Prose Header

The Circumstances
Concerning Hilbert

by E. V. Neagu

part 2 of 3

This is the story of a writers’ group to end all writers’ groups. And when a normally shy member, Phillip, introduces the group’s founder to Hilbert — in a manner of speaking — literary creativity begins to take on a life of its own.

That Thursday I anticipated an ugly meeting. I even felt somewhat sympathetic for Joanne and Phillip. We all sat at our usual table in the back of the room. The bus boy, the cook, and the lone remaining waitress all smoked cigarettes and spoke Spanish.

I did not want strangers to witness the upset feelings I was certain the others in the group would provoke. I only hoped I could set the tone early and promote constructive criticism. Writers’ egos are too often fragile.

Such was not the case, and I would be stunned more than once that evening. Despite the obvious problems with the “stories,” everyone’s commentary went on without pointed vituperation. In fact, many of the members reflected their own poor judgment by commenting positively on Joanne’s mess and Phillip’s debacle.

Harriet, a graphic designer who mostly wrote prose poetry about traveling in Greenland — a place she had never been — commented on “Tip Top”: “Gosh, Joanne, the characters are so real and the voice so beautiful. I just couldn’t wait to read more.”

To which Joanne replied in her self-effacing, bullshit way, “Oh, I don’t think it’s got any legs. I just think I should drop the whole thing.”

And then chimed in our third generation Hispanic-American attorney member, Rosa, whose presence I had objected to from the start because I hate stories about ethnic experience — I find it segregates us. She chimed in with some crap about, “Your transplantation of one experience into an entirely foreign setting heightens the reality of the horrors of slavery. It also, surprisingly, brought back memories of the challenges I faced as a young Latino girl.”

And then, and then Rosa started talking the same line about Phillip’s tortuous effort. She read from her written comments: “I am reminded,” said Rosa, “of Kafka here. The walls of existence are thrown up even in the desert and I find the confrontation between the black rabbit and the Latino family emblematic of the struggles between minorities.” She was claiming imaginary giant black rabbits counted as a minority group!

Utter crap, all of it. But the worst was to come. My ears could hardly, at the time, believe what came when they turned their guileless fangs on my piece. Only over time and reflection have I processed and come to terms with the tremendous jealousy the group expressed toward me that night.

After completing our discussion of the other texts, Joanne opened the conversation on my work, “Ménage Trai’n Wreck.” The restaurant had been empty for some time; only a busboy and an impatient waitress remained now.

The emptiness of the place made Joanne sound much louder when she announced, “We’ve, uh, been talking.” Everyone, including Phillip, averted eyes. “After reading your piece, I’m ashamed to admit some e-mails started circulating without your name on them.”

Rosa said, “We appreciate how you’ve experimented with prose.” She was right about that much, I had experimented with prose. “But it just doesn’t fit with the direction the rest of us are heading.”

“Moreover,” said Joanne, “This is the first story you’ve submitted since we read your Moby Dick,” she grinned, “and that was over six months ago.”

Nothing really surprised me here; they had been urging me to write something for some time, but everyone knew my novel was deep in rewrites and that it consumed much of my time. Not to mention, I had told Phillip, and I think Joanne, that my ideas require a good deal of reflection before finding their way to paper. In any event, I must have appeared confused and distraught — though I was not — because Phillip spoke for a second time out of turn.

He said, left eyelid twitching, “Hilbert can help you write better.” Everyone turned to Phillip, who was generally passive at these meetings. His statement made no sense. Of course, Joanne read something into it, and the rest agreed.

Joanne said, “Yes, it might not be a bad idea to read all of Phillip’s text. See if there are any lessons you can learn. Phillip is a great talent, you could gain a lot from him.”

Rosa’s overbearing lawyer voice hammered the nail in. “And you can certainly submit more new material. If it’s up to snuff we’d love to have you back. Some of your comments have been, um, helpful.” The rest nodded their heads in feigned agreement.

I was upset for two reasons. First, they had no right to expel me. I had formed the group and I should have been able to decide who stays and who goes. And second, I was upset because I had intended to take Phillip with me when his skills had crested the hump and come down on the side of potential. Not to be. That is, Phillip’s painful effort called Hilbert left me no hope for my plan. I would have to form an entirely different group, one with talent, on my own.

In the end, I realized they had saved me the embarrassment of leaving, and I accepted my fate with resignation. The group would never, could never, achieve the level of success I was destined for. All for the best. In the end, I hung my head in humble silence, waiting for the long bus ride home with Phillip.

