This story about a writer, for writers, I consider one of my most important.
The stories had been stored in boxes. A ledger indicated that there were 3,283 of them, plus more than five thousand fragments, some of which had been codified to identify their relationship with other manuscripts. Since none of the stories were complete, who is to say whether the five thousand fragments were not in themselves stories? That would make more than eight thousand stories.
Richard Allen Garston died in 1975 at age forty-seven, burned to death in a fire. There was no autopsy performed, for there seemed to be no call for one. No one appeared to benefit from his death. The last eighteen years of his life he had been a recluse, his source of income unknown. None of his works were ever published. If he was one of our century’s great authors we’ll never know, for his manuscripts, annotated and filed in boxes, were burned by his brother.
I discovered, or became aware of, Richard Allen Garston through a writer’s group in Bedminster, New Jersey in the spring of 1990. The chief propagator of Richard Allen Garston mythology was a certain Horace Keane who, to everyone’s dismay, never missed a meeting. Actually, it’s a wonder the group didn’t utterly disband and reconvene elsewhere. Keane was a science fiction writer who whose ideas were, I suspect, completely plagiarized, though no one would dare make the accusation to his face. Most writer’s groups are a little too nice in that way.
You will note that I have not called it “our group” because I only attended sporadically, and for no more than six or eight months. The only function of these details is to share with you the events that set me on my quest.
Keane was one of the old-timers of the group and, as already noted, the regular attender. To describe this man, or any of the others, would be a diversion from my main story so I will not take us down that path other than to say that the purpose of the group was to read to each other what we were working on.
When I first began attending the meetings, Horace Keane’s stories and references to Richard Allen Garston appeared to be so exaggerated that I suspected Garston to be a fabrication. It was not until my fourth or fifth meeting that I met the modestly eccentric novelist and playwright Willson Willis who confirmed Garston’s existence. (The pen name Willis wrote under is a household name which I am confident you would recognize.)
There was a lady at the meeting who was working on a tragic love story and Keane began suggesting that she wasn’t going deep enough into the tragedy part of it, that she should really explore and develop more thoroughly the dark recesses of her characters’ souls. Willis cut him off. “Oh stop it now. Her style is all lightness and air. Not every story has to be a Richard Allen Garston.”
Right then I knew. And I wanted to know more about the man and his work.
After the meeting I asked Mr. Willis if we could go somewhere for a bite to eat. He assumed, naturally, that I was interested in talking about his own work and declined, suggesting that he was tired. His routine was to wake early, to be at his writing desk by four.
“I realize you are busy, but would it be possible to perhaps meet for lunch sometime then? I want to hear more about this Richard Garston that Mr. Keane keeps talking about.”
As soon as I said the name Willis got a strange look in his eyes, as if he were making some calculations in his head. “Oh,” he said. After a short pause, he added, “It’s getting too late to go anywhere else. Why don’t you just come to my place? Follow me home and we can talk in my den.”
After tarrying a little while longer at the meeting, we escaped to our cars and I followed him home. For my readers who know the area, it is one of the nicer homes on Burnt Mills Road, not far from the polo field.
My name, which I should have told you at the outset, is John Urban. My wife, Lynn, is a high-powered executive with a well-known Fortune 50 firm headquartered here in Jersey. A few years ago, when I got downsized out of a copywriting position with a New York ad agency she suggested I take a sabbatical and write the novel I had always claimed was in me, a suggestion I was eager to oblige.
I found the project more challenging than I’d imagined but was gratified to have finished the book, Kill Them With Kindness, in under a year. But writing was easy compared to the task of finding a publisher. Even with an agent. Even with New York contacts.
My second novel hasn’t gone so well. It may be that I have been distracted with my efforts to find a home for the first. Or it may be, though I refuse to believe it, that I am tapped out. My first book felt honest and original. The second has felt wooden and now tires me rather than energizes.
After a while one is aware that the easy explanations for one’s moods are no longer valid, that there are deeper root causes. As the song goes, sometimes it’s hard to face reality, especially when the trouble is as plain as the stitches on your face. (I was in a car accident this past year.) For me, the trouble was Richard Allen Garston. I don’t know how this thing got such a strong hold on me.
Unable to make progress in my second novel, I discarded it and began doing research for a short story, something I was confident I could finish quickly, but this, too, fell to the wayside. This was about the time I had begun attending the writer’s group. My sterility had become almost oppressive.
“I became acquainted with Richard Allen Garston through a writer’s group which met irregularly for readings in the late fifties. It was a closed group. That is, by invitation only.” Willis laughed, a soft short burst. “We called ourselves the Royal Pines. Horace and I were quite privileged to be a part of it, actually.”
Willson Willis sucked on a pipe, which made him look especially writerly. “What a shame that one of the great writers of our time will be forever forgotten because of his brother’s insanity.”
“What kind of things did he write?” I asked.
“From what I could tell he wrote stories, if you can call it that. He created characters and put them in situations.”
“You never read his work?”
“He brought fragments to our group, but it was obvious — “ He broke off.
“His output was prodigious.”
“How could you know that?”
