Four Hundred and Sixty-Eight Stories

By Eric Barnes

          Nora is out of town. The kids are away for a week. The house has been empty for five or six days. Even most of the people on the street seem to have left town, vacations or work trips or something else entirely. Something I cannot identify or understand. A movement, a plague, a group panic that led the block to flee this sector in the night.
          My mind wanders. I sit on the porch, working. I sit here often. On the second floor, with a full view of the street, but the leaves of the trees float in front of me, so that I am mostly hidden from view.
          Newspapers sit untouched in the otherwise unused driveways.
          Even the neighbor who, on the weekend, always moves his endless array of cars from driveway to garage to the street and then back, even he is not here. Normally, he moves the cars in triangles, I’ve realized, only sometimes varying the pattern with a parallel maneuver and, once a few months ago, he improvised a shift that transported the whole host of vehicles in a slowly synchronized right angle.
          An unrealized fetish, it seems, for hard angles and true order

• • •

          I see there is promotional literature hanging, untouched, on doorknobs up and down the streets, rocking in the wind. It was not there yesterday. It is a sign that some stranger did pass this way.
          There’s an empty glass of gin from last night when I was out here also.
          Cats tumble mid-fight from the bushes, landing, confused, in the remarkably sunny but deserted street.
          Our own cat sits at the window and cries.
          In the distance, I can hear cars. The sound reminds me that there are in fact other people in the world.
          I plan out the yard work I’ll do later today, when I’m done working on the porch. I find a deeper calm in trimming the flowers and bushes in the yard, in cutting branches from our trees, and I wonder if this is how it started for the older neighbor living next door to me. That inner peace he has. That certain calm. The way he channels Gandhi as he sweeps his leaves into little piles.
          I send a message from my phone to Nora. I miss everyone.

• • •

          For most of the last 20 years, I’ve been writing fiction. Short stories and novels.
          I have written many stories, and published nearly twenty of them. I have written a number of novels, but have yet to publish any of them. Although, as always, I have a new agent, who is, as always, working hard to sell a novel right now.
          When I write, I write out of order. Sometimes working on two or three different sections at once, moving from one scene back to another, often leaving notes for myself about how I should finish a given chapter or paragraph or sentence.
          Even the words I’m writing now, I’ll have copied and pasted and edited them together from sections previously written. Multiple windows open on my computer. Working on different pages, different paragraphs, different sentences you’ve read or will read, writing them all at the exact same time.

Certain Dark Things #29 by Sarah Dineen
Certain Dark Things #29 by Sarah Dineen

          My agent called me today. It’s a strange and violent book, I remember him saying. I was sitting alone in my car as I listened to him talk. It’s a really good book. But there’s just not a market for it right now.
          And afterward, when I’d sat alone for awhile, I started the car. I drove back to work.

• • •

          I get home to find five rejections of my short stories in the mail. There are three more by email. It’s the opening of the reading periods for many of the journals around the country, so the haul of rejections is not necessarily unexpected.
          I keep track of the rejections very carefully, tracking them in great detail on my computer, saving each printed rejection in a folder near my desk.
          My story Swimming has been rejected 35 times over the last three years.
          My story Someone Else Entirely has been rejected 24 times over three years.
          My story All I Can See, the first story I ever had published, was rejected more than 70 times over three years.

• • •

          There’s a certain violence to most of the short stories I’ve written and had published. Most involve Tacoma, the city where I grew up.
          The Tacoma stories have become a way of expressing the sadness and discontent I felt there. They aren’t exactly true. Much of what happens is made up. For the most part, I’ve never had much interest in writing honestly about myself.
          I don’t visit Tacoma very much anymore.

• • •

          I have to remind myself that this new story I’m writing, it will be rejected too. Over and again.
          Until, finally, someday someone will accept it.
          And only then will anyone read these words.

• • •

          Today, I come home to four rejections of short stories I’ve sent out. Two by mail, two by email. I count them at my desk. Add them to the tally I keep.
          Half of the publications that could have said yes, instead, they said no.
          It took more than three years to work through the 70 rejections of my first published stories. The rejection envelops coming back, one by one, simple white envelops in a pile of bills and magazines and solicitations for credit cards.
          Then one publication said yes.
          And so who was right? The 70 who said no? Or the one who said yes?

