"Short stories are drugs and it’s better to wait until you can handle them properly"
Mitzuhashi didn’t meet his apprentice until after he wrote his final book. The relationship was prompted by a letter he received about a year into a terminal case of writer’s block. My dear Mitzuhashi, I can’t help but notice you’ve abandoned your roots, and all of your genius, which once resided in fathoms, has devolved into spoiled milk. How can you let it go so easily? If you’re just giving it away, may I ask to take some of it with me? Maybe I could stand next to you as it dissipates out of your head and I could absorb it into my body and make it my own. These things happen, I’m sure. It’s worth a try, if you’re giving it away anyway.
Mitzuhashi didn’t typically receive fan mail like this. His first novel, a neo-noir-science-fiction-psychological-thriller, did well enough, but he never wrote a bestseller. The multi-hyphenate genre work had almost killed him and he was never the same afterwards. He always wanted to try a new horizon, or write from his soul instead of trying to please the world, perhaps erotic romance. But his wife told him that although sex may sell, his kind of sex would never sell. He knew she would be right. She left him one week later and he dropped the idea soon after. His popularity had declined ever since.
The letter came from an address in Stinson Beach and Mitzuhashi showed up the next day, or maybe it was many days later, he thought time seemed to move faster back then. The house reminded Mitzuhashi of a massive concrete military base he’d seen in a movie about an underground war in Wünsdorf. The Apprentice answered the door on the first knock and recognized Mitzuhashi immediately.
“You came to spill the beans,” said the Apprentice, standing leisurely against the door in a pinstriped silk pajama set.
“You think I’m a genius,” said Mitzuhashi.
“Hardly”, said the Apprentice. “The first lesson of fiction is to never let the reader know you’re making things up.”
Mitzuhashi was impressed. “Where did you go to school?”
“Here and there.”
“That’s good. School is a cyclone. You’re ripped to shreds unless you’re in the eye of the storm. What are you writing?”
“Good. Don’t waste your time on anything else. Poems are just cave etchings from Neanderthals. Short stories are drugs and it’s better to wait until you can handle them properly. Non-fiction is another language completely and it takes years and years to learn. A novel is the only right place to start.”
“What are you writing?”
“Nothing,” said Mitzuhashi. “Nothing at all. I have ideas, but they’re trapped in my subconscious.”
“Do you need my help?” asked the Apprentice.
“I thought you were the one who needed my help.”
“One of us will have to give in.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have come,” said Mitzuhashi. He didn’t move to leave and they stared at each other for a few seconds until the Apprentice broke the silence.
“At least have a drink with me.”
“What will we talk about?”
“We’ll write together,” said the Apprentice. “I’ll pretend to be the expert and you’ll pretend to be the student. I’ll teach you everything I know, which is nothing, and you’ll learn everything you don’t know, which is nearly nothing.”
And with that, their strange relationship began before nightfall, under two shining celestial beacons reverberating against each other in the center of the twilight sky.
By the time the sun came up over the beach, Mitzuhashi was happily drunk off of mezcal and the Apprentice had written three pages, two of which would be immediately ripped to shreds, but one of which was gold. Mitzuhashi promised he would come back each Friday to share his ideas about where the novel should go. The Apprentice promised he would devote himself to the functional laws of the craft. Mitzuhashi said he didn’t care about the craft, he cared about the prestige. He told the Apprentice to not write down a single word until they met again.
“Keep it all in your mind,” he said, “swirling around like souls circling the entrance to the afterlife. You must let it gestate until you get sick. The thoughts will become too much for you to handle, you won’t be able to sleep because you’ll be overwhelmed and entranced by characters’ names and various plot devices and romances which should or shouldn’t be, and then I’ll return and we’ll give in to your instincts and splurge onto the page.”
The Apprentice assured him he would lock up his pencils and his notebook and his typewriter in a safe in his room. He said he’d lock himself out of his own house if necessary. “When is your favorite time to write?” he asked as they walked towards the front door.
