This is Not a Disclaimer
The first (and only) time I showed my mother one of my stories she called the school psychiatrist. I was in eighth grade. We were reading Poe. “The Tell Tale Heart.” “The Raven.” My teacher, Mrs. Kennedy, stood balancing a plastic skull, speaking, reciting--becoming—the manic narrators of these frantic tales. I went home and did the same. “The Black Cat” and “Berenis.” “Ligeia” and “William Wilson.” I set up a Fisher Price table and paced from the closet to the dresser, pausing every third paragraph to demand my stupid imagined classmates pay attention. There’s a black cat walled up with the corpse, for Christssake! And it’s purring!
When I exhausted this exhausting exercise (and the entire body of Poe’s fiction, for that matter), I started writing my own tale. About a lonely, miserable man, jealous of the love shared between his neighbors, Steve and Anne. So jealous in fact that he builds a bomb and plants it in their bedroom. And waits. And waits. Of course, nothing happens. And our speaker, like so many of Poe’s speakers, goes a bit crazy—flipping over furniture, throwing shoes at TVs, punching himself in the face. When he finally settles down he devises another plan: invite the lovebirds over for dinner…and poison them. They accept graciously and this idea, unlike the first, goes according to schedule—because sure enough, a few days later he gets a call from the lovebirds who are in the hospital, dying. They give him the keys to their house and ask that he take care of the cats until family arrives, and our speaker walks out, chipper. “You see,” he says, “killing does pay off.” For a reason I haven’t quite figured out—except that it was, as I’d say in workshop, “easy”—he spends the night in their bed and wakes to a ticking nose. He follows it to his bomb and realizes, quite to his irritation, that he accidentally set the thing two weeks late. With only seconds to live, he “reaches [his] hands to the air and prepares for [his] confrontation with the devil.”
Okay, so it’s not all that great of a story. But as an eighth grader I was certainly pleased that I could connect loose ends (at least somewhat) and write something that seemed logical and complex. I was proud that I had captured the manic voice of Poe’s narrators, while transporting him to the present day; creating a person who was, despite the similarities to so many of Poe’s creations, very much my own. I titled the piece “The Acts of a Crazy Man” and immediately took it to my mother in the living room, asking if she wanted to read it. “Sure,” she said. So I hid myself in the kitchen where I could stay incognito and watch. She lowered the TV and held the pages to her face, turning them quickly, furiously. A page turner, just how I intended. After about fifteen minutes she called me over. “So,” she said. “What is this exactly?”
“A story,” I said, not quite understanding her rhetoric (this was about eight years, after all, before I started teaching rhetoric).
“Yeah, I know that,” she said. “But what does it mean?” This also seemed like a pretty stupid question. It means exactly what it says it means. Did she not enjoy it? Did I not make it clear enough? Was the dialogue confusing?
The call came the next day, sixth period Math. I remember my teacher, Mrs. Adler, standing at the phone surprised. “Him? Really?” I packed my things and made my way to the principal’s office, clueless.
Later, Mrs. Kennedy read the story. “If I didn’t know you to be such a well-mannered, calm child," she said, "perhaps I’d be a bit scared.”
“But it’s like Poe,” I said. She shrugged and suggested I include a disclaimer, or an epigraph. Perhaps For Poe—.You know, something that would make it clearer.
I never included that disclaimer. Because if writing about what I want to write about—be it drugs or sex or murder or bizarre fetishes with toes or underwear—means epigraphs and explanations or a trip to that dark room near the Principal’s office—where I was asked to draw pictures and practice breathing exercises—then give me the dark room. I write because I need to write. All these voices now, fighting for attention. Who would I be to ignore them?
Perhaps I would be a better son. Ignoring them for the sake of my mother. She never mentioned the psychiatrist, for example. Nor has she asked to read anything since. Not once. Perhaps she’s afraid. After all, what if I had written something like Portnoy’s Complaint? (Roth’s mother, upon reading the novel, cried to him: how could you do this to me?) Something about disturbing sexual obsessions? Or uncomfortable sexual failures? What if it wasn’t Steve or Anne, but the mother in my story that died a brutal death? What if she was dragged from her bed and beaten? Left for dead on the porch? Would she have reason to be scared? To lock her door at night?
What if, for example, I wrote something like this?
About the author:
Shawn Rubenfeld has work in 580 Split, SmokeLong Quarterly, theNewerYork, The Westchester Review, The Colored Lens, and Chronogram, among others. A native New Yorker, he is an MFA candidate in fiction at the University of Idaho, where he teaches courses on rhetoric and creative writing and serves as Managing Editor of the literary journal Fugue.