My pet peeve, I told my writing class, is a story that starts with, I woke up and . . . Why not start later, in the middle of the morning, with the action? But after my class, at 11:59 a.m., I reconsidered my writing teleology.
How are you, I asked perfunctorily a big football player type of a man on an elevator ride in Sykes Building in Tampa, Florida, at 12:25 p.m., a very clean and glassy structure on the banks of a very dirty and stinky and beautiful river with manatees moving around like bits of geology. The elevator on the way up suddenly decelerated and we sort of levitated, even his cravatted 350 lbs. did, as he opened up his glossy mouth rimmed with oversized overwhite porcelain teeth:
I woke up!
All is well, he woke up, he’s alive, and what more could he ask for? I liked it. Life is good if you wake up.
Have a dental day! He ushered me out of the elevator. Well, that’s another wise one. That means you will be smiling. Will I be smiling?
And now this sultry dawn I remember the man’s response. Not only am I dreaming that I can’t wake up but I have figured out that I can’t, and have tested it. I got up. I got out of bed, and I am stumbling around my apartment, tripping over sleeping cats, and my winter boots, although it’s spring, or so I think, as cherry petals are blowing through the apartment and my daughter, or least I think it’s my daughter, is sneezing in another room, or at least I think it’s another room, but could be another apartment, another time, another universe. It’s too dark for me to see the subtle lily purples of cherry blossoms, and I am breathing too deeply, almost snoring, to sneeze, although of course, before sneezing I would draw a deep breath, and maybe I am sneezing, maybe it’s not my daughter, and someone is crashing the windshield of my black BMW parked on Parker Street in front of the First Baptist Church, and why not Second Baptist, or even nicer, the Last Baptist. And I see through the window, a man is trying to stop the batter who is smashing my car, but the batter has just hit him on the head and knocked him down, and I still don’t know whether I woke up or whether I am sticking to my sheets in the Sealy bed. Shouldn’t I run down and rescue the man who has failed to rescue my car, but the intention more than counts, it wounds. If I am not awake I am not only dreaming but nightmaring, and I am not sure I would like to wake up to this, violent drunks and good men, the violent killing the well meaning, and evil winning over the good, unlike in fairy tales and theology and America, in front of the Last Baptist Church. And then I didn’t wake up.
Josip Novakovich is author of three short story collections. He grew up under the authoritarian rule of Marshal Tito in Croatia, studied medicine in Serbia, and in America studied psychology, then creative writing at Vassar and Yale. He now lives in Montreal, where he teaches creative writing at Concordia University.