FII – Our Great City In Wartime

Failure Is Instructive is an occasional series where I take unpublished/unpublishable stories and reexamine them. They are often very old and not representative of my current work. Notes on the story are in bold italics.

This one goes way back. I wrote it for a fiction workshop during my sophomore year of undergrad, so about six years ago. I got some good feedback but never developed the piece after the semester ended. I’m hesitant to go back and read it, because now a 21-year-old writing a quasi-surreal 5,000 word story about war sounds insufferable, but hey, it could be fun?

Our Great City in Wartime

Two months ago I woke hooked to a rattling machine. I woke with an inch wide plastic tube stuffed down my esophagus; (Pretty sure I didn’t know how to use a semicolon then. Hooray for public school.) the end of which scratched the top of my trachea.  There were smaller tubes, a quarter inch wide, poking at my eardrums. Through them I received sharp sounds like bullets flying past and low rumbles in the distance.  Two tubes were shoved up my nose several inches, and the smell of dust and gasoline trickled through.  My head was full with intrusions. (This would work better in the present tense. The “Two months ago” frame just distracts from what’s going on.)

I gagged on the tube in my throat.  The plastic twitched up and down as I failed to throw it up; I could taste it.   I tore it out with my right arm (Oh good! We know it was his right arm! Whew! Tension resolved.) and a few last pumps of fresh air breezed into my punctured (Punctured is inaccurate. Punctured means making a hole where there was none. The tubes were in holes that were already there. So instead maybe overcrowded?) face.  The tubes in my ears and nose were easier to extract, but afterwards my whole face felt stretched and pierced.

All of the tubes were connected to the back of the chair, a loose combination of pumps and lights and oscillating things.  The gears and moving parts sputtered, then died.

The chair was the only thing in the earthen hole, except for a ladder leading up.  I grasped the iron bars and climbed out of my hole, up towards (yeah, I know) the light.

The wasteland burned my eyes, the light reflected off of nearly white (I don’t think I can express how ashamed I am of the description “nearly white.” How far away from white was it? A meter? Two meters? Sheesh.) dirt.  A few scattered shells of houses dotted the distance.  I searched my pockets, but they were empty.  I recognized my clothing as a uniform, but I didn’t know what kind.  Over the breast pocket a patch read ‘Michel, J’.

In the distance I saw a walled city.

There were no memories before I climbed out of hole.  I had brief flashes lodged in my brain: the sight of cannon fire in the distance, the smell of sweat, shouting over long distances.  My specific sensations existed in a wide expanse of generalities.  The dirt was familiar, but it lacked attached (I’m gonna go get a beer. Anyone want a beer?) to a memory.

The houses and trenches that dotted (Trenches don’t dot) the landscape also signaled vacantly to some part of my brain that didn’t exist.  It wasn’t scary; it was clean.  I walked in a daze, with the sun burning over my shoulder.  I stumbled over the hot earth.

I arrived at the walls of the city as the sun set.  A ramp led up to a giant set of closed, wooden doors.  I walked up to them, unsure of what to do.  I knocked.

The door opened a crack.  An old man stared at me cockeyed.  He asked me who I was.

I remembered the patch on my uniform, I held it out for him to see.  “Michel,” I said.

“Have you come from the front?”

I thought I should say yes, that seemed the right answer in my head, but I had nothing to back it up with.

“I think so.  I’m sorry, I don’t remember.”

“Did de Cary send you?  Are you injured?”

The information comes in visual flashes. There is a street marked with a black circle of an explosion.  Upturned cobblestones form a ring around the body.  His mouth is turned upwards as he clings to his stomach.

I said, “No, I’m not injured.  And de Cary has been killed, I think.” (The dialogue isn’t that bad. It’s concise at least.)

The old man muttered something. The wooden gates of the city opened and he stood at the other side (As if he would have magically transported what side of the gate he was on?), a grave expression on his face.  The gates opened (Oh good, the gates opened again.) into a courtyard occupied by a few people, all women.  They stared at me, gawked at me.

“Did you know my son?” the old man asked.

“I’m sorry?”

“Did you know my son?  Pierre Jouve?  He was my son.  He was at Loos.”

I see a young man, sixteen or seventeen.  His body lies on a field between two trenches.  It is near a small tree. (Switching to present tense for the visions was clever. Not good, but clever.)