“I saw the piles of manuscripts. There were actually two people, I believe, who read most of what he wrote. His brother Greg and one of the other writers in our group, Gary Spencer. When Gary finished reading Garston’s work, he quit his job. Went away and became a Trappist monk.”
“A Trappist monk?”
“Garston committed suicide about the same time and his brother became guardian of Richard’s work. His brother, I was told, refused to speak with anyone about the stories and eventually had them burned, saying they were ‘of the devil’.”
“If he was such a good writer, why was he never published?” I asked.
“He never finished anything. Richard had developed a whole catalog of rationales and justifications for his mounting pile of unfinished manuscripts. He usually told the group he was following his Muse. I remember on one occasion he produced an elaborate philosophical defense for his habit of incompleteness beginning with the explanation that he was creating life and if his characters were to live forever then the stories must be free to continue living. That is,” and here he was emphatic, “the stories could remain fluid — free to assume new forms, to expand, to diminish — only as long as they were left unfinished and unpublished. It was his hope, he said, that his stories might have a life that would never end.”
Suddenly he took a sharp breath.
“Wait!” Willis held up his hand like he was reaching for something or grabbing a moth out of the air. “Now I remember. Something about hope. He said he was fighting to give his characters hope. Something like that. Anyway, should a story be captured in print and closure be reached, there seemed no more possibility of change. Without change there is only death.”
“That makes sense in some weird way, I guess.” During the pause I tried to formulate another question, but Willis needed no prodding to continue.
“I don’t believe that was it, though,” Willis said in a leading way. “To a few of us Richard confided — he always made light of it, but we’ve since wondered if this were not closer to the truth — that he had made a deal with the devil. He said he was like Scheherazade, staving off death by creating his own tales for 1001 nights. In some way I suspect that if this were the truth, it’s a wonder that he kept it up for more than eighteen years.”
“Based on the stories, or rather, pieces you read,” I interjected, “what is your personal evaluation of Mr. Garston’s significance as a writer? I mean, if a tree falls in the wilderness and nobody hears…”
Willis leaned into me, lowering his voice. “By what measure do we determine a writer’s significance? The critical acclaim? The awards that endorse one’s literary achievements? As you know, I’ve achieved a measure of critical acclaim, but I can’t hold a candle to Richard’s work. Even the little I read from his manuscripts made me ashamed that I was calling myself a writer.”
He turned his face to the side and took another breath.
“I don’t mean to say I’m not good. I capture my stories adequately enough. I care about my characters and their stories. I also care about my readers. But am I a great writer? Not by that highest standard. I’m probably just clever and I work harder than a lot of other people. Now Richard, he was a great writer. A complicated man, but a great, great writer.”
I lay awake long into the night, my mind quickened by this single mesmerizing question. What was it that drove Richard Allen Garston to produce so many unfinished manuscripts, to build so many beginnings without resolution? I needed to know.
I set about to find his brother and it led me to Camden in South Jersey where he had been pastor of an Independent Baptist congregation. Greg Garston had died the year previous. My determination to locate his wife was indeed rewarded. Her name was Emma and we spent a small portion of an afternoon together talking in generalities until I finally came to my point.
“I don’t mean to pry, but can we talk a little bit about your husband’s brother?”
“Well, he was a writer.”
“He seemed very sad and dark, like he had secrets.”
“What kind of secrets?” I asked.
She seemed unable to answer.
“I was told that your husband became caretaker of Richard’s manuscripts after Richard died.”
“I don’t think so.”
“What do you mean, you don’t think so.?”
“I mean, Greg did that before Richard died.”
“Was caretaker of Richard’s work. I’m using your word. I would have put it differently. We stored a lot of his things at our place. Collected them in our attic. Richard had a small apartment in Somerville. Not a lot of space.”
“Did you ever read any of his stories?”
“They were stories? No, Greg made me practically take a vow not to look inside those boxes. One day he decided that he didn’t want them in the attic anymore and he had them incinerated.”
“And you never opened any of those boxes? Weren’t you even just a little bit curious?”
She lightly scratched her chin with the tips of her fingernails.
“Yes,” she said. “Yes, I was.”
“But you never looked?”
“One should not make a habit of keeping secrets from one’s spouses.”
“So you did look!”
“Please, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry about what? So you opened a box.”
“You never know what you’ll find when you open boxes. Some boxes are better left unopened.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I’m not sure what to say. I’m afraid to tell you the truth.”
“Why? What is there to conceal? Your husband isn’t going to be angry any more. He’s passed away. And Richard Allen Garston has been dead for a dog’s age. Who is there left to offend?”
Emma stood up and left the room. I could hear her crying in the other room. Then I heard the sound of drawers opening, interspersed with rummaging. When she returned she was holding a single sheet of yellowed paper with typing on it. In the lower right it had the initials R.A.G. I took it from her as if receiving a sacred host. It was a fragment from a story beginning, ending with these words:
A Sunday afternoon ramble through the underbrush, nettles and thorns, where ideas lay dormant, nestled in for winter, hibernating against the cold. He had left the path to forge his own way. He wasn’t sure what to write about any more. There were so many things he had become unsure about. Now this. He had lost his way.
