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CATCHING THE BUTTERFLY

by

Jason Gurley




i. Of cigarettes, whiskey, and such
The human knows that he must go out, retreat from stale cigarette smoke and the thick warmth of a drunken haze into the sunlight let the inherent rush of activity of the real world, as it were, draw him from the inactive shell sitting before a typewriter.

But the writer in me cannot move. On either side of the typewriter, my only focus during these last twenty-one days, the piles of paper breathe and grow, expanding, accumulating. On the left, an uneven sheaf, each page marked indelibly with the tired smudge of the typewriterís old roller, a clumsy yet somehow personable steamroller-track along the lower quarter of the three hundred or so sheets. On the right, a pyramid-like agglomeration of loosely-crumpled paper balls, the half-interested byproduct of a mind much more intent on the next keystroke, the next word, the next sentence, paragraph, page, chapter, novel.

The bed in this baroque hotel room is unslept in, each pillow still neatly folded into the tightly creased coverlet. The sheets remain tucked beneath the foot of the mattress, not tugged and shrugged restlessly about the room, as they would be were I sleeping there. Instead, my forehead has developed an unsightly, and, Iím afraid, permanent indentation from my exhausted collapse on the ridge of the desk each night.

Iíve not showered or eaten, my diet has consisted of a dozen or more packs of Pall Malls and a mťlange of complimentary single-serving bottles of alcohol. At least Iím relatively sure that theyíre complimentary.

The phone Iíve disconnected, its long, snake-like cord lying in a limp curl behind the night-stand. The most remarkable invention in the world, the Do Not Disturb sign, hasnít left its lazy perch on the doorknob. Every night one of the hotel staff slips my phone messages beneath the door. I havenít touched them, have hardly looked in their direction, and yet I've seen enough to know that theyíre piling up like Distraction manifested as little fluorescent sticky notes.

Twenty-one days.

I think.

Iíve been here, not this hotel--mind you, to be frank, I canít even recall the name--but in this same position many times before. Been here enough to know that theyíre huddled in the lobby night after night, sleeping in uncomfortable straight-backed chairs or resting their spines against the baseboards. Theyíre camping out in rented rooms across the street, staring at my drawn curtains through binoculars as though at any moment Iíll fling them open and dance, naked, perhaps. The messages lying beneath the door like stacks of unopened Dear-Current-Resident mail are certainly their doing. If experience is any reliable source, theyíve bribed the desk clerk, the maid, the owner--I know nobody above a payoff--and are probably yawning right outside my door.

Iíve made them wait four months before, and when I finally emerged in need of a shave and a shower and a womanís affection only one of them remained. I awarded her an exclusive, and an evening and the rest learned their lesson. Now theyíll linger until judgment day, Iím sure.

And for what?

The media calls me a Renaissance man. "An artist of many pens and inks," People wrote. These extended hotel stays of mine result in an assortment of products: a painting, a sculpture, an album, a song . . . sometimes nothing more than a mere letter. At the longest, as I mentioned, Iíve spent four months. At the least, two hours. That one was the painting. The four-month stint was the letter.

A swan of blown glass, one of my favorite creations, rests on an antique pedestal in the White House. My work adorns the walls, ceilings, and floors of a vast number of heavyweights. I charge a pretty penny, and I get what I ask for.

This stay, though, is a first. Iíve never achieved the one thing Iíve most desperately dreamed of doing, and so here I am. Iíve never written a novel. Twenty-one days and three hundred pages later, and Iíve only just begun. This is my first endeavor intended solely for me and my own gratification.

I am twenty-eight and alone, and this is my life, for better or worse.

Back to the typewriter now.

Clackety-clack.

ii. Of passing cars and broken glass

Like a new father, I am proud of the paparazzi for holding out this long. The first interruption comes on the twenty-seventh day, and my pride does not last long.

I am hungry, so I chew on a dry cigarette until it unrolls between my teeth, spilling a queer conglomeration of paper and mulch into my mouth.

