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Indecision: A Short Story: (Part Three)
Part Three and Conclusion
Akhenaton is making his religious reforms, carrying out building projects, making structural changes to domestic society, and oh yes, moving the capital city to a new location. This is historical. He claimed to have been inspired by the sun-god to move the capital but there seems to have been strategic considerations.
But wait, there's more. The nephew grows into adolescence with all that comes with it and Akhenaton does his best to groom the young man to succeed him, The nephew becomes entangled in a love triangle. Dave spent a good deal of time describing these circumstances. His rival is a young man who had been his best friend, playmate, and confidant from a boy. Isn't that always the way it is?
The rivalry culminates in a horrific scene of violence. The nephew of the pharaoh is accidentally pushed off a cliff. The pharaoh is alerted and he, and his bodyguard, and the court physician race to the scene. Remarkably, the young man did not die. He is comatose, of course.
Now the pharaoh means to find out exactly what happened and who is to blame for this tragedy and have them tortured to death. Akhenaton finds out about his nephew's rival and has him captured and held in the palace dungeon.
Later that night, after he finally managed to get to sleep, with the ministrations of the court physician, the pharaoh has a prophetic dream. The sun-god himself, the Aten tells the ruler not to despair and that things are not as dire as they seem. Then, a space ship lands somewhere to be discovered by a farmer. Akhenaton and his palace bodyguard, are alerted to the occurrence, and go out and investigate. They all view the space ship with wonder and awe. The pharaoh interprets the vessel as something sent for his benefit by the sun-god, the Aten.
And indeed, the arrival of this vessel and its dead inhabitants certainly appears to be serendipitous. We have to skip a good deal more of the plot to tell you, dear reader, directly that the inhabitants of the vessel were travelers, though Akhenaton thinks of them as direct emissaries from the sun-god. Why would the sun-god send dead emissaries or allow harm to come to them? Well, Akhenaton, severely weakened emotionally and intellectually, by the state of his beloved adopted son and heir, brushes that inconvenient thought aside. He believes that the message is more important than the life of the messenger.
The farmer is killed so that he cannot repeat what he has seen. Now, the capital's best minds are put to work to translate the strange symbols contained within the vessel. They learn the astonishing fact that the bodies of the dead messengers were indeed artificial, that is, not the bodies they had been born into. How can this be?
It turns out that they animated them with a transplantation of the brain. So their organic brains had been transplanted into far more durable bodies, since their organic bodies would have been insufficient to endure the rigors of space travel over so long a distance. This is significant because the ancient Egyptians had always regarded the heart as the seat of consciousness.
The burial process was meant to preserve the body so that the deceased (especially the pharaohs and other wealthy and politically prominent people) could enjoy the use of it in the afterlife. The brain was regarded by morticians of the day as little more than a little toe. They went up through the nasal cavity and pulled the brain out with a hook.
Take a breath. Still with us so far? Good. That is the first secret of the sun-god that Akhenaton learns. He plans to put it to use immediately. Remember his adopted son's romantic rival, who had been involved in the incident that left the crowned prince an immobile mute? Akhenaton's chief imperial surgeon performed an operation on both young men, the crown prince and his rival. To switch the brains. Thereby liberating the consciousness of the crowned prince into a strong, healthy body. And justly, Akhenaton believes, imprisoning the wicked consciousness of the rival in the broken, lifeless body of the prince. No sweeter revenge for the young man who'd dared defy the imperial prerogative.
But that's not all. There is a second secret the ruler of Egypt learns from the strange vessel. He learns the secret power of what we might call optics. This gave him the technology to build a huge magnifying glass raised to the sky and transform the very sunlight into an unstoppable weapon.
And so forth. This is the elaborate nature of Dave's screenplay. That is to say nothing of the island of zombies and the Assyrian vampires. All of Dave's screenplays are like this. Tom tried to tell him, yet again, that screenplays simply aren't large enough vehicles for his imagination. By trying to force his creativity into a medium that was far too small for it, Dave is straightjacketing his imagination. This so-called screenplay deserves to be an epic literary historical fantasy encompassing at least a trilogy of six to eight hundred page books each.