Here’s the reality: he was tired. And indecisive, vascillating between an ideal of what his life ought to be and trying in vain to find a voice that was authentic. All decisions originating from within himself seemed arbitrary, thus incapable of commanding his complete and undivided allegiance. The result: a paralysis of will, an inability to mobilize his powers, to consolidate the resources of his mind, heart, soul, experience, training.
He was wounded, with a wound he knew incurable.
In an upstairs room, sitting in the dilapidated cushioned chair which he had obtained at a flea market for fifty cents, he organized his thoughts and prepared to scratch out the story of his life, a suicide note. — R.A.G.
I was stunned, for this writer, this writer who had lost his way, who had been wounded with an incurable wound, who was once confident but now confused… this writer was me. Inside I trembled, though I concealed it from my hostess.
“Do you have more?” I asked.
She looked as if she were about to break down. Her cheeks were red, eyes averted.
“I’m having trouble putting this all together,” I said. “For years your husband stored his brother’s manuscipts in his attic. Then one day he decides to burn everything. Did he ever say why?”
“He only said that it was ‘God’s will’ and that he didn’t want to talk about it.”
“Was this like, say, a week after Richard died?”
She shook her head.
She continued shaking her head.
“A year? Or when?”
When she didn’t make any reply there was a long pause in our conversation which, though awkward, gave each of us a few moments to reflect. As I studied her pale grey eyes I could only guess where her thoughts were escorting her. The ticking clock on the mantle seemed to stress that I had overstayed my welcome, nevertheless I did need to ask about one more thing.
“Would you mind if I asked how Richard died?”
“It was terrible. He died in a fire.”
“I thought it was a suicide.”
“Yes, he set himself on fire in his bed.”
“Sounds like an awful way to choose to die. How did they know it wasn’t accidental.”
“Oh yes, that’s exactly what they thought until Greg got the letter.”
“So there was a suicide note?”
“It was mailed the morning of the day he died.”
“You’re sure of that? And you’re sure it was his handwriting.”
“Definitely. He had a very distincitive way of making his letters, all full and round. His penmanship was like a work of art, like calligraphy. His whole life was that way, actually.”
“Do you remember what it said?”
“Something like, ‘When you read this I’ll be gone.’”
“You sound as if you almost liked him.”
She did not reply and I could tell she cared about him very deeply.
“How often did you see him?”
She didn’t answer again.
“Do you still have his last letter?”
It seemed a stupid question as soon as I said it. Her husband had burned everything else the guy had written.
The story fragment was lying on the table and I selfishly wanted to ask if I could have it. Instead I pulled two dollars from my wallet and set them on the table. “Can you photocopy this for me?” Then I scribbled my address on a piece of paper. “Mail it to this address.”
She nodded, as if this wouldn’t be a problem.
“Oh, did you know his friend Gary Spencer?”
“His name was mentioned a few times. A writer friend, I believe.”
“I’m trying to find him. Someone said he joined a monastery. You wouldn’t have any idea where, would you?”
I left feeling pretty much like I’d come to a dead end and feeling sad in myself for these two brothers. Still, the blue sky and brightness of the sun lifted me up a bit as I returned north to my home. Though my thoughts were strange and all over the place, they continually returned to a single notion: to now find, if it were possible, Gary Spencer.
Princeton Seminary Library is one of the most comprehensive in North America, if not the world. It seemed probable to me, therefore, that I would not come up empty handed were I to begin my search here and, in point of fact, this presumption was correct. With the able assistance of Linda Gallagher in their reference department, I located the names and addresses of a dozen Trappist monasteries in the United States. I learned that worldwide there are as many as ninety communities of Trappist monks and nearly sixty of Trappistine nuns.
Many of the monasteries are affiliated so that one of the original houses will assume responsibility for the monasteries that are spin-offs. Since Trappists are famed chiefly for their Vows of Silence, I was surprised to learn that while this is a spiritual discipline that is practiced, it is not a mandatory absolute for all of life. Hence they participate in councils and other rather ordinary affairs and interactions, including the conduct of business enterprises to fund their work.
If Gary Spencer had removed himself to Trappist life, he had not necessarily placed himself in permanent incommunicado. In other words, if I could find him, perhaps he could speak with me and shed further light on the mystery of Richard Allen Garston.
I wrote letters to the nearest monasteries first — St Joseph’s Abbey in New England, Genesee Abbey in New York, and Holy Cross Abbey in Virginia. Genesee Abbey replied within the week and said there was no Gary Spencer in their ranks. More than a month passed before I received answers from the other two communities. This displeased me. I wondered if my inquiries had not provided enough detail.
I followed up with letters to New Melleray Abbey, Abbey of Gethsemani, Abbey of the Holy Spirit, Mepkin Abbey, and the many other Trappist monasteries scattered across North America. Abbey of Gethsemani was the only one from which I received no reply. The other Abbeys likewise asserted that they had no knowledge of a Gary Spencer in residence.
The following spring Lynn had booked a business trip to Lousiville, Kentucky, not far from the Abbey of Gethsemani mentioned above. Being of a curious frame of mind I decided to tag along and visit the monastery while she took care of her business. It seemed a good way to get a feel for Trappist life. The trip was not likely to interfere with my work since my writing was now at a near standstill.
