Fortress of Solitude

By Shmuel Ross

I begin writing this story in desperation. I'm not ready to write a story yet; I haven't had time to prepare. I hadn't even intentionally volunteered to write one for class this week; my professor sort of trapped me into it, and I still feel mildly resentful about that. Especially as he essentially wants me to write non-fiction, while lying a bit here and there.

Yeah, he'd like me to dig way back into my childhood. Say, write about the times I got chased around the classroom by half my third-grade class, finally driving them off by forcefully blowing my nose without a tissue. Sure, it was gross, as they screeched in horror, but it did get 'em running away from me. Or would you prefer to hear about the time in eighth grade when forty of my peers chased me around the building chanting "Lily likes jelly," 'cause I'd gotten a jelly donut, the contents of which oozed out onto the floor when I first bit into the thing? See, one of my classmates figured "Lily" made a natural contraction for "Little Shmoooly." I still cringe when I hear the name.

Anyway, I don't see how either of the above incidents are any of your business, and I certainly have no desire to spin a story out of them, or any of the other myriad joys of my childhood. Besides, if I were to try it, no doubt somebody would get the idea that snot and jelly were symbols for some other sticky fluid. That's the problem with taking symbolism too far. Sometimes a cigar is just a smelly, carcinogenic roll of tobacco.

This begs the question of what to do next. Fortunately, I do have some expert advice to go by. Years ago, I wrote to Beverly Cleary, and she wrote back and told me to find something I wanted as a kid, and give it to myself in a story.

I've never tried it. The idea never quite sat right with me; I could never think of anything I'd really wanted, except, perhaps, to be left alone. My fantasy has always been that of being on a desert island, with nobody else around, and with a really good public library. Every month, a package would mysteriously arrive on the doorstep, with the latest books and whatever food I'd need to live.

In later years, I refined the fantasy slightly, adding shipments of my writings to the outside world, and ecstatic reviews included in the packages left on the doorstep, but, otherwise, I've kept it the same.

There are two problems with writing about that. For one thing, it's hard to find too much of a plot in solitude. It's not as if my fantasy involves much physical activity, like in Robinson Crusoe. No, I just want to loll about and read all day. Where's the story in that?

For another thing, it's been done. The Twilight Zone. Burgess Meredith finds himself the only man left around, in a library. It's so wonderful… and then he breaks his reading glasses.

There's no way I can top that one.

Still, I need something to hand in, so let's give it a shot.

It was another beautiful day. Every day was a beautiful day, Sam thought to himself happily. The library was his, all his. He'd finished reading all the books in the children's section long before. He was now working his way through the Dewey Decimal System, and was in the middle of the 400's. Life was grand.

Bleah. Sounds awful. Doesn't resonate. See, as Wesley points out in The Princess Bride, "Life is pain. Anybody who tells you otherwise is selling something." A story needs conflict. Pure fantasy, like the above, just doesn't ring true. So we're just gonna have to make Sam feel miserable.

A few years went by. Sam was in the middle found himself listlessly flipping through Nine Innings. He hated sports books, but he'd already finished his third reading of all the good stuff. For some unknown reason, new books didn't show up on his doorstep anymore, although he continued to get deliveries of food and clean underwear. He began to wonder, uneasily, whether he was missing something.

Of course he is. You know it, I know it, the birds and the bees know it, 'cause as sure as this is an American short story, it's gotta deal with that great American myth called romance. Ummm, no, sorry; the great European myth is romance. The great American reality is sex. Whatever.

One day, a knock came at the door. Sam ignored it at first, because nobody ever knocked, and he was sure that he was just imagining it, or perhaps it was thunder in the distance. But the knocking continued. Confused, he went downstairs. Standing there was the first person he'd seen since he'd wished himself there, so many years before.

"Who are you?" Sam asked, his eyes wide, as his fingers fumbled to unlatch the door.

"I am Companionship," the woman replied, her voice like silver bells in a spring breeze. She entered the building, sizing up the rows of shelves approvingly. "Haven't you missed me?"

She seemed warm and familiar as Christmas, and inviting as a mug of hot cocoa on a cold winter's day. "I... I suppose I have," Sam replied, dreamily. They embraced. Her skin smelled of nutmeg, as she hugged him tightly. "You're so beautiful," he murmured, as they staggered into a nearby bookcase.

Which fell over, crushing them both. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing.

Ouch. No, I guess I couldn't manage it. In fact, it was all I could do to keep the protagonist from whipping out an AK-47 and blowing Companionship away, or at least slamming the door in her face. At least this way, Sam dies in good company, and even gets a decent burial. What more fitting tomb than a cairn of books?

And I suppose that all this says something about me, and that any future biographers will analyze this for meaning, probably arriving at all the wrong answers. Although that assumes that right and wrong exist in the first place, which they don't, so I guess that's all right. But I can't help but feel that this was not what Beverly Cleary had in mind. She was probably thinking of something along the lines of a new bicycle, or perhaps a trip to Disney World.

Would that I were that well-adjusted.

Copyright 2000, 1998 Shmuel Ross. All rights reserved.