Clever. I enjoyed this story.
|"What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden." . . . T.S. Eliot
"In my end is my beginning," thought Fortune, echoing T.S. Eliot, as he turned off I-80 near Omaha into the July-shimmering asphalt expanse of the motel complex. "Today I start over." He glanced back to the rear seat of the moribund 1977 LeSabre where his diaries were stacked, the pages as pure and white as the concrete sheets of the motel lot stretching before him. Fortune planned to fill those virgin sheaves with a new life, a re-written life, day for day--a life that should have been. He was not satisfied with the one he had lived.
The Liberty Motel sign welcomed the unyouthed, unmarried, unemployed, unsmiled-upon Fortune as if it were Dame Liberty herself welcoming the last immigrant from time's heaving sea. For Fortune, who had closed out his meager bank account, sold off most of his belongings, and borrowed on his one remaining gullible credit card, this motel was indeed his final continent. Here he would stake out a new history, harvest a different past. What a life he had planned!
"I'm re-writing my life," Fortune told the youthful desk clerk as he picked up his key. "You can't believe what a joy it is when you realize you can do that. What a pure joy."
"I'll have to give it a try sometime," the young man answered automatically.
Fortune located his second-floor room overlooking the pool (loaded with shrieking children in the Sunday-afternoon sun) and began unpacking his newly-purchased diary notebooks--twenty-five of them, one for each year of his adult life. He was ecstatic as he loaded the books into his room, piling them on the ersatz oaken desk in the small alcove by the window. He would revise it all, correcting all his past mistakes, reversing his reversals, redeeming his dreadful failures. The diaries would give breath to a new life with each daily entry, each scribbled sunrise. Words would obliterate that night before the failed law exam twenty-four years back when he drank until dawn; erase the morning two years ago when the last romantic link in a the rusty chain of his life was severed; vitiate the afternoon last month when he was fired from his fifth teaching job. Yes, the diaries would prevail, alchemize all those leaden misfortunes into gold.
Fortune immediately sat his lean but aging frame (clothed in his only suit) down at the desk, pushing his graying hair back, and snatched a blank notebook from the top of the stack. He wanted to get started. He would unpack his single bag later. Opening the notebook (those magnificently pristine pages), Fortune was stunned by the pure possibility of it all. The past was open to him like a brilliant loom, allowing him to weave any history he chose: career, children, fame, adventure--all there just waiting to bloom. With his newly purchased, special pen, Fortune entered his diary observations for the first day of the first year of his adult life, his new life: "Today, I am twenty-one."
By Friday, Fortune was graduating from law school, making the Law Review and finishing second in his class at Harvard. He had met his future wife, Peg, precious Peg, during freshman year at a sorority dance and they immediately fell in love, Peg crazy about this confident, ambitious young law student. Often, they would go riding in his BMW out into the Vermont highlands and roast hot dogs and marshm . . . no, too preppy, so: often they would bicycle down to the windy Cape and sit and watch the boats tack into the bleeding sunset and . . . too arty: often they would walk arm-in-arm down to . . . that was enough for starters, some really wonderful days, a fine life so far all the way around.
On Friday evening, Fortune went into the motel lounge and bought everyone drinks, celebrating his graduation from Harvard and his impending betrothal to Peg. By midnight, the party had moved to the pool where Fortune kept drinking and toasting to his new life. At one point in the revelry, Fortune climbed up a trellis to the deck of his room and watched the proceedings (these motel people, arriving from what past and embarking on what future) like Fitzgerald's Gatsby coolly surveying his party guests, scanning for Daisy. The crowd was raucous and dithyrambic, splashing in the pool, cheering Fortune, toasting him good luck in his re-written life and punning his name: "We wish you great fortune, " they yelled; "May mis-fortune not abide with thee," they roared; "What a fortunate man is he." Fortune stood on the deck, observing the chaos. He thought to himself that if the present is chaos and if the future will be entropy, then only the past had existence; only history was real. This was Gatsby's great lesson. The crowd cheered Fortune.
