Topic : Quicksand by Patrick Pugh


 A little overview of what’s going on here.  We’ve started a Write Club Spokane sort of thing.  We choose topics and write a short story about them.  Currently it’s Andrew, Patrick, Matt, and a new member, Eva.  That said, here’s an entry.-

The name Harold Maulley is likely one you are not familiar with.  It is my hope that after reading this you will go and purchase, download on Kindle, or obtain by whatever means necessary, his only novel Quicksand.  I had recently been at a friend’s apartment, an apartment in the downtown area of Portland, Oregon, seated above a bar and a pizza house, to which I joked to my friend that he wouldn’t often have to leave his comfortable niche.  His response was a curious look and a more serious response than I believe it necessitated when he said “Of course.”  This was directed at me in much a way as to pinpoint my idiotic comment.  As if these two elements were the only reason that he chose this happy domicile. 

It is my theory that another factor played at his choice of homes, and that was the small second-hand book store just around the corner.  You see, my friend was an avid reader.  This apartment of his was mostly bare, but spacious.  The walls had that unfinished brick and mortar look that so aptly depicts New York as supposed to Portland, but it is not the look of it as it was, but rather what my friend had done to it.  You see, my friend had one hobby, and it was reading.

Every wall had a book shelf save for those that were obstructed by windows.  To make up for this he had put wide book shelves between pillars in the middle of the apartment itself.  The effect of it, as he pointed out, was that he was able to put up his own divisions of the space allotted to him.  He pointed out to me that behind three tall bookshelves forming a “U” between two cement pillars was his bed, wrapped from head to toe with the shelves, a single circular light dangling just above the bed which was wrapped in a velvet red comforter, appearing more like the world’s most comfortable and expansive couch than a place to rest one’s head at night.

The kitchen was no exception either.  As much of the kitchen was a sink, counter space, a refrigerator, and an oven all lined against the wall, he’d closed the area off with more shelves stacked full of books.  But here he’d put lower shelves which could double as a kitchen table.  At his words this was his “hobby.”  But to an outside observer:  so much more, which is what brought me here on this particular day.

Often I’d exchanged anecdotes of stories I was reading that he’d already read, as there was not often a book he hadn’t already read before I’d ever known it existed.  He was always more than happy to give his opinion and two cents towards his thoughts about it, and often this lead people from ever bringing up a book in his presence.  It is perhaps more of a character flaw of my own that keeps me in contact with this person for I long to share a reading experience with someone else, and I can always count on my friend to be that someone.  Of course, this is not without its own quarrels and arguments, and it was at the height of a heated discussion about the author Dan Simmons of which I had been thoroughly enjoying and had callously stated that he was currently my favorite writer, and he had believed to be the most absurd writer of the past one hundred years.  He had even called him a lesser writer than Seth Grahame-Smith.  The author, if you can call him one, of Abraham Lincoln Vampire Hunter.

I was at my end with him, irate and horrified that he couldn’t even find Dan Simmons as capable that I, in spite, bit out to him a bitter tongued question: “Well then, who’s your favorite writer?”  The question I had expected a hollow answer to was instead responded with a broadening smile.

“What?”  I asked him.

“In all the time we’ve been friends, all the books we’ve talked about, all the stories you’d asked me my opinion of, you have never once asked me which of all of these,” he said as he looked around that great apartment of his lined with its endless stories and wonder, “is my favorite.”

He hopped immediately to his feet, a bounce of sudden youth suddenly sprung into his step as he made his way to the closed off section he called a bedroom, then came nearly skipping back to me with a tattered book that looked as if it had been read a dozen times or more.  There was no cover anymore, it had long since fallen off.  The spine was wrinkled and creased so infinitely that the title nor the original gloss were any longer present.  In fact, much of the book seemed ready to fall away from being a book at all anymore.

I handled it carefully, wondering what he’d put in front of me, and finding all of the anger of our recent argument evaporated as I leafed through the stained pages and yellowed edges of this once-novel.  I finally came to a few pages in after the copyright information and blank pages to a large title and nothing more.