“Of course, it’s the moment I wake up after a dream,” said Mitzuhashi. “I’m never tired in that moment and, in the best cases, the dreams linger on like fog or a stalking demon, and I can live in my own world, the world of my own words. I shouldn’t talk about it, but there’s also a worst-case scenario, the dreaded possibility where I only think I’ve woken up, yet I’m still dreaming and I don’t know it and I write down the best thoughts I’ve ever had and they dissolve in my hands as God pulls me back from the slumber world. Then I have to remember two dreams deep and that’s how crazies are made, my friend.”
“A velvet freak-out,” said the Apprentice, nodding his head.
“But nothing compares to the feeling of a waking dream,” continued Mitzuhashi. “In fact, I think I’m in one right now.” He thanked the Apprentice for the alcohol and the Apprentice thanked Mitzuhashi for nothing more than his presence. Mitzuhashi went back to his small studio apartment in Monterey where he laid awake with the spins on his disintegrating cot mattress.
The Apprentice began to write at almost the instant Mitzuhashi walked through the door a week later. He seemed to write with renewed passion, with so much force he became physically ill and had to put down his pencil or else he’d pass out. Mitzuhashi’s drinking matched the Apprentice’s work ethic and he drank so much whiskey that he passed the point of illness and came back around the circle to a point of placid thoughtfulness, a place where he easily imagined levitating into the air and scanning the beach for discarded thoughts of literary genius.
The novel started with a scene in which the two main characters, a young couple dealing with the husband’s agoraphobia and the wife’s infidelity, make love so vigorously that the tides of the ocean change. After they finish, the husband has a panic attack and hallucinates the demonic face of a smiling fly. The prose came out jilted and hazy and it reminded Mitzuhashi of his own. He even said as much to the Apprentice, who retorted: “The only way to begin is to mimic the greats.” Mitzuhashi told the Apprentice to keep every third sentence and cut everything else, no matter the merit, it was just good habit. After he left the Apprentice’s house, he called his agent and told her he was writing again.
Mitzuhashi continued to return to the Apprentice’s house over the next month to influence the story through sheer presence and epiphany, while the Apprentice provided the nuts and bolts of the language, an endless supply of alcohol, and an outlet for Mitzuhashi’s nihilistic indifference to the world. Mitzuhashi always left feeling invigorated with literary inspiration, but by the time he drunkenly collapsed on his cot to sleep, he couldn’t remember a single word of what they had written.
In order to drum up some press for a supposed forthcoming work, Mitzuhashi’s agent booked him a speaking engagement at a local liberal arts college. Mitzuhashi, still dazed from a night with the Apprentice, showed up in his bathrobe. The students were split, half of them considering him a wayward genius and half considering him a bloated moron. Mitzuhashi told them about his start in the literary world, publishing poorly written short stories in Bizarre Oak Matte and Axel’s Fury Journal, and about his collegiate poetry, which he was proud of but not proud enough to share with the public. He said every writer starts out yearning to write about one thing and they attack it from every angle before they figure out the world is made of many different things, and his one thing was a large flesh-eating octopus. Some of the students offered to join Mitzuhashi at dinner after the lecture, but he declined. Instead, he walked home and bought a chili dog off a street vendor whose hands were wrapped in medical gauze. The man asked Mitzuhashi about his night and Mitzuhashi smiled as he told him he felt like he was coughing up a tumor.
“Is it cleansing or are you choking?” asked the vendor.
“It’s hard to say,” said Mitzuhashi.
“Socrates claimed understanding of a question to be half of the answer,” said the vendor as he pushed his gauzed hands together like a portrait of the Mother Mary in prayer.
“Life is a trick question,” said Mitzuhashi, shaking his head.
“Do you think you will be okay in the end?” asked the vendor.
Mitzuhashi shrugged. “I used to know exactly what would happen. Even if I thought I’d end up dead, at least I knew. But now I don’t even know if what I think has happened has really happened at all. I’m a blind man floating in the ether.”