I lost count around four hundred. The paper on the left is now stacked several inches high, wobbling, leaning. Oddly angled sheets stab out of the stack in sharp blades.

The pounds fall off of me faster than I can type. The ever-present sheen of sweat does little to hide the sallowness of my skin, and for the hundredth time in as many hotels, I ignore the warning bells in my head and continue creating, writing, typing.

Iím not sure what time the interruption actually came. I donít keep a clock or wristwatch in sight when Iím working. The alarm clock on the night-stand is bolted down, but a trick Iíve learned from other similar situations always pays off. The display is covered with a strip of dark electrical tape.

The interruption, this time, is much worse than those of past vacations. Iím in the middle of Morty Hammersmithís long-winded but eloquent soliloquy when the window shatters. The heavy velvet curtains tremble, catch something in their folds. An object thumps to the floor.

For the first time, other than to pass out or light up a fresh Pall Mall or twirl the cap off of a new bottle of vodka, I stop typing. The curtains stand off a barrage of wind, making a muffled whipping noise as they sway. Beneath the fringed skirt of the curtain I see the corner of a brick? There is something tied to it with a fine white string.

I look at the typewriter, study the last few words of Morty Hammersmith, and sigh.

The chair makes a scraping sound as it scuffs across the hardwood floor, and I almost topple over as soon as I stand. My legs and buttocks are in the throes of an electrical storm, tingling, reeling from days of near-atrophy.

The sounds of passing cars and street commotion, including the pleading wails of a saxophone, which, under another circumstance, might have eased my mind, filter through the broken glass. At twenty-five floors up, you might think that this would all be white noise, but instead, the wind carries the cacophony directly to my room.

I stoop and pick up the intruding object, careful to avoid the shards of glass. I marvel at the thickness of the glass. Of course at this height it must be thick. Whomever pitched the brick must have quite an arm.

It does not occur to me to wonder how a brick finds its way through a window at this height in the first place.

Resting on the bed for the first time, and determining from the stiffness of the mattress that the chair was probably a good choice of napping places after all, I unwrap the string to find a business card with the name Roger L. Stanwyck engraved on it, just beneath a network television logo. I flip the card over, and on the opposite side, in excruciatingly tiny script, it reads:

Interview? Exclusive? Name your price.

Now step away from the window.

It is signed Roger.

As if on some silent cue, the curtains thump again, and another brick falls to the floor, cracking the plastic case of the cellphone tied to it with the same white string. A few small sheets of glass pepper the carpet around it as the phone emits a tired ring and falls silent.

iii. Of pillows and policemen

"From just a precursory examination of the scene, Mr. Hogarth," the thick-set, bearded, shifty-eyed officer begins, plucking the curtains apart and peering stealthily outside, "it appears that the brick, sorry, the bricks, were thrown from one of the hotel suites across the way. Weíve got two men there now. The Remington. Nice rooms there, you know. Excellent view."

"Yeah, of my privacy," I mutter. "You know, officers," I say to the first officer but in the general direction of the three other blue-clad men surreptitiously poking through my things, "Iím really quite busy, so if you would kindly--hey, put that down!"

A skinny young officer drops the crumpled ball of paper he had been stuffing into his pocket. I wave my hand at the blatant bulge in the other pocket of his trousers.

"All of them," I say.

He unloads several more balls of paper onto the bed.

I turn back to the bearded officer. "Look, Iím really very Ö"

ĒÖbusy. We realize that, and weíre sorry to have taken so much of your time already," he says, letting the curtains fall shut. "But you might as well grab a bite to eat and a shower, both of which Iím sure you seriously are in need of because you ainít getting no peace till the window manís gone."

"Window man?" I ask, weakly.

"Yes," the hotel manager, Mr. Edgar, says, stepping into the room and closing the door on scattered flashbulbs. "Weíve sent for a handyman to immediately repair your damaged window, Mr. Hogarth."

