MERELY AN ILLUSION is a short story from the collection IN A NORTHERN TOWN.
On a summer night during peak season it would be impossible to land a table at The Foggy Pub, but on an early April evening when a late-season snowfall slowly drifts to the ground, casting a stark contrast toward the darkening sky above, it requires merely arriving and taking a seat. So after waiting several minutes outside the back door, smoking his next to last cigarette to help keep warm as he stared down the descending road that made a line for the shore of Lake Michigan before bending along the coast, Marcus finally headed inside and found himself sitting at a quiet table in the back corner of the pub.
For several minutes he sat idly looking about the room. The dark wood ceilings were low and created an impression that the room was even more poorly lit than it indeed was. Throughout the room there were taxidermied animals displayed on the walls, with fake twigs and other nature cover to help conceal the small speakers that spaced every six feet or so. And from those speakers played classics like Bob Seger, Johnny Cash and The Eagles. Not really Marcus’s type of music, but he could still respect it. He slipped off his gloves and set them on the chair beside him, and then a few minutes later, once he’d sufficiently warmed, removed his coat and hung it over his own seat.
After a short while, a young waitress with jet black hair and a revealingly tight top swung by Marcus’s table and asked him if he’d like a drink.
“Just water, for now,” he said, and she smiled and walked away. As he waited, he thought about the town he was visiting and what many of his peers had told him.
“It’s all white folks up there,” one said.
“If I had to guess, I’d say you’ll be the only black guy in the whole town,” said another.
“Dude, are you sure you want to do this? That’s a long way to go and it ain’t even a sure thing she’ll show,” another questioned with skepticism.
But none of it deterred him. Marcus was a motivated journalist, and he wasn’t going to allow the ideology or racial makeup or even distance of a town bar him from getting the biggest story of his career. He was, after all, now into his thirties and was searching for that one big story to set him apart. The one that gets picked up by the bigger news sources and gives him an opportunity to leave Jackson and head to Grand Rapids or Detroit or, hell, maybe even Chicago or New York. Those stories were extremely difficult to come by, but he knew if he played his cards right this could do it for him. So he sat humbly and calmly in the corner, sipping on his water, and waiting.
It wasn’t more than fifteen minutes later that Janet McCluster entered the pub. Marcus saw her immediately and his heart began beating faster and he stood. She scanned the room from the entryway and then their eyes met and she smiled politely and, with short, shifty, quick steps, made her way over to the table. Nervously, Marcus fiddled with the buttons on his cardigan sweater. Ms. McCluster stepped up to him and extended her hand.
“Mr. Clark, I presume,” she said.
“Yes. Marcus Clark.”
“Mr. Clark, it’s nice to meet you. I am Janet McCluster.”
Marcus smiled, because he was shaking the hand of one of his literary idols, and because she’d just introduced herself as if she were Sally from next door. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Ms. McCluster,” he said. “Thank you so much for taking the time to meet with me.”
“I should say the same to you, coming all the way up here. What was it, four hours?”
“Something like that.” He extended his hand as a gesture for her to take a seat, and she removed her jacket and placed it on her chair and then sat. She was a petite woman, with fine hair that was pulled tightly back behind her head. Marcus nearly studied her face, mostly due to shock that she hadn’t seemed to age a day since she’d written Over the Blue Horizon. And it had been over twenty years.
Ms. McCluster was a keen observer, however, and said to Marcus, “Is there something on my face?”
“No, I’m just honored to get to speak with you,” he said honestly. The truth was, Over the Blue Horizon was one of his all-time favorite books, ever since he was forced to read it in high school literature class and he had to lie to his friends just to fit in, saying it was boring and that he hated it.
“A fan of my book, I presume?”
“That’s right. A huge fan.”
“Well I’m glad you enjoyed it.” Janet settled in and flagged down the same waitress, who approached the table and before she could even speak, Janet said, “A scotch and water, please.” And then Janet noticed the water in front of Marcus and said, “I hope that is not the only beverage you ordered. Miss, please bring my acquaintance here a—what would you like, Mr. Clark?”
