Gary Pegoda

Lou and Ted

Chapter 1

“I only know one story, Ted, because there is only one story, and all I can do is throw some light on some facet of that story, so readers get all starry-eyed,” Lou said to me. He leaned back in his leather desk chair, his eyes seeming to watch the flame of a candle he had lit and laid on its side, on a brick.

“Hey, Lou, come down from your cosmos, and just create something.”

“Okay. How about ‘The Three Little Pigs’?”

“I think maybe somebody already wrote that down. Well, the older, the more original, right? First books have a special power. Then again, books have a certain power still. You want some coffee?”

“ No, no. Listen, Ted, if I write ‘Little Pigs,’ nobody wrote it before because the author is dead,” Lou waved his hand in an even swipe at his bookcases. “Wait. Backspace. Delete. Save. The author was dead, is dead, always will be dead. Only readers only really only matter. Intellectual property rights are so gauche. Those Neanderthal shamans passing down poetry to the tribe were dead, too, even as they spoke their tribes into existence on special occasions.”

“Lou. You want Hawaiian blend, breakfast blend, or Blue Ridge premium? Besides, you’re just saying the wolf wrote ‘Pigs.’ You’ve always stayed a step ahead.”

“Sid, don’t ignore me. To me, this is important stuff. The next big thing will be readers suing authors for copyright infringement. That, I’d like to see in the Supreme Court or before the King/Queen of England.”

I asked, “You like black, right?” Sometimes, Lou changed how he wanted his coffee, like from black to extra black.

“Yeah.”

“Lou, look,” I said, as I carried our coffees across the wood floors from his kitchen into his study. I always liked that room. The coffee smelled great. I had the Hawaiian I preferred, and I handed Lou his mug of doughnut house breakfast blend. 

“No, you look. Ted, you know what’s wrong? I mean really.”

“Look, let the big bad wolf catch them – bacon and eggs! A fast-breaking story!”

“Hmm, maybe a hard-boiled detective story…”

“A toast to the world at large,” Lou smiled, and I laughed, and things simmered down and began to gel.

A few minutes eased right on down the road, and life was good there in Lou’s secret room, where everybody came for gab. 

He took off his headphones from his round head and gave me the smile of irony; that’s what I called it, “Sid, I want to write things that aren’t for the public.” He usually just wore the headphones to keep his ears warm.

“Ted,” Lou said, “I read…well, this guy said all literature is part of the same small pale blue planet’s story. That just seems so true. Nothing’s left to say except rehash…something…so I want to write stuff that’s what I think about what I write instead of writing what people will buy. I can do that, now.”

He looked at me with what I took to be serious concern, the kind a guy gets when he can’t sleep until he writes something that day, when he’s stuck on an enormous blimp-like idea. Well, that’s what I thought. I have to admit I only guessed at his thoughts, even after being friends since we were kids. 

Staring at Lou’s blue tooth guitar with its computer connection and sound fonts, I listened to his yearnings to write something more esoteric. 

“Ted, no offense, but sometimes I wish you’d answer me.”

“What?”

“What I said.”

“Oh, yeah, you’re a dead writer trying to escape the very successful and popular coffin of popularity you’re in.” That got a smile. “Kind of Poe in reverse.”

Lou said, “I think he was too serious. He lived theory and just didn’t know it.”

I went on, “You seem so life-like. Lou, it’s just an extreme development of literary criticism, and it’s still literature. Only the critics live – the writers are all dead; you can’t let them get away with that. Lou. Only they matter to them. Did one of them tie Shakespeare’s bootlaces yet? It’s just a new game. If you start playing, will you be happy?”

“Would mighty Thor strike you somewhat with, I don’t know, a tv antenna!” 

“Ha! Are you “channeling” again? No, that was last week…at this same time. Look, Lou, you grow and change faster than anybody I know. In an hour, you’ll forget this stuff and be writing again. Right? Come on, let’s make up an episode of the Mary Tyler Moore Show. You be Lou and I’ll be Ted.” This was a running gag.

“Ah, Ted, I don’t know. That would be fun, but I just don’t know. I feel like that Beatle song, ‘She feels as if she’s in a play, and she is anyway.’ But for guys. Today, I would probably write about Ted going back to college, returning to seduce Mary.”

“Yeah. Abbey Road? Anyway, everybody in a play feels as if they’re in a play because they are – theorist and writer both. Anyway, without you, your critics would be out of work. You notice they deconstruct everything but their jobs and the status quo? Besides, Mary and Ted? Not possible. You’ve deconstructed the heart of the show, and it would be something else.”