"You're too good to be a screenwriter," Tom said into the phone.
"What the hell does that mean?" Dave said. "William Faulkner was a screenwriter."
"William Faulkner was not a screenwriter," Tom said. "He was a brilliant novelist and short story writer who wrote screenplays to make extra money. Mr. Faulkner was a story teller first." Tom was trying not to say that screenwriters were hacks.
"You're an intellectual snob, Tom."
"We're not talking about me. We're talking about you. You have a hard time accepting a compliment, praise even if it isn't in terms you want to hear."
"Why do you give me such a hard time?" Dave asked. "If you liked the story like you said, why don't you just say that my script is fabulous?"
Tom laughed. "Fabulous. Let's do lunch, babe. Have your people call my people."
Dave chuckled despite himself.
Tom said, "I'm not trying to get in the way of your dreams." He did not add that Dave was no screenwriter. He was no good at it (a dubious proficiency in Tom's estimation anyway) because every time Dave apparently sat down to write one, he came up with novels instead. He did not know if Dave was a good actor. Perhaps when Dave went on an audition and gave a reading for a part, it turned into a dramatic soliloquy, a piece of one-man performance art revealing depths of the soul not easily digestible by the general movie viewing audience.
That's it, Tom thought. Dave should write novels and give one-man shows on the proper stage. Maybe he could start off by opening for the legendary Blue Man Group. Tom almost said this. Tom added, "If a woman told you this, you'd think it was the wisdom of the ages."
In the years that followed, Tom and Dave continued to work at the factory making nuts and bolts, bolts and nuts. Dave continued to go out on acting auditions, landing bit parts but never catching the big break that would have made him heir to Brad Pitt's legacy. He continued to write... screenplays and masochistically, so he made it seem, show them to Tom. Tom invariably made the same observation. Great stories that should be novels.
Five, ten, fifteen years later Tom could slap down one of Dave's screenplays on the break room table in exasperation and say, "Goddamn it, Dave, if you had taken my advice you wouldn't have still been working at this factory. I would have been reading about you in the New York Times Book Review and saying to anybody who'd listen: 'That's my friend, the great author. I knew him when."
Dave could always counter with, "How many galleries have you shown your paintings to, Tom?" in a lilting, sing-song, childishly taunting voice.
Tom had gestured grandly at the canvasses strewn around his cramped one-room domicile. In a register worthy of Olivier he said, "I learned long ago that it is my fate to go unappreciated in my own lifetime. Only when I die will my greatness by known and then they will heap approbation on my name."
Tom never asked about the screenplays he had favorably reviewed for his friend, on a pure storyline basis. Dave had seemed to take his remarks about them like rejections. Did he once take his advice, Tom wondered, and at least try to adopt one of those screenplays into the worthy novel it could have been.
In point of fact, Dave had with several of them, though he had never told Tom this. He had done so only after the woman he married -- Janet, as it turned out but that's another story -- similarly encouraged him in that direction. Dave sent adapted screenplay after adapted screenplay to book publishers, only to meet with steady rejection.
Secretly, Dave felt resentment rise up against Tom. As though Tom had lied to him. Hadn't Tom promised him that success would be his if he turned his writing ability to novels? Hadn't Tom said that he, Dave, was too talented to be a hack scriptwriter? Hadn't Tom promised that the heavens would open up and shower him, Dave, with riches, fame, respect, and riches again, if he, Dave, took Tom's advice about writing novels? Hadn't he? Hadn't he?