The chili dog didn’t sit well with Mitzuhashi’s stomach and he sat on his bathroom floor for the entire night. His intestines squirmed like the arms of an octopus, and he couldn’t help but think of the Apprentice sleeping soundly in his California King bed overlooking the ocean. As soon as he could stand, he left for the Apprentice’s house to wake him.
Mitzuhashi was on his fourth shot of cheap vodka when he asked the Apprentice about what they should call their novel and what the logline would be.
“It’s called Area 503,” said the Apprentice, “and it’s about a couple who are like positive and negative magnets. Only one of them loves the other at a time, and it constantly alternates. The love is always there, but it ricochets back and forth like a strobe light.”
“And meanwhile, an old cowboy kills himself,” said Mitzuhashi.
“Of course,” said the Apprentice.
They contemplated their own genius for a few seconds before Mitzuhashi asked, “Have you thought about publishing anything of your own?”
The Apprentice shook his head and suggested he would need to wait for divine intervention. “The publishing world has become a complicated game for those of us who are nobodies,” he said. “It’s a merry go round out there, and we’re stuck off of the ride. I need a miracle. It’s as if one has to be published from birth.”
“Stories from the fetus,” whispered Mitzuhashi.
“God’s greatest gift is your name,” said the Apprentice. “Not your talent. Take your most recent novel, for example. Do you think that trash would have been published if you were little old me?”
“No,” said Mitzuhashi, “I’d have burned it to ash before showing anyone.”
“Right,” said the Apprentice. “Why did you write it then?”
“It started out well,” said Mitzuhashi, “but halfway through it turned on me.” They both looked out over the beach. Mitzuhashi thought about how Aristotle would’ve been stoned to death if he was around today. And Dickens would’ve been a panhandler with a plethora of venereal diseases.
“Mitzu,” said the Apprentice.
I never told him he could call me that, thought Mitzuhashi. In fact, I despise it. But why can’t I bring myself to tell him off?
“All I want is to see is my words inked on a page. I think that’s good enough for me. But maybe it’s even better to have them seen under your name, Mitzu. Your name would give my words the validity I never could.”
Mitzuhashi felt the urge to throw up but he nodded his head. I’ve thought about that every night for the past three months, he thought. “What do you want me to do about it?” he asked.
“Here,” said the Apprentice, “take it all.” He handed Mitzuhashi a neat stack of paper. “Give it to your agent and your editor and tell them it’s something you’re proud of. Don’t tell them we wrote it together, that will just confuse them, and don’t tell them it’s your opus, they’ll never believe you and it will raise suspicion from the start. Just tell them you think it’s good enough, middle of the line or slightly above it. They’ll flip for it. Modesty sells.”
Later that night, Mitzuhashi spilled the pages of the novel as he tripped out of the driver’s seat of his car. He initially considered keeping the pages mixed up, as an homage to the world’s fractured reality and to claim more of the creativity for his own, but he found himself an hour later rearranging the pages according to the page numbers, almost as if he’d reawakened from a coma. He sent the novel to his agent the next day.
While they waited for an answer, Mitzuhashi and the Apprentice began to meet twice as much to talk religion and politics. Mitzuhashi believed in determinism and the Apprentice believed in retribution. They both believed in fate and its many kind faces. They laughed about revolution and spoke quietly about God. “I’m along for the ride,” said Mitzuhashi, “kind of like your merry-go-round metaphor from before. Actually, it’s exactly the same. I’ve got perpetual motion sickness.”
“Does the operator of the ride ever get his turn?” asked the Apprentice.
“Only once everyone is gone and the lights are off. The ride is much less fun at that point, but he can say he did it. That’s the important point.”
After two weeks, Mitzuhashi’s agent called to say the publisher’s rejection was brief and to the point. Mitzuhashi hung up the phone and drove directly to the Apprentice’s house through a green sunset. He grabbed an ancient bottle of wine from the Apprentice’s vast underground cellar and sat down on the porch overlooking the beach. Neither Mitzuhashi nor the Apprentice spoke for the entire night. Mitzuhashi imagined himself in the center of a whirlpool in the sea of literature. The Apprentice imagined the ocean as the world’s largest library spawning a tidal wave of words and overtaking the civilization in the dead of the night. Mitzuhashi suggested they trash the entire book and never think of it again. The Apprentice didn’t reply.
