April 10, 2020

No News from Doodlebug Island . . . by William F. Jordan

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Dr. Harold Waters, recently retired from the University of Doodlebug History Department, had been a popular professor whose lectures on Egyptian and Middle East history were well attended, and whose books on that region had been selected as textbooks by a goodly number of other colleges.

Now, retirement was about the last thing I would have predicted would suit the good doctor; his was a restless nature, more used to field trips to ancient places of interest, and seminars dealing with historical topics. It was my hunch that the idea of staying home largely unoccupied would appeal to him on about the same level as a Republican voting for social legislation. If anything, less!

So, I wasn’t surprised when Harold cornered me at a recent fund raiser for social activists whose intellectual acuity and beneficent nature has earned them the right to be labeled Democrats. “Bill!” he exclaimed, “Just the man I wanted to see. Would it be convenient for me to come by your office tomorrow morning, say 11:00 o’clock? I must warn you, the purpose of my visit is to confess my sins and shrive my soul. You will be a stand-in for a forgiving priest.”

“In that case, I’ll wear a surplice and bone up on a suitable list of penances.”

The next morning, he arrived at my office at the Doodlebug Island newspaper promptly at 11:00 and wasted no time on amenities. “My sins are of a literary nature, Bill. You see, while I’ve written a great deal, it’s always been of a factual nature with foot notes, bibliographies, annotations, glossaries, and such. It has been slow, tedious, painstaking work, and, frankly, I was worn out with it. I craved the license to invent, editorialize, exaggerate! But I find out I’m no good at it. That’s why I’ve come to you.”

It wasn’t clear to me if I had been complimented or taken to the principal’s office, so I refrained from saying anything, which, for me, was an achievement worth remembering to tell my wife about that evening.

“Don’t take that the wrong way,” he said, laughing. “I simply meant to suggest that with your journalistic background, you can appreciate my predicament. I retired thinking I would write the great American novel, but I found that writing description was as tedious as footnoting, and character delineation was even worse. I’d started with what I thought was a pretty good story, but I couldn’t make it do anything but plod along, poorly served by stilted conversation.”

“So far, your penance is a few ‘hail Mary’s.’ Maybe you’re being too hard on yourself.”

“No, simply realistic, but that’s not the worst of it. I decided that a novel involved too much detail, so I reduced the scope to a novelette—same story, same characters. When that proved to be no better, I tried making the whole thing a short story. Same thing; so I concluded I wasn’t meant to write fiction and took up writing essays.”

“I’d very much like to read them,” I said, and was about to inquire about the topics he’d chosen, but he interrupted me.

“So would I,” he said, dejectedly. “I couldn’t finish any one of them! I would start out with a premise and end up with a dozen contradictions.

There were exceptions waiting at every turn. For example, is honesty the best policy? Well, of course it is, except when it’s not.”

The atmosphere in the room was getting rather heavy—and, truthfully, uncomfortably reflective of my own experience—so I suggested to Harold that we cross the street to the Jilted Pig where we could grab lunch. “If I’m to play a religious role, let it be as a fat friar, not a starving saint.”

Over our pulled-pork sandwiches, the conversation drifted back to Harold’s writing. “I finally realized I would not make it as an essayist either, so I turned to poetry.”

“I’m sorry, that might be considered an unpardonable sin, especially if it was rhymed poetry!”

“It was and of the most odious kind! It was at that moment I decided on a return to historical writing and have already started a book I want you to publish. It’s called ‘Magnificent Failures,’ keyed to the Spartans at Thermopylae, the Carthaginians, the Confederacy, and others including a preface describing my own failures.”

“Go in peace, my son!” And with that, we finished the pork and ordered a redemptive piece of apple pie.

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