In Part I, a talented young writer named Andy was approached by a mysterious stranger, who led her down hidden alleyways to an oasis in the midst of the bustling city. There she was invited to join an exclusive club that celebrates talent, integrity, and strength of spirit. As Part II opens, Andy remembers her first conversation with the club's owner.
The man in the suit sat at a dark table near the back of the club. She followed and sat down across from him. He looked at Andy’s face, his eyebrows furrowed.
“Do you know the legal definition of pornography as put forth by the US Supreme Court, Andy?”
“No, I don’t think I’ve had an occasion to learn that information,” Andy said.
“'I will know it when I see it.'”
“I see, I might have to agree with that,” she said, taking a deep breath. She could sense that he was trying to make a crucial point; she could not see the significance.
“The same is true of the reason I brought you here. The difference is that what you learn in this club is something you will not often see once you walk out that door. But while you may not be able to name what it is you find here, you will recognize its absence out there.” He lifted his hand toward the door.
“Like recognizing pornography, you look around at the world outside and you see the apathy, the inability to be self-sufficient. You know those things when you see them. You write about real-world people doing real-world things. You could just as easily write about the right way to do things, but you choose not to. You parody life, and your writing is interpreted as sympathetic. The difference here, in this place, is that you will fully know the reality of the outside world when you don’t see it here. Do you understand?”
Andy looked at the table, then at the people scattered around the room. She could see something in their faces, as they worked silently or talked softly, that she had not seen before in so many people in one place.
“I think I could understand, yes.”
“Very well. Let me give you some helpful hints. The people I choose to become members do not need rules. They live in accordance with their own sense of justice and right and wrong; that is why they are here. They believe in a truth about life and about intellect that is not only rare, but incredibly unpopular.
“However, since you are new to this environment, I will tell you that this is a place of pure integrity and thought. We answer only to our own reason, and that is why we are here. The people you will meet here see the world and themselves much the same way you do. This is a place of cultivating your sense of self. Just follow your reason and you will benefit greatly from the company you meet here. I only ask that you do not write about this place. This room is a means, not an end, and it should not be portrayed as such.”
After acquiring her agreement, the man in the suit left her sitting at the table.
Andy thought about the sense of relief she had felt that day. Like he had said, she could not name the thing that she felt in the club, but she was comforted by finding like minds there.
She looked again at the man across the room. He had begun painting, and she could feel his intensity. She saw in his movements the thing that moved her when she was in this place; she looked at her blank page and began writing his actions. She looked from her sheet to where he sat, lifting his arm and tilting his head; his face showed his concentration and strength. Andy captured him on the pages of her book. Loose pieces of hair fell into his face, and he swept them aside as his brush swept across the board.
Andy fused her words with the same passion and vigor with which he painted. She stopped abruptly as he stood to survey his work. She could not see his painting, but she could see in his face what he had put on the board. His shoulders sagged as he settled himself back into his seat. He looked at Andy, and she looked at her pages. The emotion she had put on her pages seemed too fantastic to be truth. But she had written word for word his movements.
She carefully tore the pages form her book and stood. She folded them several times as she walked toward the painter. As she approached, he picked up a wide brush and dipped it in black paint. As she got closer, he swept the brush across the board.
She caught a glimpse of the last of his work as she passed. She saw, half covered in the black paint he used to erase the painting, her own face. He portrayed her as seated in the chair across the room, crouched across her notebook. She was writing. Andy recognized the look on her face: it was the same look she had captured in words — the look that had formed on the painter’s face.
Andy recognized his style, and his name fluttered into her head: Paul Sterling. She smiled derisively as she thought of his reviews. She remembered a show he had held a few months back. Women had cried at his portrayal of a child wrapped in newspaper and alone on the side of a building. The paper’s headline had read: Charity Reaps Reward. Andy herself had laughed at the sight of the painting.
Andy turned sharply toward the door, slowly ripping the folded pages as she walked. She dropped the pieces in the trash by the bar and pushed open the door. The light erased the shadows that crossed over her face in the club. She thought of the painting. She pictured it hanging in a gallery, people standing before it with perplexed faces. She could hear their hushed voices as they whispered in each others’ ears, “I don’t understand. I’ve never seen such a thing as this.”
As she walked home, Andy looked at the ground, but saw the painting. She tried again to name the feeling that it possessed. She knew that this would answer why she felt the way she did in the club. She thought about the world being robbed of the beauty it possessed. Her anger burned her face as she considered the neglect with which people viewed the world.
Once home, Andy leafed through her mail. A letter sent from her publisher caught her attention. She admired the clean whiteness of the envelope. She sat on her couch and opened the letter. Inside was a hand written letter with a little yellow note stuck to the front.
I thought you would be pleased to see how your work is being received by the general public, the note read. She tore off the note and began to read the poorly written letter. At a glance, Andy noticed how the words sprawled on the page rather than flowed. She smoothed away her frustration with a shake of her head.
I am writing in thanks for your most recent release, Rat Race. This book has affected my life in a way I hope you will understand and appreciate. I read, from cover to cover, your account of a young woman giving up her career and freedom in order to adhere most closely to her womanly and social duties and her church.
I have often felt that guilt which you show is involved in materialistic attitudes. I have since given all but the bare essentials to the church, and I have given up my job in order to remain at home with my children and teach them the proper ideals and values which lead to a righteous life. We live on next to nothing, my husband does not make enough money for us to afford those useless things which used to bring us comfort. I am most ashamed of the pride I used to find in my career.
Your book has shown me the path to salvation, and I thank you for helping me see the light.
Mrs. Andrews and family
Andy leapt from the couch and tore the letter to small pieces. Her hands worked furiously and her body jerked hard with each tear. She threw the pieces violently into the trash and walked back to the couch. She sat, head in hands, while she cursed Mrs. Andrews and pitied the children.
With a deep breath, Andy willed away her anger and tried to think through this situation. She considered Mrs. Andrews and her renunciation of all that Andy felt was good and true. Andy wrote about what she considered to be the injustices of the world; she wrote about people giving in to what the government and media spoon-fed them about what is true and good. She wrote about families raising their children to be mindless followers of a judicial and social system that values selflessness, charity and shallow emotion.
She thought people might recognize in her writing their own intellectual short-comings and vacant emotional lives. She could not understand how her writings were taken as validation of the corrupt systems of thought in the country. She considered for a moment the ramifications of writing more to those who believed what she did, instead of writing to the masses who consistently misunderstood her position.
She realized for the first time that she may have, in fact, been unwittingly contributing to what she abhorred. She thought again of the letter.
Andy shook her head at the thought of these children growing up in a home that valued unproductive lives and selfless giving. She knew they would grow up to hate capitalism and all the freedom of thought and work that it provided. She knew that the non-thinking attitude being cultivated in these children would direct them into a life not only of poverty, but of complete unproductiveness.
She knew that more people like Mrs. Andrews would then be needed, and that eventually there would be no one left to do the actual work of the world. She thought of a time when people would scramble to barely support themselves and others on a life of so-called compassion and ignorance. Andy thought of Mrs. Andrews’ children again. She imagined the way in which they might pursue work in the future, if they chose to work at all.
Andy considered a shift in style. Her face reddened at the thought of writing a piece that might actually quiet the nagging notion that her work was meaningless and unable to teach the lesson she had been trying to convey. She grabbed her notebook and began to write.
Continued in Part III
Shelly Wass is a graduate of the University of Montana’s Creative Writing and Literature program, and a current master’s student at Reed College in Portland, Oregon. An avid student of comparative literature, Shelly offers a unique perspective on contemporary issues in her fictional pieces.