I was not ashamed. Although I use it, public transportation generally leaves me queasy. To compensate I often keep my head down while riding the bus. So it was not shame or embarrassment that kept my head down, it was carsickness, which is why I did not notice Phillip earlier in the drive. I finally looked up when I wanted to ask Phillip for his definition of talent. I stopped myself before the first word.

Phillip’s eye was twitching more and more and I noticed him throwing back one of those pills again. We sat side by side on a bench facing the middle aisle of the nearly empty bus. Nobody else on the bus sat close enough to notice Phillip’s lips moving in a mysterious silent argument. Between his vehemence and the flickering bus light on his pale face, I forgot my question.

But talent has not, as with so many other authors, made me callous. Out of genuine concern I interrupted Phillip, snapping my fingers in his face, “You all right there, buddy?” I asked.

He chuckled and smiled. “Hilbert will help you now.” Phillip bobbed his head in a masked half-gesture. I couldn’t tell if it was another twitch or a motion toward some invisible friend.

“Right, sure, I will read your text. I’m sure it will help me,” I said with no intention of ever reading the thing through.

His pale face tightened and his voice dropped to a hush. “He can help, but you’d better be careful. His help isn’t always helpful.”

“Right,” I said, “I’ll read the text. If Hilbert can improve my writing then I’m all ears.”

My joke confused him. “What do you mean?” he said.

“Ears? Rabbit?”

Phillip ignored me, “He will lift you to high places. Take this.” He withdrew a manuscript from his bag and handed it to me.

“Is this the rest of Hilbert?”

“There is no more Hilbert.”

“So what is this?”

“A story about Hilbert.”

“So it is the rest of Hilbert?” I was exasperated at this point.

“Some stories are true.”

“Are you saying Hilbert is true?” I asked.

“No, but Hilbert would never have it any other way.”

I threw my hands into the air. “Fine. I’ll read the damn thing.”

“Make Hilbert work for you,” Phillip said as we pulled to his stop. He exited and I rode home, content that my writing career was best served by severing all ties to the group.

At home, I did not open Hilbert immediately, nor did I sleep that night. It would be three nights before I would sleep again. Hopefully, nobody reading this takes my difficulty with sleep as a sign of a psychic letdown. That is, do not think my insomnia had anything to do with my ejection from the group that I built. Admittedly, being a misunderstood literary genius, like Kafka, Melville, and so many others before me, had created a good deal of stress. Although the reader may think otherwise, my confidence was not built entirely of stone. There were soft spots and Joanne, Rosa, Beth, and especially Phillip shot at them. In short, the most troubling cause for my insomnia was that their misplaced commentaries made me doubt my own talent.

So the second sleepless night I disentangled myself from the wound-up linens and crawled to my writing space. The laptop fan hummed gently and I shook the mouse to wipe my scrolling screensaver, a quote from Shakespeare. Then I read through my story, “Ménage Trai’n Wreck.” I read it in order to validate my ability and cast all doubt aside.

Rereading it did just that. The high quality of the story exposed the eternal disparity between my talents and those of the group members. A brief excerpt will prove my point. I pick up here just when the mother first confronts the young starlet about the erotic sex video that has surfaced, but the young starlet has ammunition of her own to disclose about her mother. Behold the aforementioned talent nugget...

Ménage Trai’n Wreck

By Victor Eaton (My nom de plume)

“Mother, you have never been able to understand me, because...,” the young starlet’s sobs interrupted her announcement, but God himself could not restrain this conversation.

The mother, full of a curious mixture of both pride and jealousy, interrupted her, “Because I’m old? Huh? Is that what you were going to say? Because with age, with these,” the mother thrust forward her hands, pointing to age spots on her skin, “With these you think I lose the ability to feel, to be embarrassed.” She, the mother, was a vain woman and hid her hands behind her back.

With all the collected skill and drama of all her starring roles drawn to that point in time the young starlet burst forth with that most shocking of all proclamations from a daughter to a mother, “Because you never loved me! Because,” she sobbed on, “Because you only love one person and you can no longer have him, do you know why?” The girl’s sobs turned to maniacal laughter.

“You, girl, ought to be ashamed of yourself. I have done nothing but give to you. Give, give, give, give, give, and give some more. My love knows no bounds and you do these despicable acts on a public video recording? How could you!” retorted the mother.

“You can no longer love J.D. Bacon, because I am pregnant with his child. Yes mother, the child of your septuagenarian lover!”