On Saturday, suffering from a hangover, Fortune returned to his diaries. For some reason, Peg seemed slightly less attractive to him today, the porcine consonance of her name somewhat offensive, the wooden-appendage association slightly fatuous. But, he had just begun his new life and did not want to start again. So onward into the years he scribbled: moving to Chicago; joining a corporate law department; marrying poor Peg; buying a red-brick, ivy-enshrouded home; fathering two beautiful children: Benjam . . . no, Jeffrey and Sally. . . . Times are good. Christmases pass with tinsel and Tom and Jerrys and Crosby. Vacations with the children at Glacier and Yellowstone. Jeff sees a bear. . . .
Fortune writes himself into the Masons and Elks and the Lakeside Golf Club. . . . He is promoted at work. He adds a redwood deck to the red-brick house and a swimming pool directly below. "Bet your bottom dollar you can lose the blues in Chicago!" his diaries sing on his twenty-eighth birthday. "Great life. Love Peg and the kids. Today, Peg threw me a birthday party at the Club; Jessen, my boss, was there and a pretty new friend of Peg's: Jane. Jane kept slicing her five-irons on the fairways, hollering 'Fore! Look out, Future!' and laughing as I playfully ducked the wild shots. Of course, she teasingly meant Fortune, not Future." The best of all possible lives. The years pass, six notebooks filled.
That Friday, Fortune again went to the lounge and toasted his happy life to a whole new set of guests staying at the hotel. "I'm re-writing my life!" he trumpeted. He again bought everyone a round, but this crowd was less jovial than the last and seemed to be indifferent to Fortune's great task, only a few stragglers following him out to the pool. Still, Fortune worked up the ambition to climb up to his deck and watch for Daisy and think about his new history where anything was possible. He stood on the deck and toasted his career and his children and his red-bricked, red-wooded home. The guests got bored and tired; they waddled off to their sleepy rooms, arm in arm . They were stuck in the present, Fortune mused. They didn't realize they could change it all, do it all over again, do it right.
With his head aching the next morning from alcohol and dreams, Fortune reviewed his previous year's diary and was alarmed by something he had entered as his thirtieth birthday reflections. For that day he had written: "Great party for me today! Turned thirty. Boy, was I surprised--had no idea. Jane gave me a kiss and thanks for that inside info on the company's merger with . . .". Kiss! Inside Info! What did this mean? Had Peg seen the kiss? Had old man Jessen heard anything? Fortune, reading the diary, was in a panic. He read backward into the previous year's book. What? He and lovely, stockbroker Jane on July 4th at the cabin? Drinking? Company documents? Jane tempting him beyond his moral restraint? What if Peg . . .
Fortune tried desperately to write himself out of the predicament. He joins the church at the beginning of the eleventh diary and for the next eight years he lives a life of complete fidelity to Peg and loyalty to the company. His children are growing up healthy and strong. Fortune becomes a deacon in the church and Vice President of the legal division at the company. He exercises regularly. Jane moves to New York. All is back to normal. Sally learns piano; Jeffrey plays Little League. He and Peg travel to Europe--Big Ben and Botticelli. Fortune buys a sail boat and becomes a Shriner and takes up sketching and . . . but . . . his father has cancer, the redwood deck is sagging, the swimming pool is cracking and . . .
The motel lounge was crowded that Friday evening with a Microsoft convention, so Fortune quietly took a stool at the end of the bar, listening to the technobabble of the motel guests. When he ordered his beer, the bartender shot him a warning look and said, "Skip the new-life bit tonight, OK?"
