, if that would leave you feeling empty, a female mud-wrestling match to watch. I will try, try to be brief: I murdered a person yesterday.
Now, don’t go calling the cops or trying to bop me over the head. I only murdered in my heart. To think that I have the inventiveness required of a true murderer; well, you’d be thinking beyond reality. Your friend Mr. Stanfirth is not only too lazy to take the life of a fellow mortal, he lacks the wherewithal. But then, why do I detain you?
To make answer: In the first place, your presence is not boring me, and in the second place, my talking bores me much less than it bores you. Thirdly, however, I am fascinated by the method of the murder I did not commit. I hope to enthrall you with it.
As I have said, I have three homes, two of them apartments, situated within three blocks of each other in (of all places) Little Italy, and the third a house in Queens. Queens may be the place, but 1900 is the time; real country living, if but half a mile from urban rot.
I have a colleague in laxity, someone ordinary men would call a friend. Perhaps, before I invited him, he thought I was his friend. I would not have come to this conclusion, but it was, at least, a one-sided kind of friendship. Jackson is gullible. Unassuming is not the word, because the gullible are always assuming innocence is the fundamental trait of their tormentors.
I called Jackson on the telephone. We have been acquainted since our mutual nineteenth year, which we spent at the same university. A blueblood he – and a blueblood me – and that year we connected just as the numbers I recently dialed connected with the bell in his telephone.
He answered. “I’m not home right now,” he said, and told me to leave a message after the tone had sounded. I did.
“Jackson, if this voice is enough to clue you in on whose it is, take note. Come to my place in the suburbs. Friday. Ten o’clock. They’re showing The Big Broadcast Of 1938 on Channel Thirteen. I haven’t seen you in a month. Why are you such a ghost?” I felt no need to add anything. Jackson knows me.
Sherman Jackson is, if I may be permitted use of the expression, good-natured. His face, on the unfortunate side of equine, reins in what clumsiness might be in the rest of his corporeal being, for the latter is something an athlete might wish to sport. I say, his face reins in the clumsiness of his body and expresses it in magnified twists of his smile and in absurdly darting movements of his eyes, which panic behind octagonal cuts of Depression glass, vaguely blue in hue, wire-rimmed. That is Sherm Jackson, and more natural naturals cannot be. Oh, he has a certain type of wit – but how far can you go with self-deprecation? Pathetic, I always think, when I think of him. And what I see is pathetic, when I see him.
Was I planning some cruelty when I left my message on his tape? I was genuinely interested in watching The Big Broadcast Of 1938. No, I just wanted a friend to be there to enjoy the picture with me.
Picture the two of us then, sitting in our chairs, laughing at the inane antics which soothed another era, and eating hot-buttered popcorn, which we really did that night. And believe me or not, his between-dialogue comments were more snide than mine. One thing I’ve observed in naïve people: When you can tap the shallows of their expertise – for example, Sherm’s genuine knowledge of old movies – you will find them expressing it in terms of contempt.
“This almost looks like part of that series of comedic death-cries Paramount cried in 1934,” Sherm said, his horse-like face plain and frank. “It’s farcical, as were they, and risqué, like I’m No Angel, with Mae West, or Duck Soup – the Marx Brothers’ most sustained comedy. But how ridiculous for a major film factory to try to make its main earnings off comedies, especially comedies about city slickers in the radio industry.”
With my mouth full of popcorn I answered with, “Really?”
“In fact the Marx Brothers were wise enough to switch to M-G-M in 1935, although their brief fiasco with RKO certainly shows they could land in the wrong ROOM, too.”
During this time I didn’t take my eyes off the T.V., and, with smooth ease, left my face a blank.
“Of course, my point is, Paramount could have made much better comedies if they’d spent their real money on some so-called Women’s Pictures. They would have been able to afford less grainy film. They’d been making a good number of Women’s Pictures since they’d almost gone under in ’34, but they still emphasized comedy too much. And if your comedies are going to be well-produced, you have to sell tearjerkers, like M-G-M’s Grand Hotel. Of course, everyone knows Louis B. Mayer wanted to destroy comedy after Irving Thalberg, who’d resurrected it, died. But the good taste, money and ability to mix love-interest with humor – “
Now, if I had wanted to influence Sherm, I would, at this point, have said, softly, “I’d really like to hear what they’re saying, Sherm,” and he would have apologized and watched dutifully, like the beaten horse he could be from time to time.
But instead, at this special point, at which I would have been doing nothing, things changed drastically on the T.V., and Sherm interrupted himself to shout, “Oh no! No!” He slammed the arm of his chair. “It’s Pledge Night!”