"No!" I say, and bend over, placing my hands on my knees. I stare at Edgarís patent leather shoes. They could use a good wax. "Please. Just leave me be."

"Iím sorry, Mr. Hogarth," Edgar says, squatting to look me in the eyes. "We feel absolutely terrible that youíve been treated so shabbily, and weíre going to do everything in our power to make it right, whatever it takes."

"Just let me get back to my book!"

Edgar sighs and gets back to his feet. "The handyman will be here shortly. Heíll take no more than two hours. Please, Mr. Hogarth, enjoy a meal on the house. Take in a movie. Weíll be happy to arrange all the privacy you desire."

"Bang-up job so far," I grumble.

As Edgar sighs again and follows the officers out, pulling the door gently shut behind him, I distinctly hear someone say, "Itís a book! Heís writing a book!"

I flop down on the bed, pull a pillow over my face, and scream.

iv. Of falling typewriters

The repair man takes four hours and two assistants to replace the extremely heavy plate of glass. When they leave, nodding politely, and I sit down at the typewriter again, I notice without surprise that the pile of wadded paper has obviously diminished. Even the few scattered pieces on the bed are now gone.

The typewriter stares at me, and I read the last few words again. It hits me like a wall at a hundred miles an hour: Iím lost. The soliloquy, Hammersmithís tragic speech, is dead. The moment is gone.

And I am angry.

I lift the typewriter in my skinny arms and march to the balcony, elbowing the sliding glass door open. The night is cool, and the breeze ruffles my stiff and matted hair. I realize that Iím backlit perfectly by the light in my suite, and flashbulbs burst by the dozens from balconies and windows across the street.

I hoist the machine over my head, then thrust my arms outward, heaving the typewriter into the dark city air. "Take it!" I yell. "You take everything else!"

There is the harsh sound of the typewriter smashing into the street followed by the squeal of brakes, and I turn my back to the cameras and go inside.

Light up a cigarette.

Wish I had a Sinatra record.

v. Of fans and phone calls

For the first time I look about the hotel room, studying it. Somehow I feel as if I must remember this one, as though it would become more important than the rest. I couldnít name more than a handful Iíve stayed in before. They just wereínt that important. It was the work, and still is, not the location.

And I canít concentrate, anyway. The terrible thought that wonít leave is one of intense but simple fear--fear, and anger, that my progress, so harshly obliterated, is forever jammed in place, like a man who has dug out of prison only to encounter a wall of solid rock after twenty feet.

"So is that it?" I ask aloud, startled at the sound of my own voice.

Is it? Could I pick up where I left off as though Roger L. Stanwyck had never thrown his career through my window?

I think about Morty Hammersmithís beautiful dialogue, pinched inside the typewriter, fluttering in the angry wind as it plummeted to the street far below, and realize that the words are really gone.

My worst fault is my singular, direct, furiously determined approach to my work. I absolutely freeze if distractions exist. The media People again calls me eccentric. I call myself tragic. What a curse to have a talent that comes prepackaged with ball and chain.

So there it is, I think.

Itís on the table. A month of work, ruined. With a sigh, I roll off of the bed and put my foot through the wall. Plaster dust and crumbs tumble between my bare and bleeding toes. I plug the phone cord back into the wall jack.

Immediately, the telephone begins to ring. I lift the receiver and drop it back into the cradle, disconnecting the call, and instantly, it begins to ring again. I hang up again, then pick up a little faster, punching 0 as I lift the handset to my ear.

"Front desk," a nasal voice says, answering after three rings.

In the background I hear a female voice hiss, "Look at the switchboard, idiot, its him!"

Then, "Ill take that," and a short bustle of commotion follows.

"Mr. Hogarth," a resonant voice says, and I identify it as Edgarís. "What can I do for you this evening? I trust your window has been replaced to your satisfaction?"

The smile in his voice chafes me. "I would have settled for a sheet of cardboard and some duct tape, but yes, itís fine."