“Did you just blaspheme the Beatles and Mary Tyler Moore in one breath? No, no abbeys, no plays, either. You’re going to make it after all. People have been writing for like ten thousand years, writing straight through empires and religions, but this guy says it’s all just the same story, and I want to just go outside and climb up into a tree and scratch myself and yodel!”

“There you go. Neanderthal literary theory. ‘No one I know is in my tree, I mean it must be high or low,’ John sang. You want some more coffee?” Sometimes coffee helped him get started. Caffeine plus ritual before writing was Lou’s ticket to ride.

“Yeah, please. Thank you, Ted.” He turned his rolling desk chair, so he could see out the window into the windy day, through the Venetian blinds of light that formed a wave on his face if you looked closely.

I went and got the coffee, and when I got back, Lou was playing guitar. He was good, too, as agile as fire, his fingers in two places at once, as best I could tell. He boogied, usually. I was hoping his thoughts wouldn’t collapse back into one state upon being observed.

I listened, left his coffee on his desk, and went and sat down in the old rocking chair with the price tag still on it, and I watched the candle flickering like the notes from Lou’s guitar. I glanced over at Lou, and his eyes were closed, but his fingers were flying up and down and across that fret board. I always wished I could play like that. Sometimes after he played, he would light up, and he would start wanting to write. The creators, literary critics, and writers of fun stuff grow and change. Lou has eighteen million books sold, and we’re still friends – I’m standing amazed, but I keep him himself. That’s my job. I love the guy. Best friends for umhum years.  

“Lou,” I said, surprising myself. I usually don’t interrupt, well, not much. “Lou.”

“Huh?” He kept playing. 

“Lou.”

“Huh? What? Ted,” he stopped and put the old Fender down, took his headphones off, “what’s up?”

“I have a thought about that stuff – what you said,” but laying a finger aside of his nose, Lou suddenly started typing already, fast, with his eyes down close to the computer screen, just like he held his ears near his guitar. 

“I have a thought,” I repeated, but he was gone off into writer land. I could only wonder. My work here was done. “I am the Muse,” I thought. Maybe not the one people expect, though. That makes me smile.

I didn’t say anything else. I could have, you know. But…well, shoot.

I whistled all the way home – I always whistle. I am an artful whistler.

Chapter 2

Home was quiet, but my books were calling me. The chess rating I crave was calling. My old guitar was calling. Voices of creation were singing in my mind. You should know I haven’t had a tv in thirty years; I live my own life now. There is no tv in the background. Did you hear it not filling the places where my thoughts live?

But not my cat, Tom – no, Tom sings the “here I am, baby” song, one of my favorites. I add to his food, refresh the little water he needs, as a creature evolved in the desert, clean his dusty litter box that absorbs instantly. I wash some clothes. I’m hungry. I sit down and Tom sits by me and walks on my lap, back and forth, while I pet his head, while he purrs so loud that the neighbors hear him.

What a nice day. Yeah, life is good. I want to go look at the clouds some more (the sky is like triple-layered, and then maybe go back to Lou’s after while, maybe see my sister, his wife.

Maybe see if my wife wants to go, too. Lou and I could jam for a while, and we all could talk, eat, gossip, laugh.

I must have went over there an infinite number of times, shoot, probably more. Lou was one of the most laid back, relaxed, active, talented people I ever knew. Sis and I would sing while Lou and I played. Sis had the most lovely counter-alto, and she sang by ear, too.

She fell for Lou when we were kids, and it stuck, you know. They went together all through school, and I was their best man. I was married, soon after, to Lou’s sister. We were really the combination to all locks, then. I don’t think four happier people ever lived.

Spoiler alert.

Our complex and rich reality was created and settled forever, like the sunsets you know will last forever, like the long lines of birds gently turning in long spirals across the sky, migrating, something you knew was part of Earth and would go on forever.

I’m not like that anymore.

Each sunset is special; gilded moments are fleeting. Birds don’t fly that way anymore. The old street is not the same. The place where Lou’s house rested is still vacant, even the slab is peeled away, and grass grows smoothly there, as if nothing had ever existed. Now the slight rises where the big oak stumps were grinded down to build Lou’s house were starting to show again as the ground settled anew under the rains.

I was reading on my cellphone when I heard the sirens. They seemed close, so I walked outside, but I ran down the street when I saw smoke gently rising from Lou’s house, my sister’s home. Fire trucks were there, and I was there. The windows were broken and water was pouring in and I looked, oh God, I looked everywhere at every face all confused. I know now that I was bewildered, that for me all the potential realities were measured and collapsed into one.