The movie had been stopped, and a youthless post-adolescent stared from the screen asking for donations to Channel Thirteen.
“This is so frustrating,” Sherm said. “Every time they show something good they have Pledge Week.” His lower jaw protruded as he champed at the bit of panhandling which now enraged him.
Did you hope, when I first described Sherm Jackson as unassuming, that he would be likeable? In vain you did if you did. An oaf’s oafishness does not indicate good intentions.
The time is socially perfect – the murder is all in the heart.
Frederick Wemyss’s Note From June 28th, 2015:
I have a million fragments, and “The Way Out” is one of them. A few things make me think it’s from about 1986. The narrator’s reference to Shoreham is right for that time. Protests against activating the nuclear plant in Shoreham, New York were at their peak then. The narrator resents the protests and he resents the fact that his friend Sherm screens his phone calls. Answering machines were not incredibly common in 1986, and the narrator mocks Sherm’s default message. The handwriting in the manuscript is the way my handwriting was then, relatively curvaceous, with not half as many cross-outs as would have been in one of my manuscripts from 1979-84. There are few cross-outs and only a few afterthought phrases
wedged between lines. There are no alternate lines. Alternate lines plagued my work from my early twenties. I was 26 in 1986, and feeling stylistically confident.
Of course, the question as to why I dropped this comes up. I was blocked, of course, but as my fragments go, this one is remarkably coherent. A sinister narrator tells us he has committed a murder, but that it is only a murder in his heart. He relates what he has fantasized doing, but, of course, we are waiting for something genuinely horrible to occur by the time the story is over. Having read this fragment the other day, when I noticed it in a pile of old, unfinished writings of mine, and then having read it aloud for a Youtube post, and then reading it a third time as I typed a Word Doc of it, it struck me that as I was writing it originally, I must have been unsure as to whether the TV-watching scene is the narrator’s fantasy or something he actually experienced. He occasionally talks about Sherm in the present tense, even though he describes the TV-watching in the past tense. Even then, I didn’t like trick endings, so I’m quite certain this story wasn’t going to end with Sherm dead. But, if a fantasy of murder is being described, it certainly is taking quite some time for the murder to even begin to happen. We get Sherm’s boring, if informed, rant about Paramount Pictures, (a rant I once treated my fellow Freshmen to, in college, as we tried to watch DUCK SOUP in someone’s room), and we get a glimpse of a horrible (and still, in 2015, unchanged) fact of Tri-state area life: the Channel Thirteen Pledge Drive, cutting into any decent program after twenty minutes, for twenty-five minutes. Every twenty minutes. The Pledge Drive known as Writer’s Block stopped me, of course, but, more to the point, I think I was having trouble introducing the fantasy seamlessly.
There is a weird bit of phrasing after the narrator tells us he almost asked Sherm to shut up. The next paragraph is worded in such a way as to imply that the scene is hypothetical. It starts, “But instead, at this special point, at which I would have been doing nothing, things changed drastically on the T.V.” As I read and re-read this line, I came to the conclusion that I meant to have the narrator say, “…At this special point, at which I was doing nothing…” but, before typing the old text into my brand-new Word Doc, I changed my mind. It is clear to me that, in 1986, I was trying to indicate that the part with the two friends watching THE BIG BROADCAST OF 1938 together was a fantasy, but I was doing this indicating in the most subliminal way I could. Whatever hideous thing the crux of the story was going to be, it was going to sneak up on the reader without him suspecting it but in such a way that he would see that it had been there all along. This was a difficulty I was not willing to meet.
Notice the final line, which is, “The time is socially perfect – the murder is all in the heart.” That line was written in print, while the rest of the story was written in cursive. I think it is probably a note to myself as to the thrust of the story. But the note starts where the next paragraph would have started. I am sure it wasn’t meant to be part of the text, but I suspect it may have been what I wanted the next paragraph to convey. If you recall that the narrator, early
on, refers to himself as “an unemployed philosopher,” and, bearing in mind that he is the teller of this tale, and that he is, with his archaic language, trying to be a latter-day Transcendentalist, you’ll agree with me that he is probably such a philosopher that he will hold forth on his philosophy before he is through with us. He also has the attributes of the Ancient Mariner, because, like Coleridge’s steadfast and yet terrifying bore,* he detains us.
And, like Coleridge’s KUBLA KHAN, “The Way Out” was interrupted, never to be finished.
*I will take credit for some irony. Our narrator, who keeps telling us he is detaining us, can’t stand the friend he won’t call friend because that fellow bores him!