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  • 22. Against Specificity

    By Douglas Watson

    Douglas Watson raises some fine questions in this jewel of a story—questions that seem to invite consideration but then turn away like the floating strings of light behind your eyelid. Can you answer them?

    The trouble: You want Thing A but are stuck with Thing B.

    Shit, you say, turning Thing B around in your hands. Look at this thing, you say. It’s as dull as a bucket of dirt. It’s not half as interesting as a sculpture of a dog pissing on a dead man’s shoe in the rain, and you don’t have one of those. You don’t have Thing A, either.

    Hell, you haven’t even seen Thing A. You’ve only heard about it from your neighbor, who works down at the Thing Exchange. What he or she said: Thing A shines like a gold tooth in the mouth of Jesus. Thing A is rounder, fuller, faster, zestier than Thing B. Thing A is perfect—it’s what you need. Why, it even smells good, like waffles.

    Your neighbor is a very reliable describer of things. For instance, he or she once described life as the long slide into the box. You’ve been thinking about this lately. The box doesn’t bother you—it might even be cozy in there—but the lid freaks you way the hell out. Not much room, once that lid is in place. You’ve been sliding a long time now; better hurry up and get Thing A while you can still enjoy it.

    On your way to the Thing Exchange, Thing B tucked under your arm, you run into someone—an unemployed magistrate, say, or a circus clown who comes up to you and says, I have scurvy. Give me an orange!

    You say, Orange!

    The clown lurches away.

    You revolve through the front door of the Thing Exchange and into the lobby. Ah, the lobby. How grand, its pillars or frescoes or whatever! How high, its well-crafted ceiling! How long abandoned, the style in which it was built!

    But you have not come here for the architecture. Holding Thing B tight against your side, as though it might leap from your grasp, you hurry across the lobby to the elevator. A sign reads, Things A-Q, Floor 2. You operate the elevator in the usual manner.

    When the doors open and you step out onto Floor 2, a flutter somewhere near the center of you reminds you how very badly you want Thing A.

    I want it considerably more than I ever wanted Thing B! you think.

    Which is true, if memory serves. Although your long-ago acquisition of Thing B brought you mild joy, like the feeling a child might have on one of the lesser holidays, and although Thing B has never until recently seemed unsatisfactory, still this feeling you have about Thing A is brand new—as a third lung would be.

    In front of you is a desk, and behind it a person.

    Take a number, says the person.

    My neighbor works here, you say. He or she said—

    Take a number.

    But there’s no one else waiting, you say.

    There are procedures, says the person. Take a number, and when I call your number, you can tell me what it is you’re here for.

    You take a number. The person opens the top drawer of the desk, pulls out a hardcover book—Against Specificity, by Hannah Foote—opens it to pages 212 and 213, and begins reading, very much as though you were not there.

    Time passes.

    How’s the book? you say.

    I really can’t describe it, says the person.

    Time passes again.

    I met a circus clown, you say, who wanted an orange—or was it a magistrate who wanted a job?

    Have a seat, why don’t you, says the person without looking up from the book.

    You take a seat in the empty waiting area, clutching your number.

    Your number! cries the person.

    You walk back over to the desk and show the person your number.

    Very good, says the person. What is it you’ve come for?

    Thing A, you say.

    Something retreats in the person’s eyes, or else he or she blanches or gives no sign.

    Thing A? says the person.

    Thing A, you say.

    You might consider Thing C, says the person. It’s the new sensation.

    I don’t think—

    Or Thing D? True love in a jar, sort of?

    No, I—

    Well then, says the person. How about—

    How about Thing A? you say.

    Making a face, the person presses a button on the desk and says, Got someone here who wants to see Thing A.

    Thing A? says a disembodied voice.

    Thing A, says the person.

    Have you mentioned Thing C—

    I know how to do my job, says the person.

    The silence is big.

    What did he bring? says the disembodied voice.

    Could be a he or a she, says the person.

    What did he or she—

    What’s that under your arm? says the person.

    Thing B, you say, and you hold it up.

    Thing B, the person says, finger on the button.

    What else did he or she bring? says the voice.

    Nothing, you say.

    Nothing, says the person.

    Nothing? says the voice.

    Nothing? says the person.

    Nothing, you say.

    Nothing, says the person.

    The silence is great with child.

    Look, says the person, Thing A is an upgrade. You can’t just come two-stepping in here with Thing B and expect to go home with Thing A.

    Thunk! That’s the sound you’ll make when you hit the box.