Finally, one day, after having accumulated enough rejection letters to comprise an average Stephen King-length novel, Dave paid a personal call to the last publisher that had rejected his work. This was highly irregular but he had politely but persistently impressed upon the male secretary, er, um, 'administrative assistant,' that he, Dave, was not leaving until he had an audience with the great keeper of the gate, the standard bearer, the one who deemed his writing, his creativity, his desire, his intellect, his genius unworthy of inclusion in this estimable establishment. As he said all this, Dave cursed Tom in his thoughts for infecting him with his penchant for melodrama.
"Tom's more of a thespian than I'll ever be," he said to himself. "He should go on the stage and sceen and make his living telling lies," Dave felt like punching Tom in the mouth... but then he'd lose his best friend.
Dave was finally shown through the golden door into the cubicle of the editor. The editor was some kid in her twenties, right out of an MFA program, just marking time until her ship or privately financed space vessel came in, whatever. Surprisingly, she hadn't shredded Dave's rejected manuscript into oblivion yet.
"The thing is," Little Miss High and Mighty Editorial Assistant was saying, shaking her head mournfully over Dave's blood, sweat, and tears, "its too fast-paced for a novel."
"Isn't that a good thing?" Dave said.
"BUt its toooo," she yodeled, "fast-paced." Now she held the manuscript aloft as though it were a plate of pasta she had found substandard, meaning to send it back to the kitchen. Maybe the chef can get it right this time. "There's no proper scene transition. Each event starts and ends so abruptly. You have a very visual style of writing though..."
Dave could virtually see the light bulb go on above her head before she leaned across the folding card table and said, "You know, I bet you'd be good at writing for the movies."
Forty-three years old and Dave felt like a failure as an actor, a novelist, and a screenwriter. Though mightn't he have shown his screenplays to someone in addition to Tom? Tom was just one person, representative of one person's opinion. But Tom had praised him and sounded so sure, so authoritative...
Two years later, as Dave hurled yet another repulsive manuscript across the room into the roaring winter fire of the fireplace of his study, his wife, the aforementioned Janet, left him. Now, the only reason Dave could afford to live in a house grand enough to contain a la di da 'study' was because of he salary Janet pulled down as a CPA and as one of the top real estate agents on the eastern seaboard. Without Janet and without that income, Dave would have been a starving artist of early Billy Bob Thornton proportions (Mr. Thornton tells of how he was once taken to the hospital for starvation in the early days of pursuing his dream in Hollywood) without his job at the nuts and bolts factory.
"I'm taking the kids and leaving you while I still have some of my youth left," Janet said to Dave in the study. She was trespassing, as he had given strict word that when he was shut up in here writing, he was not to be disturbed for anything less than the second coming of Christ. But since he was an atheist, he was not to be disturbed for any reason!
"Janet... Janet..." Dave deflated. "It... is... hard being married to a writer."
"A writer," Janet snorted.
"What does that mean?"
"Dave, writers write."
He gestured around his study to the pyramid stacks of manuscripts for novels, short stories, plays, teleplays, poem, haikus, and yes, damn it, screenplays. "What do you think I've been doing? It takes time." Dave managed to catch himself before he said, "I owe it to posterity, if nothing else. I may not be appreciated in my lifetime like Kafka. I owe it to future generations." Damn you, Tom.
"You obsess," she said, "You write and rewrite, again and again without getting anywhere."
"Its not easy, Janet."
"And for all your spinning in circles, I could forgive you if you did't neglect me and the children."
"I don't neglect you and the children."
"You can't argue with me about this," she said. "I'm telling you, you neglect me and the children. We feel neglected by you, so you are neglecting us. I have tried to be patient. I tried to be your muse.
"First it was screenplays. Then it was novels. Then it was adapting the screenplays into novels. Next, after the opinion of some stranger who couldn't care less about you, its back to movie scripts, not one of which you have shown to anyone but Tom, blast him.
"Do you realize that you have never let me, your wife, see one of your precious screenplays?" She shook her head. "Only Tom. As far as I know, the only person you've ever let see one of your movie scripts was Tom. Do you appreciate how bizarre that is? I blame Tom, partly, for the wreck you've become. And to think I once had a thing for that guy."