While preparing for the journey I discovered that Gethsemani was the community of monks to which Thomas Merton had belonged. I recalled the name only vaguely from some references made by a high school social studies teacher I respected. I immediately borrowed several books from the library and tried to get a feel for Merton and for Trappist life. The whole idea of it, turning from the world, embracing solitude, somehow began to resonate with me.
I’ve not been particularly religious after so many years in the world of commerce, and there began to be a stirring of old memories, recognitions, recollections from my childhood when it seemed that God and nature and harmony and natural beauty all pointed to something higher and better and purer to aspire to. I have always respected people who had a strong faith, whose lives demonstrated an adherence to their convictions.
LYNN AND I FLEW INTO LOUISVILLE on Saturday evening. She had a trade show to attend from Monday through Wednesday which gave us Sunday to drive down to Bardstown to find the Abbey. I had made arrangements to stay at a retreat center there through midweek and we would fly home on Thursday.
Our rented Ford Taurus explored many a winding road as we pursued Gethsemani. The remote splendor of rolling hills provided a picturesque preface for my visit. At last we drew near, entering by the south parking lot.
Once away from the car I became immediately aware of the silence. Not the silence of the place, but the silent sublimity of the setting. In this setting, so removed from the bustle of the world, no truck or train rumbled in the distance, no dogs barked their fool heads off, no man-made sound intruded the peace and poignancy that was present there. My senses savored it.
The main building is large, and even more imposing as one draws near. We walked past a small assembly of gravestones.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Lynn asked. The way she said it helped me realize she didn’t care for the place. I, on the other hand, found myself drawn to it.
The retreats are unstructured, though monks are available for consultation and a conference in the evenings. Seven times a day the monks assemble in choir, celebrating the salvation of God in prayer and worship. In retrospect I must tell you that my initial emotion was one of being part of a grand tradition, swallowed up in a river of history.
In making our initial entrance to the grounds I didn’t know what would greet me there. Suddenly the bells rang, announcing vespers. Supper would be in half an hour.
In retrospect it seems strange that I should come to this monastery to seek another, to find Richard Garston. Thomas Merton wrote that Gethsemani was a place set apart for our own discovery, to find ourselves. “In Your light we see light,” wrote the Psalmist. In the silence of the heart we listen for the voice of God.
I hugged Lynn goodbye and watched her drive cautiously from the grounds. As I carried my bags to a registration room in the guesthouse I thought of Sean Connery arriving at the monastery in Umberto Eco’s Name of the Rose. Murders and intrigue followed.
Part 5: Dialogue One
I did not attend vespers. Instead I re-read the literature I’d been sent and contemplated my decision. In no time we were seated at tables in the refectory in the east quadrant of the house. The vegetarian fare, served buffet style, was consumed in silence.
Having heard that the Trappists here were quite famous for their cheese, I took a liberal portion. To my consternation the cheese smelled like dirty socks. Not wishing to offend, I placed a slice on a cracker and ate it. It was actually quite good. I devoured all I had taken and decided that maybe even Limburger might be a worthy conquest at some future day.
After supper I set about to make inquiries regarding Gary Spencer. This proved to be a greater difficulty than I had imagined. Even though I knew silence was the circumscribed expectation of the Order, I was determined to make my wishes known.
Rebuffed by two Brothers leaving the dining hall, I went back down to the waiting area where I had checked in. A certain Brother Michael or Micah suggested that I place a notice on the bulletin board in the hallway. Even before I walked away from the wall a Brother was reading it. I paused to see his reaction. There was none.
The next morning I woke during the third watch and, unable to find sleep, wrapped myself in a robe, walked outside. A twittering birdsong chorus hovered in the air anticipating dawn. I never sleep well the first night in a strange place and didn’t have a heart filled with song this morning.
I was staring off at the horizon when suddenly a hand grasped my elbow. Startled, I turned to see one of the Brothers, silently evaluating me. “I understand you are seeking me,” he said.
My tongue failed me.
“I also hear that you are a writer?” he said.
The intonation was half statement, half question. “Yes. Who told you that?”
“You mentioned it in the application. I used to write some.”
“You must be Gary Spencer.”
“I used to be Gary Spencer. Now I am Father William.”
“Why did you change your name?”
“That’s the way it is here. Being one with Christ means being acquainted with the way of the Cross.”
“How is it that you are here?” I asked.
“This is my fate. Yet even within the box that is my life there is a measure of freedom. Even a bird in a cage can appreciate the light of a bright morning sun and will sing at its rising. How is it that you are here?”
“Well, to be honest, I was looking for… well, I know it will seem strange to you, but I was looking for Richard Allen Garston. That is, I was looking for you because you once knew him, knew his work, could help me build a better image of him for myself.”
“But why? What could you care about a dead man?”
“Listen,” I said, “I understand that you can’t give me all your time, but you do have evenings free. Can we meet later? I have a lot of burning questions and you are the last person on earth that can answer them for me.”
He said yes, we could meet later, though he was not certain it would be all that useful for me. Enigmatically he added that he wasn’t really certain that Lazarus wished to be raised again from his tomb now that he was finally buried. We agreed to find each other at seven that evening on the patio below the monk’s graveyard.