    What do I need to do? you say.

    Leave? says the person.

    No, what do I—

    Bring us your mother, says the person.

    The elevator says, Ding!

    Your mother, says the person, plus Thing B. Then we can talk about Thing A.

    The person’s face is contorted as though by some internal pressure. Is he or she serious about this mother business? You don’t know, but the twisted face reminds you of your childhood—of all the things your mother did to you. She did this, she did that, she did the other thing—what didn’t she do? It’s a wonder you’re still standing.

    Do I bring her, you say, to Floor 2?

    In your mind’s ear your voice echoes: Floor 2? Floor 2? Floor 2?

    Whoa, friend, says the person. I’m just messing with you. Desk jobs, you know—got to keep yourself amused. Never mind your mother. You’ll find Thing A down the hall in such-and-such a room. Take a left, then maybe a right, then another left or right or what have you. You can’t miss it.

    Your conscience hounds you down the hallway. Would you really have traded in your own mother? True, your life, thanks to her, has resembled a footrace along an ice-coated sidewalk—a race you, the only runner, are somehow losing. But then your mother’s own life has not exactly been an afternoon stroll through a magical forest of European confections. Your mother was born well enough but soon met trouble. She was not a robust child, she could not do sums, and her efforts to please her elders often backfired. She married the wrong man at the wrong time, and, after your father left for Indiana and all that it represented, she had no choice but to work outside the home. She did not, say, swagger from triumph to triumph in, say, the alpha-male world of high finance. Nor would she have wished to, for she would not have found meaning in that world. Nor did she find it elsewhere—certainly not in being your mother.

    May I help you? says a helpful-seeming person when you walk through the open door into such-and-such a room.

    You want to answer the helpful-seeming person, but you seem to have lost your voice. For there, on an undeserving pedestal at the far end of the room, sits, if you are not mistaken, the very thing you have come for—the thing that is, as your neighbor so accurately asserted, just the thing for you.

    Thing A, drums your heart. Thing A, Thing A, Thing A.

    To be sure, there are other things in the room. There is, for instance, Thing F, which squats in shame on a pedestal only half as tall as Thing A’s but still too tall. Even a child young enough to find the whole world interesting wouldn’t look twice at Thing F. Not with Thing A in the room.

    Over to the left sits Thing D, which does indeed resemble true love in a jar. How embarrassing. Your eyes skip to Thing C, which stands on its own ugly legs in the center of the room. Too tall for a pedestal, too angular, and altogether too much like itself: you can see why it is the new sensation. People don’t know a bad thing when they see it.

    Thing A, Thing A, Thing A.

    May I help you?

    The helpful-seeming person’s words call you back from what was on the verge of becoming a delightful reverie.

    Maybe later, you say.

    Okay, says the helpful-seeming person, backing away. Let me know if I can help. I do aim to be helpful.

    Your mother once said something about the road to hell being paved with the scalded skins of well-meaning people. She said she was going to enjoy walking that road.

    Angrily, you thrust aside all thoughts of your mother. Your Type-A blood jumps through your veins, and your spirits rise up, up, up. Thing A! you say to yourself. Shine, O gold tooth! Be zesty, O glorious thing! Make my happy heart leap! Hoo-ha!

    And your heart does leap, for Thing A does shine, it is zesty, it practically reeks of glory.

    Never in all the years of your life have you seen, or smelled, anything like Thing A. If joy itself were a sugar maple, Thing A would be the syrup joy gave. If contentment were a distant moon, Thing A would be the space pod that took you there. If life were a hundred-mile hike uphill with a sack of bricks strapped to your back, Thing A would be cyanide.

    Help! you say.

    The helpful-seeming person appears at your elbow.

    Thing B for Thing A? you say, rotating Thing B to show off its excellent profile.

    The helpful-seeming person looks at Thing B, then at you, then at Thing A, then back at you.

    Okay, he or she says.

    You experience an internal reaction.

    Really? you say.

    Quick as a hungry rat, the helpful-seeming person grabs Thing B from your hands, scurries over to Thing A’s pedestal, lifts Thing A, puts Thing B on the pedestal, and comes back and deposits Thing A into your amazed palms.

    Can it be? you think. Your internal reaction grows stronger and more complex: your lungs are not really trying to dance to a tune hummed by your ribs while your knees cackle, but it is a little bit like that.

    The helpful-seeming person guides you to the door. Thanks, he or she says. Come again!