The last time the Apprentice and Mitzuhashi met together was a few months later, a dark day in December when the sun hibernated like a rabid bear. The Apprentice answered the door with a beer and offered Mitzuhashi a seat on his room-length sofa. Mitzuhashi looked out the back window to where the black sea mixed with the black night and created a hole the size of the universe.
“I have news,” said the Apprentice.
“Are you dying?” asked Mitzuhashi.
“No. Then again, maybe I’m dying to myself, if that’s what you mean.”
“I meant the kind of dying where your brain swells and you gag on your own tongue.”
The Apprentice laughed. “Mitzu,” he said, “the novel is getting published.”
The Apprentice nodded. “I’m calling it something different now. You understand, I’m sure.”
Mitzuhashi looked up at the Apprentice who loomed over him and blotted out all of the light in the house. Et tu, my young friend? he thought as he shook his head. “You said this was impossible.” Unintentionally, his voice came out in a whisper. “There was no chance. You’d have to physically be another person. What ever happened to your despair?”
“It turns out they prefer an unknown risk over a known failure,” said the Apprentice. “I’m not speaking about you, of course. I’m speaking in generalities. The world as a whole. You’re a reliable somebody. I’m just an exciting nobody.”
“And will it pay well?” asked Mitzuhashi after he took a long swig of his beer.
“I didn’t even ask,” said the Apprentice.
“Why didn’t you tell me sooner?”
“I realized the novel couldn’t afford your stink,” said the Apprentice.
Mitzuhashi finished his beer at an achingly slow pace. “I woke up with a stale head this morning. I knew it was a bad omen,” he said. He looked at the deserted beach again and thought of the one true law of writing, greater than any grammar rule or narrative conception: All writers are rivals, the pie chart is only so big, and for one to enter into the literary world, another had to drop out. He left after drinking a second beer on the beach by himself. The Apprentice didn’t try to get him to stay. He smiled and closed the door firmly without saying a word.
Later that night, Mitzuhashi sat down at his typewriter and used rage and envy to fuel his creativity and shape his thoughts. He typed a few thousand words with the intensity and ferocity of a wounded rodent caught under the lever of a trap. Just as he intended, the words came out sounding nothing like his own, although he didn’t realize they sounded so unfamiliar because they came from a place deep in the dark caverns of his soul which he had never accessed before, a place from which he should have been writing all along. When he finished, he folded the pages together and mailed them in a sealed envelope to the biggest literary magazine he could think of, and then he went back to his life as if nothing had happened, even though everything had changed.
The many days that followed brought on the strange feeling of Mitzuhashi’s adult consciousness being dropped into the feral and exhausted body of his teenage self. He still drank until he couldn’t sleep, but the alcohol didn’t taste good anymore. He couldn’t string together one sentence on his typewriter, but now the rage had waned and he had no hope to go with the empty page. When he did find some sleep, usually after he took a mid-day walk, he dreamed the most vivid and lucid dreams of his lifetime, but he couldn’t remember a single moment of them when he woke up.
Almost a year later, in the middle of a sake-infused pace around the kitchen, Mitzuhashi received a response from the magazine in the mail. The letter was addressed to the Apprentice.
Thank you for submitting your non-fiction essay entitled “Eugenics Starts with Coffee”. We appreciate your interest in our fine journal, The Eclipse. Unfortunately, we cannot accept the submitted piece. Furthermore, we would be remiss not to call out the gross conjectures made in your essay. Our journal is no place for fascistic tendencies, and our Editorial team is utterly distraught that you thought this piece may be appropriate to be submitted to us at The Eclipse. Even furthermore, we see the essay’s conclusions as so unpleasant that we have taken it upon ourselves to alert the publishing house of your forthcoming novel referenced in your cover letter. Please take a long while to gather your thoughts and cleanse them.