QUICKSAND

                Nothing more sat on the page save for that simple unassuming title.  Yet, perhaps it was the dilapidated pages, the yellowed edges, and sweat that had pockmarked every thin small and tearing inch that somehow aided itself to this title that almost immediately left me, at the very least, curious.

“Quicksand?”  I said aloud as if more of a question than a relation of the words before me.

“You asked, and there it is.”  My friend responded.

“Never heard of it.”  I said fingering to the next page which simply housed the author at its center with an equally simple dedication.

Harold Maulley

For:

This troubled life.

                “I’m not surprised.”  He responded without a twinge of the elitism he was more often accustomed to than not.  “No one has.”

“What do you mean no one has?  He’s written a book, so someone must have heard of him?” I said flipping past another blank page.

“Oh, I’m sure someone in this great wide world has heard of him, but no one I’ve ever spoken to has ever read this book or even heard of it, which is why that copy is so unexceptionally in its current condition.”

“Why hadn’t you ever mentioned this one before?  I’ve asked you about at least a hundred books by now?  We’ve argued over what’s good and bad and rarely agreed on anything and you’ve never mentioned this book.”

His response was as I should have expected it to be: “You never asked.”

He let me borrow the book.  His only clause was that I maintain its condition as best I could as it was the only copy he’d ever been able to find, just around the corner at the bookstore neighbor of his.  He’d found nothing on Amazon or eBay as he was completely unknowledgeable in such things as computers or “internetting,” as he called it, nor in any bookstore he’d ever been to since.  That was his stipulation, and of course to read it without the idea that it was good.  He urged me not to like it.  I guess he dared me not to.

I began reading that night, and for the life of me, I couldn’t hate it.  Not at the beginning.  Not at any point in the reading of the book, or even at its most significant end could I ever enter into a realm of hate, nor loathing, nor disinterest.  Before I knew it, Harold Maulley had been intricately woven into my life, his words were telling my story as well as his own.

Often when you read a book, words get stuck in your head.  The word “bloody” was repeated in my repertoire of verbs after a second venture through all the Harry Potter novels one month.  Other times full segments linger, and even the dreaded quote can erupt in your consciousness simply by disassociating a segment from its body, and wielding it as enunciation for a given point.  One that, unless the counter to your conversation has knowledge of its origin, cannot be argued or overruled.  I found in the days of reading Quicksand that much of Maulley’s pointed words were lending themselves to occurrences in my life, or the life living everywhere around me.

“The cold, feeble hands.  Gripping Death illusively, yet fending him back with every uncontrollable shimmer beneath her bones.  The body wanted so much for the cup to be at the lips, but those fingers could not grasp this want, this most simple effort had faded.”

                It was just one of many moments I recalled as I watched a woman whom, I must confess, looked to me as if she must have escaped a senior living center as she tried to handle the coffee poured before her.  The apple sauce and eggs in front of her just sat as the warmth was led away with their steam, neglected in lieu of the brown liquid.  I noticed more fondly the small sparrows in the park, the “…light flutter of magnificence , the tailored beings that were so simpleminded and yet so free.  How I envied them…”  Even the dried cracking leaves of fall fell more gracefully etched by Maulley’s simple noticed charms.  “I found them remarkable, as if a warm snowfall of this unfettered world was akin to my own being.” 

Eight hundred and nineteen pages after its singular titled start and his story, our journey, was sadly over.  It was with so much of his novel still trudging through my bare mind over the next few days that I found my way back to that original question, the one that ever since had sat as an unpaid notice on my door:  Who was Harold Maulley?

I returned to my friend’s apartment to give him back his cherished novel.  Luckily no pages had fallen out, and much of the creases and cracks that persisted along the spine were just as they had been.  He did not immediately ask me what I thought, instead he invited me in, and poured a cup of coffee he’d made about an hour before, and sat across from me in his low and absurdly cushioned chairs at the center of his apartment wrapped in endless stories as if we sat on a stage for a talk show about books.  Finally, a cup down between us both, he sat back easily, no smile even hinted over his face as he asked what I thought.