    But—

    Would you like a receipt?

    You don’t know why you are hesitating. You know you should take Thing A and get out before the good people at the Thing Exchange realize their mistake. To think of it! Thing B for Thing A, straight up. As though Thing A were not twice the thing Thing B could ever hope to be.

    Thanks for your help, you say.

    And yet Thing B looks lonely on its pedestal. Different, too—as though the many, many times you’ve looked at it have not been enough for you really to see it. It has virtues, Thing B does, virtues all its own. It is what it is.

    Time to go! says the helpful-seeming person.

    Thunk! you think. Will you ever see Thing B again?

    But wait—who cares? You have Thing A! You really, really do.

    You stare in wonder at the thing in your hands. All at once your inner self starts leaping about like a madman—a happy madman. Thing A, Thing A, Thing A! Your heart jangles against the bones around it.

    Good-bye! you say, more to Thing B than to the helpful-seeming person.

    No one pays you any mind as you all but sprint out of the Thing Exchange with Thing A under your arm. Out in the street, your great fear is that a bus will hit you (destroying Thing A), or that thieves will wrest Thing A from your insufficiently vise-like grip, or that it will rain and Thing A will get wet. None of these disasters occurs, nor does any other calamity befall you just now.

    Safely home, you carry Thing A from room to room, trying to decide which room is best suited to the enjoyment and display of your new treasure. Thing A does wonders for the bedroom—it brings out these shiny flecks in the wallpaper that you’d never noticed before—but you can’t very well say to guests, Come to the bedroom and see my new thing. The kitchen won’t do either, for although Thing A makes the spices spicier, the oils oilier, and the boxes of cereal boxier, it does not make the room itself roomier. Thing A deserves to be contemplated at length, by people in chairs, which means that you really have only one choice: the dying room.

    You call it the dying room instead of the living room because you have such a good sense of humor. But you are also trying to make a serious point, if only to yourself. What is a room if not a box? And why do we choose to spend in a box the days of our not really so very long slide into the box? Are we practicing?

    Well, it’s better than practicing for cremation.

    Maybe if you weren’t so morbid, you would have at least one friend to invite over to enjoy Thing A. Never mind—you’ll invite your neighbor. Oh, and you didn’t trade in your mother, which means she can come and see it at some point. But you are not ready to share Thing A with your mother just yet.

    You place Thing A on top of the television in the dying room. That way, should you ever feel the need to watch TV again—which seems unlikely—you can do it without letting Thing A out of your sight.

    Thing A, Thing A, Thing A.

    You sit there in your chair.

    Now what? Some food, perhaps.

    You start toward the kitchen but wheel around—you’re not going anywhere without Thing A. You think: Thing A isn’t going anywhere without me, either. You giggle.

    It’s hard, cooking spaghetti or soup or a pot roast with Thing A under your arm, but you manage. You carry Thing A back out to the dying room, place it on the TV, and sit down to enjoy your meal. It is the best meal you’ve had in weeks, thanks to the decor.

    After dinner, you sit contentedly and watch Thing A.

    Look at this thing, you say. Wow!

    And so you settle into your new, improved life. When you drink your morning coffee or tea in or out of the sunshine that slants through your kitchen window, Thing A is by your side. When you delete email urging you to buy or enlarge this or that thing, Thing A looks on serenely. Thing A radiates its metaphorical warmth into your side, against which it is pressed, on the day when, with your free arm, you throw out your computer, your books, and your badminton set (for what need have you now of these?). But most of the time—nearly all of the time—you and Thing A sit in the dying room, you watching Thing A, Thing A being watched by you.

    You really ought to thank your neighbor for the recommendation. You ought to go next door and say, Thanks, neighbor. Thing A has changed my life! But going next door would mean either leaving Thing A for a few minutes or taking it out into the world, where anything could happen. Another option would be to call and invite your neighbor to drop by—but you’ve thrown out your telephone, too.

    Weeks and weeks go by during which you think more and more strenuously about how happy you are. The ferocity of these thoughts does not indicate that you are in fact unhappy. No: either you are getting happier by the minute or else you just don’t have much else to think about anymore. Still, there comes a day when a certain truth starts to tug at your mind, gently but insistently. This truth is a little bit like a child who pulls at the sleeve of someone older and ostensibly wiser. It also resembles a change in tides, which swings all the boats moored in a harbor around to face away from where they’ve been facing—except that this truth does not turn you around completely. No, the direction in which you are pulled is entirely new to you. You are neither frightened nor excited to be moving this way—you simply move, led by this new truth.