While our agreement to meet exhilarated me, I failed at the time to perceive that a perceptible heaviness weighed on him. Strange how hindsight is twenty twenty.
“Listen, John,” and this was the first time he had called me by name, “there are some things better left unsaid. Otherwise I shall be as open as I feel my conscience will permit.” But he flinched when he said this, and I was left with a curious impression that there was some kind of concealment going on here.
Father William abruptly turned from me and began walking slowly back toward the Abbey.
“Here is how it was,” he said . “When Richard was a young man he had a tremendous facility for language and a lot of natural ability. What he lacked was original ideas. He had a strong desire to write, to achieve significance as a writer. He believed that his stories, however, while well-crafted were continually lacking in depth, were underdeveloped. His skills were adequate, but his well was dry. You might say he felt out of touch with his soul.”
“I understand.” I knew that feeling only too well.
“He’d gotten the notion that there was an inner spring from which eternal waters might flow. I’m not sure where this notion came from. Perhaps that verse, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you,’ was playing around inside him. In various ways he attempted to dig down within himself to make contact with those vast reserves, but it was all exploration. He was never able to tap that inner pool.”
“Then you’re saying his problem was a lack of authentic ideas.”
“Yes, that’s right. Ideas are an easy thing really. Look around. Ideas are everywhere. Places, people, books — each has a history, an essence, ten thousand seeds each capable of reproducing ten thousand more. Ideas were not what Richard Allen Garston lacked per se. Ideas were as easy for him as picking ripe berries from a berry bush. His problem was the perpetual feeling of arbitrariness in it all. If he occupied himself picking berries from this tree, why not that tree? Perhaps this branch yielded good fruit, yet why was it better than that branch?”
“His problem, ultimately, became an issue of meaning,” I said. “His stories were good, but they felt meaningless.”
“Exactly. So much so that it became unbearable for him. He could not begin another sentence without knowing it was authentically his own and simultaneously part of a larger whole.”
“He was an idealist. What’s the big deal? Most young artists are idealists.”
“And most of them ultimately compromise their ideals. Richard couldn’t do that.”
I thought about my own compromises. At a certain point in time I compromised my dreams and chose a career. It wasn’t necessarily a bad thing, but I gave up certain dreams that had profoundly stirred me when a younger man. The past two years my wife has allowed me to take some of that back again, but I’m more tentative now. It is easier to risk everything when you have nothing to lose. “So, he made a deal with the devil,” I said dismissively.
“You’re still mocking, but yes, he did this terrible thing.”
“Why do birds sing? Why do writers write? Why do people ask questions that have no answers?”
“Come off it now. It’s a perfectly good question.”
“I don’t really think people go off looking to make deals with the devil. It’s just that when people want something badly enough, badly enough that they are willing to pay any price to get it… well, let’s just say we don’t always recognize the devil’s face when we see it at first.” Father William looked at me with a stern eye.
“It was late spring,’ he continued, “and he had gone off into the mountains alone, vowing not to return until he had found what he was looking for. When he came back he was a changed man. He somehow seemed as if he’d been wounded, like something had been cut out of him, though there were no scars as far as I could tell. He wouldn’t talk about it at first. Eventually, when I learned he was writing again I asked what had happened. He had found his Voice, he said, though it seemed a joyless declaration.”
During the course of our discussion a curtain of clouds consumed the sun which had been slowly descending to the west. Little eddies of cool evening air swept through the garden and I suddenly realized how swiftly the day was passing.
“We’re not making much progress it seems to me,” I said.
Without looking at me he replied, “What is it you really want to learn?”
“I’m not sure. I had hoped that by meeting you I would have some inkling of that myself. Perhaps we should talk about the stories he wrote.”
“We can do that. How many days will you be here?”
“I leave Thursday. So that leaves us Tuesday and Wednesday,” I said.
Father William then turned things around on me and began asking questions about myself, my writing, and eventually about the writer’s group. He seemed genuinely interested in my novel, asking questions about the motivations of my characters, how I stayed motivated to keep writing when things didn’t flow, and things like that. He wasn’t surprised that I had difficulty marketing it to a publisher, seeing that my topic was neither trendy nor popular. He said he remembered Willson Willis as a young writer and seemed delighted that he had become successful, even famous. “He wrote the kinds of things people wanted to read. It didn’t hurt any that his family was well connected, if you know what I mean.”
“So you have followed his career,” I asserted. “Have you been staying in touch then?”
“No, no. Just see a write-up now and then.”
“You almost sound jealous,” I laughed.
He didn’t laugh and I returned to the primary subject of my inquiry. “Here’s how it was,” he said. “Richard was promised an endless flow of ideas, on the condition that he would never complete anything. If he attempted to finish a story, everything he wrote up to that point in time would be destroyed.”
“More or less.”
“And just like that, he had an endless stream of stories to write,” I said.
“Oh yes,” Father William said. “Just like that. He began to hear voices. He began to see visions. He began to dream dreams. And he began to write. He became a conduit of inspiration.”
“But why couldn’t he complete anything? Was it that the ideas had no endings? Or that he was unable to finish a piece? How did that work?”