“I’m sorry,” was all I could say.  When I focused on the name, Pierre Jouve, the picture becomes clearer.  It’s his son, with three bullet holes in quick succession up his chest, as still as a picture.

“Sorry for what?  Did you know him?  Did you know him?”  He yelled at me as the women in the courtyard were walking over.

“He’s dead.  Pierre Jouve, he’s dead.”

The old man stared at the ground. The women encircled me, asking questions.

“Where is my husband?  He is Bruno Moreau, he was stationed in Bastogne.”

A man with a rifle, huddling against mound of dirt in the pouring rain.  He is sleeping.

“He’s still alive,” I told her.  Other women began to shout names.

“Joseph Sommer?”

A man, around  forty, hiding behind a building.  He is shaking and cold and there is someone shooting at him.  He is not dead, but he will be soon.  I told her that he is alive.  It was not a lie; he might have survived. (Yeah, definitely some tense issues.)

“Leon Girard?”

There is no stubble on his cheeks, and his hands clench a canteen half full of water.  It is propped up against his lifeless body.  The water spills onto his uniform, down on the dirt.  I said I was sorry.

The names swirled together and I couldn’t keep track of them. More people came into the courtyard, attracted by the commotion.  None of them stopped to ask me why I knew this, they just kept shouting names.  The only person who wasn’t crowding around was a girl with a red ribbon in her hair.  She stared at me calmly from one corner of the courtyard.  I recognized her, I think.

The crowds then split.  Two enormous men came towards me.  They looked like slabs of rock piercing through the mob.  Gold badges shined on their lapels.  They parted the crowd and came to me.  The large one grunted at the larger one, and they exchanged some kind of communication in a language I didn’t understand, all grunts and moans.  The large one pointed at me and waved his arm, motioning to follow him.  I was becoming alarmed by the size of the crowd that pressed against me, so I followed.

It may have been a mistake, but in hindsight I fear there was only one path. (That sentence doesn’t really need to be there. Never discuss fate directly in a story. It just comes off as posturing.)

The brutes led me through the city streets.  It had no main roads that I could see.  I was led along alleys and pathways so narrow the policemen’s shoulders barely squeezed through.  In between the cracks in the shutters of homes I saw only women.  There were no young men, just the occasional elderly ones, sipping on soup (I may have just murdered alliteration.) and eating bread.  We walked for an impossibly (Oh good, hyperbole.) long time.  The streets blurred together. My legs ached.

We arrived at a building with large gold banners in front of it.  I wished I could have fallen asleep on the lawn, but they brought me inside, flashing their badges frequently to other hulking men. I was pushed into a small room that was more like a cell than a suite (Wow.).  It had a mattress though, that was the important part.  I slept soundly, and when I woke on my second day I barely knew where I was.

The first day I was born into the wasteland, and the second I was born into the city.  It would be two months before I would return (Foreshadowing!).

I woke to a giant hand knocking at the door, dispelling my dream about the girl from the crowd.  I dressed quickly, urged on by the ardent grunting (As opposed to indifferent grunting?) outside.  When I opened the door two officers, possibly the same ones as last night (Who knows?), waved and pushed me out of the room.  They led me to a long, thin stone hall in front of an assembly of older men (The hall was in front of the assembly?).  They were not elderly; there were dead faces on the battlefield older than them.  They were assembled in an elevated area.  One of them, a small, serious, grey haired man, waved for the brutes to go.  The small one, named Augustin, asked me to sit.

“Your name?” he asked.

“It’s Michel; I think.”

“And the J? What does it stand for?”

“I’m sorry; I don’t know.  Where am I?”

“What do you remember?”

I told him about the hole and the outside world.  Several of the men muttered amongst themselves.

“There is nothing else out there?” Augustin asked.

“No.  It’s nearly empty.  Haven’t you been receiving-?”

“Please, we will explain after the questions.  Is the war nearly over? Where are the German troops?  When will the men be coming home?”

These questions were too general.  I saw blank faces in my mind, but no statistics.  “I don’t know; I can’t answer things like that.  The men I see are still fighting.”

“How many are dead?”

“About two out of three.  I think.”  This elicited a murmur of shock from the men.

