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.
I slept that night and well into the next day. When I woke, I showered and ran some errands. Hilbert barely hovered in my mind. By mid-afternoon, I had almost completely forgotten about the story. I likely would have neglected my chore if not for Hilbert’s reminder early that evening. When I checked my e-mail the message in my inbox read:
From: Hilbert@hilbertmail.com Subject: Read My Friggin’ Story
acknowledge your obligation to talent and take advantage of my low, low offer of only $9.95. you must act quickly.
to engage the power presented in this once in a lifetime proposal, you must simply complete section 2 of my biography, as written by Phillip DeV_____. at the point of completion meet us at Phillip’s humble abode, where I eagerly await you.
remember, my help comes with a money back guarantee. certain terms and conditions, of course, apply.
p.s. many apologies for my unintended absence. phillip, of course, should be considered my proxy in these situations. until this evening...
Again the word “talent” appeared in the context of my writing. Hilbert, an entity with no connection to me, had recognized my ability, thereby signifying his sincerity. I imagine Phillip had given him a draft of “Menage Trai’n Wreck,” or perhaps my short novel Twelve Comes After a Dozen. In any case, I felt certain Hilbert had connections to the publishing world. Given Hilbert’s seeming generosity, I was obligated to read through the story, something I have since regretted.
Hilbert, Part II
Juan Julio had gone very far in a short while. The desert sun beat down upon his olive back making him perspire and fatiguing his breath. But the sun does not remain aloft the whole of the day, eventually evening comes and it was just at the juncture between day and night that Juan Julio noticed a black spot on the near horizon.
The sun and perspiration combined in Juan Julio’s eyes making him mistrust his own sight. So the first appearance of the black spot caused him no concern. He merely thought it was as though he had rubbed his face too hard and his sight had the black stars interfering. But the black spot did not go, it continued toward Juan Julio at a tremendous rate. This concerned Juan Julio. He feared the black dot might be a border patrolman, who could send him back to Mexico. The patrolman might not speak Spanish and Juan Julio could not explain about his wife, Maria, and the little baby, Conchita. Of course, it was no patrolman, it was, as Juan would recognize shortly, a giant black rabbit who could, and did, speak!
“Welcome, welcome my friend,” said Hilbert, “Welcome to my home. Nice night for a stroll isn’t it?”
Juan did not believe his eyes and ears. Something was wrong. The desert had gotten into his brain and it had gone soft. He repeated, “No, no, no, no.”
“No English, hey?” Hilbert switched to Spanish, “Well, I still remember a good deal of the old high school Spanish. Get enough time to practice it around these parts. Say, you look a little lost. You lost, compadre?”
Juan found the rabbit’s Spanish charming and responded, “Sí, my wife and child are in the desert almost a day behind me. I need water or they will both...”
Hilbert interrupted with excitement, “Child, hey! Haven’t had one of those in more than a fortnight. Course it’s milk-fed right? On the teat?”
Something about Hilbert’s manner alarmed Juan Julio, though his alarm was soon set aside when Hilbert placed an arm, paw rather, around Juan Julio and offered to help. The help however, would come at a cost.
“You seem a touch desperado, so I tell you what I’m gonna do. Ah, you got any dinero? No dinero, hey. Well, it sure is a pickle for you. What could you have worth giving me?”
“I have only the clothes on my back, as does my family.”
“Family, hey? Is the family the wife and the kid, or did you refer to you and your wife as a family before the kid came?”
“I suppose, Señor Hilbert, I thought of us as a family once I was married.”
“Just as I thought.” Hilbert put a paw to his mouth. “With or without the kid you’ve got yourself a family.”
There is a good deal more of this back and forth, along with a hefty amount of Juan Julio’s plight. Phillip was obviously trying to illustrate how the subconscious can emerge during times of trauma and cause us to do the most horrifying things. In the interest of time and in my eagerness to get to my experience with Phillip and the meeting with Hilbert I will skip to the final sentences of the short story.
The uncontrollable sobs of Maria were absorbed by the indifferent walls deep in the oversized rabbit covey. Juan Julio’s stolid demeanor did not hide the horror within his eyes. The deal was made, two for one. Why the bargain included this horrible spectacle and why the mother Maria must watch, and the father Juan Julio said nothing, could never be resolved by Maria, causing her to go insane later in life. Imagine a milkless mother watching a giant rabbit, knife and fork in either paw with drool dripping from its left jowl. And the mother, helpless to stop the scene. Helpless to stop the small naked child spinning and roasting, flesh charring, above a fire on a makeshift spit.