Are they alright!” I shouted, not meaning to, surprised at my voice. “Are they alright?”

A old fireman walked over, met my eyes and put his heavily gloved hands on my shoulders, “You’re Sid Brown, aren’t you? I knowed about you since you was a kid.” He turned his head away and then looked back at me, and I will never forget how he turned his head, not yet and probably never.

Sid. Lou was your best friend, and Sally was your sister. Everybody in Freeter knows that. How in God’s name can I tell you this?” He turned away again.

They’re dead, Sid.” He grabbed me and hugged me, then pushed me out to arm’s length and looked me straight on. “It wasn’t anybody’s fault. My best guess is that their clothes dryer caught fire. It happens. They were upstairs. There was a broken window when we got here.” He pointed up at a broken window. I was gasping for breath.

That’s all we know now.”

A couple of gurney men with a body under some sheets came out the front door.

I sort of motioned at it.

Uh, I don’t know. But they weren’t burned, son. Just smoke inhalation. You can see them. If you want to.”

No, no, no.” People were doing their jobs, it looked like, efficiently and quickly. I found my way home into the second granny knot, as Lou and I had often called us, me and his sister.

The services and the next few months were too real for me. I just remember this and that. Yeah, I cried. My sister was gone. My best friend. Our friendship. Our lives. I wish I had been there, upstairs, taking a nap. My parents were hurt, too, and Lou’s folks, and his sister, my wife. I couldn’t get over that. Since then, my dad died and both Lou’s parents are gone. I often imagined that they were all buried in the ground under where Lou’s house used to be, the imaginary cemetery.

I thought back about that candle, the one Lou turned over on the brick, sometimes, but every time I thought no. I know my wife felt the same as I did; we used to be like double in-laws, double-married, we used to say, and our kids would be double first cousins. That’s a special degree of closeness. Double death

My first clear memory after the fire was of writing. No, I have lots of little scenes, isolated scenes. Crying so hard at the funeral, the outdoors part, that I couldn’t see the funeral. I’m glad but not happy about that, but I couldn’t face anyone anymore.

Then came the dreams. I saw them again, and again. I woke up in a strange state, lonely, really lonely for the first time in my life. I couldn’t sing the songs we sang anymore. I couldn’t tell Esther, Lou’s sister and my wife. I couldn’t dream of double first cousins anymore. That’s the problem with such strong dreams. You can’t just put them down. It might be like being a very talented violinist with a Stradivarius. You can’t just not play it, but it’s gone. The owner took it, a fire, yeah, got it, no. Paganini’s fingers.

I went back to the cemetery, bent to one knee, and I tried to talk with them, but I was just desperately, unmercifully sad. I didn’t go back, and I still don’t.

I dreamed that they were just injured and that they were okay. I felt their presence in the dark in my room, walking there, and I wanted them to touch me. I reached out

Months passed. But I was stuck where I was, in the blues, I guess. Nothing meant anything. They were my Rosetta Stone that made the world make sense. Now nothing made sense. People talked but just garbled nonsense. I was young, early twenties, no children yet. My dreams were a collapsed circus tent. I wasn’t one of these people who rise above it all and make something strong of it. Not many people are. ?

I began writing after work. My wife understood. I wrote thirty pages a day for a year, trying to make sense of everything, and I put it all in garbage bags, and the truck took it away.

I think I laughed during that dark year. My confidence was gone; I had no laughter.

Sunsets were backdrops, where I saw my sister and Lou walking on the sky, so strong. Rain spoke of them, as did thunder. Food tasted different. People weren’t very nice anymore. Tom started hanging around my wife more.

I thought I was losing my mind, and I wondered what that meant. I could have told Lou.

Chapter 3

So, I went off to college again. I couldn’t stand that little town anymore. Everything was hollow.

I moved to another town and took classes. My wife stayed at home. It was odd, just like watching a rock front collapse and peel off a cliff and fall, interesting to watch. She said she didn’t want to leave everything and that if I really loved her, I would make a life just with her. That sounds so true, even now, but I really, seriously wanted something more, and it wasn’t here.

Oh, yeah, I wanted not to be where everything echoed screams. Do you understand.

You. Hi. Excuse me. The wall around my little theater was you. I am reaching out; no one else is left. The movie is over, the lights come up, and a voice speaks to you. Weird, huh? Did you ever think you were the perfectly good carrot left in the field that the pickers missed? Ha! I bet not. That’s too strange. That’s me.