“So it’s not going well?” Augustin asked.

“I can’t be certain.  There are many other bodies in different uniforms near them.”

Augustin asked my pardon and stepped back to talk with the men.  After a short time he turned back to me.

“I believe we owe you an apology; we were afraid you had come to spy on us.  I am Augustin, and I am the speaker for the city council.  We’re sorry to have inconvenienced you, but we now believe that you could be of some service.  You know the locations and,” he paused to think of a tactful term, “status of the men in our town?” (It doesn’t make sense that Augustin would suddenly trust him — he hasn’t been given proof that Michel isn’t a spy.)

“I need a name.  I can see them when I’m given a name.”

“Excellent.  We have a proposition for you.”  He waited for me to respond.

“Yes?”

“It would be invaluable for this town to know the whereabouts and status of the fighting men, as we haven’t received any communication with the front in some time.”

“How long?”

Augustin looked startled.  He turned back to the men for an answer, but no one provided it.  He looked back to me and said, “Some time.”

A woman walked in with a wooden bucket full of water and began filling the glasses of the men.  She had a red ribbon in her black hair, and I recognized her as the silent one from last night.  I started at her blatantly, and she looked back briefly from over top of the bucket.

Augustin spoke loudly to regain my focus.  “We would like you to write a book, a record basically, of the men at war in this town.”

“How many of them are there?”

“One thousand two hundred and sixty-seven.  Approximately.”

“That will take some time.”

“Yes, but we will provide you with room and board in exchange for your service.  You will be well taken care of.”

“And when I finish? Will I be taken back to the front?” I asked.

“That depends.  Would you like to?”

No sane man would have said yes.  “No.  I’d like to stay here, or at least be able to travel.”

“Of course.  That can be arranged.  Now, the matter of lodging.”  His fingers grasped his pudgy chin as he thought.  He looked around to the men, and seeing the woman with the red ribbon, an idea occurred in his head. (As opposed to his left knee.)

“Marie!”

She turned.  “Yes?” she said.

“You have an extra room, don’t you?”

“Yes, sir,” she said reluctantly.

“Then it’s settled.  You may stay with Marie here, and the town council will give her a stipend for her troubles.  I trust that is agreeable?”

Marie and I looked at one another.  She looked worried, and I looked a little hungry. (I’m so embarrassed.)  We shook our heads in approval.

“Good, good!  We will deliver the first part of the list to you immediately!  This is an occasion to celebrate!”  He clapped his hands and the brutes came in.  They hauled me out of the chamber as the men uncorked a champagne bottle and clapped each other on the back.

The grey goons dragged me around the city until we ended up in front of a small, one level house.

They opened the door and hurled me inside.  The larger one grunted at me and shut the door.

I stood up and assessed the situation (Don’t need this sentence.).  There was a large living room, and through a wide doorway I saw a kitchen.  There was a hallway behind a small, ratty sofa which lead (Proofreading!) to the bedrooms, hers and mine.

I was testing out a red chair (Clever and stupid are sometimes the same thing.) when Marie came home.  I stood up quickly, and we spent a few seconds eyeing at one another.  I tried to talk, but the words came out jumbled.

“I’m sorry, that, they, seemed, put, this, on-“

“It’s ok,” she replied, “I’ve got an extra room.  What you’re doing for the town, it’s very nice.”

“Thank you.”

I stared at the floor as she took her coat off.  She told me to sit down and asked me (Second me is unnecessary. It’s not like someone else walked into the room.) if I wanted anything to eat.  It was nearing lunchtime, and I hadn’t eaten anything, ever.  I knew what food was, and I understood the concept of bread and cheese and wine, but that concept had never been converted into action.  So I said yes.

She went into the kitchen while I sat in the red chair. She asked me questions I had already been asked.  “You really don’t remember anything?” and “How do you know about the soldiers?”  She then asked me a question that I had never been asked.  “How do you feel?” she said.

I asked myself that question.  I was comfortable, I had a roof over my head, and I was safe.  There was the world of the war, and there was here, and I was happy being in the city with her.  After thinking it over for a few minutes, I said, “Good.  I feel good.”

She brought a wooden tray of food out into the living room and set it on the coffee table.  There was cheese and bread and wine, with several small tomatoes in a glass dish.  I took the knife and cut off a giant slice of cheese.  I poured a glass of wine and drank it in gulps.  I tore the bread with my hands.  All the while she watched me.

