Jane Austen and I enjoy an occasional acquaintance. I open one of her novels, catch a whiff of printer’s ink and rose water, and suddenly she is with me. She waits patiently until I close her book before she asks her questions.
“It certainly is warm here, yet I see no hearth!”
I point to the radiator. “The fire that warms this contrivance is in the root cellar.”
“How clever, though a fire can be very merry. Where are we going?”
“To the kitchen,” I say. “I've left the dishes rather too long.”
“What?” she says as I scrape the egg yolk off my breakfast plate. “Are you doing that yourself?”
“Here in the colonies, the few servants available work only for the very rich.”
“How vexing!” She watches, captivated as I turn off the water. “Water comes right from the walls, does it?”
I improvise: “The wall makes it. Now look at this, Jane.” I go to my desk and turn on my computer.
“What a wonderful little lamp!” she exclaims politely, though I can see she is appalled by its ugliness. “Where does the oil go?”
“Actually, Jane, this is more like pen and paper than it is like a lamp.” I point to the keyboard.
“Letters!” She says. “But it must take so very long to search out the correct -- Oh!” She cries, for I have begun to type, and my speed is positively dizzying.
She reads over my shoulder, delighted with what she sees. “What beautiful sentiments! What lovely language!”
“Thank you,” I say.
She reads my work aloud: “We the people of the United States of America, in order to form a more perfect union… You must be very studied in matters of state!” With a sideways glance at my person, she ventures, “Perhaps this occupation, which belonged only to the men of my day, is the reason you go about in trousers?”
“My attire is not entirely unrelated to democratic government,” I say to cover the fact that my furious typing has stopped. I am finished with the Preamble, and now I am at a loss. The Preamble is all I know. My eye alights on a slip of paper, and I wince with immediate regret. A schedule I'd written for myself the night before lies in full view on my desktop.
Before I can hide it, Jane says, “I fear I am keeping you from your work.”
“Not at all, don't give it a thought!”
“But here it says that you were to begin revisions on your novel at eight AM, and I've selfishly kept you occupied with my own writing these many hours. Do not let me prevent you! I am quite content to amuse myself with a novel from your library until teatime.”
“It is nearly teatime, now,” I say, wondering if I have any cookies left in the cupboard. I begin to rise from my desk when I hear a throat primly cleared.
“Oh, I haven't any appetite, and you must be eager to begin your work.”
“Naturally,” I say, sitting down again. “You are too good.”
She walks to my bookshelf and peruses the selection. When her back is turned, I feverishly type the Preamble to the Constitution a few more times. I have to stop, though, when she stations herself on the divan in perfect position to view my computer screen.
She opens The Tropic of Capricorn.
I open the file containing my novel. I look at the first sentence. There are no truths universally acknowledged, and no one is uniting the best blessings of existence. Morality is so absent from the page that not even morality’s absence is a commentary on anything.
“Do you call this writing?” I hear Jane mutter to herself. “This is obscene.”
I give her such a look that my true sentiments are fully, visibly expressed.
“Oh, dear!” She cries upon seeing my countenance. “I am sure your writing is everything this is not!” She holds up Henry Miller. “I am only on page one and already confronted with such grotesque offenses!”
Suddenly the overwhelming odor of printer’s ink and human effluence pervades my apartment. With dread I realize the smell is coming from my bedroom. He is doubtless reclined on my clean sheets, utterly naked. I can only hope he has bathed recently. “Obscenity is a concept employed by the cowardly,” he mutters, his voice resonating through the wood of the bedroom door. I am momentarily relieved that he’s said no more, until he adds, “you prudish, frigid husk.”
“Who is here!?” Jane whispers, alarmed.
I move in front of the bedroom door. “It was the man delivering more water.”
“I thought the water was made in the wall!” She says, agitated.
“Someone has to put in the ingredients, doesn't he?”
“I suppose,” she says suspiciously, but delicacy prevents her from pursuing the subject further. “Perhaps a walk would be in order,” she mumbles.
“Yes, Jane, you are looking pale,” I say by way of excusing my readiness to usher her out.
She gathers her shawl about her shoulders, ties a bonnet under her chin, and walks through my front door, muttering, "Boar." Or maybe it was "bore."
“Overrated priggish little noodle,” I hear growled from my bedroom.
“Yeah, well I only read you for graduate credit,” I remind him.
“Oh? And who reads you?”
It is best to ignore him. And I should work on my first sentence, I remind myself. I should make it perfect.
Maybe not perfect. Maybe just good.
But what is good?
The question is terrifying enough to warrant a good gorging. I get the cookies from the cabinet, pick up the Tropic of Capricorn, and head for the bedroom.
“My god you’ve gotten fat.” He leers.
“Move over.” I kick at a hairy leg.