Janet concluded with, "I'm going out and when I get back I want you out of my house." As she left the study she spitefully added, "Maybe you should have married Tom. Someday, if they ever pass gay marriage, you can be with your true soul mate."
Fifteen years later Tom woke up. Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, free at last! Tom, still a bachelor, was happily retired from the factory, you know, of the making of the nuts and the bolts and the bolts and the nuts. He had had to work a few years over the traditional retirement age of sixty-five. But that had been necessary, minor sacrifice to keep Social Security solvent. He still had his health and it was good to wake up in the morning and have the days stretch out endlessly before you to take at your leisure.
He had his Social Security and his pension. He didn't have to worry about healthcare. Thank God they finally fixed the Social Security trust fund issue and passed Universal Healthcare back in twenty ten.
Tom was enjoying his old age. It was fun. He got away with more stuff by dint of the magic shield of his age. Every morning, when the weather is nice, he likes to ride his bike in the park. Whizzing along, listening to his radio strapped onto his handlebars, and ringing his annoying little bell, warning the walkers on the bicycle path to get the holy hell out of his way.
He farted at will and in public, whenever the feeling came over hiim. He let it rip instead of clinching and politely suppressing it as he used to do. He might fart in an elevator full of people. He like to scare small children with his false teeth. Take them out of his mouth and snap at the little buggers with them, as if his teeth suddenly developed a mind of their own.
They're gonna eat you! Watch out! Awww! Tom indulged in these and other crudities that, thirty years ago, would have gotten him punched in the mouth. Now he just looks at people who would reproach him like: 'Whaddya want from me, messuggeneh? I'm old!
This morning Tom had breakfast at a pancake house without incident. He sat alone in a booth reading a western mystery over his omelet and short stack of wheat cakes and coffee. On the seat next to him he had Dave's latest writing, which broke with pattern. Dave had given it to Tom to read and evaluate two weeks ago.
"What is it?" Tom asked.
"Manuscript for a book this time, Tom. A memoir, the story of my life. A book written as a book. I thought you'd appreciate that."
And Tom had. It seems that Dave had led an eventful, at times frightening, interesting, chaotic life before he even showed at the nuts and bolts factory lo those many, many years ago. Also, Dave had had adventures since the time he joined the plant, though Tom had known little about them. If even half or one third of what was written in those pages were true, then it must be indeed said that Dave's story is... well, quite a story.
Over the years, Tom had taken pity on Dave and thrown him a bone. They had done a few moderately successful commercial collaborations together. They had put out a graphic novel based on Tom's masterpiece, 'Evolution of the Centaur,' the multi-canvassed epic painting. Tom had done the illustration and Dave had written all of the words, provided the storyline, vastly improving upon Tom's rough concept.
As for Tom's work on its own terms, he managed to fob off a few pieces on some experimental, independent galleries in Phoenix and Carson City and Mexico City. But his masterwork 'The Evolution of the Centaur' would have to age on the vine a little while, his genius to be discovered by future generations, like Marcel Prouse and his triumphant seven volume novel, The Remembrance of Things Past.
The waitress, who had uselessly told him her name was Erma, buzzed around Tom, asking if everything was to his satisfaction, if he wanted anything else (a glass of water?), or if he wanted a refill of his coffee. Tom motioned for her to go away, but on second thought demanded more coffee, his nose in his book the whole time. He took his coffee, finished reading the chapter he was on, and rose from the table. He left a good tip and paid his bill. He got on his motor scooter and headed to the park, where Dave was waiting for him.
He joined Dave on the park bench. "What'd you think of it?" Dave asked.
"Good Morning, Dave. How's it going?"
"Yeah, yeah, yeah." Dave waved off the sarcasm.
Brandishing the manuscript energetically in his slightly arthritic hands, Tom said, "You know something, I think this thing has movie possibilities."