After a few bites, I looked at her and asked, “What?”  She smiled slightly, with the corners of her lips. (As opposed to the center of her lips.)

(The last four paragraphs could be condensed to the sentence, “She made food for me and I devoured it.”)

We were interrupted by a knock on the door.  I stood up, spilling a few tomatoes from my lap.  She motioned for me to sit back down and opened the door.  It was a policeman; he handed her a stack of papers with a grunt.  She touched him on the forehead and sat back down.

“These are the first names (ambiguous),” she said.

I looked down at the papers in her lap, and the images came to me immediately.  One man running, another lying propped up against a wall of dirt, another in a plane spiraling toward the ground, one screaming, one laughing, one sleeping in a hospital, another wandering into the sea.(Actually kind of a cool list of images.)

She put her hand over the names and said, “Michel?”

I was stunned; I couldn’t respond.

“Where were you?”

“It’s too much when they’re all there at once.  The images are too close together”  She walked into the kitchen and emerged with scissors and a piece of paper.  She cut out a small hole in the paper and handed it to me.

“It’s for when you write the book, so you only see one name at a time.”

I thanked her and fished the tomatoes (I’m just glad he wasn’t eating fish. I would have totally written “fished the fish.”) off the floor.

I had my routine down after the first week.  Marie left for work early, so there was breakfast sitting on the kitchen counter when I woke up. I would bring the food into my bedroom and sit by a small typewriter, eating and pecking my fingers at the keys.  Going down one by one on the list, I examined the names and recorded their situations on the typewriter.  When she arrived home at five, she made me dinner and we talked.

Once she asked me if it was difficult.  It wasn’t, I knew that, but I paused so I sounded like a better person.  I didn’t lie though.  Maybe it was because I never knew anything else, but there was a certain detachment involved with watching these men.  I didn’t know them; none of their faces were familiar.  Why should it have upset me?

One day she came home for lunch.  She brought fresh bread and fish.  It was much better than what I could make, and I welcomed her company.  I was bored with the work.  After lunch I resumed typing, but she lingered.  She wandered into my bedroom, making the excuse of dusting.  She watched me typing and asked me what name I was on.

“A young man named Jean.”

“How is he?”

“He’s dead.  Shot, I think.  I’m not sure of the where; it’s been a little fuzzy lately.”

“Do you feel anything for him?”

I lied.  “Of course.” (Redundant — he already talked about faking compassion.)

She looked into my eyes and placed her hands on either side of my head.  Her hair was dark, pinned up into bun on top of her head.  I couldn’t keep from looking at her. I had never been touched like that.  She said she felt sorry for me.

“Why?”

“It must be a burden.”

I didn’t want to lie again, so instead I kissed her, and then I kissed her again, until the sympathetic look peeled off of her face (Except for the comma usage that’s a decent sentence.).  We pawed at each other’s clothing and stumbled over to my bed.  To go much further would be revealing too much.  Suffice to say, I was inexperienced; if I had made love before, it didn’t show.

After that afternoon we were together more often, and she opened up the doors of the city.  When she went to the market, when I should have been working, I went along with her.  She showed me the roads around the house and I learned enough of the city to get around on my own.  Late at night, after dinner, I would take walks around the neighborhood, looking into windows at women sitting alone with the curiosity of a voyeur or a child.

And I would come home to Marie.  We would sleep and make love in her room.  She was a shy girl and didn’t have many friends, but we would occasionally go to their houses.  I was an entertaining novelty, and we received many invitations to parties above her status.  Our hosts would poke and prod at me as if I was the last man on earth.  My existence was humorous, and I was happy to be the punchline.  Marie always wanted to leave early, but as long as people were interested I would want to stay.

All the while my visions grew dimmer and dimmer.  Something about the bricks of the city was washing away the specifics.  When I looked at Constantin Lizot’s name, I would see a body, either dead or alive, but the face would be blank.  The ears would sometimes be rounded off.  I couldn’t tell if it was a gunshot wound or a grenade.  They were fading memories.

(We are starting to hit something of a stride here. Maybe it’s the conflict entering the story.)