    About this truth: It is not that you wish you had held on to Thing B—you don’t. Nor do you foresee diminishing returns from your possession and observation of Thing A. You have not suddenly found allegorical meaning in your life, or for that matter in your mother’s. Indeed, this truth has nothing to do with your mother. Nor is it connected with your father, or Indiana, or any of the many things that state represents. The truth that roars now in your mind the way a furnace roars in the dead heart of winter has nothing to do with the Thing Exchange or any of its employees—not even your neighbor. It does not in any way involve circus clowns, scurvy, oranges, or out-of-work magistrates. And it certainly doesn’t have anything to do with the road to hell, down which you are by no means walking, hands in pockets, feet scuffing the hides of the good, mind turning over and over the question of which you prefer, the little that is or the nothing that will be. There is no one to help you decide.

    *

    © by Douglas Watson. Used by permission of the author.

    Read more by Mr. Watson here . . .

    . . . and here! . . .



    • http://www.kyleminor.com Kyle Minor

      This is my favorite of all 52 Stories selections, which is saying quite a lot. Mr. Watson is quite a writer.

    • Amanda Skelton

      Great story. Will seek out more of Mr Watson's work. This comment was written in the Dying Room.

    • Helen Bishop

      Another comment written in the Dying Room – Thing A is firmly wedged into my mind, where I can contemplate it at my leisure. A great story indeed, along with the pleasure of exploring Mr. Watson's work. Bon appetit!

    • Michelle Y. Burke

      I love this story! I taught it last summer in an introductory creative writing class, and it sparked a great conversation. Highly recommended!

    • Flanigan

      This writer is brilliant. Everyone should know his work.

    • Joe Oestreich

      Genius!

    • suhailrizwanali bukhari

      Stories in urdu,hindi,pakistani,indian stories (527)

      http://www.stories.pk is a great source of reading stories in urdu,hindi and pakistani and indian

      stories.you can also share these stories to your dear one father,mother,sister,brother,bhabi,uncle,aunti. Just log on

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    • Robin de la Llata

      A parable for our time told with insight, invention–and wonderful wit.

    • http://www.guidinglightcremations.com/CremationFlorida.php Cremation Florida

      really good post .. thank you well done

    • http://www.darkskymagazine.com/2010/08/recommended-reading-from-online-magazines-36/ Online Literature | Dark Sky Magazine

      [...] – Your neighbor is a very reliable describer of things. For instance, he or she once described life as the long slide into the box. You’ve been thinking about this lately. The box doesn’t bother you—it might even be cozy in there—but the lid freaks you way the hell out. Not much room, once that lid is in place. You’ve been sliding a long time now; better hurry up and get Thing A while you can still enjoy it. — Douglas Watson in Fifty-Two Stories [...]

    • http://kyleminor.com/2010/09/10/september-news/ September News « Kyle Minor

      [...] My favorite young writer, Douglas Watson, has a new story, “Against Specificity,” at HarperPerennial’s Fifty-Two Stories. Go check it [...]

    • http://htmlgiant.com/web-hype/fifty-two-stories/ Fifty-Two Stories | HTMLGIANT

      [...] I want you to read it. But it’s not my favorite. My favorite is Douglas Watson’s “Against Specificity:” The trouble: You want Thing A but are stuck with Thing [...]

    • http://htmlgiant.com/web-hype/fifty-two-stories/ Fifty-Two Stories | HTMLGIANT

      [...] I want you to read it. But it’s not my favorite. My favorite is Douglas Watson’s “Against Specificity:” The trouble: You want Thing A but are stuck with Thing [...]

    • http://htmlgiant.com/random/j-robert-lennons-random-poem-idea-generator/ J. Robert Lennon’s Random Poem Idea Generator | HTMLGIANT

      [...] but it cost me a good hour and a half of time I should’ve been revising my novel. My friend Doug Watson would call this machine a procrasturbatory aid. I used one of the lines for a title. You can do [...]

    • idi

      i’ve read a few of mr. watson’s other short stories, but this is one of my favorites.  glad to know that others appreciate his quick wit.

    • http://htmlgiant.com/random/douglas-watson-at-tin-house-flash-fridays/ Douglas Watson at Tin House Flash Fridays | HTMLGIANT

      [...] can read more Watson stories at Fifty-Two Stories, Dogzplot, Sou’wester, and The Journal. You can also hear the new single by his [...]

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