Mitzuhashi ate a bowl full of cold tuna and then he drank three gin and tonics before falling asleep with the letter hugged to his chest. He dreamed of nothing except extreme darkness and he slept the deepest sleep of his lifetime.
When Mitzuhashi’s agent called him a few days later to continue to beg him to keep up relations with the literary community, even in the midst of his prolonged writer’s block, Mitzuhashi realized the letter had given him the jolt he needed to leave his apartment and walk to the local bookstore. As soon as he arrived, Mitzuhashi noticed the cashier give him a look as though he didn’t belong there anymore, and he thought it was funny because he knew the cashier didn’t have any idea who he was. He walked to the back of the store and began to browse without reading over any of the titles, instead, letting the books and their different colors and sizes wash over his mind’s eye. His hand reached out involuntarily and picked a thin book from the shelf -- American Shaman by Mitzuhashi. He looked at the inside sleeve and realized he appeared ten years older in his picture rather than ten years younger. The book fit perfectly in his coat pocket and Mitzuhashi thought it was beautiful because it felt like the book wasn’t even there.
As he walked past the counter and out the door, he noticed the cashier’s name tag said Doane and listed his favorite book as How to Golf for Dummies. The man at the front of the checkout line held a large dictionary and the woman behind him held a coffee table book of surrealist architecture. Next to the checkout counter stood a large cardboard sign in the shape of a book with its pages open. The top of the sign listed a column of titles coming soon, with different colored markers corresponding to the month the books would be released. A large red X was taped over one of the titles, which he could barely make out as Ghosts of the Suburbs. Mitzuhashi walked to the street corner and threw his book in the trash before taking the long way home.
Instead of sleeping later that night, Mitzuhashi removed the original Area 503 manuscript from under his bed and brought out his typewriter from the closet. He carefully copied the book word for word while replacing the names of characters and places with alternatives, such as shifting Paris to Montevideo and changing Louie to Arquimedes. The end product reminded him of looking at his face in a mirror streaked with dried baby oil. He could see the outline and he knew what he was looking at it, but there was just enough haze to give him a feeling of uncertainty and mystery. He called the book Kraken Lives Forever and sent it to his agent and editor in an unmarked manila envelope under the unpublished pen name Samuel Aprendiz.
Mitzuhashi drank less over the course of the next few weeks, maybe only a double shot or two of bourbon in the afternoon and a flask of wine in the evening, at least until the men broke into his apartment. He was sitting at his kitchen table at three or four in the morning listening to the radio play a folk song about a pink moon when two men opened his unlocked door and stepped into his kitchen. They all stared at each other silently for a few minutes, although Mitzuhashi thought it could have been a few days given the power of the connection, before one of the men finally spoke in a soft whisper.
“He said you would look like a dying fish and I didn’t know what that meant, but I see it now.”
“Who said that?” asked Mitzuhashi. “Who in their right mind would say that?”
The other man, who was much bigger than the first, although neither of the men were really all that big, walked over to Mitzuhashi and stood in front of him.
“Yes?” said Mitzuhashi.
“He’s not getting it,” said the small man.
The large man put his palms down on the table and Mitzuhashi looked at the letters tattooed on his fingers in between the phalanxes. I a-m a-n A-n-g-e-l. Mitzuhashi looked him in the eyes and squinted. “Where’d that come from?” he asked.
“I was born this way,” said the Angel. He flipped the table over and grabbed Mitzuhashi by the collar of his shirt. “You’re not quite getting it, bub.”
“I don’t owe anyone money,” said Mitzuhashi. “I don’t do drugs anymore. I haven’t talked to a woman in months.”
“He's still not getting it, Karloff,” said the Angel. He slapped Mitzuhashi’s ear with an open hand and then pulled him to his feet.
Karloff lit a cigarette and smiled. “This isn’t a robbery,” he said, “and it’s not a shakedown. We’re not taking you hostage. Just think of us as literary guardians”. The Angel punched Mitzuhashi in the stomach.