At first it was no problem, there was enough to go on.  Rolland Beneger is dead, so I would make up the cause.  I had enough names that I could just repeat their final situation (What?) over and over again.  Who would find out?

Marie and I went out to dinner more and more, and she grew resentful of our outings, since we rarely saw her friends anymore (Yikes. The phrasing is all off.).  She would nag me during my writing, wondering when we could go see this woman or that.  All I wanted to do was to see the few men of the town. (And that’s just sexist. Now I’m truly embarrassed.)

We’d recently received invitations (to what?) from the council members who gave me my task.  It was nice to be in the company of men, away from the streets and the questions that mothers asked me.  We drank and talked about how we hated the war.  They were hypocrites, of course.  I was the closest thing to a soldier in the group.  Still, they were easier to deal with than the women. (Maybe I wanted an unlikable character? Still, awful. The posturing of youth. Bleh.)

Marie shopped for food every day of the week (How much food do the two of them need?), but on Thursdays I would go out with her.  It was nice to be outside of the house, but our excursions were always interrupted by women asking me about their men.

One Thursday, while Marie and I searched through a bin of peaches, an old woman asked me about her son, Joseph Clavet.  With a certain amount of restrain, I told her that he had died.  I turned to Marie and said, “I’ve told her three times already.”

Marie looked surprised.  “That her son was dead?”

“Yes.”

“She’s an old woman.  Maybe she doesn’t remember.”

“Perhaps.”

But it wasn’t just her.  There were other women who couldn’t remember, not just old ones.  The city dulled the memories of us all. (Why doesn’t he tell Marie this?)

Nearly  two months after I arrived, the visions ceased entirely, and the book slipped into fiction. I sat down at my desk one morning and read the name Louis-Octavien Cheron, and nothing came into my head.  I read it again: Louis-Octavien Cheron.  There was no image.  I sat staring at the pages, hoping that last night’s wine had clouded my thoughts.  But it never came.  After an hour of staring, then a trip to the bathroom, then a snack, I put my fingers on the typewriter.  I wrote, Louis-Octavien Cheron – Deceased, killed by mortar shell.

I looked at the words, the lies that I had put on the page.  I thought of his mother.  I wondered if he had a wife, maybe children.  But then I thought of myself.  They would take me back to the war if I was no longer useful.  They only kept me as a novelty, a freak.  I was a coward, yes, but that cowardice allows me to remain alive.  So I looked at the next name and imagined his fate. (Oh good, I’m spelling out all his motivations.)

I started to go out without Marie, to one of the few bars left open in town.  The council members and I would sit and drink, and I made up amusing stories about the bodies I could no longer see.  I made up a story about a dead man on a horse who rode through German lines, the horse crushing enemy soldiers with its hooves.  The men loved that story.  It made them think they were winning.  Augustin would clap my back and raise toasts to me.  I was one of them.

The night before my forced departure, Marie begged me to stay home.  I had been out four nights, returning past three, stinking drunk.  She was always asking me what was wrong and telling me I looked tired.  That only made me more tired, and I grew angrier and angrier with her.  That night she implored me, with tears in her eyes, to talk to her.  She could see a weight on my shoulders, and asked me if she could lift it, only a bit. (I don’t even know where to start with this.)

I yelled at her, told her it was none of her business what I felt or what I did.  I put on my overcoat and stormed towards the door.  But, with my hand on the doorknob, I reconsidered.  I thought I could trust her.  I turned around and spoke.

“It’s gone.”

“What’s gone?”

“My gift.  I can’t see them anymore.”

“What happened?”

“It must be living here.  It’s dulling my senses.”

“How long has this been going on?”

“A week.”

She stepped backwards.  “And the names?  For this week, what have you been writing next to the names?”

“Fictions,” I said, because fiction sounded better than lies. (Meta!)

Words spilled franticly from her mouth.  She agonized about the wives and the mothers, as I had done at first.  She asked me why I hadn’t told her and why I hadn’t told the governors, especially Augustin.  She told me that she could have helped me.  I told her I didn’t need help.  I had answers (?) she wouldn’t understand.

“This is my problem and I will deal with it.  The book will be finished,” I said.

“But it won’t be true!”

“It doesn’t matter!  I’m not going to the front to die!” (Melodrama!)