“Vodka and tonic, please.”
“A vodka and tonic,” Janet finished.
The waitress nodded. “I’ll be right back with those.”
Marcus retrieved a small recorder from his coat pocket and politely asked, “Is it okay if I place this on the table?”
“As long as it’s turned off.”
He was caught a little off-guard, the recorder still in his hand but an inch from the table. “I’m sorry?”
“As long as the tape recorder isn’t on.”
“Ms. McCluster, with all due respect, I came a long way for this meeting, at your request.”
“Yes you did. And you may take notes. I hope reporters these days still carry around a pad of paper?”
“Good, then that should do.” She must have seen some distaste on his face, so she added, “Mr. Clark, please do not make the mistake of thinking there is any more intimate medium of communication than pen and paper.”
He nodded and pulled out the notebook and placed it on the table, dabbed his finger on his tongue and then flipped back the cover and clicked his pen.
“Where would you like to begin?” she asked.
Marcus took a quick, nervous look around the room. A few more people had entered, but the place was still far from full.
“Are you uncomfortable, Mr. Clark?”
He shot his eyes back to Ms. McCluster. “Why do you ask that?”
“No reason. I thought maybe you’d seen the way the gentleman in the camo cap by the bar had been looking our way.”
Marcus looked up at the man she’d mentioned and saw he had a scowl fixed on their table, mostly directed toward Marcus. He instantly became a little more uncomfortable than he’d been previously. He felt perspiration begin to build under his armpits and he tried to casually wipe his forehead.
“Mr. Clark, you mustn’t allow people like that to affect you.”
“It’s not that. I’m fine. Let’s begin,” he said. “You wrote one of the greatest novels of the twentieth century, in my opinion and in the opinion of millions of Americans. It was received well by nearly everyone who read it. It sold wildly. But that was decades ago, back when you were in your twenties.”
“Yes, twenty-seven,” he said in confirmation before continuing. “And no one has really seen or heard from you since. So I guess the first question I have for you is the same thing most of your fans would like to know: what have you been doing the last thirty or so years?”
Janet smiled and took a brief look around the room. Then she looked Marcus directly in the eye and said, “Are you a religious man, Mr. Clark?”
“Do you read the Bible?”
“I’ve read it before.”
“So you don’t read it, then, I presume?”
“You could say that.”
“Where are your parents from?”
“Your parents. Where do they come from?”
“Baltimore, originally. Ms. McCluster, what do these questions—”
“Over the course of my life, people have had a difficult time coming to grips with what I am.”
“Don’t you mean who you are?”
“I mean what.”
“With all due respect, do you think, maybe, it’s not the other people who would have the difficult time, but it would be you?”
“Stop responding to my statements with questions.”
“Okay, I apologize.”
“When I speak, I say exactly what I mean. Do not take my words for anything but what they are.”
“Okay.” He recomposed himself. “So to what you’ve been doing the last thirty years?”
“I’ve been writing, as always.”
Marcus smiled, but out of what seemed like surprise.
“Does that shock you?”
“No, no, I think if anything it relieves me.”
“Well, I think all of your fans will be glad to know that you’re still writing and that your first novel wasn’t also your last.”
The waitress stepped up to their table and placed the two drinks in front of them. “Is there anything else right now?”
“That’ll be all for now, dear, thanks,” Janet said. Then they each took a sip to test their drinks. “You know, I am not oblivious to how the world sees me.”
“And how is that?” Marcus asked curiously.
Janet nearly chuckled to herself. “Let’s just say I am aware of all the J.D. Salinger comparisons.”
“And what do you think of that?”
“I’m jealous that Mr. Salinger lived in a time before smart phones and Wi-Fi.”
Then Marcus, without thinking it through, made a bold statement. “It does seem pretty selfish to hide out all these years.”