Just as I thought, sheer genius! The dialogue sparkled! The tension between the mother and the daughter was practically visible. Pure prose. Clear plot. Everything was there. In retrospect the most foolish thing about those sleepless nights was that I doubted my ability at all!

I was certain I had conquered my sleeplessness through self-approbation. But the next night, a Saturday, I found myself tossing and turning again. The cause must be something else, I thought.

By ten o’clock I decided rather than suffer continued sleeplessness, I would take advantage of the insomnia and spend the entire night, all the way through, writing. But I could see nothing to modify in “Menage Trai’n Wreck,” and my Moby Dick needed additional time in the subconscious (The worst thing a writer can do is put something down when it’s not ready to come out.) So I was awake, watching an old movie when Phillip called.

He was full of energy, “Hilbert wants to meet you. This could be huge for your career. Come by the bar at 11:30.”

On the short walk over I had ideas that maybe Hilbert was an agent or a publisher to whom Phillip, in a wiser moment, had given one of my stories. The whole rabbit thing was probably meant to exclude the rest of the group from sending Hilbert their writing. By the time I arrived at the bar I had convinced myself that this Hilbert person wanted to publish my work; get it out there for the people to see.

The bar, the lone hangout for those under forty in the neighborhood, was a crowded dive. Nobody in the place recognized the city’s recent ban on smoking, leaving the air visibly stale.

The place had a strange layout. I had to walk through three rooms, fully partitioned from one another, before I found Phillip. He sat in the corner, away from the busy noise, left eye twitching almost constantly now. There were six glasses on the table. Three were full, two were empty, and Phillip played with a full shot glass in his hand.

Phillip kicked out a chair for me to sit, held out one wait-a-second finger, threw back a pill and hammered down the shot. Then he asked, “Did he help? The text, I mean.” I sat down.

“I’ve been so busy working on my own material I haven’t had time to read much, but I’ll get around to it.”

Phillip laid a vacant stare on the empty chair then turned to me. “You’re lying. You haven’t been writing at all.” He tilted his head toward the empty space, as though listening to a whisper. “You’re angry,” he said to me, “You’re angry because you were kicked out of the group.”

Although the rest of the bar was crowded, our little corner was mostly quiet, which made my voice uncomfortably loud. “Look man, I have had some insomnia issues lately. I read the first part of “Hilbert.” It was so vivid and horrific I thought it might scare me and then I’d never get to sleep.” I lied to avoid further conflict.

Phillip’s upper lip receded, exposing teeth as he spoke. Phillip had always been laid-back, so I didn’t know how to read him when he demanded, “You will read the biography. It will help you immensely as you navigate your troubled waters. Your talent is draining, drip drop by drip drop. Now get to it!” He paused. I sipped my drink. Neither of us said anything.

I was not frightened, just a little intimidated and confused. Occasionally, I glanced in Phillip’s direction. His teeth appeared larger and longer every time I looked up. His eye twitched. I looked in vain for Hilbert, hoping his appearance might ease the tension. Luckily, Phillip reopened our conversation.

“It’s not Hilbert’s fault that he’s a rabbit. They just don’t give rabbits the same level of consideration they would give me or you.”

“Who are ‘they’?” I asked, confused.

“Publishers! He’s been trying to publish his stories for years, so now he gives them away to aspiring young writers. That’s what I wrote about. He’s really a very generous rabbit once you set aside his fetishes. If he can’t get his stuff published as a rabbit, maybe the two of us can pass it off as our own.” Phillip stood and put on his coat.

“Fetishes?” I asked, not yet understanding the offer.

He pushed in his chair, resting both hands on the back. “You’ve really got to read it. Read it tomorrow, then come over and we’ll talk. There’s a lot of interest on Hilbert’s end in your talent.” He popped another pill. “I’ve got to go meet him now. He’s sorry he couldn’t make it.” With nothing to chase the pill, his face contorted, lips pursed, eyes closed, left eye desperately moving up and down. He left me sitting there, finishing my beer. I stayed for two more drinks.

Little about this made sense. Did Hilbert want to sell me his stories, or give them to me to pass off as my own? What use was I to Hilbert? Why did I need to read his story? One response came to mind. “Read Hilbert.”

Against certain instincts, particularly a not yet mentioned disgust with writers who recycle ideas (cf. Hilbert’s similarities to Harvey, in particular, but also Cormac McCarthy’s Border Trilogy and Tommy Lee Jones’s masterpiece The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada). Half-drunk and genuinely tired for the first time in days, I resolved to read the next section of Hilbert.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2009 by E. V. Neagu

Home Page