That was it. Phillip had officially lost his talent. I no longer had any hope of saving him from the clutches of the group. These things happened, I knew. Sometimes people lose talent. Look at Hemingway or Steinbeck. Those guys had real potential, only to throw it all away. Maybe they somehow landed in a similar downward spiral-type writing group. In any case, I knew after Hilbert, I was alone.
The bigger challenge of the moment would be my imminent meeting with Phillip, which I was reminded of by his phone call just after I finished reading the story.
“You’re still coming right? Hilbert really wants to help you.”
“Um, I’ve got to work tomorrow,” I responded.
Phillip covered the phone. I heard muffled voices in the background. Something broke and Phillip screamed away from the phone, “All right, all right, just stop it, please.”
With concern, Phillip continued, “Hilbert insists he can work miracles for your writing.” More muffled voices and then, “He wants me to tell you it’ll only cost $9.95.”
And then Hilbert took the phone from Phillip. In a loud whisper, Hilbert’s raspy lawnmower voice said, “You will come, you son of a bitch. Now get your ass over here.”
I had had limited access to the big city publishing world, so Hilbert’s tone took me by surprise. He had urgency and a little worry in his voice. My instincts told me this guy must be really eager to sign me. His anger derived, I was sure, from Phillip’s hindering our meeting. Maybe somebody, another agent or publisher, wanted my stories and he wanted to get to me first. I packed a backpack full of my manuscripts, and then I threw the Hilbert manuscript, which I had littered with comments for Phillip’s edification, in the bag.
When I arrived at the apartment Phillip buzzed me in, opened his apartment door, and said, “Hello,” just as he always had. His eye had become more of a constant tick than a twitch.
Normally I am not easily spooked, but that left eye made me a little uncomfortable. A floor lamp illuminated one corner of the room and the light felt safer, so I took the lone chair beneath the lamp. After bringing us both beers, Phillip sat in the dark opposite me on the edge of the couch. Stacks of books on the floor partitioned the room between us.
“Well?” he said.
“Well, I read it.”
“And it’s got legs, real potential. Just a few comments in here,” I pulled the manuscript from my bag.
When Phillip saw the red comments on the clean white paper he glanced nervously down the hall. “What the hell are you doing?” he whispered.
“I thought you might want some friendly suggestions,” I said. “Like we do in the group.”
“The group.” Phillip rocked back and forth. “The group.” He glanced down the hall again. “I’ve read thirty books this week alone. How many books do you think the people in your group have read?” He chuckled to himself, took a pill bottle from his pants pocket, held out a beer, and poured the bottle’s contents down his throat, chasing the pills with the beer.
“Jesus, Phillip,” I said.
“There is no Jesus Phillip here,” he laughed. “Let’s get down to brass tacks, either you take Hilbert’s help or you don’t.”
Something must be in this for Phillip. A finder’s fee, I thought.
“Look man, I don’t need any help.”
Phillip looked down the hall and waved, index finger extended, as if telling a child or a dog “No.”
I stood my ground. All the talk of my talent, and the realization just an hour earlier that my writing far outclassed even Phillip’s, had me feeling confident and tough. I coolly sipped my own beer, waiting for Phillip’s response.
Phillip pursed his lips, still staring down the hall. His brow furrowed. He appeared deep in thought. My statement had triggered a reaction in the apartment, but it turned out to be an unexpected reaction, one that almost caused me to give up writing forever.
Slowly, Phillip turned my way and smiled, “You want Hilbert on that wall, you need Hilbert on that wall.” It was a quote from A Few Good Men. Then he sat down, turned on his laptop and began typing away.
A little less confident, a little less cool, I said, “I’m sorry about the comments. Most of them are positive. I really liked the story a lot. Look, if I could just talk to Hilbert myself.”
He glanced at me over the laptop. The screen gave his face an odd hue, making the pale even paler. His blue eyes startled me in the dim light. “Hilbert is ready for you, but I should warn you, he knows a lot about you,” Phillip said.
He stood up and walked down the hall into the back room, shouting after Hilbert, “Hilbert, Hilbert, he’ll talk to you now. Hey, Hilbert.”
The hallway was long enough and arranged such that Phillip could not hear me set down my beer, collect my things, and move toward the door. His front door lined up evenly with the hall and I saw Phillip take a handful of those pills, glance at me, and duck into the bedroom, closing the door behind him.
I opened the front door to leave, convinced that if Hilbert had any real publishing connections he would not be hiding in the back. Ever hopeful for Phillip’s early promise, I set the corrected Hilbert text next to his laptop.