Janet set her drink on the table and the light-hearted mood urgently fluttered away. But before she could allow her emotions to respond, she gathered her composure and simply said, “Surely, Mr. Clark, you think more of my actions than that of selfishness.”
“I’m not sure where that came from. I didn’t mean to call you selfish. That was out of line.”
“That’s just the voice of a frustrated fan. I understand that. I’ve heard it many times before.”
Then Marcus took another sip and looked around the room. The man in the camo continued to take occasional glances his way. Finally he said, “Can I ask, then, why you stepped out of the public spotlight?” He held his pen loose and the tip rested on the notepad, ready to capture her answer. Another patron walked through the door, gave a quick shiver and then took a seat at the bar and removed his coat. There were plenty of people, Marcus began to notice, sitting in the pub who were alone. He began to wonder if Ms. McCluster came here often, also alone, or if this semi-public appearance was a rarity for her.
“I didn’t step out of the spotlight—I ran out of it.”
“May I ask why?”
She took a breath, then a sip, and then set her drink back down, and then picked it up for another sip before answering. “Mr. Clark, would you visit a place like this if I weren’t here asking you to?”
“Probably not, no,” he said truthfully.
“And is that because it’s uncomfortable for you?”
“So you’re here to meet with me. This interview, this opportunity to meet with me, this is something you really wanted? And once it’s over there will be nothing keeping you here?”
Marcus looked closely at Janet. “What are you getting at?”
“I’m simply helping you to understand my life, that is all. Would you like to get back to my book?”
“We can do that.” Glancing down at his notepad, he realized he had yet to write a word.
“You’re aware that your book has been received, specifically recently, as being seen as predicting the future to a certain degree.”
“Is that a statement or a question?”
“Sorry, more of a statement I guess. But let me add this: How did you do it?”
“How did I write a book?”
“How did you predict the future with such precision?”
“It was plain to see, Mr. Clark. But apparently I was the only one with my eyes open.”
After thinking about that for a moment, his mind racing in several directions, he decided to rebut with a new question, as it didn’t appear to him that this was going to be an interview that yielded much groundbreaking information. “Why did you grant my newspaper this story?”
“I didn’t grant them this story.”
Marcus looked confused.
“Let me clarify. This story is not about your newspaper. Did your editor, Mrs. Vernon, tell you why you were selected to come up here to meet me?”
“Well, I guess not explicitly. I’m one of the more responsible and objective journalists we have.”
“It’s because I told her to, or the interview wouldn’t happen.”
Now the confusion washed to shock. Marcus leaned back in his seat and took a nervous glance around the room. “So you chose me?”
“And why is that? Why did you choose me?”
“Tell me about your politics, Mr. Clark.”
Without sounding too frustrated, he asked, “Why does it seem like you’re deflecting every time the conversation seems to actually be going somewhere?”
Ms. McCluster was taken aback by Marcus’s forwardness. She finished her drink and then leaned back in her chair, thought for a moment, and then returned to the table. Speaking intimately, she said, “Living where I live, you have a lot of time to think. So this is what I’ve come up with. Are you ready? You might want to write this down.”
He listened intently, pen to paper.
“For most people, the mid-life crisis comes, well, in their mid-life. See, their adult lives start out fairly happy. They get a job. They meet someone and fall in love. Maybe they get married. Have kids. Start earning and saving money and advancing their career. But then one day it hits them—this life doesn’t have any meaning. They want to do more. Maybe they want to help people. So that’s when they decide to make a life-altering move, and thus the mid-life crisis commences. Then, as they get into their 50’s or 60’s, they move on from that crisis and find a new mindset about leaving behind a legacy by which their family and friends can remember them. And at that point life is good.”
She took a breath and gave Marcus a chance to catch up on his notes. He was scribbling urgently and Janet smiled at his passion and thoroughness.
“Ready?” she asked, finally.
He looked up from his notepad and smiled, fully aware how he must have looked while taking his notes. “Absolutely. Please continue.”
“Right, then. This natural process doesn’t work for artists, though. Especially not writers. You know why?”
He shook his head.
