For those who can't make it to the mecca that is Kelly Writers House, we gather once per month, in a traveling show sort of migration around South Florida to enjoy the companionship, the intellectual stimulation and the pure exhaustion of the mental challenge of a live close read!
With a twisting of the rusty doorknob, a creaking of an unoiled hinge, and a tepid breeze rushing through the opening door, Martin entered the house. It was the last day before his school’s summer vacation, a time of year when he would retreat to his room to pour over the archive of novels on his bookshelf, attempting to unearth the many secrets authors before him had encoded in their pages. Although these efforts detracted from his ability to forge friendships, fifteen-year-old Martin was indifferent to any such loss, all too focused on the information ripe for the harvesting within the walls of his own home.
He scanned the house.
Placed with a calculated precision atop the circular burner on the stove was the family’s bright red kettle, its globular base covering the metal spires underneath, and its curved nozzle, like that of a grazing animal, reaching towards the adjacent window. The spout’s careful positioning towards the glass meant one thing: his father was home. The ensuing chain of events, with the kettle fogging up the kitchen window and his father inscribing proverbs on its moist canvas, was impossible to mistake.
“What are you reading?” Martin asked as he entered the family den, his springy blonde curls of hair scraping the wood paneling of the low-hanging foyer ceiling.
“I’m not,” his father peeled apart the pages of the newspaper he was holding, turning the parchment for Martin to see. Bright pixelated colors sprung off the page, and the wide-eyed cartoon characters reminded Martin of his father’s childlike attraction to comic strips. “But some of these are pretty funny today,” his father chuckled. The room fell quiet. “What’s wrong?” His father never failed to recognize when cynicism had leeched onto his son’s mind, no matter how stubbornly Martin attempted to hide it.
“It’s just my physics class…” Martin met his father’s unblinking stare—two deep blue eyes hidden behind the lenses on his father’s thin-rimmed glasses—but was unable to see beyond the glaring patches of light reflecting from the overhead lamplight. “Some of what we learned was upsetting.”
“How so?”“Well we covered the elements, mostly the ways in which they connect and make up everything in the world, and if all I am is an assortment of atoms, in particular protons, neutrons and electrons, and if my brain is just electrical currents buzzing around, and if my emotions are simply chemicals and hormones, then how am I anything more than that?” Martin raised his hands as he uttered the final word, an exasperated expression latching onto his face at its crescendo.His father sighed. He folded the newspaper and set it on the table. Taking one long breath, Martin’s father closed his eyes as the still air in the room was pulled in through his nose, shipped down the back of his throat, and deposited into the chambers of his lungs; its soothing, sinuous path readying the man for a moment of magnitude he was visibly hesitant to face, but whether it was his father’s unpreparedness for the question, or just a simple reluctance to interrupt his reading, Martin couldn’t tell.
“Go pull out what you’re currently reading,” Martin’s father flicked a wrist towards the nearby bookcase. Startled, Martin walked over to the shelf and snatched a thin book with a leather cover and dark scarlet writing imprinted on its spine. He tossed it to his father. It was Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.
“Not a bad choice. Not bad at all.”
“I don’t see what this has to do with the question. That book has—”
Martin was cut off by his father’s extension of a slender monolithic index finger, the universal symbol to snip any excess thoughts from an imminent rambling statement.
“What’s in this book?” his father asked, tapping the leather cover.
“What do you mean? It has a story.”
“And what does a story include?”
“A plot,” Martin paused. “It also has characters whose experiences tell a larger narrative,” he nodded with brimming confidence.
“What if I told you that it has none of that?” Martin’s father cocked his head as he flipped through the book’s pages; Martin cocked his eyebrows. “Here take a look. What’s on this page?” Thumbing at a stack of paragraphs and dangling strands of dialogue, Martin’s father looked up from the text, returning the same resolve his son had shown upon first entering the room.
“Words?” Martin flung his breathy, wavering answer into the stagnant air.
“And what makes up a word?”
“So isn’t a book just an organized arrangement of ink in a singular direction? To your point, it’s no different than our physical world with all its matter, forces, and rules that shape its existence. A book is simply ink organized in a given space and structured by the rules of language.” As if the moment had swallowed him whole, magnetizing every muscle in his body to align, reaching into the ethers of his mind to stall all swirling cognition, Martin was still, totally and utterly still. “But as you can see, it’s much more than that,” his father continued. “It has themes and concepts that challenge the very essence of human existence, characters that spring off the page with the same liveliness and candor of people you know, and
perhaps most importantly, stories that transcend its very own covers.”
“But how can that be? You see, it’s a miraculous thing. These ideas don’t contradict each other; they’re complementary. So as to your question: are you just a jumbled assortment of matter? Why, sure. But are you also something more than that? Your guess is as good as mine.”
A shrill whistling punctured the air. The kettle was boiling.
“Well that’s my cue,” his father said with a shrug. “The vapor on the window will soon be gone and I’ll lose my opportunity,” he rose, set the book down, patted his son on the shoulder, and like the fleeting nature of condensation on a cool surface, evaporated from the freezing tension that hung in the foyer. Unable to leave confines of the room that now encased him, Martin relegated himself to the sofa, plucking the indented spine of the novel with an air to distance himself from its mystical contents and opened it to a bookmarked page. What lay in front of him was now as plain as day; Dr. Jekyll’s internal struggle wasn’t complicated; Mr. Hyde wasn’t a separate entity, or even a contradiction to Dr. Jekyll’s character for that matter. Starting at the top of the page, with a slight dilating of his ink black pupils to magnify the inbound information, Martin began to read.
Damian is a medical student living in Chicago.