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The Idea

The Idea

By Andrew James Rush

It’s the smell. I think it’s the smell. The paint is barely dry, and it fills the room with a trippy sickness. Or maybe it’s the new carpet. Shit, maybe it’s the light. It’s too bright in here and everything is white, or light gray, and the south facing window behind me is too large. Maybe in the winter it won’t be so bad. Or maybe I just need to settle in, get used to it.

I get up and look at the window. The view is spectacular. I can see the whole Mission district, even the Castro theater, with Corona heights and Twin Peaks in the background. I shouldn’t have my own office, especially with a view like this. It makes my stomach hurt. Or maybe it’s the paint fumes. I want to open the window, but it’s one of those new buildings they’re putting up everywhere, and I’m not sure if it opens. There’s one large panel of glass in the middle that’s fixed in place, and two narrow, tall panels on either side. I look for a mechanism to open them, and it takes me several seconds to figure it out. It’s so bright. I need to buy blinds for this window.

Chrissy said I didn’t need to start writing the very first day, but I know she’ll feel better if I have something started by the time she gets home from the hospital. That’s sixteen hours from now. Being married to a doctor probably has its upsides and its downsides, and for right now, I’m choosing to look at the sixteen hour writing time as a good thing. I think she’ll be proud of me for getting started so quickly.

Once I get the window open the smell isn’t as bad, and I sit back down at the ugly desk. Chrissy had been so thrilled when she showed it to me. It was made of reclaimed lumber that had been dragged up out of the Pacific Ocean up near Washington, and it was hideous. But I pretended to like it. She’d spent a half a year’s worth of my current salary on it. Current being then. Now I don’t have a job.

Actually I do; I have two jobs. The most important one, to me, is to keep the house in order and take care of all the little chores she doesn’t want to deal with now that she has a full residency at the cancer treatment center at Davies Medical. My second job is to write.

I’d always called myself a writer, but said I never had the time to finish anything. Chrissy wanted me to realize my dream the way she had hers. Both of us had worked restaurants while she studied medicine, and now, finally, she was living her dream, so I should live mine too. She seemed so happy to offer me this office. When the agent had showed us this room she squeezed my arm and smiled so big I thought she’d hurt herself.

I look around and the artwork is all weird postmodern stuff that Chrissy likes. Simple geometric shapes and solid, flat colors. It feels like a doctor’s office.

How ironic.

Except it isn’t really. It is her office, in a way. She has one too, but this is her condo. She had put my name on the mortgage, and she’d seemed happy to do it. I think she was. Is. But it’s her place, and I think we both know that.

I circle my finger around on the trackpad of the Macbook, making the little black arrow swirl around on the bright white screen. I could write if I just had an idea to start with. I’m a writer, I should have ideas. I try to think back to some of the ideas I’d wanted to write those last four years when I had been chronically in the weeds at work, up to my ears in tickets, trying not to sweat in the bisque.

There was the one about the line cook who accidentally kills his boss and has to serve him to the guests, but that was short story stuff. And anyway, I think that idea has probably been done to death. I need a totally new concept, something never done before. I’m writing a novel now. I need to keep it going for a hundred thousand words or more.

Jesus, a hundred thousand words. I wonder if I should have just become a doctor too.

I open the drawers of this ridiculous desk that seems like a bizarre and otherworldly combination of organic asymmetry and computer generated polygons; the surfaces aren’t quite flat, and the corners aren’t quite sharp, but the shapes are too specific, and it unsettles me. All the drawers are empty. I haven’t put anything in them yet. That’s what I need. I need stuff in my desk. It’ll help me think.

Any self-respecting writer would have a bottle of twelve year old scotch in one of these drawers to celebrate when he did finish the novel, but Chrissy doesn’t want alcohol in the house, and that’s just as well. I always seemed to get carried away with the stuff. Living with her I don’t need to worry about that. Out of sight, out of mind.

I get up and start going through the boxes. Chrissy asked me to unpack the bedroom stuff, but I know she’ll just want to rearrange things her own way when she gets home, and anyway, I’ve got sixteen hours. I just want a few things to put in my desk. I find a box marked personal junk. Stuff that had been in the kitchen drawer where I always put things I didn’t know what else to do with. Chrissy always teased me about that drawer and never opened it herself. She liked to tell me that we had a real trash can under the sink. Out of frustration, I had just dumped the whole drawer in the box late last night when we were almost done packing and I was beat tired. Chrissy had worked another long shift and had been up for over twenty-four hours by then, and I don’t know why, but I was even more tired than her.