“If he wanted to write a complete story, to finish something, he could have done that. What happened was this. He wrote like a madman for nearly three days, an intense complicated story about who knows what. Probably passion. He wrote like a man possessed, and when the story was finished he was literally in awe at what he had produced. He was amazed not only at what he had produced, but by the reality that he had been able to complete it. He had thought the devil would keep him from finishing his work.
“Then, the next day, when he re-read it he was filled with revulsion, tore the manuscript to shreds and burned it. As soon as the story was destroyed, his memory of his compact was triggered. If he finished anything, all his work would be destroyed. He finished one thing and it was gone.”
“Interesting,” I said.
“While trying to sleep his thoughts were crammed with seeds for new stories which kept him from finding the rest he craved. He rose from his bed to write notes, jot down images, phrases, names, and a host of details from the parade of ideas that marched through his mind. The morning sun found him assembling all these pieces together into a multi-layered story of such remarkable density of meanings that he could not cease lest he lose the vision. Within days he completed his second story.”
Father William winced. “He made two copies of the story intending to send the story to two magazines while keeping the original. The one was placed in the mail that same day, but the original and second copy were stolen before he could do anything else with them.”
“Stolen from his apartment?”
“No. He had them in his book bag on the bus. As he was returning from the library someone grabbed it and jumped off the bus before he could say boo. New story ideas flowed out of the incident and he pursued the next story and the next, all the while comforted that at least one story of his had survived. Within the week a corner of the manuscript was returned from the post office in a plastic bag with an apology. The envelope had gotten caught in a machine and the contents shredded. This portion was all that remained. Richard began to sense the way things were now going to be.
“For a long time he determined not to finish any of his stories, out of fear. But at last there came a story that demanded an ending, and Richard dared to complete it.” Father William’s arms dropped to his sides in a gesture similar to resignation. “That night a series of thunderheads swept across Central Jersey, hurling lightning bolts from on high, one of them striking Richard Garston’s apartment building, turning it into a flaming tinderbox. Everything he had ever written in his whole life was burned. Then he began to be afraid.”
“So it looked like this was no coincidence,” I said.
”It was no coincidence.”
“Yet, it could have been a coincidence, couldn’t it?” I challenged. “It could have been, right?”
“He knew what it meant. For Richard, these were not coincidences.”
For a short time there were no more words. Then finally I asked, “And you? Do you still write?”
“It’s time to go in. We can talk about Gary Spencer Wednesday.”
After a few peripheral pieties we parted for the night.
Part 6: Dialogue Two
I returned to my room with pen in hand, hastily outlining the details of our conversation. While my record may be imprecise in certain respects, overall it captures the essential elements of our conversation.
Our second conversation was immensely different. We spoke of the stories themselves.
His stories had a strange effect on me. When later I returned to my room it was as if my brain had become benumbed by liquor (though I had had none other than the Kentucky Bourbon which saturates the unique Trappist fudge they manufacture) or that I had fallen into a stupor of some sort. Whereas I spent the first night furiously attempting to reconstruct our dialogue, the second night left me in a state of introspective psycho-emotional inebriation. The first day’s dialogue was liberating because I had attained a remarkable sense of self-forgetfulness. The stories of day two, on the other hand, were like a mirror, and ultimately I could not close off my day without attempting to find in myself the causation for this dark resonance.
Now that a measure of time has passed, I have no notes to adequately re-construct the day, or the stories. Here is the best of what I recall.
We began by the garden and walked along a narrow path to a field below the Abbey. I reminded him that he would tell me about the stories, and he began with this.
“Here’s one I remember vividly,” he said, “about a man who spent his whole life writing and re-writing the same story. The first half of his life it kept getting longer and more complex. The novella became a novel, which subsequently became an epic. The story ultimately grappled with every conceivable theme and the infinite permutations on those themes.
“The second half of his life he began to distill each facet of the story down to its unifying essence. For decades he re-wrote and edited and revised and polished his prose so that it became a lengthy, but finely crafted poem. This he continued to tighten and sharpen until it became ever more pointed, and potent. As the old man’s heart weakened, the power of his verse strengthened.
“The last week of his life he attempted to compress all of his life’s work into seventeen syllables…”
“What happened next?”
This is how the day went. Stories were summarized and apparent meanings attached to them, stories about old people, children, orphans, criminals, natives, Orientals, immigrants, slaves, rich, poor, warriors, powerful, powerless. Stories from all stations of life, all facets of time, all portions of human history. Stories differing as greatly as mountains differ from deserts, rivers from butterflies, mould spores from the sun. Complicated puzzles, plots, games, dazzling wordplay, a hideous monster who had healing powers; a murder, told from the point of view of a piece of furniture, and the incriminating fragment of testimony it offered; a magic stone that made children tell the truth when they touched it; a temple made of daisies that turned men into birds; a stone that gave supernatural knowledge; the man who held the answer to a question no one dared to ask.
The stories were strange, dense, multi-dimensional, yet so simply told.
There was one story about a man whose hands and feet had been cut off during the Spanish Inquisition. He survived the atrocity and, in a story called The Ghost of Isla Rosa, went on to gain revenge on his tormentors.