“The world tells you to get an education, then get a job and make money to support yourself, but that’s not how artists think. When they’re taken off their leashes, so to speak, they don’t care about the money or what other people think. They just want to create art. That’s the way I felt. It was almost a compulsion.” She paused. “Okay, it was definitely a compulsion. Still is. So you see, when I write I do not think about what people think about my work. I also do not particularly care if people are entertained by it or enjoy reading it. Rather, I write it because I need to write it and I do so with the idea that when I am gone, this writing will serve as my legacy and maybe then, when I am no longer around to lend any useful insight, people will delve deeper into my work and find the meaning in my life, or my legacy, that I was never able to secure with them during my lifetime. In essence, I believe this is how every great writer works.” Then she snapped, “And that is not me calling myself a great writer. But when I have something to say, I am not only the most qualified at saying it, but the best at it.”
Again, Marcus sat at the small table and scribbled down the quotes, as best he could. When he was caught up, he took a long drink from his glass and finished it. Then he took another deep breath and looked around the room, but this time he was not observing his fellow patrons, but rather allowing his eyes to drift away so that he could focus and try to comprehend what Ms. McCluster had just told him. And to a certain degree, he understood it. And it depressed him a little, because he felt ordinary and it made him want more. It made him want the article to boost his career, but he also felt guilty, like he had betrayed the art of writing, and that as he approached his own mid-life crisis there would be nothing he could do to stop it.
“Does that make sense?” Janet asked.
“Mostly. But I’ve got to say, it makes me feel worse about my own life.”
“Why is that?”
“You’re this genius author who had it figured out in her twenties. Here I am in my thirties and just following the stereotypical path that society has laid out for me.”
Locking eyes with Marcus, Janet said, “Mr. Clark, it was Emerson who said ‘Great geniuses have the shortest biographies.’ Do you know why that is so?”
He shook his head. “Please tell me.”
“What is your relationship like with your family?”
“Do you have a wife and kids? I’m looking at a ring on your finger, so I’m assuming yes.”
“I do. Married six years with one little girl.”
“Plan on having any more kids?”
“Maybe one or two, we’ve talked about it, yeah.”
“Well geniuses have short biographies because they don’t have that. Their lives reside in their work. This is the way my life has transpired.”
Marcus didn’t know how to respond.
Janet removed a twenty from her purse and set it on the table, and then she stood and put her coat back on. Marcus looked at her, still seated, and then she motioned for him to follow her. They walked out the door and into the cold. It hadn’t been very long, but a layer of snow had already stuck to the lawns and the sidewalks were wet. The occasional street lamp cast light over the city in blips but it was impossible to ignore the vast blackness, speckled in stars above. Marcus let out a sigh at the bitterness of the cold, the temperature having dropped significantly in such a short period, his breath forming a dissipating puff before him.
“I don’t know how you live up here,” he said. “It’s April, for crying out loud.”
“You should find God, Mr. Clark.”
“That’s how you can change your life.”
“Is that what you did?”
She laughed. “You don’t want to do what I did.”
Marcus thought for a moment.
Janet stuck out her hand. “It was a pleasure. I hope you got enough for your story.”
They shook hands and Janet turned to walk into the night. But Marcus called out again, “Why me?”
She stopped and looked back at him.
“You never answered my question. Why did you choose me?”
Without hesitation, she said, “Because I believe in the idea that even though you and I are far different from one another, we can still relate on some level. See, this world is crazy, and I don’t pretend that living way up here makes me immune to that insanity. But, Mr. Clark, as long as I’m a living, breathing human being, I certainly intend to behave like one.”
Marcus didn’t know what to say. He looked at her in amazement for a few silent moments. Then he said, “You’re an incredible person. Thank you for meeting with me.”
Janet smiled and nodded and then turned and called from over her shoulder, “Find God, Mr. Clark.”
And then, just as she had been for so many years, she was gone, existing only in his mind and on the poetic pages of his favorite book, where her legacy would eternally reside.