After I had quit my job at Purewater, the restaurant where I had worked for the last four years - four years that had seen Chrissy and I go from Tinder dates to girlfriend and boyfriend to married and living together - I had never quite seemed to get rested. All those twelve hour shifts grinding it out in that scorching belly of hell, sticking tickets on that aluminum rail… I’d once had to replace one of those ticket holders, and do you know what holds the tickets in there? Marbles. It’s an aluminum rack that has a little channel full of marbles, and you stick the paper up there, and the marbles pinch the ticket against the wall. It had struck me as fitting. The tickets would stack up and stack up, and it seemed like it was impossible, like I would be there making plates for the rest of my life, and it would never end. Marbles were holding those tickets against the wall, and I was losing mine.

Anyway, after all that, I felt like I needed to sleep for a year. I just couldn’t get rested.

I take the box to the bright, paint smelling office, and I dump the contents into one of the drawers. A bunch of mustard and soy sauce packets, paperclips, a little plastic pencil sharpener, a set of colored markers rolling around loose, a button, some parts to a blender I’d once taken apart to fix but couldn’t, and a box of double edged razor blades that spilled out when it hit the bottom of the drawer; why did we even have those? I can’t remember. But the drawer is full.

Perfect. Now I can write.

I sit in the rolling swivel chair. It’s too damn comfortable. But the old furniture is still back at the little studio on O’Farrell and anyway, this is an office chair. I lean back and try to get used to the feel.

I need an idea. I remember how everybody is always saying you have to write what you know. What do I know? I’m a cook.

No, I’m a writer. Right… I’m a writer. I think about that for a minute. There are lots of books about writers. I just read The Tommyknockers last week, the first chance I’d had to read a whole novel in years, after I’d quit Purewater. That was about a writer. Well, it had a writer in it. Two, actually. And there were plenty of movies about writers, too. I sit back and call to mind those romantic ideas of the writer, struggling with writer’s block and alcoholism, chain smoking over an old run-down typewriter… I don’t know if this is the kind of idea I want to write. Maybe I should just start by writing about myself.

Ryan Chanterelle was an average looking man except for the fact that he had one blue eye and one brown. In all other respects, he was utterly insignificant. At least visually. But on the inside, there was a storm of wild, unpredictable creativity…

I imagine an electrical storm raging inside my mind, raining down bestselling novel ideas. It’s hokey, and as far as first lines go, this isn’t very good. But I can always rewrite the first lines. An idea crawls into my head, just a little speck of an idea, a little rodent, timid and afraid. But it’s there, and I know right away that this is the idea.

...that Ryan himself could barely control. Ideas rained from that mind in torrents, and it was almost all he could do to pick the best ones and commit them to paper. If only he could stop drinking long enough to finish them.

Is this too cliche? I don’t know. But I think the idea is good, even if I'm not totally sure what it is yet. Maybe I should just think it out all the way before I write more. I look up at the ceiling. There’s a square of blue electrical tape, or painter’s tape, right in the middle of it. I see a few red and yellow wires sticking out of the little hole the blue tape surrounds, and I realize that the light fixture in this room hasn’t been installed. The building is so new it feels like a sin. Down there on the pavement there’s a whole row of tents where homeless people sleep because they don’t have houses, and here I am living in a brand new condo that my wife bought, playing writer in my own office with a giant, gaudy desk that cost half a year’s salary.

Ugh. The idea.

So, the idea is, a writer comes up with an idea for a story that’s so good it drives him crazy, because he can’t actually write it. Is that because he’s an alcoholic? I have to stop and think about this, because I’m not an alcoholic, and I’m not sure if it’s a good idea for me to write about something I don’t know about. I get carried away when I drink, but Chrissy doesn’t keep alcohol in the house, and when we go out, she buys the drinks, so if I start to get too weird, she cuts me off. And yeah, there were a couple of times when I had managed to get a few more in me somehow anyway, but the point is, I can go without drinking.

I don’t think the writer in the story is an alcoholic ether.

I decide to go to the kitchen and think about it while I make a snack. The refrigerator is still empty, but we had all the boxes from the pantry in there, and I find a loaf of bread and some peanut butter and jelly. I wonder if I should unpack the whole pantry while I’m in here, but my mind is still on the story. I think I’ll just keep using my own name for now. No sense getting all caught up on that; the important thing is the story. So what is the story? What is the idea that drives him mad?