• • •

          The agent has agreed to take on another of my novels. He sends me the list of publishers that have received Shimmer. He is sending it to a few editors at a time, each of whom will take months to make a decision. The process is incredibly slow.
          It took years to write the book. Years to find an agent. It could take years to send it to the list of editors.
          And, even then, the odds are against it ever being published.

• • •

          It’s hard for me to separate what was real and what was not in the stories about Tacoma. There were houses where we slept on the floor. Houses that smelled bad. There was wandering all night, drinking too much and taking drugs and aimlessly making our way across Tacoma. There was waking up feeling sick. There was a pointlessness to it all.

• • •

          There are just so many reasons to stop writing. So many things that get in the way of finishing what you write.
          So many reasons to end the words right here.

• • •

          These people I write about, none of them are real. Yet all of them, all of it, I can see them in my mind. I know who they are. I grew up with them. They were friends and family and people I once knew.

• • •

          In the last three years, I’ve received exactly 468 rejections of short stories of mine. That’s nearly a rejection every other day.
          I take a strange comfort in all these numbers. Quantifying and containing the rejections. I turn them around in large spreadsheets, spin them into a database, plot them on well-organized charts.
          Although, in truth, counting the rejections, doing the math, it’s just a means of quantifying and containing my disappointment.
          Because these are the disappointments, the failures, that shake you. That make you question who exactly you are. Who you want to be. Who you even can be.
          The rejections, as they come in, are like votes. Votes against you. Each one adding up.
          What if you ran for office, and no one voted for you?
          What if you applied for a hundred jobs, and no one hired you?
          What if you loved one hundred people, and none of them loved you back?

• • •

          My short story Someone Else Entirely has been rejected a total of fifty-six times.
          My agent sends me the names of three more publishers who have passed on Shimmer.

• • •

          I’m re-reading a story. There was a time when I’d meant for the story to be funny. But then there are the arsons. And the murders. And the people burned alive.
          I’m not always sure where these thoughts come from.

• • •

          “I want people to read what I write,” I say to Nora.
          She’s nodding. She’s holding my hand.
          “I want people to think about what I’ve said.”
          She nods. “I know.”
          “I want people to remember what I’ve written.”

• • •

          Like most people, I suppose, I have in my life met many people who say they want to write. You meet a few who actually sit down and do some writing, the start of a story maybe or some chapters for a novel. You meet still fewer who finish what they start. And fewer still who actually get a story, a novel, a biography, a book of any substance published.
          But, still, I write.
          For reasons I can’t fully explain, even to myself, I get up every morning at five, I work late into the night, and I write. It is exhausting, mind-numbing, tedious, and thrilling. You sit alone in a dark room, separating yourself from your friends, from your children, from your wife.
          But, still, I write.
          And when you’re done writing, when you’ve finished what you’ve written, then you face that one in a hundred chance that your story or novel will get published.
          But, still, I write.

• • •

          My agent has sent me an email. “On the phone with a publisher. Shimmer. Looks like a hardcover. Spring release. I’ll call as soon as I hang up.”
          I immediately leave the office, driving toward home, and as soon as I’m alone, I can’t stop myself from crying.

• • •

          I wonder often if the things I did in Tacoma and the things that happened to me there, if not of that had occurred, if my life had been entirely different, I wonder if I would write. I wonder how much this is for me, the therapy of twisting the truth of the past, rewriting it in terms better and worse, playing out possibilities, other endings, different ways that my life could have been.

• • •

          Sometimes while I’m at my computer very early in the morning it feels like I’m writing secret messages from inside a cage. Notes scribbled on stray pieces of paper. Messages scrawled, backwards, on the inside of a window. Words written in hope that the outside world will see them. But words that are also written for myself. Reminders, maybe, of a life outside the cage. Memories recorded so that I cannot forget them.
          And of course, I am my own captor. The cage, quite obviously, belongs to me.

• • •

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