"Wonderful. Now," he says, the word dangling.

"I need a few things."

"Certainly. What can I get you?"

"A dozen spiral notebooks," I say. "Thick sheets, college rule. A box of pencils--hard lead-- and a sharpener."

"Of course," Edgar says, and I hear his pen whipping across paper as he takes notes.

"Also, send up a small refrigerator, fully stocked--more Absolut--and a tray from the kitchen. Anything will do. And some matches. And cigarettes. Pall Malls. Iím running out."

"Surely," he replies. "And Mr. Hogarth?"

"Yeah."

"You have some telephone messages hereÖ"

For a moment, absurdly, I wonder who knows Iím here.

"Öall of the same nature. Interview requests, autograph requests. That type of thing."

"Besides the stack youíve been pushing under my door each night?" I sigh. "How many?"

Edgarís hand rasps across the mouthpiece and I faintly hear him whisper to someone. Then heís back.

"Weíve had more than one hundred calls, sir. Would you like me to send the messages up withÖ"

"No, just throw them away, please," I say. "Donít bother taking messages for me in the future. Certainly donít slide them under the door."

"As you wÖ"

Iíve no sooner hung up the phone than thereís a knock at the door. Iím comfortable here--lazy?-- so I shout, "Use your passkey."

The lock clicks open and a young man pushing a steel cart stacked on four shelves with steaming, sweating containers enters the room, followed by a similarly young man pushing a dolly in front of him. Strapped to the contraption is a small refrigerator.

The first man parks the dinner tray in a corner and says, "Robert will be here shortly with your other items."

I nod.

The second man edges the refrigerator into a tight niche between a half-wall and a monstrous oak bureau, then plugs it in. Neither of the two ask for a tip as they bow out politely, but Refrigerator Boy eyes the discarded manuscript and raises an eyebrow.

I wave my hand at him. "Whatever. Yours."

He scoops the pile of paper into his arms and theyíre gone. The door snaps shut, and then I hear the click of a passkey in the lock. Refrigerator Boy steps back into the room, holding an uncapped pen in my direction.

"Would you?" he asks shyly. "Otherwise nobodyíll believe me."

I level my eyes at him. "Youíre pushing it," I say, and heís out the door before the telephone splinters it.

vi. Of magnolia branches and butterflies

The best work Iíve ever done was a soapstone carving I made in junior high school. To this day I have no idea where the inspiration came from, but all the same, it was there, and for the very first time, I created a piece of art that moved me. The next ten years or more were spent striving to duplicate that innocent beauty, but Iíd never come close. Until now.

The carving was a crudely-hewn magnolia tree, painstakingly smoothed and chiseled for two months until it seemed, to me, absolutely flawless. The structure was poor, the design unoriginal, but my young heart went into every crisp edge and soft curve.

When I was twenty-four, the carving, along with a dozen other works, were stolen from my apartment in New York. Iím left only with a snapshot of the tree published in--are you surprised?--a People profile.

The novel is the closest Iíve come to that same honest perfection, at least on my own terms, and now it is gone. But something nags at me. There was something wrong with the book that I just couldnít put my finger on.

There was a song once, something about catching the butterfly in a dream, and it always meant fame to me. The butterfly was success. Now, though, I think it might be the dream rather than the ideal in the dream. I think maybe itís something to find out.

I get off of the bed, pull open the little refrigerator, crack open a fresh bottle. Light up a cigarette, blow the smoke through my nose.

I screw a pencil into the sharpener.

Blow off the dust.





ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jason Gurley lives in Nevada (the ďCrotch of the WestĒ) with his wife, Lori, and two rather irritable pets with the curious names Oscar and Sydney. His fiction has appeared in over thirty online and print magazines, and he is currently writing his third novel. Jason is the founder and editor of Deeply Shallow. You can also check out his personal website.

Send correspondence to
jason@deeplyshallow.com







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