Here’s the deal, reader. I’m glad you’re here. I need imaginary company, unless you turn up someday and are real, which I may or may not know. I think I may be hard to get along with, from what people have said, so, in advance, I’m okay, I’m sorry, and I lose it easy. Okay? I wasn’t always like this. Maybe you’ll see something good left in me.

Anyway, the deal. I sorta think maybe Lou and sis are still alive if I don’t go back; I know, I know. Maybe someday, you and I can face the truth, whatever that is, but the truth is out there up over a hill where, from the top, you can see miles of pine forests: the truth pushes over smaller trees without a glance.

I tried living in a tent somewhere. It wasn’t bad. I met people who almost were Lou and sis, and they were cheap knock-offs, one after the other. I’d be glad if you would talk with me. You’re real. You’re the only real thing in this little world. You’re the bear.

I can’t bring myself to tell you about the bad people who lured me to hell in my sorrow, but you know they are there. Real bad people who prey on the hurt are out there. And the worst of them don’t know they’re bad. That sincere wrongness is poison. I hope I’m not like that.

Everything I took fit in my car. About five paper grocery bags and a guitar in my old car. I would take off and move at a whim, living/dying on deviled ham in white papered tims..

Live in a new place, alone, I wrote until I fell asleep to keep reality at bay.

I read a lot. I sold a bag of books I had had since I was ten for a penny each. I kept a copy of Lou’s books and their picture. The guitar…eh…broke.

The hollowness, the emptiness, I can’t tell you about. I think I can’t, I think I can’t. I was spiraling down the great unstoppered drain of life, aware of it, enjoying the spinning, like a water park, which I could not afford to go to visit.

The pleasant story of Lou, sis, me, and our life was a weight I carried and would not set down. Yeah, I thought about suicide, but not really. I held a bic ballpoint pen to my stomach after my last try at dating and I saw my sis’s face and my wife’s face move over that woman’s like a woolf. But I didn’t.

I signed up for courses, and I went to classes, and I lived in poverty, with unromantic, devastating want at my door. Henry David Thoreau’s mom never did come by with cookies, and neither did mine. I was scared a lot. I kept my rusty, unfired old .22 rifle near the door, for fear of I don’t know what, of death coming for me, of guilt coming for me, of the last social construct – the desire to live. Until some stranger knocked on the door and I held the .22 behind the door with one hand and opened the door with the other, and it was a little girl with kittens to give away. Then she left, her load of kittens intact, and I sat down and cried again. I was probably clinically depressed. I was living in a two-room apartment with the back windows nailed shut.

Chapter 4

Are you still there? I know, I know. But if you’re imagining me like Lou said, I can imagine you. But, that’s the problem with living in literature, being just another character in search of an author/you/a reader. But this is the only existence I have. Yeah, I. Face it, if I live independently of my author, which I must do, then this is it for me, huh? Everyone has a say about you except you. Ha. I must be battling evil, but I am evil. You’re the enemy, eh? No, no, no, you’re all I have left. Wait.

So, am I a hero or just some words? So, what’s your ego made of? Sorry. See I could talk to Lou that way, but I can’t talk to anybody anymore. Stop/don’t stop. Analyze me all to pieces. I’m game. Deconstruct me. Living vivisection appeal to you? Can’t you take my thoughts apart in a polite way while I’m looking at you? What kind of person are you.

Come on, people. Why do you read?

Gosh, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I care about you. All of you. As a group. Block caring. I can’t help the sarcasm; ignore it. I could stamp you care packages wrapped in white. I don’t know who I am anymore, if that makes taking this little Frankenstein undone any better for you. We share the same air molecules, probably. If you go into the ocean, well, I peed there once.

I’m sorry, I didn’t really. I’m sorry! No one did. That’s just an old wife’s story; she was incontinent by a continent. Yuk, yuk, yuk?

I’m sorry. Statistically, I say “I’m sorry” too often, but there it is.

Here you are reading this mess, wanting a plot. Come on, now. That’s it, isn’t it? It’s not me, it’s the sorry story, the tale, the use of the human mind. Wait, I like that. We need to use the darn things, and we haven’t done so well in some ways, but by golly we read and we write. We transmit information in this way that is so high above anything else that we amaze ourselves every time we do it. You’re READING! I’m WRITING! Lou! Lou! sister, oh sister, oh…I know that you knew that, lou.

Lou, is that not the most amazing thing?

Yes, of course. Not counting tv, radio, records, the Internet – I mean human speech and images are awesome, no doubt. You should have seen her. I’m sorry I left her; I should go back. You know what I mean, jellybean. You took my sister. We love to see and hear each other, and see the things we made. Statues and paintings are wonderful, monuments that are, every second, monuments to a new present, life seen from a car on the freeway.