I’m eating the PB&J, and I almost choke. It’s not because the peanut butter tastes slightly rancid, although it does; Chrissy and I were poor for so long, I’d eaten much worse. But I think I know what the idea is. It’s a cursed story. A story that has always existed, and any writer that tries to tell it goes absolutely mad. And this is it! The story about the story! Of course!

Storytelling is such an important part of the development of civilization, it makes sense that at some point in our ancestral past we would have been terrified of its power. The very idea that a story idea could be dangerous was itself an idea that could be cursed. I nearly run back to the office, stuffing the rest of the dissatisfying sandwich into my mouth. The sun is nearly down now, and the lights of the mission sparkle in the pre-dusk brownness on the other side of the window like an endless dead christmas tree. This can’t be my office.

I sit at the disgusting desk and begin to type furiously. I’m not that practiced at typing but eventually I get into a rhythm and it starts to feel really natural. I’m writing like I’m talking to myself, like I’m just telling myself this story. And it’s strange, because this Ryan Chanterelle, he’s everything I wish I was. His ideas are good, and so is his style. I want him to write the story, and I start to think maybe he is.

I look at the bottom right of my screen and I see it’s just after midnight. I have no idea where the time went. I decide to read over what I've written and see how it’s going.

Ryan Chanterelle was an average looking man except for the fact that he had one blue eye and one brown. In all other respects, he was utterly insignificant. At least visually. But on the inside, there was a storm of wild, unpredictable creativity that Ryan himself could barely control. Ideas rained from that mind in torrents, and it was almost all he could do to pick the best ones and commit them to paper. If only he could stop drinking long enough to finish them.

That’s it. That’s the only thing on the screen. I must have deleted it somehow. I start to panic a little bit, but I remember seeing things on Twitter and Facebook where writers think they’ve deleted their whole novel, and it turns out they accidentally just reverted to an old draft or something like that. I don’t really know that much about computers, but I try my best to search through the files to see if something like that has happened.

It’s a new computer, and there aren’t any other Word files.


I try to remember what I’d written. I can’t remember anything. I remember being in the kitchen, eating my PB&J, and then I came in here, and I knew I wanted to write about an ancient story that carried a curse and drove anyone who tried to write it insane. I can remember the keys of the computer clicking away under my rapidly moving fingers. But I don’t remember what I wrote. I open the only Word file, simply called The Idea, and there’s that same block of text. Just one little paragraph. I don’t understand it.

I try to think about what I did before I wrote that, and I remember the drawer with all the random stuff in it. Razorblades. Why razorblades? I open the drawer again and I have to blink at what I see. All the same stuff is still there, including the razorblades, but now there’s a clear glass bottle nearly full of brown liquid. I pick it up. It feels cold and heavy. Heavier than it is, somehow, like it has some non-physical property that makes it feel heavy. The label says Talisker 12.

I put it on the desk where it thunks on the old reclaimed wood. With the darkness behind me the room doesn’t feel white anymore, and when the bottle hits the wood, I notice that I’ve been sitting in a completely unlit room, aside from the bits of city light coming in through the window and the light of my screen. I can’t make out the artwork on the walls anymore, and it feels like an entirely different place. I briefly wonder if we have a desk lamp in one of the boxes, but this thought fades as quickly as it comes.

I pull the cork from the top of the bottle and it makes a satisfying kiss and the Helmholtz resonance like you hear when you blow across the top. The smell of peat and smoke instantly hit my nose, and I’m practically salivating.

I have no idea where this bottle came from, but its discovery thrills me. I put the open top of the bottle to my nose and inhale softly. My heart swells. I’m in love with this bottle. The smooth and rounded mouth is on my lips before I know it, and the liquid is pouring down my throat, warm and icy at once, and I’m transported, I don’t know where to. When I finally put the bottle on the desk again it’s like there is a fireplace in my office, it’s so cozy, and I’m relaxed and completely at home.

I look at the screen again and my fingers go to the keys. They’re moving expertly, the words coming like a flow, like they’re being poured from the tips of them, and I remember everything now. The idea is a spirit. An ancient spirit of the natural earth. Where stories bring people together, this one tears people apart.

In the early days of human civilization, the world was terrified of them. They were unnatural, and the ideas they shared were full of destruction. Soon they would reshape the land, color the sky, poison the water. The spirits of the earth needed to stop them, but they each, in their own ways, had failed.

First, the wolf, the killing spirit that fed the animals with the shed of blood, had tried to pervert the humans and it had almost seemed like it would work. They killed each other for sport, for jealousy, for greed. But those that killed became even more powerful, and their numbers were too great.