Dear reader, what I thought is much of what I have already disclosed to you.  I did not wish to bore you with casual fare such as “A book like this comes along every age, every decade, for every generation, and so on and on.”  That is not what Quicksand is, nor should it ever be regarded as such.  It is a story and nothing more, put most simply.  But it is one that you must read for yourself, and feel for yourself.  That is the heart of the book, and perhaps of Maulley himself.  And it is with this last thought, that I was still so fixated.  For I still knew nothing of the man that wrote this book.  I wanted to know.  Dammit, I deserved to know.

I had checked Google, Wikipedia, Amazon, anywhere I could.  I even checked the publishing website to no avail.  Sure I found copies available, used or otherwise, but no information about the author himself.  Even on the publisher’s website, only the listing of his name remained in their small list of published authors.  That and a small area where I could still purchase my own copy of the single title, which of course I did.  Nothing in the book either offered any description of the man.  The smell of pizza wafted in through the opened windows of my friend’s home on that warm evening ‘when coffee tastes best at its worst.’  Here, after our first cup and my verbal adulation of the novel I’d read, my friend sadly informed me that he too knew nothing of the writer.

I tried to accept this, to just let it ease from my thoughts, but the book, and my curiosity into its author remained, until at last the answer came to me as simply as if it were always there.  You see, the copy I’d ordered from the small independent publisher arrived, and here, yes finally, I received my answer.  Along with the book was a two page long preface of sorts written by Maulley himself, one he described at the beginning as “Not something the publisher felt necessary, but something I very much felt integral.”  Here is what he wrote, and the very note I expect you to find if you too order this great work.

” Hello, my name is Harold Maulley.  Thank you for your purchase of this, my only novel.  This is the preface I initially intended to include in the first few pages of Quicksand.   Unfortunately it was not something the publisher felt necessary, but something I very much felt integral.  So here I offer you my preface, myself, my thoughts very much on and of the novel you are about to read.

The first thing that you need to understand is that I, Harold Maulley, am incongruous to this story.  What I have to tell you about this book starts not with me or where I schooled or any part of my life, instead it begins with a man by the name of George Rawl.  George had been married, had a son, and was a simple man whom worked every day in his life at some factory or another for a simple wage.

As I’m sure you’ve heard the oft reiterated phrase, either verbatim or not, “to be a good writer, one needs to live life.”  George Rawl had no choice but to live life as it was lain out before him for he did not have another he could choose to live.  Often we take for granted choice.  Where we work, what apartment or house best suits us.  What drapes go well with the carpet or what to eat for dinner.  George had all of this, and just as in the first paragraph of Quicksand has set up the finality of the story within, so too had it set the fate of our Mister Rawl; he lost it all.

Many a man has oft set out on a search for treasure, for adventure, for love, for the most absurd and wonderful fare in this life.  The need to ‘become’ offers a most incalculable onset of energy unparalleled by any other, but with such a height and such ferocious speed that a foot will undoubtedly be met with resistance, or with the fateful fall into the deep, into the unforgiving quicksand.  Arthur Yates was such a man as this.  The deep need to become usurped his life.  He would find love, joy, riches, and all that he would seek, and he would lose them all.  As all inevitably do either in this life or in their death.   

George Rawl did not choose to be homeless.  After all, who would?  He was not an alcoholic, a drug addict, or even a bad man.  He fell into a spot of bad luck that he just couldn’t get away from.  His job came first, and his wife would leave soon after.  He didn’t blame her.  Then the letter came.  His only son, having joined the army some years before, had been killed.  George was now alone in the world.    He had only ever learned his one trade and was now obsolete.  What followed was as you would expect, he sold what he could to keep going, but in the end he had nothing, and finally no house, no car, only a bag full of clothes, a blanket, a sleeping bag, and what was left of his life.

As it would happen, George had never been one for travel.  He had lived in St Louis, Missouri his whole life.  He was now fifty-three years old and without a possession in the world.  Anyone would assume that George wouldn’t last long with his arthritis, bad back, and now nothing left to live for.  Give it a thought and any story would end much the same, with George meeting his end.  This was the end of his story, but not the end of mine.  For you see, this is where I happened into his story and him invariably into the one that you now hold.