“Hemingway’s Mafia?” asked Mitzuhashi as he gulped in air.
“Exactly,” said Karloff.
“Okay, I think I may be getting it,” said Mitzuhashi. “Listen, that book was mine anyway. I was stealing from myself. I’m the one who gets the royalties. I think the cashier even saw me and didn’t do anything. You should take this up with him.”
“He still isn’t getting it,” said the Angel. He slapped Mitzuhashi’s other ear. Karloff began to talk again but Mitzuhashi could only hear a harsh ringing sound. He shook his head until Karloff walked over to him and cupped a hand to his ear.
“Pull the novel,” he said. “We don’t want to see it published, hard cover or paperback.”
“What novel?” said Mitzuhashi. “I haven’t written a word. I’m as dry as a eunuch.”
The Angel pulled Mitzuhashi’s head back by his long black hair before slamming his nose against the wall. Karloff whispered into his ear again: “Who owns the words, the typist or the Master?”
The Angel gave Mitzuhashi a stiff pat on the back before he and Karloff walked out of the apartment. Mitzuhashi stayed awake through the sunrise and debated the answers to Karloff’s question. Eventually, he walked through his open apartment door and began to wander across the neighborhood in a self-induced fugue state. He happened to see the chili dog cart again a few blocks from his building and stopped to talk to the vendor, who asked Mitzuhashi if he wanted to see his hands, still wrapped in gauze after all this time.
“I don’t know you that well,” said Mitzuhashi. “I’ve only ever bought a chili dog off you.”
“I could say the same about you,” said the vendor. “But I think we know almost everything about each other.” He started to unwrap his hands in a rapid circular motion, like he was cranking the motor of an old-fashioned car. “This will be the final piece of the puzzle,” he said.
Mitzuhashi’s instincts begged him to run away as he looked around at the empty street and realized he was alone, but it was too late, his body had already started to tingle, and he found he couldn’t take his eyes off of the man’s hands.
“I’ve been thinking a lot about your predicament,” said the vendor, his eyes focused on his own hands. “You said you were unsure whether you were being killed or enlightened. The answer is beautiful and it’s maybe the one universal truth in our world, the answer to all of life’s questions.”
He looked up into Mitzuhashi’s eyes and nodded as the gauze dropped to the ground. Mitzuhashi saw two circular holes punctured in the center of the man’s palms, exactly like the Christ.
“They are one and the same,” the man whispered.
Mitzuhashi would never see the man with the holes in his palms again, and he would never write or read another book in his lifetime. A few years later, he realized he had been fooled into thinking the coast of California was the end of the world, so he spent the last of his money on a one-way ticket to Key West. As he walked through the San Francisco Airport, he stopped in front of a bookstore. He shivered as he read the titles of the books on the shelves and he desperately tried to keep his mind from picturing what could be inside the cover of the best-selling book on the market, The Great Conjunction by Junior Sosia, which sat on a pedestal at the center of the store. He began to plead with himself. The mysteries of a book’s contents and the writer’s true nature remain obscured until the book is opened. But once it’s opened, those terrible secrets are forced upon the reader, almost immediately, with no way to turn back. In the end, he thought, it would be easier to never know.
Without warning, as if his body disagreed with his mind, Mitzuhashi found himself floating towards the book. His hands opened the cover with the kind of tenderness and horror he imagined a father felt while holding his child for the very first time. The text on the inside cover hinted at a story full of sadness and subterfuge, characters drawn together by the kismetic hand of God and thrown apart like dice, a setting exactly like the familiar world yet tilted slightly off axis, a world in which the words of love and death were used interchangeably. The last sentence, which seemed to descend into a mist, read: In the middle of everything resides the Old Cowboy who ultimately learns that fate is a drug from hell that comes for us all.
J. Billings lives and breathes in Hilltop, OH. His fiction has appeared in Blood Orange Review, ergot., and Bruiser, and is forthcoming in Black Warrior Review.