In another story, Don Quixote, Oedipus and Bertrand Russell become engaged in a debate regarding the thesis “Is it futile to Dream?”
Another story I remember had something to do with time. Evidently it was built around the premise that history is elastic. That is, that future events can change past ones. I’m not sure what it was really about, but I recall being somewhat impressed by the manifold distortions of reality inherent in this concept.
Then there were the innumerable stories about struggle. Struggles with lust, with greed, with the need for freedom, with impulsiveness, the longing for spontaneity… struggles with materialism, solipsism, discontent, passivity, hypersensitivity, futility, austerity, pugnacity, hysteria… and ultimately the struggle for meaning and significance. These latter were difficult for me. They had a pointedness that frightened me.
There were also enigmatic stories, bewildering riddles, ambiguous conundrums and labyrinthine psychological spectacles.
Some of the stories he told in deplorable detail, others he summarized in a few swift sentences, and still others he simply alluded to or implied. He may not have said a word about them but I knew of their existence by the way he avoided speaking of them. I regretted the lack of time, and somehow he felt shortchanged as well.
Finally there were the suicide notes.
“Emma shared with me the introduction to one of these,” I said.
“Emma?” he said. The way he said it threw me off because I couldn’t tell if he were indicating he knew her, or didn’t know her.
“Garston’s sister-in-law. Wife of the brother, you know, the one who burned his work.”
“I know, yes, I know.”
Father William took an inordinate amount of time composing his thoughts. Eventually he continued to tell me of the thousand and one suicide notes.
“Ironic, isn’t it?” I asked.
“Well, all that energy spent attempting to keep his characters alive. But no one was able to help keep him alive.”
“Yessssss,” said he, enunciating it with a prolonged hiss.
I thought of the fragment. I thought of Emma. And I wondered now what I was really looking for.
Part 6: Dialogue Three
“And the Poor Brothers of God, in their cells… tasted within them the secret glory, the hidden manna, the infinite nourishment and strength of the Presence of God. They tasted the sweet exultancy of the fear of God, which is the first intimate touch of the reality of God, known and experienced on earth, the beginning of Heaven.” — Thomas Merton, The Seven Storey Mountain
I woke Wednesday with the sense that Gary Spencer, or Father William as he was now called, was himself a fascinating story teller. I wondered what kinds of stories he had written, or if he was still writing. I wondered, too, what exactly in Garston’s stories so pierced his conscience that he would denounce the world and all that is in it to retreat here to this place.
Did he have regrets? Had he found what he was looking for here?
I can understand Garston’s suicide. He was desperate to free himself from his burden of living. But I don’t really understand this other path, of what provoked this man to take it. Not that I haven’t at times felt an occasional longing for solitude and for release from the burdensome wheel of existence.
I stood in the outdoor corridor facing opened doors to the chapel. To my right is an iron gate that blocks entrance to the sacred garden where monks can enter but lay persons cannot. The words GOD ALONE have been engraved into the wall. The blockade created in me an uneasy feeling of Paradise Lost, but I didn’t dwell on it.
At last Father William / Gary Spencer emerged to greet me. He looked tired, and I almost commented on it.
“Shall we go for a walk?” he asked and I submitted to his lead.
We crossed the road as we had before but instead of going up across the first hill we veered down along the road and then down to a less travelled forest path. He did not speak a word as he led me through a remote passage to a picturesque brook. Most of the time I only saw the back of his head so that I could only imagine his thoughts.
When he turned his appearance unsettled me. He looked distraught, even deranged, but I said nothing.
“Don’t stare at me like that,” he commanded. He seated himself on large fallen tree, a big log.
“I’m not staring at you. And I don’t know what you’re talking about,” I said.
He began to sob.
I placed my hand on his shoulder, attempting to comfort him. “It’s all right,” I said.
“No, you don’t understand,” he said, pushing my arm away.
I had no idea what was going on. I felt something akin to a hound dog waiting outside a rabbit hole wondering when, or if, something would emerge. There was no telling what would happen next.
“Gary!” I said, my hand clutching the folds of his robe and shaking him. He tore himself free and fell to his knees, gripping the furled bark and squeezing till his knuckles were white.
“I’m sorry,” I said, and I kept repeating it. Something deep had suddenly come to the surface and it was sweeping over him with vengeance.
I don’t know what I was apologizing for. Probably because I didn’t know what to say or how to help. I felt responsible, too, in some way.
After a time and a half time he began to be at peace with himself, or whatever it was. He stood, his eyes averted. We began walking again, only at a much slower pace. His mouth was moving and I believe he was praying. The syllables bubbled forth, incoherent, barely audible. Suddenly he turned and said, “We live in order to forget.” His eyes glanced up and then he turned away to continue his walk.
I followed, making no reply.
At one point we paused, though at first I couldn’t see what it was. Father William sensed the presence of something ahead of us and he waited till a grey fox crossed the path and rushed into the brush on the other side.
Finally, I could not restrain myself. This was my last day and it was slipping away from me. “Well, this is a fine way to use our last evening.”
He slowed but did not turn. “I’m sorry if I’ve been wasting your time.”
“Where are we going?” I asked.”
“Our conversation? Or our hike?”