Then she called me a coward, a word that had been rattling around my head for the past week.  I asked her what that was and she called me a liar and a fraud.  She tried to walk past me to the door, but I grabbed her by the wrists.  I commanded her that she could not tell anyone.  She pushed back, glaring at me with wild eyes.  Unnerved by her gaze, I let go, and she walked out the door.
I know where she went.  She told Augustin, the rat, and he sent the goons for me.  I had only an hour before they found me, nearly passed out at the bar.  I was yelling belligerently at the patrons.  I may have shouted to them the truth about my book; I was drunk, but I am certain it was her who turned me in.  It could have only been her.  She must have known the whole time.  And now I exercise my only choice possible.  I forget her. (An unlikeable narrator for the sake of having an unlikeable narrator is awful. The narrator just comes off like an asshole.)

I was waving my chair at a crowd of drunks (Why was everyone else drunk?) when the brutes came in.  I threw the chair at the first one, and he deflected it with his arm.  I was about to throw a bottle of wine at the second brute when the first grabbed me by the arm and threw me to the ground.  My head collided with the floor and I fell unconscious. (How did he remember this?)

When I woke, Augustin was looking at me, dousing my head with a bucket of water.  I looked around for her, but she was nowhere to be seen.  I was back in the council room, but this time only Augustin was present.  He put down the bucket and spoke to me.

“I have been told about your duplicity Michel. To be frank, the council had hoped for better things from you.  You could have been of great service to this town, but now your manuscript is useless.  We cannot know where your truth ends and your lies begin.  Unless you would care to tell us?”
Men tied to chairs rarely feel like answering questions.  I seethed at him.

“I thought not.  There would be no way to verify your answer anyway.  We have thought to send you back to the front, but I remembered something that changes things considerably (ambiguous).  I remember being told of a machine, located about a days walk outside of town, which is able to restore a person’s memory.  Now, I know that what you experienced wasn’t exactly a single person’s memory, more of an omniscient perspective (Meta!), but it is worth a shot, no?  What do you think, Michel?”

He was talking about my hole. (As if that wasn’t clear.)  I kept my mouth shut.

“Well, it’s not like you have any choice in the matter.  I shall be looking forward to seeing you again.”

I laughed in his face, and he asked me what was so funny.

“You won’t remember any of this.  None of you do.  I tell women their sons are dead and they ask me the same question the next week.”

“Those are nothing more than the effects of grief.” (Casual sexism!)

I laughed again.  “How long has it been?  Tell me that.  Just tell me how long it’s been going on and I’ll walk back to the hole.”

“How long has what been?”

“The war.”

Augustin looked behind him, but there was no one there to answer his question.  “A long time; it has been a long time.”

He had no answers.  I stared at him, grinning.

Augustin waved for the brutes and they took me away.  We wound through the alleys of the city, and I saw again the half empty homes.  Somewhere along the way I passed out from the alcohol and exhaustion, and I woke in the desert.

We are nearly twenty feet from my hole. (One more clunky tense shift before the end.) Seeing it again, my oldest memory, gives me a feeling of nostalgia. (Nostalgia doesn’t form after two months.)  Between returning to the city and being sent to the front, it seems like a viable alternative.  The tubes will have to be reinserted, but I prefer their penetration to bullets or the words of angry townspeople.  They lead me down the hole and push me into the chair.  They restrain my right arm, but leave the left free because of the broken strip (Not a necessary detail).  They push the large tube down my throat and I gag, words of protest choked off just above my esophagus.  They put the tubes back into my ears and nose.  I am scared but happy.  I feel like I’m going home.  They turn knobs and levers on the back of the machine until it comes to life.  The grey brutes stare at me as my eyes dim, then close.  I hear gunfire and smell earth nearly liquefied from days of rain.  I see a trench running for miles, filled with the men from my visions.  They stand poised for action.  I am the observer, and as I wait for the call to advance across the broken terrain, breathing and smelling and seeing everything around me, I feel like I’m there.  I’m home.

(Well, there’s that. I won’t be picking it up again any time soon. It’s just a mess. There are a few salient components of it — the act of coming back to a home you don’t recognize, the idea of a city cut off from the outside world, but the story has too much weighing it down. The only encouraging thing I get from it is that I would never write a story like this again.)

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