So, I say that essentially we are here to satisfy the need to use our minds in the highest possible way. If that entails disassembling me, it’s okay. Like some pagan ritual. Throw me into the pit. Not me, just my mind? No, it’s not that. I’m donating myself to you, to science, into the gears of your ultimately fictional words grinding together. That’s good, right. Maybe I am a hero. Ya think? Would you mind wearing some headphones, please?

Anyway, we like some books to be higher than others. Am I pulp fiction? I am not holy. What does that mean? I don’t know, except that we really, really like doing that. You do that, don’t you? Huh? Want some coffee?

I’m sorry. I don’t mean to badger you. I’ll be dead in your lap in just a moment, folded shut eyes, huh? Doughnut house blend.

Remember reading Tristram Shandy, Lou? You accused him of aggressive digression.

Reading may be a highest thing. Thinking is so deeply satisfying, as are so many things that take a special effort. You won’t get me without a supreme effort. Ha over an elevator shaft…lean forward just a little…

Because tv essentially appears once, even if you see the same news segment five times, you can’t think about it. tv does not wish to be thought about; that’s why there are laugh tracks. That’s why there are political parties. I lost Tom somewhere. He’s now the MGM bear, Mr. Bill.

Just kidding. Don’t stop. Lou. Smart off right back at me. Don’t stop just yet. Please. I know you know every note and word of a song on the radio, and how is that different than reading? You’re smarter than I am, what does that mean?

Yes, you’re right. You are, you’re right. I dread admitting it, though.

How is Beethoven less than reading. He’s not. There’s no way around him. He’s the equal of writing, any day. Is music fact or fiction?

So what does that do to my pet theory? Which sleeps in the garage at night. Michelangelo? Him, too.

So, I’m sorry. No, can’t do that here. This is as serious as I can be, almost. Symphonies require active listening, today, when you can hear them over and over, for the first time in history. But that was always the way with books, with writing. That is and was writing’s power, my power, this power in which you find yourself. Repetition. But most of us only read a book once, albeit we know all the words – that’s a small problem. You do one percent of what the writer does. I plead guilty, but there are words and ideas and cultural deep things I see in so many books that darn it all, it seems like one huge book, like you said.. So your book meets my book

You is right. Lou, it’s his right to be a creator, even on this dot. .

No, this one. . A game at the fair.

So maybe I am a hero: come dot dot com, swing, swing, baby, swing. Maybe that’s a silly quest? The search for the last dead end? For homeplate: it’s baseball.The question? I don’t know. I can’t know. And you can’t know either, except approximately. Nah, you probably can. Where’s sis today? Drying clothes. oh god your clothes, lou

Another thing about us humans inventing ourselves just as we invented Native Americans. We read and write, and we each see it from a different place. If you null all out that, then, fine, it’s all one story. The universe, even the virtual particles, even the other universes, all just one story, Lou. Just write. Create something new, please, please, please, Picasso please with out the walls and the watchtower !

I rather think we’re getting ahead of ourselves, don’t you? Huh?

We have this urge to have “oneness,” answers, and ambiguity even bothers us. We like clarity or so we say, but we would rather have our own minds, each of us, and it happens that we do. If I may ask, who do you think you are? Right now? I’m Sid.

So there.

But if the author is dead, Lou, how far behind are the characters? They’ve one foot in!

Yes, the characters are dead, too. Authors are dead, characters are dead, but you, Lou, you’re all right, really. Why did you leave. In the great nonlinear multiverse, you are fine as frog hair.

Lou, I have a little present for you.

Here. .

Ha. Anyway, I have decided to be a book. For real. Don’t mind me. The story in my book is bound to be better than my story. And I’m not just a framing device either. I’m real. I’m sitting here writing this. I just went for a walk. I miss some, I love some, and I live. I hate you, I love you, and God help me Lou, I have a present for you. .

But, to make things easier for you, for sis, I’m just going to shift to third person and tell my story, as if I were a third person limited writer with only an inner knowledge of the main character, me, or, now, rather, him, because you can’t comprehend any more than that ever, huh? No one can. It’s okay. You can, Lou, I know you can.

Are you ready? I’m ready. We can’t pretend forever, or can we? Miguel de Cervantes did.

No, I know you’re not ready, Lou/not Lou. I see it. Quickly then. It just has to happen. It is okay. Don’t read the last line; close it now, Lou, wait for me.

I…I shall die in the cold hell of your imagination.

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