“Whichever,” I said dismissively.
The crickets chirped and all about us peepers and pond frogs proclaimed their presence. Birds, too, sang and twittered, whistled and screeched. “It’s beautiful here, isn’t it?” he said.
As we drank it in I remembered the discussion about the frog that longed to reveal itself but remained hidden. From the reedy marsh on my right a large bullfrog gave sudden voice. I took a step forward to behold this extroverted amphibian. The noise was immense. Quietly stepping nearer, I fully expected his grandstanding to cease. Instead, like a blustering windbag, the little monster kept up a torrent of sound. To my surprise, I found myself directly above him. The frog, with swollen neck and wide eyes, made no attempt to conceal himself or terminate his performance. I’d never seen anything like it.
“He’s not afraid of anything,” I said.
“He’s not like me and you,” Brother William said.
“He’s a maniac,” I said.
“No,” said he, “he’s an exhibitionist. And he’s practically dying to be seen.”
I stood to my full height and stared at Brother William.
“Follow me,” he commanded.
We hiked for near an hour across hills and valleys. With each step he seemed to gain strength. My mind raced ahead to where he was leading us.
We’d been sauntering along a rutted dirt road by this time. I’d tired of trying to keep up. We were both evidently lost in our thoughts with nothing to say. The road, if you can call it that, entered an overgrown field and slumped down to a cluster of dilapidated outbuildings huddled around a collapsed barn. Further below what appeared to be an abandoned farmhouse squatted by the road. Brother William slackened his pace.
I managed to reach his side so as to see the color recede from his face. Was it weariness or exhaustion? He sprang forward again with renewed vigor, veering right onto an overgrown footpath, leading us down the hillside. He pushed aside the field grass like a swimmer, I in his wake. Breathing heavily from our labored hike, we stumbled into a cleared space and rested, he with his hands on his knees like a baseball infielder and I ramrod straight, back arched, nose pointing skyward.
Brother William suddenly began snapping his fingers like an excited little child. “Come on,” he said.
As we approached the sombre unpainted buildings his behavior became inexplicable. Words and phrases like “fatal romanticism” and “a victim of incomparable disillusionment” had been clawing at my mind to express what I thought he must be feeling. Instead I beheld a transformation taking place. The pale grey complexion yielded to ruddiness. His eyes sparkled and glistened. It looked as if the corners of his pursed mouth were tightened to hold back a laugh.
Stooping he disappeared into a coarse grey storage building. Was he singing? I started forward to see what he was up to. “Just a minute,” he called out. “Just a minute.”
When he emerged I hardly recognized him. He had changed his clothes. He was carrying a small, black leather suitcase with buckles and straps. He was laughing.
“You should see yourself,” he said.
I was shaking my head with my mouth half open when he bellowed, “I have a life to live. Please don’t look at me so strange.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That’s all right,” he smiled. “There’s a lot we don’t understand.”
He took a step toward the direction of the asphalt road.
“Where are you going?”
“That doesn’t concern you at this time.”
“Yes, but -”
“Mr. Urban, thank you. I know what brought you here. Now I must go.”
“Wait!” I was trying to think of something I could do or say to detain him. “Who do you believe was the greatest writer of the twentieth century?”
“Oh please,” he said dismissively. “Go ask Horace. He has answers for everything.”
My heart missed a beat. My hand reached out then fell.
I stared after him as if in a trance. There were no more words. The hillside clothed me in calm and made me forget my exhaustion. I’ll never forget that last smile.
I saw an old friend today at the library. We said a few polite words, but I wondered how she was really doing. Everyone knew that her husband, Darryn, was still devastated from the divorce. The boys were much taller and the oldest had put on weight. Offhandedly she says I understood her husband better than anyone. Unfortunately he never wanted to hear anything from me.
I don’t know if this is what set me off, or the overcast sky, drizzle and general drear, but I found myself in the old funk again. Everything felt petty and trivial, the pieces of my life scattered fragments. When does integration begin? I feel no further ahead in my self-understanding than two decades ago.
Reading a book about Terry Anderson’s seven-year abduction in Beirut. He, too, was isolated from the world. It brought to mind my visit to Gethsemani. I’d not thought about Gary Spencer or that visit in two years. Had not seen him in three? Four? The years have raced.
I stopped in the park, watching nothing in particular, unconscious of the consciousness within myself. I felt an urge to put down a few lines of verse.
Blank slate, blank mind.
What do we seek?
What do we find?
We breathe, we move,
we act, we groove;
We bathe, we shave,
to end up in a grave.
When life is spent….
Blank slate, blank mind.
What do we seek?
What do we find?
I went home. This was the day that I received the letter.
It was postmarked Buffalo, NY. I’d never been to Buffalo. I opened it wondering who would write me from upstate New York.
The envelope carried no return address. Inside, a sheet of typing paper, wrapped around a three by five color photo. Their faces filled the frame. Eyes bright, wide smiles. Gary Spencer? Emma?
A handwritten note accompanied the photograph, transcribed in a singular fluid style with robust, round letters. “All’s well that ends well. Write on. Love, Rich & Emma.”
Originally published at pioneerproductions.blogspot.com