The way I see it is that George had two choices: either go on with what life was left, or end it all that instant.  He pondered the latter for some time, but some part of him just wasn’t done with life.  George had missed the era of the Bob Dylan’s and Jack Kerouac’s.  He could not simply hop a train, there were rules against that, and the casual grace of a driver picking up a hitchhiker had become a very real danger.  So George would walk.  It was turning to fall in St Louis, so he turned south, and walked.  He went for miles and days before finally finding himself in a new city.  This was the first time he’d ever seen a Denny’s that wasn’t his own.  A gas station that wasn’t the old Exxon on the corner.  And it was the first time he could remember when the smell of his old factory wasn’t lingering throughout the air.  For the first time he felt free.  He felt alive.

George traveled for over ten years.  His story was full of meeting new people, finding joy in joylessness, but one of never again going home.  George had set out to see the world with nothing in his pockets.  It was in his tenth year that he met me on the side of the road in Kentucky.

I was a struggling journalist.  I’d written for the New York Times, albeit briefly, before my mother had become ill and I was forced to move back to my childhood home to care for her in her final days.  Here I found myself writing obituaries for the local paper.  It was the only position they had open.  I have a keen knack for not needing to write down what I hear.  I can easily remember anything I hear.  It would be that after the death of my own mother that I would write my last obituary and decided to move on.

I packed my car with what little I had and set off west.  You see, I’d always wanted to see the west.  About fifty miles out of town and of course my car died.  There I was under the hood of a smoking engine when George Rawls happened by.  George offered to help, and I, having no knowledge of automobiles, obliged this transient.  As luck would have it George had a fair knowledge of such things and was able to get the car running long enough to get it back to town.  I was thankful and offered the man a ride.  George accepted, and we drove slowly back to where I had come from.

To pass the time, or perhaps out of niceties, George asked me where I was going.  I told him my woes, that I’d never married, never had children, and that the last living relative I had was now gone.  I was now in my forties and without anything to keep me put.  The ice broken, I asked George the same question.  What I got in return was a story that would take far longer than the fifty mile car ride back to town.

I felt obliged to George, so I took him for coffee and a warm meal where he could continue his stories.  I listened to George go on about everything for the last ten years and even about his life before his travels.  When he was done, his adventure leading him to the broken down car on the side of the road, it was well into the evening, and I no longer felt the need to drive off west to the unknown.  Instead I had a different inkling, one that I’d long since let slip to the back of my mind, and that was to write down everything I’d just heard.

I told George about myself, my youthful dream to be a writer, but how I’d only become a journalist, and one that had very little accomplishments to boast.  I told him how I’d always wanted to write a book but never had a story to tell, so I asked to write his.  George gave me his blessing before he got up to continue his journey, but here is where I stopped him.  George had fixed my car, had given me the story I’d always wanted to write, and all I had done was get him some coffee and soup.  I still had the home I’d grown up in, a car, some money, and in comparison, a life.  I made George an offer to live with me while I wrote his story.  In the end, George agreed.

Over the next year, I wrote the novel before you.  His novel.  Why I called it Quicksand I can only attribute to George himself.  You see in the year that I wrote the novel he and I became a family of sorts.  We were about twenty years or more apart in age, just as he had been with his son, and I with my own father.  In living together I think that we sort of assumed each other’s lost role.  He had experienced this world in a way that not many have ever had a chance to offer in words.  He had met some amazing people with equally amazing lives that no one would ever get to hear about.  Each of them would be lost in the great wide world, spreading itself ever around and squelching those that could not stay afloat on their own.  Here, he and I both saw the term fitting.

I did write one more obituary, and that was to George.  He lived with me until the end of his days, which I can assure you were comfortable.  It was the one gift I could truly give to him, to not let his voice and life be lost in the undercurrent of life that even now still lingers just out of thought of us all.  It is not my intent to judge you or anyone in this.  It is only with this novel, with the words of one of its “denizens” that I implore you to simply remember that everywhere, there is life being lived; there are stories to be told.  Everywhere, so long as there is someone to listen.

I hope that you will find this work as inspiring as I did.  It led me to my dream, and I pray it leads you to yours.                                                                                                                               Thank you,                                                                                                                         Harold Maulley”

Again I implore you to find this wonderful novel.  Let your friends borrow it.  And remember, just as my friend did, dare them not to like it.

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