Then the hare, the spirit of fertility, had tried to turn their numbers back on them, to make them produce too many, and they were unclean and many died of diseases. But eventually they learned how to harm the earth even more to take what they needed to sustain these unnaturally high numbers and they grew still more.

The spirits took turns, one after the other, and they realized that they needed a new spirit. Thus was created the Idea. The humans spoke in abstract concepts that the animals and plants couldn’t comprehend, and they existed in a plane of time that unfolded linearly, so their stories followed in this way. The Idea was a spirit that could travel in these stories and poison the minds of anyone who dared to tell it. And it would make sure that it would be told, because it would convince these humans that telling it was something only they could do, because of their greatness.

I’m writing these things, but the words I write are so good I don’t even look at the screen. My fingers are going like mad, they seem to hurt from the power of the words that tumble out of them, and I know that the screen doesn’t matter. It isn’t where the story lives. The story lives in me.

I reach for the bottle and it’s almost empty so I finish it. My breath is hot and my lungs are full of thumbtacks. I keep going. I keep writing. Sweat runs down my forehead and I’m really getting it now. I know the truth.

I hear Chrissy open the door to our new condo, and I’m suddenly ashamed. I want to hide the bottle, but now I can’t find it. I open the drawer, and it’s not there, but I pick up one of the razorblades. I don’t know why. It’s already out of its paper sheath and sitting on top of the other ones. It’s sticky in my hand and and in the light of my computer screen I can see that my fingers are smeared with dried blood, the tips of them spiderwebbed with tiny cuts. My head is woozy. I look at the screen.

Ryan Chanterelle was an average looking man except for the fact that he had one blue eye and one brown. In all other respects, he was utterly insignificant. At least visually. But on the inside, there was a storm of wild, unpredictable creativity that Ryan himself could barely control. Ideas rained from that mind in torrents, and it was almost all he could do to pick the best ones and commit them to paper. If only he could stop drinking long enough to finish them.

Maybe this is the whole story. I hear Chrissy call out, “Ryan, honey! I’m home!” It must be almost sunrise.

She thinks I’m asleep and her movements get quieter. She’ll see that I haven’t unpacked anything. It makes me angry, and I can’t tell why. I’m standing in the dark room with the razorblade in my hand and I close the Macbook. Even with the blackness of the clear night sky beginning to turn the deep navy blue of the early dawn, I can see the city lights spread out below, orange in the almost total darkness. All those people, working their lives away to pay for these ridiculous homes, and here I am in one of the most ridiculous of them all, living for free. It’s disgusting.

In the glow of the city I can see the uneven surface of the desk and there are deep scratches in it now, huge lines carved deep in the old wood, with little piles of wood shavings all along them. I can see that the deep grooves form letters, but I can’t make out what they spell.

I hear Chrissy in the hallway behind me, and there’s a loud thunk! as the whiskey bottle hits the floor. It must’ve fallen off of the desk somehow. I thought it had disappeared. I remember how Chrissy once told me she always knew I was too drunk when I started losing my drinks.

“Ryan?” she calls out quietly from the other side of the door.

I’m standing against the wall now, just to the right of the door, and it opens slowly. Chrissy steps into the room and doesn’t see me. She’s wearing her scrubs; she must have been in surgery today. Her long blonde hair is tied neatly in a bun on top of her head, and from behind her I can smell the chemical hospital smell mixed with her sweat. I love her.

And I don’t know why I do it. I think I just want to see if I can.

The blood spurts out unbelievably far. It sprays the desk and the window, and it’s thick, and in the darkness of the room and the orange glow, it looks black. It smells like metal. She gurgles and starts to fall forward, but catches herself on the desk, and I think she can read the words that are carved there, but I still can’t. She turns herself around to look at me, and the dark green scrubs, gray in the darkness, are glossy black all down her front. She puts her hand to her throat before she falls at my feet.

I’m panting in the darkness, and it’s deathly quiet otherwise. I can’t even hear the crackheads outside. Just my own breath, and my heartbeat like a weird techno beat that’s been slowed way down and distorted. I’m dizzy. And I’m exhausted.

I’m so goddamn tired.

I step over her body and I wipe away the wood shavings with my forearm, which is also bleeding, a deep gash carved from the inside of my elbow to my wrist, and I throw my laptop on the floor in the process. There it is, carved deep in the rock hard wood of the desk, and as my own blood fills the grooves of the letters with shimmering blackness, I know I’ve finished the story. There are just two words before me. My vision goes tunnel and starts to fade to fuzzy nothing. These two words are the last I ever see.

The End

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