The screen was dark until I placed the document over the keys. An order form for pills appeared on the screen. Phillip had ordered five bottles. I hit the “back” button and an ad for the pills came on. The screen flashed, “You can do it like rabbits,” superimposed over an illustrated man taking an illustrated woman from behind at an impossible rate, “for only $9.95.”
Afterward all I remember were the screams, those horrible muffled screams. The hall light went off. I saw the silhouette of a rabbit, a giant rabbit, one ear bent, the other scraping along the ceiling. The thing hopped, taking huge leaps toward me.
Instinctively, I closed the laptop, grabbed my bag, and opened the door. And then I had a sharp excruciating pain at the base of my skull. Everything went dark.
When I came to on Phillip’s couch the next morning, all of my body hair had been shaved, I had been given a whipped cream mustache and eyebrows. The sun shone in my face and the windows were open. I grabbed my head. Just a small cut, but damaged enough that dried blood had caked in my hair.
The weak scab came off as I checked the wound and a little fresh yellow and red pus oozed onto my fingers. I wiped it on my shirt and cleaned off my face with the blanket someone had thrown over me. Groggy, and not entirely aware of myself, I went into the bathroom to urinate.
In the mirror I noticed my shaved eyebrows and the writing on my face. In black marker it read, “HACK, HACK, HACKITY, HACK.” I tried to clean it off with antibacterial soap, but it only smeared everything across my face. Then I noticed the following letter pinned to my shirt:
I have read several of your stories, including “Menage Trai’n Wreck,” “Twelve Comes After a Dozen,” “The Burning Bush of Tina Yothers,” and “Aces Holes.” I have left comments with Phillip. After much deliberation, it occurs to me I cannot help you. You are a hack. Hacks are people who lack talent, and/or work ethic. (Work can make up for talent, but talent can never make up for work.)
Hacks are generally unacceptable in a talent industry like writing. Therefore, I must assume you are firmly entrenched outside of the talent industry. Please disregard any previous reference to talent as it appears I have been on speed for some time in order to stay awake to help Phillip study and write brilliant Geschichtes (Is “s” the proper plural? My high school German is rusty.)
All the best in your future endeavors.
By then my faculties had returned. This was an outrage. Not only had I been assaulted, but I had been assaulted by a poor judge of literature. At that moment, it occurred to me that Phillip might have been trying to integrate Hilbert into our group. A shudder ran down my back. I was more grateful than ever for my excommunication. Hopeless, dejected, with a terrible headache, I resolved to leave both the house and Hilbert’s comments behind.
But on my way out I noticed Phillip’s door open a crack. A rush of sympathy for that poor pathetic failed talent overcame me. I realized I was not angry with Phillip. My fury was directed solely at Hilbert. Phillip had reasons for doing what he did. The guy was under a lot of stress and his judgment clearly suffered as a result. Hilbert’s presence, I am certain, had disrupted Phillip’s focus on his exam. When I opened the door he was lying on his bed, face down, pills spilled on the floor next to his bed.
His recent behavior must have been a last cry for help. Initially, I felt I had failed the poor kid. I should have paid more attention. I should have listened. Maybe the baby Conchita was not a Christ figure, but a version of himself, slowly burning to death from the pressure of school, family, life. Maybe Hilbert went after Phillip after attacking me. Nothing was clear.
Much deliberation preceded action. I knew I should roll the poor guy over and witness the swollen tongue and frozen eyes of a dead student, then call the police. I quietly walked toward the body, determined to be tough about whatever I found. I would explain my situation, 7-foot rabbit and all, if it came to that.
Dim light slid through the blinds, blankets covered much of his body. As I approached him, something unexpected and hopeful happened. The chest moved, just a little. A breath? Then a stifled snore sounded from deep beneath the covers.
There’s still life in the kid, I thought, and hurried to roll him over. I imagined the ambulance would come, reporters might ask how it happened. (It would be good publicity for my books.) And then I rolled him over, still expecting, somewhat hoping, to find a loosened noose, or wrists dripping arterial blood.
Something was wrong with his face. Dim as the light was, it took me a few moments to figure out just what it was. Then, when I took his body in and the details registered, I recognized him.
On his face, Phillip had a cartoon nose colored black, whiskers drawn on in black marker. Affixed to his hip, he had a ball of cotton swabs that had been glued together. In his left hand a copy of Écrits, Lacan’s collected works, and in his right hand, clutched tightly, were costume bunny ears, one ear up tall, one ear bent to the side.
Copyright © 2009 by E. V. Neagu