"Sure," answered Fortune, "no problem." Fortune left his beer on the bar, walked out to the pool, and sat alone, watching the pale fire of the moon bounce off the water. He listened to the Microsoft folks standing outside the lounge talking of the Internet and the information highway, the demise of print and the death of books. Fortune sat and watched the moon-dancing water. He had become an icon. He felt he was no longer a real person but only the icon of a person. In the information age, he thought we, are all minimized into icons. He looked up at the deck and thought of Gatsby and Daisy. You could not minimize Gatsby. Fortune recalled how Gatsby had responded to his neighbor's statement that one cannot repeat the past. "Can't repeat the past?," Gatsby had cried incredulously. "Why of course you can." Gatsby had re-dreamed time. Fortune sat up late, sober, watching the moon descend the night sky like a dove.
On Saturday morning, Fortune approached his diaries with indifference. What was there to look forward to now? The kids were growing up and would soon be gone, leaving him with aging, thickening Peg. Porky Peg. Peg the timber-legged. And work was sterile. Still, life had to go on. And it did. It wasn't agony. It was middle-age existence, a settling of the self's layers. But, then . . . Fortune had tediously filled seven notebooks--history, hot on the heels of the present--when the piper called. On the day of his twenty-year wedding anniversary, at high noon of a late-July Friday, long-forgotten JunkBond Jane, in a cathartic purge of her conscience, makes a phone call to old man Jessen, now CEO. Jessen calls Peg, the SEC and the Justice Department, and then . . . "Sunday morning, 10:10 AM: Desperate! The phone is ringing! A pounding at the door! My God!"
Fortune was sweating. He needed to write a way out. He would lose his wife and family and his job; he could do nothing about that now, but prison . . . he had to escape. Looking out the alcove window at the ebbing Sunday sun, Fortune searched his historian's imagination for a way to write himself clear of the mess he had gotten into. Everything was lost. He watched the receding sun; July was dying. He stared out the pane at the motel lounge across the way. Friday night revelry had come and gone without Fortune. He looked down to the pool below. No Gatsby; no Daisy. His new life was unraveling. A way out: escape, leave. Fortune put down the diary and found a 24-hour travel agent on the motel phone.
"What would have been the earliest available flight out of Chicago this morning after eleven?" he asked the agent.
"Flight to where, Sir?" she asked.
"Yes, this morning." Fortune listened anxiously to computer keys, imagining himself as an infinitesimal icon trapped in a chaos of Intel circuitry.
"Omaha, Sir, Delta, eleven-twenty," she answered finally.
"Great. I can just make it."
“You did say this morning, Sunday morning, didn’t you, Sir?”
“Yes, this morning; I can just make it; thanks.”
Fortune rushed back to the desk and picked up the last unfinished notebook. The finished pile lay next to the motel bed. Fortune looked longingly at his re-written life, his new life piled in a loose stack like a some discarded deck of cards. He sat down, opened the diary again at the fateful day, his present day, and penned himself a hairpin escape: throws some things into a gym bag; darts out the back door in his deacon's suit, leaps onto a moving bus, dashes into the airport terminal at 11:11 AM, boards a jet for Omaha and sails into the hot July sky.
At the Omaha airport, he becomes paranoid, believing he sees SEC and Justice agents everywhere. He hurries out the Delta gate and through the terminal to the taxi lane outside. Nebraska is steaming hot, the concrete stealing all the heat from the sun. Hailing a courtesy van just pulling out, he throws his single bag onto the floor and sits back, safe but dejected, alone, middle-aged, wearing his only suit--with nothing. He has absolutely no thoughts in his head as the van pulls into the Liberty Motel lot under a blazing afternoon sun.
Fortune put his last completed diary down on top of the pile next to the bed. It was over. He had arrived at the present, had finished his re-written life. In his beginning had been his end.
Fortune walked out to the deck overlooking the pool. He climbed up on the railing. For a moment he believed he saw Gatsby floating on the water, listening for Daisy and clinging to an inviolate past. Fortune stood on the railing. He was not looking to jump. He was looking to where I-80 veered off into the distant sunset and into whatever future awaited him.
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