Ontario, a short story by Colin Barrett
A short story that segues into an analysis of why it couldn’t be finished. ‘It’s either quasi/meta/auto fiction or a pseudo-nonfictional piece,’ the author says. ‘In a roundabout way, it is very much about the nature of inspiration’
Colin Barrett: “I don’t know why this event I was convinced would one day flourish into a story never quite did. Or maybe I do. (Kidding oneself is a vital component of being a writer). Maybe it is simply that the fact that something happened is never enough – that even if you were there, saw it all unfold, you still have to make it up.” Photograph: Boyd Challenger
One night my friend Dougherty got so drunk he started putting on another man’s jacket over his own. He rose in faltering stages from his seat, talking rapidly toward some obscure point as he commenced tugging a second coat sleeve up his left arm.
The woman with the man noticed first. She began to watch Dougherty, his long frame weaving slowly in place like a hank of seaweed in a current. After a moment she batted the unheeding man on the shoulder.
‘You fool,’ she said. ‘Look.’
The man joggled his glass and looked into it before looking at Dougherty, who was now energetically screwing his shoulders as he worked his way into the other arm of the jacket.
‘It’s a shitty jacket,’ I heard the man mutter, determined, I guess, not to appear discomposed.
It took until I was looking at the second collar incongruently framing the first either side of Dougherty’s scrawny and bearded neck before I realized what was happening. Me and Dougherty worked and now drank together: though Dougherty was almost double my age, we sat in adjacent cubicles and had that sarcastic, collusive camaraderie colleagues enjoy and often mistake for friendship. I was probably very drunk too, but how drunk was hard to tell: Drunkenness is a consuming state, like physical pain, and just as when subjected to pain it becomes impossible to recall or lucidly imagine its absence, so too with drunkenness. We had been sober, up in the winter daylight, probably as little as four hours ago, but these recent memories – of emerging from the office with the chaff of dirty snow stuck to the pavement and the scouring wind in our eyes, the evening sky already glitteringly dark – had the spurious vividness of a dream of flying. The bar was subterranean, violet strobes pocking the murk, with a low concrete ceiling and neighbouring tables arranged just too closely together.
Dougherty talked a fair bit about dreams. He told me he believed you did not so much have dreams as recalled them: if they did not survive the migration into wakefulness, it was as if they had not happened. He told me he’d had regular flying dreams as a child, recalled waking in bed beside his little brother Billy, cold feet lolling beyond the hem of the blanket, lying there mute and blinking and savouring an already fading memory of flight. The dreams would begin with him walking through a deserted schoolyard or field and then, in a moment of what felt, he said, like inattention or absentmindedness or blankness, he would find himself leaning into an obscure but palpable current, pivoting on nothing, lifting up one foot and then the other, gliding forward with his chest parallel to the ground, suddenly and effortlessly in the air. I told him, yeah, yeah, I’d the same dreams.
By now Dougherty was trying to extricate himself from the man’s jacket and apologizing with belligerent effusiveness. He was spittling. His beard was extremely unkempt. The man had a red, petulant mouth coiled in on itself, and was plainly watching Dougherty in order to determine the best moment to hit him. The man had transferred his drink into his left hand and was wincing open and shut the right, and saying in a low, unconvinced voice, that’s no problem, that’s no problem.
I was in my early twenties and an aspiring writer though I would never admit as much, writing in secret with a zealous cluelessness. But I was taking in experiences, and Dougherty was one such experience. There were other things he told me about that were surely mainly fabrication – about his ex- wife the particle physicist, his stint in a sanitarium in that region of Norway where the sun apparently never set, the grievous thigh wound he received in another bar-fight, his dishonorable discharge from the navy (did Ireland even have a navy?) – but the only part of Dougherty’s life I ever anticipated writing about was this one, the evening in the bar when he put a stranger’s coat on over his own. This will make a story, I was sure.
Dougherty was slashing his hand back and forth in the air. The slashes were like the liturgical gestures of a deranged priest.
‘You’re going to hit me, and you deserve to hit me,’ he kept saying.
The man was nodding his head, perhaps in unconscious agreement, and went on wincing his right hand. I remember noticing that his left hand could not hold the drink in a credible way in relation to his body. His left hand held the drink as if the drink was an object of indecipherable purpose. The woman had stopped watching Dougherty and was concentrating entirely upon the man’s face. The man’s eyelids were fluttering above his wide eyes, as if he was in the incipient throes of a seizure, or a dream. It was possible, in that final moment, that the man was the only one of the four of us who was not yet absolutely certain he was going to hit Dougherty. And then he did.
The story never happened. In the intervening years I started it several times, got as far as you’ve read, and then: nothing. I changed the setting from Dublin to Ontario, excised myself entirely, put myself back in as a character called Dougherty, and called Dougherty something else. But I could get it to go no further. What makes it onto the page and what doesn’t is impossible to predict. I don’t know why this event I was convinced would one day flourish into a story never quite did. Or maybe I do. (Kidding oneself is a vital component of being a writer). Maybe it is simply that the fact that something happened is never enough – that even if you were there, saw it all unfold, you still have to make it up.
After, as I was helping Dougherty up off the floor, the man, instantly ashamed and desperate to avoid acknowledging any of us, even the woman, began an intense inspection of the seams and lining of his jacket, turning it inside out and holding sections of it up to his face, over his face. All the tension of the event was gone. It had not been much of a punch, though Dougherty, bleeding a little from the lip, was still shaken. Back on his feet, he took a moment to set himself correctly into his own tatty jacket and with jittering hands he cranked the zip up along its metal teeth. Then we went up the stairs and out into the cold.
There is a brilliant, exceptionally insightful interview with Colin Barrett by his fellow author Jonathan Lee published this week in The Paris Review. It’s a wonderful introduction to Young Skins or, if you’ve already read it, an illuminating addition to your understanding and appreciation of the work. Here is a taster.
“Of course you need a frame, a perimeter of some kind, in which to work. But mine is not strictly plot, or even character. The town was that frame in Young Skins, though really it’s always the language, finding that register with just enough ductility and snap in it to suit your purpose—the catch being you often don’t know what the purpose is until you find the register … If you get the language, the story follows, and in Young Skins the language flowed out of the concept of the town, somehow. What’s a vernacular, a dialect? It is language, weathered and textured and defined by time and geography, the same way a wind-eroded mountainside or a listing, flaking fence post is. I follow the language back to the mouth out of which it is being spoken.”
The Right Kind of Damage: An Interview with Colin Barrett, by Jonathan Lee, The Paris Review
Next week: Sinéad Gleeson interviews Colin Barrett.
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